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Kiefer Sutherland returns to TV on Sunday with his new Paramount+ series Rabbit Hole — the actor’s latest thriller following Fox’s iconic 24 and his ABC/Netflix series Designated Survivor. The 56-year-old Sutherland delivers his trademark mix of charm, intensity and desert-dry humor as he plays John Weir, a morally shady corporate spy who finds himself framed for murder by conspiratorial forces. The show tackles the rather timely theme of misinformation and campaigns of organized public deception
Yet for all the intimidating hardness of his characters, Sutherland came across exceedingly pleasant in real life. When our original audio interview file for this story was lost in a recorder meltdown (every reporter’s nightmare), Sutherland gamely offered to chat for this story a second time, and couldn’t have been nicer about it (at the end of our do-over, the actor joked, “I hope to talk to you again, brother, but just about something else!”).
Below, the two-time Emmy winner discusses his new series, his feelings about a 24 reboot and looks back at his favorite 1980s movie role.
So, Rabbit Hole. What excites you most about this project?
A variety of things. In the broadest sense, it’s potential. I’m a huge fan of the genre of the thriller. I wouldn’t have spent a decade doing 24 if I wasn’t. [Creators, showrunners and directors] John Requa and Glenn Ficarra are two of my favorite writers. One of my favorite screenplays of all time is Bad Santa. And, as directors, if you look at a film like Crazy, Stupid, Love, it’s one of the most balanced and nuanced films I’ve seen in a decade. So their ability to handle the drama, the comedy, a budding love story and the shallowness of a certain era — to have all those elements live together and still provide you with a kind of hope, it’s an incredible gift.
And having completed one season, I’m incredibly proud of what we’ve made. I’m excited to get to the final test — which is audience response. Having done this for 40-some years, there are different levels of apprehension when you finish something. There are some things where you don’t know how the audience is going to react. I’ve seen things go both ways. There are some things you’re just more confident about, and this is one of those circumstances. Now, having said that out loud, I’ll probably wish I hadn’t.
It feels like the show speaks to the current state of the world surrounding misinformation and the role of media, technology and social media. There’s this “what is reality?” feeling of mistrust.
I grew up when the news kind of came from Walter Cronkite and Peter Jennings. There’s that amazing story of Mr. and Mrs. Nixon sitting in the White House, and Walter Cronkite gives an editorial where he says that he doesn’t believe the Vietnam War could be won. And [Mrs. Nixon] stands up and looks at her husband, the president, and says, “It’s over.” And he says, “What do you mean, it’s over?” And she says, “Walter Cronkite just told you the Vietnam War is over.” Done. And she was right. It was over. Whether you liked it or not, you got your facts from a center point.
Now we have news stations, networks … doing catered entertainment news where they take the same situation but use different footage and put a different narrative on it. You’re not getting three angles on a story, you’re getting three completely different stories, which is really alarming. Because, unless there is an understanding in our society about a base set of facts — i.e., four plus four is eight — then society doesn’t function If there’s a fringe group going, “I can make an argument for four plus four is nine.”
It doesn’t work like that. We can’t function as a society like that, from an engineering perspective to a human perspective. There are certain people that are manipulating technology and the internet, and they’re taking advantage of the huge leap of faith that people made when the internet began, about handing over certain information, so that they could partake. In some cases, they manipulate that information and it’s being used against people in really horrible ways.
It’s going to take us decades to learn how to adapt to this technological revolution that we’ve already been going through for a decade. And we’re still reeling from the industrial revolution in the 1900s, with regards to global warming and things we haven’t paid attention to. It’s a real situation. It’s not something we can be glib about.
You’re so experienced in the TV thriller space, do you ever bring your own experience to Rabbit Hole scenes in terms of saying, “Look, I know what works here”?
Certainly. If you’re going to do a physical fight sequence, I have a lot more experience in that than John and Glenn. I also know my body and know what I can do right now compared to what I could do 20 years ago. And sometimes there are faster ways to do it. The great thing about working with John and Glenn is their openness to hearing your ideas — it doesn’t mean they accept them all, because they don’t, but they certainly give you a fair shake, and then they have a really rational answer for why they will or will not go that direction.
I’ve never actually worked with two directors at the same time. I didn’t know if it was going to be a weird scenario where you have to play one off the other. You could see there’s a dynamic between the two of them that is easygoing and thoughtful. They’re just are so confident in their individual abilities, but they’re super confident in their ability together. So if [an idea] passed the test between the two of them, they know they’re safe.
It’s a pretty twisty thriller, do you have a sense or an idea of how many seasons you’re going for?
You want it to last as long as there’s an energy about people watching it. I was very concerned after eight seasons of doing 24. [Executive producer] Howard Gordon and I had the conversation, “How many bad days can one guy have?” Clearly our guy could have one more, because we did season nine. But it was the audience that told us to do a season nine. Our instinct was to not do it, but the desire for it was so strong, Howard had this idea and went with it. [On Rabbit Hole], John and Glenn have a very specific thing to say about technology. They certainly want to make it a thriller that reminded them of great films like Three Days of the Condor and Marathon Man. But those are the broad strokes. As as long as there’s an energized audience, you want to keep doing it. As soon as that starts to wane, you get into a very protective mode and want to end it as appropriately as possible. So, it’s the audience’s decision.
Speaking of 24, you’ve been clear that you’re down to play Jack Bauer again. If it were to be rebooted, wouldn’t a streaming service make more sense now than broadcast? You wouldn’t have commercials interrupting the real-time format and it could have more adult content, which seems appropriate for Bauer’s world.
I think streaming makes sense for every single-camera show, period. I grew up with everything from Barney Miller to All in the Family to Cheers to Friends. There was something very nice and really Americana about those kind of sitcoms. There’s a lot for network television to still do — news and sports and daytime soaps and reality TV. But streaming, and even [premium] cable, has put power into the audience’s hand. And I think the audience showed the industry they’re a lot smarter than they ever gave them credit for. From Handmaid’s Tale to The Last of Us to Game of Thrones to Breaking Bad – the diversity in just those four titles is massive. There’s room for all of it. The appetite for content is voracious.
As for 24, it’s not so much that I’ve hinted it might come back — I’m not a writer, so I have no say in this. All I’ve ever tried to say is I’m not the reason it’s not happening. If they came to me with a good story, there would be no hesitation on my part.
You said during our last chat that your favorite role during your 1980s duster-era was The Lost Boys. It’s a title many people love, but what specifically makes you fond of it?
It’s complicated. It was unexpected. I hadn’t been doing this long enough [when I made it]. I had no idea Lost Boys was going to be the success it was. I didn’t realize that it was going to represent a time in filmmaking. I certainly didn’t expect to run into grandchildren — and, in a couple cases, great-grandchildren — who said, “My dad showed me this movie, do you mind signing it for me?” That film, for whatever reason, has gone through three or four generations. That’s something I’m really proud of. You just didn’t expect it to do what it did, and it never stopped. You just look back and go, “God, I was lucky I got that audition.” I was lucky Joel Schumacher hired me.
And having said that, Young Guns was the most fun I’ve ever had on any project — ever. That was the greatest group of guys. We were all in our late teens, early 20s, and we had just started to realize how lucky we were. I just couldn’t believe we were doing this. None of us thought we were ever going be able to make a Western. None of us really knew how to ride a horse!
Has your approach to acting evolved over the years?
Absolutely. If 24 was good for anything — and it was good on almost every level for my career — the most substantial benefit was I really began to honestly learn some technique as an actor and as someone making film. When I started, if you look for a career that was thought of as perfect, it would’ve been Robert De Niro with Taxi Driver and The Godfather. He basically did a film every two years. I think a lot of younger actors tried to emulate that. I didn’t really. I had kids at such an early age, I had to work on not overworking. Then I got 24. All of a sudden, I’m working five days a week, 10 months a year, for eight years. I made the equivalent of 120 films. It finally dawned on me that as an actor, if you want to make it to the Olympics, you train every day. There could not have been a better scenario where I got to work as much as I did without harming my career. So it was the luckiest thing. There was a level of things I learned — and I don’t want to sound like a bragger — but I felt that I got to a level of sophistication and skill about how to interpret and perform a role, while leaving myself completely open for people to disagree. There was a confidence I had at the end of 24 that I absolutely did not have at the beginning of 24, and for that I will be forever grateful.
Interview edited for length and clarity.
Rabbit Hole launches with two episodes Sunday, March 26 on Paramount+.
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