KIEFER SUTHERLAND: “DESIGNATED SURVIVOR”
A terrorist attack leaves such a large portion of the government dead, that a low-level official named Tom Kirkman (Southerland) is forced to accept a major promotion- President of the United States.
By Abbie Bernstein
After nine seasons of playing ultra-dedicated counter-terrorist Jack Bauer on 24, Kiefer Sutherland returns to episodic television with ABC’s DESIGNATED SURVIVOR on Wednesday, September 21.
Created by David Guggenheim, DESIGNATED SURVIVOR is not all that far afield from the world of 24. Sutherland plays Tom Kirkman, a low-level U.S. cabinet minister with a good family life. He’s married to supportive Alex, played by Natascha McElhone, who has her own career, and they have two kids, a teenage son who has not come out as gay to his parents, and a daughter young enough to love everyone without judgment.
Everything is upended when a mysterious terrorist attack wipes out the majority of the U.S. government during a State of the Union address. The President, Vice-President, Secretary of State and Speaker of the House are suddenly gone. Tom, who in his role as “designated survivor” was watching the speech from a bunker, is now the President of the United States of America. (And for those wondering, yes, the “designated survivor” is a real aspect of the government, though fortunately one has never been needed to step up in reality.)
Sutherland, who is an executive producer on the series (and also serves as an executive producer on the upcoming 24: LEGACY), is at ABC’s portion of the summer 2016 Television Critics Association press tour at the Beverly Hilton Hotel to talk about DESIGNATED SURVIVOR. First at a 9 AM Q&A panel for the show, and later that evening in conversation at ABC’s party, Sutherland talks about playing a man who never expected to be leader of the free world and is trying to find his way through the fallout. There’s upheaval in his family, the ongoing investigation into what happened to his predecessor, and the usual political machinations all going on at once.
Sutherland explains how he become involved with DESIGNATED SURVIVOR.
“My circumstance was actually quite funny. I was doing a small film in New York. Very busy. I’ve known [executive producer] Mark Gordon for twenty years. When my daughter was born, I would walk her in the carriage down the street, and Mark was doing the same thing across the street, and we became friends. And I’ve had huge respect for not only how prolific he is as a producer, but the incredible quality of work that he has done. Having said that, I had no intention of doing a television show. And I was very busy, but I felt I needed to give this script a cursory read, so that I could at least respond with some intelligence and explain why I couldn’t do it. And I found myself on Page Twenty-Two, and I remember saying, ‘Shit.’” He laughs. “‘I’ve got to go back and start from the beginning,’ because it was shaping so beautifully. And I remember getting to the end of the script, and realizing that I was potentially holding the next ten years of my life in my hands. I called Mark and told him I wanted to do it, and he said, ‘Well, what notes do you have?’ And I said, ‘Actually, I have to be honest with you, I don’t have any.’ So then he thought I hadn’t read it.” He laughs again.
“But it’s true. I felt so strongly the script was so beautifully structured, it had the thriller aspect of trying to find out who had done this, it had a family drama – what happens when, overnight, you go from a very structured life to the life of the President of the United States and the First Lady? What happens to your children? What sacrifices are made there? And then it also allowed itself the format, on a political level, to have discussions that I think we need to have in this country in a rational way, not so divisive, but hear really important and respectable points of view from the left and the right. And I felt that this script afforded every opportunity to create a landscape that was so vast that being able to do many years of a show would be possible. And that was very exciting for me, and so that’s how I came to be a part of the show.”
As a Canadian, Sutherland never for a moment imagined becoming the U.S. President. Even though Tom Kirkland is American, the actor says he and the character have this in common.
“It’s not something I’ve ever thought of on a personal level. I don’t think most people do, though, even if they’re from here [the U.S.] This guy doesn’t want this job, either. If it weren’t for a series of circumstances, and if there was someone else he could have passed it off to, he would have in a heartbeat.
“I think one of the great dilemmas with regards to the family aspect of this show is that [Tom and Alex] both know that very few circumstances could be worse for what’s going to happen to their family as a result of this, but they feel a sense of patriotism to the country more than they do for themselves at that moment. But I think, certainly through the first five episodes, he’s trying to find an exit. The opportunity to play, as an actor, the transition of going from an everyday citizen to someone with that much power, that’s a dream thing to play, that’s a wonderful thing to try and wrap your head around.”
Tom Kirkman starts out as seeming so not-presidential that other characters actually talk about it in his hearing range. Presumably he’ll grow into the job. How does Sutherland plan on portraying Tom’s transition?
“Well, there are certainly some physical things you can do. One thing I like, and specifically, this goes back to David and how he wrote it was that, yes, it’s an incredible responsibility to be the President of the United States, but every situation that my character comes across can actually be dealt with with common sense and patience. So I love breaking that job down. And instead of making it as political as we sometimes have, this can be someone who is actually approaching it with common sense. If you were to launch an attack against a group of people, people will die. Okay, then, that’s maybe something we don’t want to do. He’s not looking at it from the political angles, he’s looking at it from a much more human point of view. Over the course of that first episode, I think that, in a very interesting way, made him more presidential, because he’s got a very strong sensibility of what he believes is right and wrong.”
Are there any U.S. presidents Sutherland looked to for inspiration?
“Well, I have great respect for LBJ. He never gets credit for everything that he did with regard to civil rights. He was unfortunately saddled with the Vietnam war that he didn’t get out of, but I think he was actually a remarkable president. There is [also], and this is a personal choice, something about Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who was a quieter man. He was not as angry a man. LBJ had a temper. And I don’t think Tom Kirkman does. And I think he’s going to have to find that a bit, or perish. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was quiet, and I think part of that was his disability, and I think how uncomfortable he was with that. So there was just a gentleness with him, compared to Teddy [Roosevelt].”
Having Natascha McElhone playing Tom’s wife is a big bonus, Sutherland says.
“One of the most extraordinary actors I’ve ever worked with. When she’s working, the lights get brighter. She’s unbelievably special.”
Kal Penn plays Tom’s primary speechwriter. In addition to his acting career – the HAROLD AND KUMAR films, HOUSE – Penn is also famous for having worked in the White House during the first term of the Obama administration. Sutherland enthuses.
“I can talk to you about Kal Penn as an actor for days, but the fact that he has led as diverse a life as he has, and I’m not just simply talking about working in the White House. He was a p.a., he’s done so many different things, in the film industry, as an actor, as a writer, as a person, he’s one of the best storytellers I know, and to be able to look over to my right or my left and say, ‘In this scenario, what would be feasible in the West Wing at this time, in this circumstance?’, and he would actually have an answer, that’s amazing.”
Sutherland says that the makers of DESIGNATED SURVIVOR don’t worry that real-world events could somehow overtake the show. First of all, Tom may be in the dark as to who attacked the State of the Union address, but the writers know.
“We know where the show is going. And it’s not necessarily going to be the thing that everybody seems to jump to. The situation in Germany was very interesting, when they were talking about ISIS immediately after that attack in Munich, and the reality was, it wasn’t [ISIS]. It was a much more homegrown nature. So there would be very few circumstances – like 24, even after the terrible days after 9/11, we did not push that show back. And I think television has a responsibility to confront what is actually happening in the world, instead of telling it in past tense. So I can’t imagine a circumstance that would keep us from confidently putting this show forward.”
After nine seasons of playing Jack Bauer, how does Sutherland feel about playing a character who has Secret Service agents protecting him, instead of playing the protector?
“I’ve never felt so short on a show in my life,” Sutherland replies with a laugh. “I have to be honest – it’s interesting. I remember what I think was one of the first scenes that we shot. LaMonica Garrett is the man who plays Mike, my Secret Service guy, and he’s huge. And I remember him running into where we were watching the presidential address and him taking my cell phone and kind of bossing me around and pushing me around, and I couldn’t help but remember how much I enjoyed doing that when I was doing 24. So I have noticed it.
What does Sutherland think that Tom Kirkman and Jack Bauer would think of each other?
“Good-looking guy,” he announced for both, with another laugh. He adds that Tom might also think, “I really should lose the glasses.” More seriously, Sutherland says, “I think Jack Bauer as a character had incredible conviction and had a real moral compass for the circumstance as well, so I would have to believe that he would trust Tom.”