Canadian actor Kiefer Sutherland says he was shocked and heartbroken by the death of former federal NDP leader Jack Layton, and he is still coming to grips with it. 

Sutherland, who is in town to promote Melancholia at the Toronto International Film Festival, says he had been speaking with Layton throughout the federal election campaign and after the NDP's stunning ascension to become the official Opposition.

But he lost touch with Layton after he revealed that he'd had a setback in his cancer treatment.

"I got a message like, 'I'm sick again. I've got to deal with this,' and then he got very quiet and I didn't hear from him again. He'd been fighting it for so long and beating it — it was under control — and then for it to [strike again] like that, I was absolutely stunned when that happened, it was heartbreaking," says Sutherland, who spoke softly and fought for composure as he paid tribute to Layton.

"It was just such an exciting time for him ... just take a look at what he did in Quebec, he got people to believe there was a shot to do something, and he deserves to have that as his legacy. 

"He inspired people and made them believe in a time, in an economy, that no one believes in anything and he got them to really think there was a shot to make this place better."

Layton died on Aug. 22.

Sutherland's mother is actress and activist Shirley Douglas and his maternal grandfather is Tommy Douglas, the former premier of Saskatchewan and the first federal leader of the NDP.

The British-born Canadian actor, who appears in Lars von Trier's Melancholia, spoke to media in Toronto in advance of the movie's Saturday night premiere at TIFF.

Sutherland stars opposite Kirsten Dunst, Charlotte Gainsbourg and Alexander Skarsgard in the Danish filmmaker's end-of-the-world tale. He praised the always-provocative von Trier for his natural approach and the freedom he gives his actors.

"There was no rehearsal," Sutherland recalled to CBC News.

"To begin with, he gave you all the room in the world. So by the end of the film, I was so unaware of the camera that when you see it, it kind of took my breath away with how beautiful it was. I was deeply, deeply moved and impressed by that."