Q&A: Kiefer Sutherland on his ‘24’ hours of fame and its future

Kiefer Sutherland says of his Jack Bauer character in "24": "As an actor, I feel the character changes so many times in such small ways from season to season that it was always interesting for me to play."
Kiefer Sutherland says of his Jack Bauer character in “24": “As an actor, I feel the character changes so many times in such small ways from season to season that it was always interesting for me to play.”
(Ricardo DeAratanha / Los Angeles Times)

For eight seasons, millions of viewers were captivated by the Fox drama “24,” which tracked the exploits of super-counterterrorism agent Jack Bauer, a man who not only wouldn’t take no for an answer but who also found creative (yet brutal) ways to get the answers he needed to protect the country. When the show ended in 2010, the appetite for “24" didn’t dissipate. Last year, fans were delighted with the show’s return in a limited form with “24: Live Another Day,” with Kiefer Sutherland once again in the role of Bauer. Sutherland stopped by The Envelope for a chat about the series, the ninth season installment and its possible future. Here are excerpts from that conversation.

Why do you think “24" continues to spark interest?

You know, one of the nicest comments that I got about the show over the first eight seasons were from parents, and I am one as well. A lot of parents came to me and said, look, my kid’s 15. We don’t spend as much time together as I would like. But the one thing that we got to do together was we would watch “24.” That meant a lot to me as an actor and as a person, as a parent. And so I think, on some level, that kind of an experience is something that you hold with you for a very long time. The show came about at a very tragic and unique time in American history. I think some people watched it because there was this fictional character who would not take no for an answer. And I think that gave comfort to a lot of people that felt that kind of anger about what was happening in our country at that time. And it’s phenomenal writing.

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How were you feeling about Jack Bauer by the end of the eighth season?

The last thing you want to do is have a fantastic seven years and ruin it with an eighth year. Or an eighth year and ruin it with a ninth year. The circumstance of the show is not going to change. It’s not going to turn into a musical, and Jack Bauer is not going to have a great day, you know? So, there are certain inherent elements of the show that are going to be repetitive, and how long will an audience be able to accept that? And I’m sure that there are people that really liked the show through six years and then, you know, decided they’d had enough. So I was very aware of that and, for me, it felt like it was time to move on and try other things. But then when Howard Gordon, the lead producer on “24" and the head writer, talked to me about doing an abbreviated season, 12 episodes instead of 24 for this past ninth season, I was thrilled about that opportunity.

As an actor, I feel the character changes so many times in such small ways from season to season that it was always interesting for me to play. The character is a really good friend of mine, you know? It was a hard thing to let go, so when the opportunity presented itself, I was thrilled to be able to do it. Having said that, I don’t think I was ever more scared doing “24" as I was in the ninth season. Because we had managed in eight seasons to leave a legacy of the show that was still positive, and to start a ninth season meant you were potentially jeopardizing that.

Were you happier that it became that rather than the movie that had been discussed?

No, I think the movie would’ve been interesting. What I thought would’ve been really interesting is that if you had the series running and in the break you would’ve had a film. I thought it was a unique opportunity to use the movie to set up the story of the season or use the season to set up the finality of a film. That, of course, didn’t happen. I do see it happening soon. But that’s really what excited me about making the film.

Jack was a very tortured man. What was that like, getting into his skin?

I used to go to a restaurant on Fairfax called Tom Bergin’s. It was a bar and a restaurant. And a lot of policemen used to hang out there, and I had become friendly with a couple of the detectives. And every time I saw [one of the detectives], he looked like he had been carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders. And this is someone who is dealing with horrific homicides every day, who is dealing with domestic disturbances that were heartbreaking. Jack Bauer is one of those men. He was dealing with circumstances that we would not wish upon anybody. And yet, lucky for all of us, people in our society take on those responsibilities. But he was never going to win. The circumstances that he was put up against were just insurmountable. And I think one of the reasons why I love the character is it didn’t stop him from trying.

It was also one of the first series I remember in which a major character was killed.

Well, there’s a very funny story about that. That idea came from Joel Surnow, who was one of the creators of “24" in the first year or halfway through. And I thought they had made the worst mistake of all time. And I called Gail Berman, who was the head of Fox Television at the time and who is a dear friend. And I said, “Gail, I just want to go on record as saying I think that’s the worst decision ever and I don’t think you can expect an audience to watch 24 hours of television only to have him fail.” And she said, “OK, thank you.” And I went, “Well, thank you what?” And she said, “Thank you for going on the record for that, but we’re going with it.” And I was wrong. I was absolutely wrong.

How physically challenging was it for you to constantly —

Not as much when I started as it was when I finished. [Laughs.]

There’s talk all around again about bringing “24" back.

Well, I think they will. And again, you have to understand, and I’ve said it from the very beginning, I think the idea is extraordinary. I think utilizing time in the context of a thriller as one of the instigators of that thrilling experience, so that as the clock’s ticking down, you just inherently panic because you know something’s going to happen. I think for the idea to survive, you would have to recast it and create a new set of characters that’ll have a new set of circumstances, and that will be fresh for an audience. And I think they are, in fact, the infamous “they.” I think they are talking about doing that, and I wish them the best of luck with it.

For so many people, you and Jack Bauer and “24" are inseparable.

And I am incredibly grateful for that sentiment, but I can tell you that the “Star Trek” [reboot] films did very well, and there are many other circumstances where, if given enough time, a new audience can be discovered and an old audience will come back. I hope someone, if they do, in fact, do it, I hope someone has as wonderful an experience doing that as I did.