Kiefer Sutherland Talks Playing the Bad Guy, the Production Value, Looking Back on His Career, the Return of 24, and More on the Set of POMPEII

     December 9, 2013


It’s always great when an actor you’ve long admired ends up being as cool and friendly as you’d hope they’d be.  This was the case when I participated in a group interview with Kiefer Sutherland on the set of Paul  W.S. Anderson’s 3D disaster flick Pompeii earlier this year.  As a fan of Sutherland’s since I was a kid (who didn’t love Stand by Me or The Lost Boys growing up?), getting to ask him a few questions on set was very cool.  Sutherland plays the antagonist of the film, a politician who is trying to marry the love interest (Emily Browning) of Kit Harington‘s heroic character and take over her father’s company.  While you might think the script would be your typical paint by numbers gladiator/disaster film, Sutherland says it was actually the quality of the screenplay that got him involved:

“I was so surprised how beautifully well-written the script was. The dialogue was really rich. The structure is unbelievably sound and it’s a very classic love story. So yes, it’s a gladiator movie. Yes, it has elements of a disaster movie, but there’s such a well-told story at the root of it that those seem to be in the backdrop or in the background. The story is actually really engaging.”

In case you didn’t know, Julian Fellowes (Downton Abbey) worked on the script for a couple of months, which could help to explain why it’s better than he expected.  During the rest of the interview, Sutherland talked about playing the bad guy, filming the gladiator scenes, getting to ride horses, what it’s been like working for Anderson, what he’s learned over the years, the future of 24, and so much more.  Hit the jump for the interview.

Before going any further, if you haven’t watched the Pompeii trailer, I’d watch that first:

pompeii-kiefer-sutherlandQuestion: (Sarcastically) We hear your character is super-nice. He’s a really nice guy. He gets along with everybody

KIEFER SUTHERLAND: Obviously, he’s the antagonist of the film, but it’s very different. I’ve played a lot of nasty characters over the course of my career. I would think the worst one was a film called Eye for an Eye. This is not that guy. He’s very funny, in an awful way, but he’s very funny. With a class system like you had at that time, if someone was wealthy and powerful, the ease with which they dispatched other people’s lives was kind of frightening. He does it with great aplomb. He’s funny. I haven’t really had a character to play that has had the dialogue that is as rich as in the script, so it’s been a real pleasure. But you’re right. He’s an asshole.

This is a big gladiator scene. Do you get to do one of these deals?

SUTHERLAND: I almost do. In the course of the film, I’m trying to covet young Cassia, who is in love with Milo, who is the very good-looking young gladiator. I’m about to do it and she comes up and saves his life instead and then threatens me saying, “I might end up having to be your wife, but if you go against me now, back in Rome, I don’t obey you.” So I have to go along with her for the moment.

24-kiefer-sutherland-pompeiiWould you also describe this as a disaster movie?

SUTHERLAND: It was described to me as a gladiator movie and a disaster movie. I was like, “Well, why are you sending me this? This would be the last thing I’d be interested in doing.” I’m in an odd position because my brother is actually my agent, so I had to talk to him longer than that. He said, “Trust me. Just really read it. Just trust me.” And I did. I was so surprised how beautifully well-written the script was. The dialogue was really rich. The structure is unbelievably sound and it’s a very classic love story. So yes, it’s a gladiator movie. Yes, it has elements of a disaster movie, but there’s such a well-told story at the root of it that those seem to be in the backdrop or in the background. The story is actually really engaging, so I followed that. But yes, having gone through a month of riding horses and chariots through ash where you couldn’t see a foot in front of you….yes, it’s a disaster.

Can you talk more about that, about the preparation to ride the horses and so on?

SUTHERLAND: No, because I’ve been doing this my whole life. I started riding horses when I was about 16, 17 years old. I rode them in Young Guns. I rodeoed on the USTRC circuit with the National Finals of 94/96, so horses were really familiar to me. The chariot was not. I drive a chariot with four horses. The chariot is unbelievably light. That’s a nervous proposition. I’m very alert when I actually pull those reins in because they are unbelievably powerful. So whoever started charting horsepower for cars really underestimated the power of a horse because I would say I have four horsepower. I’ve ridden a moped with 16 and these four horses would kick the moped’s ass. That was something I had to get used to, but the horseback riding, I’m familiar with that.

Again, I did extensive training for Three Musketeers with fencing, so I had to step up with the sword play in that. Obviously with 24, there was unbelievable physical combat. Nothing is unfamiliar. It’s a question of learning the specific dance for this film. Each battle sequence is a dance. I used to always make the joke that if you were in a bar fight with an actor, you’d have no problem because they are trained to miss you by that much. And they will and I’ve done it. So, it really is more of a dance. You learn the choreography of that and you’re good to go.

pompeii-kit-harington-emily-browningWith really big films like this, sometimes the complaint is the villain doesn’t seem to have much of a motivation. He’s just kind of evil or mean. Is there a play on class?

SUTHERLAND: It’s two-fold. A lot of it directly informs an audience of that. He wants to marry this girl. He’s come to Pompeii to marry this girl and to take over the father’s company. He has a line where he says, “As soon as this deal is done and the marriage is settled…” The line earlier is my right-hand guy says, “What a mouth on her.” And he says, “Yes. As soon as the deal is done and the marriage is settled, I’ll take great pleasure in shutting it.” That’s exactly what he’s there for. The deal and the marriage and then he goes back to Rome.

How does he deal with the crisis at hand once this chain of events starts happening?

SUTHERLAND: With unbelievable arrogance. With the arrogancy you would expect. He actually has a line where he’s making a speech in the arena. The tremors start and he’s like, “Come on. Come on. Get over it.” He doesn’t pay attention to it. It’s not a threat to him. Everything he’s had in his life, he’s been able to control. It’s also an interesting kind of result in Pompeii when you actually look because it happened so fast. One of the most awesome things I saw there was a mother holding her child and she died so quickly that she couldn’t bring her own child to her breast. She was literally holding her up like that and they were locked like that forever. I don’t think any of them had any idea that could possibly happen. That’s an interesting aspect of the movie when it gets into that stage.

pompeii-kit-harington-adewale-akinnuoye-agbajeIs it important for you to find something relatable in a character like this or do you just let go?

SUTHERLAND: It’s a combination of things. But no, and the same with an Eye for an Eye. In Eye for an Eye, that character was a much more realistic character than this. I had two daughters at the time and I would try to build a character that was my greatest nightmare if my daughter were to run into this person, so I developed the character on this. This is much more fun. I keep pushing it and Paul goes, “Okay, yeah, that was funny. Back off a bit. That was a bit flamboyant.” The shape of the character for me is what I relate to in the context of the story and how much fun can I have with that part in the balance of what he’s doing and what she she’s doing and so forth. So no, it’s not that kind of character where I have to have some kind of some deep emotional or intrinsic connection.

With Pompeii, they are doing a big exhibit in London. There’s a lot of history that has literally been unearthed in the last couple of years. Have you become more of a history buff about it or are there any other points in history that you have a great interest in?

SUTHERLAND: Me, specifically, World War II has always been the most fascinating thing for me from a historical point of view. It is still so tangible and close to us. There were very few instances where the world was divided by what I still perceive as very right and very wrong. And yet it galvanized three and a half billion people to put themselves in serious harm’s way. What I’ve enjoyed about this is I started to learn about Pompeii as a result of being a part of this film, which is great.

Pompeii-Kit-HarringtonAnd you traveled to the site?

SUTHERLAND: No, I haven’t. I’ve just read a lot of books. I’m going to actually go after. I was working when Paul went to shoot there, which was a drag because they actually shut it down for six days or something like that, and it’s never been shut down before. Then they shot there, so that was the time to go. No, I’m going to go with all the other tourists when we finish.

Paul is such a nice guy. How is he when he’s commanding this huge set?

SUTHERLAND: Well, he hasn’t faltered. He’s a nice guy. I keep waiting. He’s a nice guy. Okay, I get that. He’s a nice guy in prep. Okay, I get that. What’s going to happen when you’ve got 400 extras, 300 people in armor, 16 horses standing by and it starts to rain? He’s just a nice guy. He rolls with it. And through that, he’s worked with this crew many times, so he has great familiarity with them. He commands a set with absolute authority. He’s the guy in charge. And as an actor, to work for a director who knows exactly what he wants…He’s so technically proficient that I’m not even aware we’re shooting a 3D movie. That is a real testament to him and his crew that have done this before and know how to do it. But as nice as he is, he’s very clear about what he wants. It’s such a gift to work in that. There’s a real safety in that. Again, I can push this direction all I want, but he’ll pull me back and make sure I’m fitting into the context of this film. It’s just one of the most comfortable environments I’ve ever been in.

pompeii-promo-imageYou’ve been working in the industry for a really long time. If you could go back in time, is there any advice you would give yourself that you’ve learned along the way?

SUTHERLAND: Most of my career I’ve spent really nervous. Just about work, getting work and having it in. I would probably tell myself to lighten up a bit and relax. It’s going to be alright. Enjoy it a little more. I’ve had people come up to me and go, “Oh my God. Lost Boys is one of my favorite films,” or “Young Guns was one of my favorite films.” And I wish I enjoyed them more because when I look back on them, the opportunities to have had, and they were great people I was working with, Stand By Me, I wish I had enjoyed them more. I was so nervous about being out of work, or this was my last job, that I forgot to realize how lucky I was. Does that make any sense?

Out of all the movies you’ve done, what’s the most research or the most prep you’ve ever done for a role?

SUTHERLAND: Dark City would have been one of them, just because physically it was a really different character and I had to try a bunch of different things until I got to that place. And then 24 because it was always such a long period of time, whether it was physical training or figuring out how that character is going to evolve. But I spent a lot of time thinking about that.

kiefer-sutherland-24-pompeiiWere you a little surprised by the fact you were coming back to TV?

SUTHERLAND: Well, not TV. I love the medium, so TV, not so much. But 24. Yeah. Yeah, if you had asked me that a year ago, I would have said, “No, that’s ridiculous.” The studio has been getting a lot of mail about wanting the show back. Howard Gordon had an idea, if we were going to do a ninth season. He honed it down to 12 episodes and finally just said, “If you guys really want to do this, I’ll do it.” He called me up and pitched me the idea and I was like, “That’s really cool.” It’s a great group of people, so I’m thrilled to come back to work with them.

Kit is obviously well-known from Game of Thrones. This is really his first movie as a lead. Paul clearly has faith he can deliver. As somebody who has played these roles before and a vet of these types of productions, what do you see in him that makes you think he’s capable of leading a picture?

SUTHERLAND: He’s an extraordinary actor. There’s something about certain actors and you can’t teach it. When he walks into a room, you know he’s there. You just do. You don’t know why, but for whatever reason you end up turning around, and he’s there. He has an aura of power, or whatever you will. You just can’t help but watch what he’s doing. And I’m a huge fan of Game of Thrones and many times I’ll wait for certain scenes to be done to get back to that his storyline. I haven’t worked with him a whole lot, but I’ve seen a lot of the work. I think he’s going to be extraordinary. And let’s face it… he’s a good looking kid.

Toronto hardly screams Greek architecture to me. Can you talk about the movie’s production value?

SUTHERLAND: I was talking with someone and I said, “I think I’m going to be in Toronto for about four months.” She said, “Oh, what are you doing?” I said, “A film called Pompeii.” She started laughing and couldn’t stop laughing about how ridiculous our business is. I can’t specifically say whether it’s Toronto or not, but what is interesting is unlike a film like 300 where they had no sets and literally you’d have a stool or a table covered in green tape, we have sets. They are tangible so as an actor, it’s very easy to work with. What I can’t wait to see is the multi-layered backdrop. You’re going to see Pompeii in the background with everything they shot there. That’s going to be extraordinary. And if you take a look at a film like Gladiator, the technology they had is almost archaic compared to what the technology is now. I’m expecting a lot from Paul in this area and I can’t wait. It’s a back lot, so for me, it’s not Toronto or Los Angeles. It’s a back lot. I can’t speak to whether we have a better set here in Toronto than we would have had somewhere else. It’s just nice to be here because my mother and sister are here.

It’s just funny that in a city like this we have….

SUTHELRAND: It’s hysterical. I don’t know where they shot Ben-Hur, but I guarantee it was not in Rome.       

Check out some of my other coverage from the set visit:

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