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John Weir is a lot messier
Kiefer Sutherland at the center of a TV action thriller featuring in a twisting, turning world of espionage with chilling real-world overtones - sound familiar?
Well, adjust your expectations, because while Sutherland's new series Rabbit Hole - a breakneck eight-parter from Paramount+ - certainly plays to several of the strengths the star of 24 has demonstrated during his reign as one of television's most memorable action heroes, it also flips the script considerably. First and foremost, his new character John Weir is no Jack Bauer. Jack had his shades of gray to be sure, but Weir operates from a place that's even less morally black-and-white: he's the head of a company specializing in high-level industrial espionage - clandestine dirty tricks designed to give his powerful corporate clients the competitive upper hand. Weir is excellent at his vocation, but no one's version of a hero.
That is, until his shadowy landcape suddenly and utterly turns against him in what appears to be a far-reaching, possibly world-threatening conspiracy, and Weir finds himself on his own and employing all of his specialized skills - which, much to his chagrin, do not include hand-to-hand combat - in a desperate bid to stay alive and get to the heart of the mysterious machinations working to take him down, while revealing that he's also not the most reliable protagonist to get behind.
Sutherland joined TV Guide to reveal the challenges and opportunities he saw in Rabbit Hole that allowed him to push his own highly developed skill set in new directions, how the series evokes one of his favorite entertainment genres, the ups and downs of getting his "ass kicked" on screen, and his thoughts on how conspiracy theories have permeated the culture, pop and otherwise.
What were the things that you zeroed in on that got you excited because the character definitely wasn't Jack Bauer, wasn't Designated Survivor's President Kirkman or anyone else you've played. What made you say "This is brand new territory for me"?
Kiefer Sutherland: Well, I got a phone call from [series creators] John [Requa] and Glenn [Ficarra]. They had an idea for a show that they wanted to make, a thriller, and it was going to really kind of harken back to kind of '70s thrillers, like Three Days of the Condor, Parallax View, Marathon Man, The Fugitive, all of which were films that I absolutely adored growing up. I've been a fan of the genre. It's been the thing that I've enjoyed most certainly watching as a young person growing up and certainly making as well.
24 was arguably the greatest experience I've had in my career, and it lasted a decade. But when they started talking about the character then I started to get very excited about things that I would isolate and that would help me really create something that was different than something that I had done before.
This guy does not start out clean. He's manipulative - he's manipulating the truth to convince one guy to divest capital out of a company, sell off his stock so my company can buy that stock at a much lower price. And it was a sting operation, it was a scam. The stock had not fallen. It was exactly the value that it was at the opening of trading. And so he's a manipulative guy as well. And then within minutes he goes from being the hunter to the hunted and is running for his life, and has to do everything in his power to try and not only protect himself, but the people that he cares about.
That dynamic I find really fascinating because whenever any character goes through 180-degree shift in front of your eyes, where he goes from being incredibly confident to incredibly vulnerable, that character opens up to an audience in a way that it's just simply attractive. All of us have gone through that moment. It could be as something as simple as asking a girl out to the high school dance, and you go in with all the bluster and confidence in the world and she crushes you, right? It's not life or death, but you always remember that moment of walking in like a wolf and walking out like a lamb. And that's exactly what is happening with this character. So I find it incredibly identifiable and human.
And so that, combined with the fact that this character also had a sense of humor. He was witty, he had a grasp of sarcasm, and that's not something...No one's been knocking down the door to get me to do a comedy! So it was very nice to have an opportunity to play the lighter side of a character. And John and Glenn balance that out so beautifully in the script. And Meta [Golding], who plays opposite me, has an incredible sense of timing. It was learning a new dance, and I really, really enjoyed that part of it a lot.
With a project like this that has so many twists and turns and big reveals and your character being somewhat unreliable, even to us, the audience, at times, what did you need to know about the big picture? Or did you need to know the full scope of the story, or were you happy to just roll with what was put in front of you with each new episode?
Sutherland: Well, we got the first four [scripts] in advance, and so that gave me enough to build on it. And then I had a couple questions that I needed somebody's word on that they weren't going to go in this direction. Otherwise, I'd have to know that to kind of bake that in. So they stayed away from that. But there were some pretty significant changes that I got around when we were kind of shooting episode four that I was finding out about Episode 6 and 7. I was like, "Oh, okay - I've got to rethink this. I got to figure this out." So they were pushing the boundaries of how many directions that they could pivot on, and it was challenging.
In my experience with television, even on 24, Howard Gordon would always pitch us at the end of the season. That usually happened around Episode 14, and we'd have 10 new episodes to go. I don't think anybody's used to it, but I think I'm pretty adept at being able to pivot with the writers in that kind of situation. But they made it challenging, which is cool.
You get to be an action hero - maybe not quite as white knight a hero as Jack, but--
Sutherland: Getting your ass kicked as an action hero, I guess, yeah, I get to do that!
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Getting your ass kicked is a physical thing, too. How prepared were you? Were you like, "Okay, goodbye, French fries. I guess I'm back in the gym half my life now"? Or were you already there to jump into that stuff again?
Sutherland: I think Covid made me put the French fries away and get back in the gym on its own, and that's its own process, and then age doesn't help! But I'll tell you what: for all of the times ... I used to laugh on 24 because I'm 5'10" on a good day, and I'd be looking at some guy who's 6'4", 230 pounds. They'd be like, "I'm going to kick your butt today," and I know I'm going to win because it's written. And I used to have to tell them in casting, "You've got to stop hiring these big people because it doesn't look like I should be able to beat them up at all."
It's incredibly challenging to be the one who's taking the beating, because in many cases you don't see the first couple punches, where they're coming from, because they're designed that way. And so in that first fight sequence where the kid hits me with a skateboard from behind, there's nothing worse than knowing you're going to get hit by something, but you can't see it, and you find yourself [flinching prematurely] that a lot. So it took us a couple times before he got a good clean smack on my back before I flinched. So deep respect to all the people that I had to fight on 24.
Conspiracy theories have infiltrated our culture to a significant degree, and there's plenty of rabbit holes for you to go down as an actor researching this role. Did you find yourself going deep into some of the elements this show explores?
Sutherland: Yes and no - not personally go down a rabbit hole, but I certainly kind of researched the depth and level of manipulation out there. And I'm not just talking about redistributing news as it caters to one group or another; I'm talking about real manipulation, where it's actually hard to discern that it's not real. And one of the ways that I've seen them do this is using numbers and math, because numbers and math is not something that you should be able to question. Two and two is four. But I've been in many, many a situation where I've seen the manipulation of those numbers. It just doesn't add up, but they just go through it. You're not going to actually do the math, and most people don't. And so there's a lot of ways to make something look really authentic and really true when in fact, it's completely bogus.
And it's complicated. Whether it's AI voices and so many different things that have been designed and created to be able to make someone - and all under the guise of making a practical joke, but that can really make someone think and do something that they normally would not have been if they had just simply known the truth. And so it is a complicated world, and I believe very strongly, if you look back at the Industrial Revolution, it happened incredibly quickly and it took us decades to kind of adapt as a society around that. I think we're doing that with the technological revolution, and it's moving at light speed, and we're humans and we don't move that quickly. And I do believe eventually we'll get there, but I think we're going to push some boundaries and go, "Oh God, that's a bad idea," and we'll have to walk it back. And Rabbit Hole examines that for better and for worse throughout its entire length.
Rabbit Hole premieres Sunday, March 26 on Paramount+.