AMC’s new docu-series The American West details the stories of American legends like Jesse James, Wyatt Earp and Sitting Bull, who factored heavily into the development of the country during the period between 1865 and 1890, the time frame the Robert Redford-produced miniseries covers.
The network couldn’t have chosen a person more passionate on the topic than actor and musician Kiefer Sutherland, who narrates several segments throughout the eight-part series.
Sutherland, the Young Gun whose iconic 24 character Jack Bauer is arguably the modern pop culture cowboy, talked to Yahoo TV about growing up in Canada and idolizing American Westerns; the very personal reasons why he loves the lifestyle of the American West; his rodeo days; how his next TV project, ABC’s buzzed-about drama Designated Survivor, has its own Western themes; and how his affinity for Westerns and great storytelling led him to his new career as a songwriter and singer (his debut album, Down in a Hole, will be released in July, and his first single, “Not Enough Whiskey,” is available now).
Of his continuing involvement with 24, Sutherland says: “I promise you, I would have done that show until I couldn’t walk … [but] how many terrible days can one guy have?”
You recently starred in the Western Forsaken with your dad. You’ve done several other Western-themed projects. What draws you to this genre?
I think there’s a kind of innocence that we perceive about the West. You were either good or you were bad. Certainly from a storytelling point of view, the American West has provided this incredibly vast canvas. Then the things that were dealt with in the West were perceived to be very simple: The West provided untold opportunity, and it was where men and women could survive by their wits and their strengths, or peril by their weaknesses. It kind of was the beginning of the personification of the American dream, that if you had the fortitude and courage to go forward, you could stake a claim and make a name for yourself. I think in a world that has become infinitely, or at least perceivably, more complicated, there’s something very refreshing about being able to tell a story that is seemingly that black and white, like many of the Westerns that I grew up loving, Shane, Red River … those stories were, in fact, that simple.
You talk in this Saturday’s episode of The American West about Jesse James and his gang. What are some of your favorite true-life Western tales?
Certainly with Jesse James, you can go to a film like The Long Riders that explained from their point of view everything they had suffered through with regards to the Civil War, and that terrible divide in this country’s history, and their desire to live outside the fold. As a Canadian, I have to say it’s a very different perspective than I [had] growing up. Someone once tried to define how you would say Canadians are different than Americans. When you take a look at America, certainly in the late 1800s going into the early 1900s, into the industrial revolution, Americans growing up would buy the dime store novels of the American outlaw, whether that was Billy the Kid or Jesse James. There was a real outlaw spirit that helped define the American West. Having grown up in Canada, all of those dime store novels were about the Canadian Mountie. There was no Canadian revolution against the British. There was an American one. I think it was a way of articulating that American spirit and that American love of the people who go outside of what are maybe legal parameters to try and decide for themselves what they think is right or fair. Jesse James and the Youngers certainly fall into that category.
You’ve also competed on the rodeo circuit. You’re about to release your country music album. Is it fair to say that you have an affinity for the Western lifestyle?
I do, for a variety of different reasons. I was a team roper and a calf roper, and the team roping was what I would compete in. My understanding of the rodeo is something that is very different than maybe someone from New York City who would watch it on television. I grew up with my mother, a single mom. She raised myself, my sister and my older brother really on her own. I am always amazed when I look back on how little money my mom had, how well fed we were. And when I started doing the rodeo, I realized through the history of the rodeo that there were farms and ranches in the West that would come together and help at very specific times, through hay baling in the summer seasons, branding, cattle delivery. They came and worked together because it was really the only way they could survive. One of the things the rodeo did, and how the rodeo was born, was you would have four or five ranchers come together, and they would do the brandings together. Then the cowboys in these impromptu competitions would show advancements they had made in learning how to break horses, learning how to rope, etc. At the heart of the rodeo, they were learning these skills.
The truth is that America figured out how to feed itself before any other large nation. I really attribute that to the skill of the American cowboy and ultimately translate it into my life in the early ‘70s that my mother, on a very, very little budget, could feed us meat in a way that really you couldn’t do in any other country. I really attribute that fact to the skills and know-how of everything that the American cowboy learned from the beginnings of the rodeo even up until now. Just for that reason alone, to kind of see that impact they had on a national level, working from a series of small ranches in Nevada, New Mexico and Utah, that’s pretty impressive to me. That was the beginning of that mattering to me.
I also had a real affinity with horses, and there’s just something about wide-open spaces. When you take a look at Robert Redford in Jeremiah Johnson, the ability to get on a horse, go up in the mountains and spend time by yourself, gather your thoughts, if only for a few days, there was always something really appealing about that to me. The West has always provided that sense of great expanse and a place where one can challenge themselves, but also find a kind of solitude that you might not be able to find anywhere else in the country. I think, in many ways, that was appealing to me as well.
You’ve been involved with the music industry for a while, with your Ironworks label and Rocco DeLuca. Did that help lead you to music, writing and performing your own music, as a way of telling those kinds of honest stories, the kinds of topics that are often covered in Western films and TV shows and country music?
That was a long process. When I originally started writing [music] almost 20 years ago, I would have to have a lightning bolt out of the sky. I would have to come up with the melody and the lyric all in one go, and it had to be this great epiphany. Having the label for 10 years and watching these really great artists write, they all wrote in very different ways. I could see one person coming up with the guitar lick, or another writer coming up with a melody first, or someone coming up with the lyric idea and forming everything around that, and I started to be able to find ways to express myself as a writer, because I started learning how other people craft songs. I became more prolific as a writer that way.
Country music, what attracted me to it and my exposure to it, really did come out of rodeoing all through the '90s. I couldn’t help but notice that Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson, they all wrote in the first-person narrative. I do not believe that Johnny Cash went to Reno and killed a man to watch him die, but he took on the character. That was really in my wheelhouse. If there’s a common denominator between music and acting for me, it’s the desire to tell a story. As a musician, I’m certainly not Whitney Houston by any stretch of the imagination. I have my eight notes and I use them as well as I can. What I’ve loved about music is the ability to tell a story in a different way and then ultimately being able to communicate that to an audience in a very different way than anything I’ve experienced as an actor. I think country music deals with some very basic American themes, that are of the West, that appeal to me. Those themes, you can really take that all the way back to the James gang and the Youngers — family first, the expression of heartbreak, the desire for loyalty amongst friends. All of those things that are American themes in the Western movies are themes that you’ll find throughout country music. All of those artists I mentioned also do write about the darker side of life in the more contemporary form, but they do it with a kind of dignity that I think is really impressive. For all of those reasons, country music was just where I found myself wanting to write.
There’s a Western element to your next role, in Designated Survivor, too. Tom Kirkman is a Cabinet member thrown into this situation — to become the president of the United States after a catastrophic terrorist attack — that he is certainly not prepared for and is asked to heroically save the day.
Right. I think what’s interesting about that, and you’re right, it is thematic of a Western, heroically and maybe, at points, unheroically. We will see. You can almost say the same thing about 24, which again is very much the basic American ideal of taking someone and putting them in an impossible situation and having them confront circumstances that they can’t possibly win and having that person still fight to do what they think is right. [Kirkman] is put in a position, going into the White House overnight, that is going to cost his family. The international and domestic pressures of stabilizing the country after such an attack is going to be near impossible to do. I think in America specifically, there have been characters who have done that in real life … those are the kinds of characters we look up to and that I think on, some level, we all strive to be in the difficulties of our own lives. I agree with you, that is a very basic Western theme.
You touched on the personal sacrifice aspect of heroes; that’s another common theme in Westerns, and certainly in 24 and Designated Survivor, that these people make these efforts and sacrifices with little fanfare.
That’s the other thing. Again, you can almost shape the perfect American hero by the Western code. It’s that ability to suffer loss and do it with a very stiff upper lip. We usually attribute that to the British, but the American cowboy, that defines them to a T. I think that if we look back at the history of America, all the way back to the revolution against the British, Americans have been willing to really pay ultimate prices for their beliefs, and they’re willing to stand for those beliefs very selflessly. I can’t think of another modern country that has done that so regularly and passionately.
You’re an executive producer on 24: Legacy … especially with Designated Survivor, how involved will you be with 24?
I was approached in the very beginning. Howard [Gordon] had asked me about some of the ideas that they had, and I just really liked their ideas. I was supportive of that. I’m not going to get involved with the scripts on an episode-by-episode basis, but Howard and I did discuss thematically where the show would go. It’s something that I hope to see do really well. I think they’ve done an interesting thing. There is no specific Jack Bauer character. They’ve created a couple of characters who will deal with the responsibility of that character. I think the casting has been really, really smart. I’ve always said that I believe the idea of 24 [a season covering one day, an hour at a time] was really the star of the show. I still believe that to be true.
It’s something that I would love to see continue to go on, and I promise you, I would have done that show until I couldn’t walk. Howard and I both agreed that it just started to become almost its own parody, because how many terrible days can one guy have? I think it’s a breath of real fresh air for the writers to not be hung up by the 206 prior episodes for “what can we now do to this character?” For all of those reasons, it was a very smart thing. I really do believe in the potential of the time element of the show, and I wish them all the best, but my main focus, obviously, is going to be on Designated Survivor, and I’m very excited about that.
The American West airs Saturdays at 10 p.m. on AMC.