Canadian actor talks Designated Survivor, rise of TV and how he nearly turned down 24

Television is the “most exciting medium” for actors in an era when US studios have cut the number of films they make to focus on fewer big budget franchises, actor Kiefer Sutherland told delegates in MIPCOM keynote on Monday.

Sutherland, who spent 20 years on the big screen in films such as Stand By Me and cult classic The Lost Boys in the 1980s to Flatliners and A Few Good Men in the 1990s, segued over to television in 2001 in the role of Jack Bauer in 24.

When asked why so many cinema actors were migrating to TV, he replied television was simply the “most exciting medium” in terms of the stories it was telling.

“When I started working, there were five studios and all five studios were making 50 to 60 movies a year. Now there are barely three studios and they’re making 15 movies a year and if you’re going to do one of those movies, there is a pretty good chance you’re going to be wearing tights and a cape.”

“All of the movies I loved watching when I was a kid - The Godfather, Lawrence Of Arabia, Serpico, The French Connection, Ordinary People, Terms Of Endearment - those films aren’t really getting made the way they were. That drama and that kind of storytelling has been absorbed by television… Television is where it is right now.”

24 and Designated Survivor

Kiefer said working on 24 had been one of the greatest acting and personal experiences of his life but revealed that he nearly turned down the role of Jack Bauer.

“The reality is that my film career was in real trouble and when I took 24 I have to be honest with you, I was not very clear on how it would all work. I didn’t really want to do a TV show. A friend of mine said ‘well if it’s no good, no-one will ever see it’. It ended up being the best experience I’d ever had as an actor,” he said.

The actor was equally reluctant when he was approached to star in the new show Designated Survivor in which he plays low-ranking cabinet minister, Tom Kirkman, who is catapulted into the role of president after an attack on the State of the Union wipes out the rest of congress.

24 was nine years of anything from 12 to 15 hours a day, 10 months a year. It was a lot of work. When I took on 24 I was not aware that would be the case; when I took on Designated Survivor, I was completely aware of that. It was a big decision,” said the actor.

Sutherland, who has an executive producer credit on the political thriller lead produced by Mark Gordon, said he was drawn to the project by creator David Guggenheim’s script.

“I was doing a small picture with Michelle Pfeiffer and getting into music. Taking on the responsibility of television show was not in the forefront of my mind. I was going to read it really quickly to ascertain enough information about the script to explain why I couldn’t do it but by the time I got to page 25 I was like fuck. I knew I was holding in my hands what I could potentially be doing for another 10 years.”

“David Guggenheim wrote a script that spoke to me. It wasn’t until I started performing the character that I realised that there were real similarities with Jack Bauer that I hadn’t anticipated. Their skill-sets are very different. President Tom Kirkman probably doesn’t know how to load a gun let alone shoot it… but the fact is both characters have a desire to serve and take on a fight they can’t possibly win and that through-line in both characters is something I relate to. I knew that if I ended up not doing it I would really regret it.”