Kiefer Sutherland Talks Designated Survivor, Flatliners and 24: Legacy

The star of ABC's new drama Desginated Survivor, Kiefer Sutherland talks political inspiration, Jack Bauer, and the Flatliners remake.

Kiefer Sutherland told the Television Critics Association he did not want to come back to television. Eight years of 24 plus the bonus season Live Another Day, as well as two seasons of Touch, were enough but the role in Designated Survivor was too good to refuse.

Sutherland plays Tom Kirkland, a cabinet member serving as the designated survivor, a real position, during the State of the Union speech. When a bomb claims the lives of the President and all of Congress, the designated survivor must be sworn in. We spoke with Sutherland at the ABC party for the TCA about playing the President in this unique situation, with a few questions about the new 24 and the Flatliners remake too. Designated Survivor premieres Wednesday, September 21 at 10PM on ABC.

You had done Touch after 24, before Designated Survivor. Is TV any easier without the burden of the format of 24?

It’s much easier for the writers. For the writers, the time element was very restrictive and so that was a huge benefit for us on this show and for Touch. As long as you’re not writing in a 24 hour cycle where you have to justify every minute of every day, it’s a huge burden lifted off the writers.

Ad – content continues below

Even Touch had a large arcing story. Does Designated Survivor get to have more closed stories you can resolve in an hour?

Yes, there will be aspects of that. There are three storylines that are really functioning through our show. One is the family drama. One is the investigation into who actually bombed the Capital building. At the end of that investigation, what is the appropriate response? The other is the political aspect of the show which is certainly in the immediate future, finding a cabinet, rebuilding a senate, rebuilding the congress. That takes an election. How fast can we organize that and how long can you keep the economy and the population stable while this is taking place and for making them feel like progress is being made quickly enough to protect democracy while not. There will be aspects of those three storylines that will begin and be resolved within the context of an hour and then obvious the overall storylines will not be resolved hopefully until the show is done.

There’s a second designated survivor, right?

I didn’t know that. I knew about the first designated survivor before I read the script. I knew about that policy. I knew it was in the Constitution. I didn’t know that there was actually two. There’s a representative from each party. So in our scenario, our party is Democratic but I was a member of the cabinet. I was actually elected independently. Then the Republicans have a designated survivor in case something happens to me. So then there is two still in the line of succession. And then also if something doesn’t happen to my character, she is there to voice that party’s point of view against whatever that person wants. So again, going all the way back to the Constitution, no one person can ever solely be in power in the United States. That’s why they have them.

Is the danger always the possibility of martial law?

That’s the fear. Or the War Measures Act or a number of different things that can be imposed. This goes all the way back to Dwight Eisenhower on his farewell speech from the Oval Office. A large portion of that speech was dedicated to warning America about the industrial war complex and that’s always been a big fear. It was always questionable  with Lyndon Johnson and his affiliation with Bell Helicopter in the extension of Vietnam. Richard Nixon as well.

Ad – content continues below

Cheney and Halliburton.

Absolutely. So yes, that’s going to obviously be something that we play into with regards to the show. And I think it’s really fundamentally the main reason why he takes on the job. He doesn’t want it. At that moment, he could have very easily had passed it off. When he actually finds out about the second designated survivor, he might want to try to pass it off to her. He doesn’t want the job. The reason why he takes it is because of the conversations that he’s had with certain military members that make him realize that the takeover of the government by the military is not unfathomable. So he stays there.

Did you know any of this when you read the pilot?

No. Not in full. A lot of what I just said I did not know.

So you trusted there’d be an interesting story.

Well, I had a long conversation with Mark [Gordon] and David Guggenheim who wrote it. As much as I had no notes about the first script, I had a million questions about what the bible was going to be. How did you see seasons one, two, three, four, five going? At what stages were you going to have elections and then potentially re-elections because I’d be working within an eight year cycle or a four year cycle. We discussed all that.

Ad – content continues below

Will this turn into an Air Force One sort of action president?

Absolutely not. The action aspect of the show is going to be the investigation into the bombing. That’s going to be really headed by Maggie Q’s character. Very much like All the President’s Men or very much like in The Contender, that FBI operative would report either to my eventual chief of staff or to me, because I don’t trust anybody else at that point. So it’ll always feel a little nefarious, that part of the story. No, the president is not going to magically jump up and know how to fight, no.

Does your character feel any guilt that if he’d gotten the promotion he wanted, he would have been at the State of the Union?

There’s a scene about that in episode two. So very good call.

Did you watch much of the conventions?

I did.

Ad – content continues below

Did you make any observations about presidential appearances?

No, and mainly because I would have to say the one speech would’ve been probably Michelle Obama’s because she is not a political operative. I think she went into the White House kicking and screaming. The way she described the first time when she put both her daughters into the SUV to go to school was very human. That’s how this guy goes into office as well. But she adapted like nobody I’ve ever seen and I think is one of the most articulate and profoundly moving and by action first ladies of all time. In all fairness, I felt the same way about Hillary Clinton.

That’s also a model of a really strong marriage which might be what you need to survive.

Yes, and Michelle Obama had almost a two year campaign to get used to the idea. She’d been part of Barack’s political life his entire political life, watched him ascend to the senate from very grassroots work. Then a stunning speech in 2004 at the Democratic Convention, watched his star rise. She had time to adjust. Natascha McElhone playing my wife has about 35 minutes. So that’s by design to create an incredible amount of stress in a couple that you want to work and they were doing perfectly fine before this happened. So on a dramatic level, fantastic.

How did you come up with FDR as the president you wanted to emulate?

He was elected into office during the worst economic time in American history, compounded by the Dust Bowl through the prairies. So not only did nobody have any money, but there was nothing to farm. He came into power at probably the most difficult time in American history since The Civil War in the middle of an industrial revolution. Although if we’re going to be honest, economically the tide would not have turned without World War II coming into play. The ideas and the humanity that he embodied, whether it was through the Bill of Rights, through his plans through infrastructure and creating jobs and just manufacturing jobs for people in the U.S., we wouldn’t have the infrastructure today if it hadn’t been for his foresight. So if you’re talking about someone coming into a situation in massive crisis, that’s why I think my character would be going through.

Ad – content continues below

Did you think of LBJ, the accidental president who didn’t ask for this?

Well, I have great respect for LBJ and you’re right. He never gets credit for everything that he did with regards to Civil Rights. He was unfortunately saddled with the Vietnam War that he didn’t get out of. But I agree with you, I think he was actually a remarkable President. This is a personal choice of mine. There was something about Franklin Delano Roosevelt was a quieter man, was not as angry a man. LBJ had a temper and I don’t think Tom Kirkland does. I think he’s going to have to find that a bit or perish. When we were talking this morning about where to start from, that’s why Franklin Delano Roosevelt came to me. There was a quietness and I think part of that was his disability and I think how uncomfortable he was with that. But there was just a gentleness of him compared to Teddy.

You come from a political family. Did they talk about politics while you were growing up?

At our dinner table. My grandfather was leader of the NDP which was the federal officers of Canada. He was responsible for health care as the Premier of Saskatchewan for 16 years. This was where we lived. By the time I was five years old, I was canvasing neighborhoods for Bob Rae in Greenwood, Toronto, Canada. It’s what we did. Our dinners were interesting in my house. My mom was an incredibly powerful activist, not only in the United States but in Canada as well.

All three shows you’ve done, you were front and center as the lead. Have you ever considered doing more of an ensemble role?

I think this will ultimately be an ensemble, even though my character goes through different storylines. It’s too great a cast to not take advantage of.

Ad – content continues below

Is there any chance for you to appear on 24: Legacy?

There are absolutely no plans for that.

In the Flatliners remake, you’ve said your role is ambiguous enough that you could be the same character. Have you had a chance to see what their afterlife looks like?

No, I have not.

With which of the new cast did you have scenes?

I had scenes with all of them. I played a professor so they would have to report back to me. 

Ad – content continues below