Among the movie stars calling prime time home these days, perhaps the most surprising convert is screen icon Donald Sutherland, who's been butting heads (and heads of state) with Geena Davis' president as Speaker of the House Nathan Templeton on ABC's Commander in Chief (Tuesdays at 9 pm/ET). Not counting a few guest stints on such '60s series as The Saint and The Avengers, this is his first real TV gig. While out promoting his latest film, Pride & Prejudice (in select theaters Friday), the real-life pop of film-hunk-turned-24 star Kiefer Sutherland rather traitorously declared that the grass is indeed greener on the small screen's side of the fence.
"It's as happy as I've ever been as an actor in my life," he announces, referring to his Commander in Chief role. "This is really terrific, because as a character [who] runs through the series — as opposed to the work that I'm familiar with, which has a beginning, a middle and an end — here, I have [only] a beginning. I'm an actor who's saying, 'Next week, why don't I...?' 'Can my character...?' It's like having a plate of shrimp and one of them is wagging its tail and saying, 'I'm a lobster!' That's me. It's just glorious!"
Silly seafood similes aside, Sutherland is most excited about the depth of character the TV format allows him to explore. "[Nathan Templeton] has at least three levels of exposure: He's the political man dealing out there where everybody can see him. He's the private man in his back-office with his chief of staff, who's really an ambitious young woman and really beautiful. And then he has his wife, [played by] Samantha Eggar, to whom he has been married for 45 years."
As for the notoriously grueling schedule of TV work, Sutherland did manage to dodge that bullet a bit. "I only work two or three days a week, because that was my deal," he explains. Though when he first got the job, he says his practical wife said, "If you can do this for five more years, we'd be set for the rest of our lives," to which he replied, "If I were to do this for five more years, that would be the rest of our lives!"
Meanwhile, Sutherland isn't exactly knocking his experience playing patriarch Mr. Bennet opposite Brenda Blethyn and Keira Knightley in the latest feature adaptation of Jane Austen's Pride & Prejudice. In fact, the actor was satisfied by the political and historical significance of the role. "It [takes place in] a hugely changing time... in the industrial revolution, at the beginning of the onset of Victorian morality and manners. Women are suddenly becoming limited because of the loss of equity," he notes. "They always talk about Mr. Bennet being henpecked. He's not. He's in this mad world."
Sutherland does have one unusual gripe about the Pride & Prejudice production: that it was filmed on location, in the majestic old mansions of England's countryside, instead of in an easily controlled movie studio. Filming in the actual houses limits camera movement and, worse yet, requires the use of shorter, less-than-flattering lenses. "This is an unreal occupation," he says. "I like to contain and continue that unreality."