Kiefer Sutherland is telling me a story. Pushing his silk scarf to one side while rearranging his heavy-framed glasses, he is recalling the making of one of his first films, 1986’s Stand By Me and how he unwittingly influenced its title.
“I was teaching River [Phoenix] how to play the guitar,” he says, “and at that point the film was still called The Body [after the Stephen King short story on which it was based]. The first song I taught him was “Stand By Me”. [Director] Rob Reiner was walking over and went: ‘Oh man, I haven’t heard that for so long!’ Soon after, the film got retitled.”
Sutherland is quite the storyteller. It’s the combination of his gravelly voice and the glint in his eye – or perhaps it’s his green velvet jacket, which lends an air of Jackanory to proceedings.
‘I had 11 number one films in a row. I thought that was how it was always going to be. Then my thirties happened’
This must be at least one reason why his secondary career is going so well. In 2016, the actor fulfilled a long-held ambition by launching himself as a country singer. He released an album, Down in a Hole, then sat back and awaited the flak, the scorn, the ridicule. “I’m very aware,” he says, “of the stigma that comes with an actor doing music.”
But there never was much flak, because Sutherland was good. Duly encouraged, he is now releasing a second album, Reckless and Me, which features more self-penned croons about “blue denim” and “open roads”, all sung in a manner that suggests he is perpetually sucking on a Malboro. His voice is fabulously low and burly, butch as all hell. He never sounds less than authentic.
“The one piece of advice my father [the actor Donald Sutherland] gave me was: ‘Don’t let them catch you lying.’ When you’re singing songs about alcoholism, death, the loss of love, you can’t be trite or you’ll get into trouble. I sing from the heart.”
Sutherland might just be perfectly suited to country, for here is a former Brat Pack star whose early run of film successes – Stand By Me, Flatliners, Young Guns, A Few Good Men – was superseded in the mid-90s by a string of turkeys, and a personal life that kept him miserable and in the tabloids.
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“I had 11 number one films in a row,” he says, “and I was young, so I thought that was how it was always going to be. Then, all of a sudden, my thirties happened, and it kind of vanished for a minute.”
His off-screen life brought him a very different kind of fame. In 1991, his fiancée Julia Roberts called off their wedding at the last minute and soon began a relationship with Sutherland’s friend, the actor Jason Patric. Sutherland, meanwhile, drank, got into bar fights, and at one point reinvented himself as a rodeo rider.
It would not be until 2001 that his career was revived in spectacular fashion on the small screen. In 24, he played Jack Bauer, a chisel-jawed counter-terrorist agent who would stop at nothing to bring down the bad guy. It made for riveting TV, but as the series continued, so the plots weakened, in time revealing Bauer’s sadistic streak, as he appeared to revel in the torture of political prisoners.
This left Sutherland with much explaining to do. It didn’t please him then, and doesn’t now. “I never understood that [criticism],” he says. “My politics lean to the left, so how the show was ever perceived as right-wing is beyond me. We were never advocating torture.
‘It was just a TV show, not us articulating what we thought the political agenda should be’
“Look, it was a f***ing TV show: take out those elements and you’ve got nothing. I was shocked because on the other channel there was this guy who was a serial killer [Dexter], but he was killing the right people. It was just a TV show, not us articulating what we thought the political agenda should be.”
Now 52, and reportedly dating a 40-year-old actress called Cindy Vela, Sutherland lives on a ranch in California, where he rides horses and writes songs. He continues to act, most recently in the TV series Designated Survivor (he played a low-level cabinet minister promoted to president with complicated, and convoluted, results). It is a quieter, more contented life, perhaps, but he has said that his heroes have all been hellraisers: Peter O’Toole, and Richards Burton and Harris.
When we talk about touring – he has performed 300 shows in just two years – he speaks about being on the road. “One thing vocal chords don’t like is whiskey,” he says, “and I like the whiskey.”
He has had fewer hellraising headlines recently – in 2008, he spent 48 days in jail on a drunk-driving charge – but he tells me he continues to drink because he likes it.
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I wonder whether his love of hedonism makes him a more complex actor, a more compelling songwriter? He sighs. “I’ve certainly never tried to create a circumstance that would put me in that position.
“Having said that, I’m clearly aware that almost every single negative thing that has happened in my life was as the result of drinking – and I didn’t stop. So at some point you have to take responsibility for that, and I do.”
Does he ever want to stop drinking? “Nope, no. Some of the best times I’ve had have been when out with friends, having drinks, telling stories. That’s me at my happiest.
“But do I want to understand it all better? Yeah. And can I say that there have been times when I have felt on the verge of not having much control? Yes. That’s something I wrestle with. But then I’ve never been late for a day’s work in my life.”
‘Can I say that there have been times when I have felt on the verge of not having much control? Yes. That’s something I wrestle with’
The sigh becomes a half-smile. “If you sit in your kitchen drinking whiskey because you are depressed, that’s not going to work. But if it’s something that will enhance your evening, go for it.
“The more I keep a grasp on that, the more the bad stuff doesn’t happen. It’s a balancing act.”
‘Reckless and Me’ is out on 26 April