Kiefer Sutherland on country music, the rodeo, his grandfather Tommy Douglas and more

The Canadian actor talks about his love of storytelling both on screen and as a country musician.
When Kiefer Sutherland, shown in a handout photo, starts touring Canada this week for his country-rock album Reckless & Me, audiences will see a vulnerable side that he admits took some getting used to. (The Canadian Press)

Kiefer Sutherland is no stranger to the big screen, but it's a lesser known fact that the Canadian actor is also a country singer-songwriter. Known best for starring as agent Jack Bauer on 24 and U.S. President Thomas Kirkman on the Netflix series Designated Survivor, Sutherland also has two country albums under his belt and was once a rodeo cowboy.

He joined q's Tom Power from a studio in Winnipeg to talk about touring as a country singer, his time on the rodeo circuit and why the legacy of his grandfather, Tommy Douglas, former premier of Saskatchewan, is so important to him.

Here is part of that conversation.

Country music is a great storytelling medium. How do you approach country? Is it a storytelling form to you?

You know, I was trying to find the common denominator about what I love about making records as a musician and what I love about acting — and it's storytelling. When I get together with a group of actors, the director and a cinematographer, and we all try and figure out what we think is the best way to tell a story, that's the most exciting part. When you come up with a new song and you approach the people and the musicians that you're playing with and figure out the best way to arrange this or get this story across — that's an incredibly exciting thing. Whether it's working on a set or on stage, or working with other musicians, or sitting in a bar with friends telling stories, it's something that has been a passion of mine and something I deeply, deeply enjoy.

People might not expect this side of you. Does that make you a little bit nervous when you walk on stage?

Well, no. It's been one of the most mind-blowing experiences for me because, I would have to say, I consider myself at times to be a little cynical, so I was grateful that anyone would show up. And I certainly understand, five years ago when we started touring, that people were coming because they were a fan of 24 or Lost Boys, but I also felt that people were coming to see a NASCAR race and they wanted to see a crash — and I was wrong about that. Very quickly, I realised that the people who were coming out wanted you to be good, they wanted you to do well. And I was so taken aback by the generosity of that. That in itself has been one of the most incredibly rewarding experiences that I've ever had.

You're about to play a gig at the Calgary Stampede, people may not know that you spent some time on the rodeo circuit. You did team roping, is that right?

Yeah, I did almost 10 years on the USTRC circuit in the U.S. I did team roping and calf roping, but team roping was really my main event. All of the events that take place at a rodeo are things that you would actually do on a ranch. So team ropers — there are two — one takes the horns with the rope and the other takes the back feet. It's a way of immobilizing a cow so that you can deliver medicine, for instance. It's a really crucial element of being able to handle your cattle and take care of them. From start to finish, you're catching that cow within six seconds, and there's a lot of adrenaline and it's very exciting. When I was rodeoing, team roping didn't exist at the Calgary Stampede and now it does, so I can't wait to check that out.

Tommy Douglas receives a standing ovation while arriving at the Palace Theatre to address an NDP rally in Hamilton, Ont. on June 11, 1968. (The Canadian Press)

You have a long-standing relationship with Western Canada. I mean, you're sitting in a studio in Winnipeg as we speak. Your grandfather, Tommy Douglas, father of Medicare, spent a lot of his formative years in Winnipeg before making a name for himself as a politician. Do you feel any of that history?

In Winnipeg, on some level. Certainly, everything that my grandfather did from working as a printer to get himself through school — that all took place here. 

Where I really feel it, on a very specific level, is anytime that I'm in Saskatchewan. My mother was born and raised in Weyburn and all of the stories and the excitement from my grandfather winning that first election to really aggressively attacking the platform that he campaigned on — which was healthcare, paved roads, indoor plumbing, schools — what they managed to accomplish in such a short amount of time is kind of mind-boggling. And it wasn't just my grandfather, he was leading it, but there were great people who were working with him, too. 

For me, I find it so inspiring because I do believe very strongly that there are public servants out there who are really looking after the interests of their constituents. I think, unfortunately, they get overlooked by some of the other politicians who are really looking after themselves. But I am very proud to be a part of a family that had someone who did so much for so many other people.

That came up recently in tweet you put out. Premier Doug Ford was using your grandfather's name in a way that you didn't feel was right. What made you want to speak out about it?

I'm glad you asked that. I'll try to be really clear. My grandfather's legacy is incredibly important to me and my family. The tweet was not meant to be political. Look, Premier Ford was elected and a lot of people share his views. And that's fine. That's democracy. What I took exception to, is comparing Premier Ford's policies and saying that my grandfather would approve of them, when in fact, it's quite the opposite. Ford's policies have sacrificed public service and public services, I think, in a very egregious way, and I just, I couldn't think of anybody more diametrically different, politically and ideologically, than my grandfather. So I didn't want some young person who might not know very much about my grandfather to just accept that at face value. 

Tommy Douglas was such a symbolic and important person. What was he like as a grandfather?

He was amazing. We would get up in the morning and pretend to go into the woods and cut down some trees for firewood, but instead, we'd sneak off and he'd teach me how to drive in a gravel parking lot somewhere. So there was a sneaky part to him — he was a little bit of a devil.

Then there were other times where, you know, I have a twin sister named Rachel, and we would get to spend six weeks with my grandpa and grandma, and we would always get there right before the House of Commons closed for the break. We would sit up in the bleachers and watch the debates. It was just exciting to be a part of it. He was such an incredibly generous, kind person. There was a real tenderness to him that I think people might not know. He was an advocate and advocates have to be strong, but there was a very gentle side to him as well.

He was such a morally-principled man, and it makes me think about your role as U.S. President Thomas Kirkman on the show Designated Survivor. Do you ever think about your grandfather when you act that role? 

Well, I use his glasses.The glasses that Tom Kirkman wears are the same glasses that my grandfather had. Not the exact same ones, but the same look. Obviously, we're making a television show, and we're creating dynamic circumstances to challenge the character, but a lot of it is rooted in reality. When I think of the things that my grandfather had to fight for and fight against, those must have felt like insurmountable challenges. And yet, he and the group of people that he worked with didn't seem to be daunted by them. They just kind of went forward one day at a time and it's amazing what you can accomplish when you work one day at a time.

Kiefer Sutherland is currently on tour across Western Canada and will be performing at the Calgary Stampede on Monday, July 8.

Here is the full list of tour dates:

  • July 4 Winnipeg, Club Regent Casino
  • July 6 Saskatoon, Broadway Theatre
  • July 7 Edmonton, Station On Jasper
  • July 8 Calgary, Stampede (Nashville North Stage)
  • July 9 Kelowna, BC, Community Theatre
  • July 10 Vancouver, Commodore Ballroom
  • Aug. 23 Ottawa, 50 Sussex
  • Aug. 24 Montreal, Pierrefonds Borough Hall

This transcript has been edited for length and clarity. To hear the full conversation with Kiefer Sutherland, download our podcast or click 'Listen' near the top of this page.

— Produced by Diane Eros

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