CANNES, France — The ghost of Jack Bauer haunted the Palais des Festivals’ Grand Auditorium in Cannes on Monday evening as Kiefer Sutherland talked in a masterclass Q & A about his new fall series, “Designated Survivor.”
“24” was a constant reference for Sutherland and for the audience, which created him with whoops of applause. But the crowd fell silent when Sutherland reflected on the upcoming U.S. presidential election.
“This has been the most bizarre and unfortunate political election cycle that I have ever witnessed in my lifetime, and I still remember Watergate. It is so negative, so polarizing and polarized,” Sutherland said.
In contrast, though it is make-believe, “Designated Survivor” has a point of view “from left, center and right,” Sutherland said, “discussed factually, correctly, calmly, and intelligently” – one of the reasons he agreed to do the show.
Bowing solidly on ABC on Sept. 21, then notching up TV’s best-ever Live+7 ratings gain, “Designated Survivor” has Sutherland playing Tom Kirkland, an architect with no political aspirations, who becomes president of the United States as the only member of the cabinet to survive a terrorist catastrophe.
“It wasn’t until I actually started performing the character that I realized there was a real similarity to Jack Bauer,” Sutherland told the audience in Cannes.
He went on: “Their skill set is very different. President Tom Kirkland probably doesn’t know how to load a gun, let alone shoot it. But both characters have a desire to serve, to take on a fight they know they can’t possibly win.”
Sutherland said he learned a lot from “24.” “Joel Surnow, the creator of ’24,’ actually taught me something. The writers had all their offices on the second floor of the stage where we shot it. We never went up there and they never came down,” Sutherland recalled. “I once asked Joel: ‘Why don’t you ever come down and check on what we’re doing?’ He said: ‘Because I hired the people I wanted to do what they are doing.’”
“’24’’s real time aspect was ‘“the real star of that show, and also a flaw,” Sutherland argued. “We would paint ourselves into a corner in the storyline. Almost every year right around episode 14 to 15, we’d have to do something wonky to get around that. Then we would make up for it in the last 8 episodes.”
In contrast, “Designated Survivor” unspools on three levels, Sutherland said: the thriller aspect, as a family drama, and “the political aspect of the story.”
“If at one point the political storyline is having difficulty, the show can shift back to being more of a family drama for two episodes and giving a reason for the political thing to take over. Same with the investigation of the bombing,” Sutherland said. “The fact that the three storylines are living within the show all at the same time gives the writers incredible flexibility also to react to what an audience is enjoying about the show.”
Even critics who are negative can be constructive, said Sutherland, who told the story of a writer who penned a negative review of Season 6 of “24.” Sutherland telephoned the man, who answered nervously, worried about a confrontation.
“I said, ‘Look, I agree with some points, and can we have a discussion about it?’” The two men did, and Sutherland went back to producer Howard Gordon. “It really impacted how we moved forward with the show.”
The actor credits “24” with reviving his career. He’s happy to be back on TV with “Designated Survivor,” which could consume the next 10 years of his life.
“TV is the most exciting medium right now,” Sutherland said, adding: “‘Godfather,’ ‘Lawrence of Arabia,’ ‘Serpico,’ ‘French Connection,’ ‘Ordinary People,’ ‘Terms of Endearment’: Those movies aren’t really getting made the way they were. That drama, that kind of storytelling, has been absorbed by TV. For the writers who want to tell real drama, TV is where it’s at.”