heartache Kiefer Sutherland reveals pain of losing his mother during Covid
During the three years that he spent making the TV series Designated Survivor, Kiefer Sutherland got to spend a great deal of time in Toronto, and the experience made him fall in love again with the city of his childhood.
The 55-year-old had spent the bulk of his life in Los Angeles. He moved as a 17-year-old in order to chase a dream of becoming an actor like his parents, Hollywood A-lister Donald Sutherland and the lesser-known but highly regarded Shirley Douglas.
Since landing a key role in the beloved coming-of-age movie Stand By Me, he worked relentlessly in the US. He ascended to the upper rung of TV actors thanks to his lengthy stint on 24. His old life in Canada seemed to recede into the distance.
Then, a starring role in the popular political drama arrived, and with it a chance to reconnect with his youth. The experience fuels his third album, Bloor Street, which is named after Toronto’s best-known thoroughfare.
“Making Designated Survivor meant I spent the longest period of my life in Toronto since my childhood,” he says, from his LA home.
“And walking along Bloor Street, around the intersection with Yonge Street, made me realise that all my firsts happened there: the first job I ever had was as a short-order cook in the food court at the Hudson’s Bay Centre; the first meaningful kiss I ever had with a girl was in front of the subway station; the first time I ever played guitar on the street — busking — was on one of those corners; the first time I ever got into a fight was there too.
“All the things that happened in that area helped me go from a boy to a man, and I got nostalgic about it, and that’s what fed into the [title track].”
The title track is a love letter, not just to Toronto, but to a childhood that was, understandably, very different to most. He was named after Warren Kiefer, the director of his father’s first feature film, Castle of the Living Dead. Sutherland was raised by his mother in his early years and didn’t see much of his father, who had left the marriage for Jane Fonda, whom he met while making the paranoia thriller Klute. Donald later said Fonda was in possession of “the most beautiful breasts in the world”.
It’s clear that the song means a great deal to Sutherland. The video features archive footage of Toronto as well as imagery of the Sutherland clan, including his mum Shirley, who died in the first months of the pandemic.
“Thank God for my sister, who had all these great photos,” he says. “She’s kind of the archivist in the family. And when we put the video together, it felt more like a family album than anything.”
He says his mother’s death hit him hard, but it hadn’t come out of the blue. She had been ill for some time. “Saskatchewan was a song that I had written about my mother,” he says of a track that appears on his second album.
“She had a stroke and I thought she was going to pass away. I wrote that song on three napkins on the plane home to her. I was told that there was a good chance that, by the time I landed, she would have passed.” She survived until April 2020.
“Me and my family were so grateful to have had extra time with her,” he says. “But I would play that song when I toured, and I remember the first time I played it, I saw these two women about four rows back from the front, and when I sung that line, I’m going back to Saskatchewan/ To put my mamma in the ground, I saw one girl put her arm around her friend and I thought, oh, she’s lost her mom too.”
Big-name actors who release albums years into careers often face derision. Both Keanu Reeves and Juliette Lewis have had to contend with scathing reviews, and Billy Bob Thornton and Russell Crowe have been known to get shirty when doing music press and the journalists start asking about movies.
Sutherland isn’t like that at all — he’s more than happy to shoot the breeze on all aspects of his career. And while his music, Bloor Street included, won’t give the likes of Bob Dylan sleepless nights, the Americana-tinged songs are far more accomplished than the wishy-washy fare released by some of his Hollywood peers.
Although he has been playing the guitar for all of his adult life and dabbling at songwriting for years, it wasn’t until 2016 that he released his first album.
“I finally started to feel that the songs I was writing had something to say. And Jude Cole, who produced the first two records, thought the songs were good. I’m aware of the stigma around actors making music but, I just thought, if you’re going to make fun of me, go ahead and make fun of me — I really like the songs.”
He says he has become adept at juggling the various aspects of his creative life. There were “500 shows in three years” while he was making Designated Survivor, and he is looking forward to the opportunity to bring his new songs on the road in Europe — original dates had to be postponed due to the pandemic. But first there are shows to fulfil in the US. “I’m going to go out with an acoustic guitar and play these really small houses.”
Sutherland had a busier pandemic than most. “I got quite prolific in the writing department but, also, the film industry got clever pretty quickly. In that first year, when everything was down, I got to do a limited series [for US streaming service Showtime] and two films. All of them will come out this year.”
He is especially proud of the drama series. “It’s called The First Lady and I got to play FDR [President Roosevelt]. He’s always been my favourite historical president.” Sutherland has high hopes that the series will be a ratings hit — it’s got a big budget and an impressive cast, including Viola Davis, Gillian Anderson and Michelle Pfeiffer.
“I really think it’s going to be special. Everything starts with the scripts,” he says, “and these scripts were extraordinary. The cast is great, but I really think Gillian Anderson did an especially incredible job playing Eleanor Roosevelt.”
A cursory look at the online movie database IMDb shows Sutherland to have been remarkably prolific, both on the small and big screen. He says he got lucky early on, landing parts that showed he could act and that he wasn’t yet another child of movie-star parents who wanted ‘in’ despite negligible talent.
Everything changed with Rob Reiner’s 1986 film, Stand By Me, which featured a generation of gifted young actors, including River Phoenix and Corey Feldman. Does he have lucid memories of making the picture?
“Oh gosh, I have memories of that film for so many different reasons. It was the first major thing I did in the United States and it felt really big, you know? Here am I, a little provincial boy from Canada and, all of a sudden, I’m making a Hollywood movie. It was Columbia Studios — they were right next to Warner Bros. We shot on location in Eugene, Oregon, and it felt like a big deal in a small town.”
When the film aired and won acclaim with both critics and audiences, the offers flooded in for Sutherland. He seized them with both hands. He says he learned from his parents not to take anything for granted.
He says it was not inevitable that he would become an actor too. “I have a twin sister who wants absolutely nothing to do with it, and two of my three younger brothers have nothing to do with it. The middle one plays music and acts.
“What got me into it was the fact that my mom made me play violin from when I was four years old. The first job I ever got as an actor was when I was 11 and I was asked to do a play called Throne of Straw at the Odyssey Theatre in Los Angeles. It was a big deal. I got the part because I could play violin. It was really the first time anybody said I did something well — outside of sports. The other actors, they were all actors, and they were telling me that I was good at this. That kind of positive reinforcement went a long way for me.”
Although he was an in-demand actor for years, it was the role of counter-terrorist agent Jack Bauer in 24 that made him a major star. He says he has nothing but fond memories for the period between 2001 and 2010 in which he made nine seasons of the show, but points out that the film industry kept him busy then too.
“24 was certainly my introduction to television, but in that 10-year period, I made nine movies. I’ve made three albums in the past six years but I’ve also done a television series, Designated Survivor, and I’ve made movies. I don’t want to ever leave one of those things behind. For me, all of the work is about telling a story — and as an actor and a musician, I get to do that, and I love it.”
Sutherland says some of his most precious work involved acting alongside his father, who’s now aged 86. “It’s all of the emotions in one bag. I remember this one moment [on set with Donald] which will always make me smile. When I go to work, I take it seriously, I don’t f**k around, I’m prepared.
"He is one of the very few actors that I’ve worked with that I’m really watching, you know, and there was this moment where he did this one gesture which is really familiar to me because I know him, obviously, and it’s a gesture that I do myself. I’m watching him work, staring at him, and there’s this long pause and it’s, ‘Oh shit, it’s my turn, right?’ I just got caught staring at him and I was so impressed with what he was doing that I actually forgot what I was supposed to do.”
Sutherland has passed on the acting streak to his only child, Sarah. She is best known for her long-running role in Veep, the US adaptation of the British political satire The Thick of It. Twice married, he is engaged to model and actress Cindy Vela. He says he leads a contented life and it certainly sounds like it.
It wasn’t always that way, though. Sutherland got into plenty of scrapes over the years. He was arrested on four occasions for driving under the influence and, in 2007, he was imprisoned for six weeks. His new album alludes to troubles caused by alcohol.
He was also a fixture in the tabloids, not least when he was dating Julia Roberts when she was at the peak of her celebrity in the early 1990s. The pair had met on the set on Flatliners and become engaged after a whirlwind romance.
There was no fairy-tale ending though: just three days before their 1991 wedding, Roberts ran off with Sutherland’s best friend, Jason Patric.
But that was then. Three decades on and he says he is in an especially good place. The pandemic gave him pause for thought about how fortunate he has been to be able to do the things he loves.
“A lot of people really suffered in the pandemic,” he says, solemnly. “It’s been hard for so many. I feel very lucky. I tried to convey my gratitude in some of these new songs. I don’t want to take for granted what I have.”
Bloor Street is out now
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