Why Casting Kiefer Sutherland in ‘The First Lady’ Marked an “Emotional Moment” for the Show’s Creator

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Much of the ink printed about Showtime’s prestige series The First Lady has (deservingly) been in reference to its female creative team, whether it be stars Viola Davis, Michelle Pfeiffer and Gillian Anderson, director Susanne Bier or producer Cathy Schulman. But there’s a good story to be told about two men on The First Lady, specifically creator Aaron Cooley and co-star Kiefer Sutherland.

Cooley cut his teeth in entertainment by starting out as an assistant to filmmaker Joel Schumacher in 2002. By that point, the in-demand auteur had already churned out a long list of high-profile Hollywood films including St. Elmo’s Fire, The Lost Boys, Batman Forever, Batman & Robin, A Time to Kill, Flawless and Tigerland, to name a few. But there’s one more feature that’s worthy of mention because it left quite an impression.

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“I remember sneaking into Flatliners because it was rated R and I was too young,” Cooley recalls of Schumacher’s 1990 film about medical students (played by Sutherland, Julia Roberts, Kevin Bacon, William Baldwin and Oliver Platt) who experiment with near-death experiences. “So many of Joel’s movies shaped my life as a kid.”

Aaron Cooley, creator of Showtime’s The First Lady. - Credit: Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images
Aaron Cooley, creator of Showtime’s The First Lady. - Credit: Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

Jon Kopaloff/Getty Images

Cooley would go on to spend 18 years with Schumacher (eventually running development at his company), during which time they worked on seven films before the director’s death from cancer in 2020. Though he never worked with Sutherland directly, Cooley says his heart swelled when the opportunity presented itself to cast the actor on his show as President Franklin D. Roosevelt to Anderson’s Eleanor Roosevelt.

“To have Kiefer in something I created, especially now, after Joel passed away, it was a really emotional moment for me,” Cooley told The Hollywood Reporter at the show’s April premiere. Cooley, though, was quick to give credit to director Bier for being the magnet that drew high-wattage stars to the project. “Everyone wanted to work with Susanne. Everyone she asked said yes. That’s how you end up with one of the best casts ever, so I’m just lucky that I got to work with Kiefer because of her.”

This story first appeared in a June stand-alone issue of The Hollywood Reporter magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.

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