SA EXCLUSIVE: Kiefer Sutherland talks to us about movies, music and Hollywood's magic

2014-02-21 07:00
Los Angeles -  Kiefer Sutherland returns to the big screen in Pompeii.

The new film from Paul W.S. Anderson (Resident Evil, Event Horizon) is an epic story set to the backdrop of the eruption of Mount Vesuvius that devastated the ancient eponymous city. Starring Kit Harington as Milo, a slave who must fight for his life in the gladiator’s arena, Sutherland plays Senator Corvus – a ruthless, lascivious and corrupt Roman whom Milo crosses swords with.

In this exclusive interview Sutherland talks about how his brother persuaded him to take Pompeii, how he survived those Brat Pack years and reveals details on the new series of 24.

This is your first period movie for years, right?

It’s the first big movie that I’ve done in many, many years. My brother is my agent and he called me up and said, ‘I have this offer for you. It’s a love story with the backdrop of Mount Vesuvius and Pompeii, and it’s also a disaster film.’ I was like ‘A love story meets a disaster story with gladiators? No, thank you – I’ll pass on that.’ He said, ‘Trust me, you should read it.’ And this is my younger brother, so I’m like ‘Trust me, I don’t have time!’ But he’s a really smart guy and I realised that he was telling me this for a reason. And I read it and it was written so beautifully. I was so used to taking a look at big movie scripts where you can see they’re going to take advantage of all the technology but the story is lacking. But this, the story was fantastic and the characters were really developed and it was written really, really well. I had a meeting with Paul, who I liked immensely right off the bat and then wanted to do it. it’s in the process of making something like this that you go ‘Oh my God, I’m so lucky I did this.’ I’ve had to send my brother a lot of different boxes of flowers and ‘thank yous’ and stuff like that.

Did you have fun playing a villain? It’s not the first time, right?

I did, yes. I remember I did a film called Eye For An Eye, with Sally Field. That was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do, and it was not fun at all. That was an awful man, but from a much more reality-based idea. This was a lot of fun. It was a caricature, if anything, and it was a blast to play. So it was very different.

Bigger than life?

Yeah, they packed it all into this one little man!

How did you draw inspiration for the character, as well as the accent?

Well, Paul didn’t want me to do a British accent, because he didn’t want people going ‘Oh that’s Kiefer Sutherland doing a British accent.’  We did almost a mid-Atlantic thing, and it became more innocuous. It wasn’t anything specific. I do remember, there’s a person with whom I work with a lot. I run lines with her and I have through all of 24 and she’s done all of the off-camera stuff that I’ve ever done on 24. Now I learn a film like I would learn a play. So if they change the schedule around, I don’t have to worry. I just get there, and I can do it. We were running some of the lines, and I think I was starting to enjoy them too much. I think the one line specifically was where I say ‘Doesn’t she have a big mouth on her?...I’ll take great pleasure in shutting it!’ And she kicked me – I was like, ‘What?’ And I knew I was having a little too much fun with the character, because I was starting to offend the person I was working with – because she was a woman and she didn’t like the way I’d done it! Then I thought, ‘This is going to be a lot of fun to play.’ But the thing that inspired me the most was the writing. He just says things that you wish you could say one day but you’re smart enough not to. And all of a sudden I got to say all of it.

How would you describe Senator Corvus? He’s a wealthy womanizer, isn’t he?

He’s an absolute pig, but he enjoys it so much. He’s unabashed about it. A pig is a pig because they’re apologizing for the same thing they’re doing. But this guy had no apology in him at all. All of a sudden he had some flair. He’s as bad a person as you could find.

How did you find working with the special effects?

Paul as a director – and it might not be proper grammar - but he has such a tactile understanding of technology. It’s not theoretical to him. He actually knows how to use it. He knows how to touch the buttons, press the things and make it work. I made the first 3D movie in my career – live-action – with Pompeii. And I couldn’t tell you there was a difference in shooting than with an episode of 24. So somehow the technology is not a burden on you as an actor, because he consumes the burden upon himself as a director. And that made it even more exciting. I knew even if the technology changed in the five months we were making the movie, he would be up on that. He’d be brilliant at that. He was so confident, so it was not something you ever concerned yourself with. I had an amazing experience with it.

But you weren’t looking for a film of this scale?

It wasn’t something I was specifically looking for. Actually through my experience of making 24, I have really loved making television. I think television is more apt to make the stories I want to be a part of. When I was growing up, films like The Godfather, Terms of Endearment, Ordinary People – which my father was in…those were films that really moved me.
24 is probably responsible for the current wonderful wave of television, right?

Well, no, I think it started earlier. I remember when I was watching E.R. as an actor. I was like ‘Wow, I would’ve loved to have been on that show.’ When I started working they were making 56 films a year, there were five studios doing it; now there are three studios and maybe they make 15. And they make the huge $100-$200 million movies. So all of the films that I liked watching or wanted to be a part of growing up became television shows, whether it was E.R., Sopranos, Breaking Bad, The Wire – that was some of the best work I’ve ever seen. And television has become this fantastic oasis for people that really want to tell stories that might not be as technologically driven [as the movies now are]. So it really wasn’t something I was looking for. I really like the world I’m living in. This just happened to be really well written and I really liked it.

You worked with Lars von Trier on Melancholia; so did you have to go abroad to find some good movies to do?

Well, Lars von Trier – if you get the opportunity to do that, then take it. Trust me! It’s one of the most interesting experiences you’ll ever have in your life. I absolutely love him. I think he’s an extraordinary filmmaker and an extraordinary man.

Would you have played in his new film, Nymphomaniac?

I haven’t seen that yet. I think Willem Dafoe said you can’t do a film with Lars von Trier unless you’re naked in the film or you’re naked running around the golf course with him. One way or another, he’s going to see you naked. That’s true. That’s just going to happen.

You’re going back to make another series of 24. What can you tell us?

Yeah, we start on Sunday. The one great advantage that we have and why I think we can make the best season ever is that we’re doing twelve episodes, not twenty-four. The twelve episodes will obviously represent a twenty-four day and the twelve episodes will themselves be in a real time, but if I need to get from here to France, say, the hour on the train of me eating peanuts, we can cut that out! And that’s a huge opportunity for the writers. We’ve had four years to sit back and not do it. I got a call from Howard Gordon, who was the lead writer and was having huge success with Homeland – and said, ‘I’ve had this idea and it’s bugging me and I want to do it for 24.’ I said, ‘Well, why don’t you do it for Homeland?’ And he said, ‘No, this is absolutely for 24. Would you be interested?’ I said, ‘How good is your idea?’ He said, ‘It’s pretty good.’ And he didn’t have to tell me. We’ve known each other that long; I just said, ‘OK, I’m in.’ And it is really good. Without blowing the story, the only thing I can tell you is that characters that normally would’ve been aligned together – for instance, Chloe and myself – are pitted against each other. So there’s a real juxtaposition within the context of what happened to all of these characters over that four years.

Can you see this leading to a 24 movie?

Not for me to answer. I worked very hard for many years to try and do that, but it was like running into a brick wall for some reason. If they get that sorted out, it would be my pleasure to do it – if it’s good. If it’s not, I wouldn’t touch it.

Does this new series feel coming full circle, given you’re shooting in London where you were born?

What I like about us shooting here has nothing to do with me personally, except that 24 broke in England first. It aired almost at the same time in the States and in England, if not exactly at the same time, and it was a very big success here. It took a little longer in the States. And had it not been a very big success here, I don’t think the show would’ve continued. So I think it’s fitting that we do our last season here, in homage to those people.

Can you explain why the show became such a big success?

Not really! I have a lot of ideas about it, but you’d have to take a poll with people about why they watched it and why they liked it. With regards to the character, I can only tell you what I identified with. This was a guy who had huge responsibilities, and all of us in our own lives feel that way about ourselves. In the first season, he succeeded – he protected the President. But there was a cost. He lost his wife. It was a big cost. And I think we live our lives like that. You can get the promotion, you can get the raise, you can do all of that, but you haven’t seen your kids for three weeks. I’ve never met anybody that said, ‘Oh my God, I just had the perfect day. Everything was perfect.’ You can win the lotto – $54 million – but it doesn’t change the fact that your aunt still has cancer. It’s never all perfect, and I think that, through heightened situations, was expressed through 24.

Do you think TV is also better because in movies they recycle things and have brands?

I think so. It’s not that they’re not getting made. There are phenomenal films getting made; I’m just not asked to do very many of them! But the ones I mentioned, that I like, like Terms of Endearment, The Godfather, Ordinary People…that tone is represented much more in television on a regular basis than in film.

While in London, do you plan on adding to your guitar collection?

Yeah, I’ve gone to Denmark Street. I’ve already been. A place called Wungo. There’s a double-neck Les Paul Junior from somewhere in the mid-Fifties that I’m looking for. I’ve got someone looking for that; I’m here for six months, so if it comes up, I’ll grab it.
Why do you like music so much?

I had a label for a long time. A really beautiful recording studio that is now owned by Danny Elfman and T. Bone Burnett is the main guy that works there now. I don’t run the label really anymore, but I play, and I used to play late at night when everybody would leave. I play in a couple of different bands now, in the States, for fun. And it’s one of the great loves of my life. If I was better, it’s what I’d be doing for a living, but I’m not that good!

So who is better – you or Johnny Depp?

Oh Johnny Depp is a wonderful player, a fantastic player. He’s a fantastic player.

Do you have any idea why you survived from the Brat Pack era?

Not specifically. But I do remember this. Robert Downey and I were roommates, and we had just agreed to do a film together called 1969, which was not a great movie by any stretch. But we’re at a friend’s place. In their apartment complex, they had a pool and I remember we were bouncing up and down in the pool and talking about what we were going to do with this pool. I don’t know how the conversation began, but I remember telling Bobby, ‘If we can just make it to 40, if we don’t screw it up so bad but make it to 40, then we’ll work forever.’ And I couldn’t have been more than 22 years old, when we had that conversation, and we were right. My point is, at 22, I was conscious of ‘This is going to be a tricky road to navigate, and if we can just get to this point, then we’d be a little safer going from that point forward, but a lot of people are going to fall by the wayside between now and then.’ And it’s ironic when I think how well Bobby has done since 40.

You also just made a movie, Forsaken, with your father?

Yes, we literally just finished it two months ago. We’d never worked together before and I remember calling him the night before. I had been responsible for putting it together…so I said, ‘I just want to call you – we’re going to have a great day tomorrow. And if anything is a little awkward, just know that I’m really nervous.’ And he went ‘Oh my God, you’re nervous too? I’m scared shitless!’ And so the two of us had a laugh on the phone, the night before, and the next day we went to work. But it was one of the greatest experiences I’ve ever had.

How do compare yourself against him as an actor?

Oh my God, I wouldn’t even dare! The thought would never enter into my mind. Wouldn’t even dare.

Do you have a favourite movie of his?

I have a few: Don’t Look Now was really one of them. Kelly’s Heroes was another. M.A.S.H. obviously. Ordinary People had a profound effect on me as a young person. I think I told Tim Hutton this once…I wasn’t living with my Dad at that point, and I saw him have this beautiful scene at the end of the movie with Tim Hutton on the porch, where Tim starts crying and they talk about how much they love each other, and I was like ‘I want to be sitting there with him, having that scene with him for real.’ I think I told Tim Hutton once, in a restaurant, ‘You stole my scene!’ And he knew exactly what I meant. So there are so many different movies. There’s one that not many people know, with Gene Wilder, called Start The Revolution Without Me. Eye of the Needle was fantastic – there were so many.

The movie, Pompeii opens in cinemas today.

(Photos: Getty Images/Constantin Film International GmbH and Impact Pictures)