Thirteen years after he started playing Jack Bauer and four years after he supposedly retired the character, Kiefer Sutherland is back in a new season of “24.” Will the world’s most popular counterterrorism agent ever call it a day?
Author Chris Wright Illustration Owen Freeman
There he is, smoke billowing and pistol blazing, giving the bad guys hell while delivering the finest onscreen squint since Clint Eastwood in his prime. For fans of the television show “24,” there can be few more uplifting sights, particularly since the guy with the gun, Jack Bauer, was supposed to have retired four years ago, at the end of the show’s eighth season.
Season 9, which premiered May 5 (and runs for 12 episodes rather than the usual, um, 24), sees the counterterrorism agent squinting and shooting his way through a series of sticky situations on the streets of London. It’s a familiar scenario, one that has defined the career of Kiefer Sutherland, who started playing Bauer in 2001 and who has recently been exploring alternative outlets for his talents (such as the Western Forsaken, in which he appears alongside his father, Donald).
Not that you’ll hear the 47-year-old actor complaining. Having begun his career on the fringes of Hollywood’s so-called Brat Pack in the 1980s, Sutherland could just as easily have joined those Packmates who descended into obscurity. In Jack Bauer, Sutherland hit on one of the most enduring and popular characters in television history, and he has very much made the role his own.
In fact, as Sutherland recently explained during a telephone conversation with Hemispheres, he has become so closely associated with Jack Bauer that some people have trouble telling the two of them apart. And while Sutherland has never had to thwart a plot to bring America to its knees, he closely identifies with a character who, he says, isn’t so different from the rest of us. “He’s just a guy trying to do his best, you know, in an impossible situation.”
Hemispheres: Do you mind if I call you Jack?
Kiefer Sutherland: Sure. I’ve learned to react to the name.
Hemispheres: Do you get people coming up to you and asking you to do Jack Bauer things? You know, “Jack! Wrap your arm around my neck until I pass out!”
Sutherland: I do get asked to say “Dammit!” And there is the occasional, “Will you choke me out?” Which, you know, I say no to.
Hemispheres: Last time we saw Jack Bauer, he was peering up into a drone camera, about to disappear forever, or go off-grid, as we Jackies say. Why is he back?
Sutherland: Well, Jack’s been hiding in Eastern Europe for the last four years, and there’s a threat to the president of the United States. He finds out about the assassination plot while visiting England, and he’s resurfaced to try and stop that from happening.
Hemispheres: What about in the real world? What was behind the decision to have another swing at this?
Sutherland: It’s a show I absolutely loved making; it’s a character that I really, really enjoyed playing, so it was an easy decision to make. When [writer/producer] Howard Gordon asked if I’d make another season with him, it took me about 10 minutes to agree. Then I spent the next six months nervous beyond belief, wondering why on Earth I would have opened up this can of worms.
Hemispheres: I was reading a message board about the new season the other day, and someone had written something like, “Oh! My life is worth living again!”
Sutherland: Maybe we need to take that person out for a dinner.
Hemispheres: What about me? I said nice things about the show too!
Sutherland: No, no, I was saying that if a TV show made someone’s life worth living, maybe they need to get out and do some other stuff.
Hemispheres: The point is, people really do love this character; they love Jack Bauer.
Sutherland: You know, I’ve had to think about that. Maybe people identify with him because he never really completely wins. He might save the president of the United States, but in doing so he might lose someone he loves, and I think we all feel like that on some level. Our lives are a series of trade-offs, and I think Jack Bauer represents that in a really significant way.
Hemispheres: He’s a flawed character, full of moral contradictions. In order to do what he thinks is right, he’ll do some pretty questionable things, even terrible things. That, for me, is what makes him so compelling.
Sutherland: Absolutely. I think it was the end of season 2, where he has saved the day, and everybody’s happy, and things have been restored to normal, and he gets in a truck and he breaks down, starts to cry, because he’s had to reflect on all the things he’s done, things he isn’t proud of.
Hemispheres: Has anyone kept track of how many people Jack Bauer has maimed and killed over the years?
Sutherland: Actually, there was a guy in the States who came up with some ridiculous number, like 820—and he stopped counting after season 6.
Hemispheres: Ha. And that was meant to be a joke question.
Sutherland: No, he was keeping track of how many rounds [of ammunition] Jack would need for a specific day, and he correlated that with the people who would go down.
Hemispheres: Good grief. How do you feel about the character? Is Jack a good guy?
Sutherland: I do believe that there are people in our society who take care of the nasty work so the rest of us can live the lives that we very casually enjoy, and I think he’s one of those guys.
Hemispheres: In that respect, there have been criticisms of the show—the depiction of torture, for instance.
Sutherland: I’ve been mystified by this. You have to understand that we’re not writing foreign policy. This is a dramatic television show, and Jack threatening to blow someone’s knees off because he wants information is a dramatic device to show how urgent or desperate a situation is. It should not be taken as this is what we think the CIA should be doing.
Hemispheres: It’s the type of show that attempts to manage our deepest fears by toying with them, expressing them in stylized form.
Sutherland: Yes, absolutely.
Hemispheres: When the show first came out, some people thought the narrative structure, everything occurring in real time over 24 hours, was a bad idea. But it seems to be a bad idea that worked brilliantly.
Sutherland: Well, if you ever talk to the writers, they’ll tell you it was the worst idea on the planet. The volume of material that these guys have had to come up with—200 hours over eight seasons—is extraordinary.
Hemispheres: How long does it take to shoot a season, generally?
Sutherland: About 11 months for 24 episodes.
Hemispheres: The continuity alone must be a nightmare. The hair, the clothes, and God forbid someone should get a zit.
Sutherland: It’s actually not so bad for the actors, but for the cinematographer it becomes unbearably complicated. London is especially tricky—it was sunny five minutes ago, now it’s raining.
Hemispheres: Yes, but that’s London—you can go through a few seasons in an afternoon. “What a lovely day! Oh, wait, it’s snowing.”
Sutherland: And the only people who understand that are Londoners. You try to explain it to anybody else, they’ll go, “Ah, yeah, no, that doesn’t work.”
Hemispheres: I was talking to a colleague about this interview earlier, and she said, “Ask him why they never go to the toilet.”
Sutherland: Come on. Do you really want to see Jack Bauer on the toilet?
Hemispheres: Some people might.
Sutherland: We did do one thing, as a joke. Jack was leaving an office building and we had him exit into a washroom, but they cut it out. I remember in seasons 1 and 2 we made an effort to feed him, when you would see him actually eat something, but they got rid of that
as well. [Munching sound]
Hemispheres: Hold on. Are you eating right now?
Sutherland: Sorry, I’m just having
Hemispheres: That’s OK. I’m sitting on the toilet.
Sutherland: Ha ha. That’s very funny. Well, there you go.
Hemispheres: Obviously it’s wrong to confuse characters and actors, but I can’t help thinking that you’d be a good person to have around in an emergency. You’ve been playing Jack for so long now—some of him must have rubbed off on you.
Sutherland: I’ll say one thing: I was in England during the terrible flooding this winter, and I saw a documentary on the BBC, where people were figuring out how to barbecue turkeys for Christmas, and they were doing it in four feet of water. I do believe that people are often at their best when things are at their worst, and Jack Bauer is a character who really amplifies that. As for me, um, I like to think I’d be able to rise to a challenge.
Hemispheres: Good, because there are some annoying kids on our street who are constantly playing really loud music. I was wondering if you would come over and knock on their door and tell them to cut it out?
Sutherland: Sure. It would be
Hemispheres: We’re getting close to the end. I just wanted to point out that I’ve gone through the entire interview without mentioning your mullet in The Lost Boys. You must be happy about that.
Sutherland: I was, but now you’ve mentioned it. We used to call it “hockey hair.” The sad thing is, when I actually
got that haircut I thought I looked cool.
Hemispheres: Most of us get to bury our youthful fashion indiscretions. You’re stuck with yours.
Sutherland: Yeah, I’m kind of screwed.
Hemispheres: One last thing: Will you do “Dammit!” for me?
Hemispheres executive editor Chris Wright has spent the last few days talking in a husky, Jack Bauer voice, prompting many to ask if he is feeling all right.
Number of middle names Sutherland has
Rodeos won by Kiefer William Frederick Dempsey George Rufus Sutherland
Hours “24” fans have spent glued to Jack Bauer
Times they’ve seen Bauer go to the bathroom