'Designated Survivor' brings Kiefer Sutherland back to primetime as inadvertent president

Posted at 1:58 PM, Sep 19, 2016
and last updated 2016-09-19 16:58:09-04

Wherever she was, Natascha McElhone's ears must have been burning thanks to Kiefer Sutherland, who stars as her devoted husband and the inadvertent president of the United States in ABC's much-anticipated new thriller "Designated Survivor."

Catch the premiere of "Designated Survivor" WEDNESDAY at 9 p.m. on ABC15!

"Aside from the way she can light up a room," said Sutherland, singing her praises, "Natasha's one of the freest actors I've ever worked with. That kind of freedom allowed me to relax a bit and put more of myself into my character."

Sutherland, who spent a decade as action hero Jack Bauer in Fox's "24," is primed to show viewers a new side of himself as Tom Kirkman, a low-level cabinet member (and political independent) suddenly drafted as the nation's chief executive after an attack on the U.S. Capitol kills the incumbent president and wipes out Congress during the State of the Union address.

"My character," said Sutherland in his husky purr, "was an architect with an idea for low-income housing who became a member of the cabinet. He was never elected to anything. He wears a tweed jacket!"

Thrust into the Oval Office, Kirkman must resurrect a shattered government while marshaling the campaign to find its attackers. Meanwhile, he must protect what's most important to him: his wife and their two kids.

"The show covers such a wide landscape," said Sutherland. "How does he get the country back on its feet? Who did the bombing, and what is the appropriate response? And what happens to a family that inherits the White House overnight? My character will get to navigate all of those things."

But not without support from his wife, Alex, played by McElhone (whose credits include the feature "Ronin" and Showtime's comedy "Californication").

"Initially, Alex is more tough than he is," said Sutherland. "She's an attorney, aggressive, and much more of a political animal.

"She is the center of his universe. Then he becomes president overnight, and by accepting it, he puts the one thing that matters most to him -- his marriage -- in jeopardy out of his sense of patriotism and duty."

Granted, this unsought mandate bears a save-the-world likeness to that of Jack Bauer. Yet Kirkman is anything but a lone wolf, and, also unlike Bauer, there's no rock-'em-sock-'em to his style.

"I always enjoyed the physicality of `24,"' said Sutherland, who for this interview was clad in jeans and T-shirt -- no tweed! -- that seemed to favor Bauer's fashion sense. "But, like Kirkman, I'm a much better talker than I am a fighter, so I feel more at home with this guy."

As he spoke, Sutherland was several episodes deep into production of the series, which, despite being shot in Toronto, clearly keeps him in a D.C. state of mind.

He gets help with that from cast-mate Kal Penn, who plays a presidential speechwriter but, while on a break from his acting career a few years ago, served in the real-life White House of Barack Obama.

"With that perspective, to have him on our show is invaluable," said Sutherland. "You can ask, `When the president's walking down the hall, can you say "hi" to him?' And Kal says, `Yeah, you can, I guess. But you DON'T.'

"Just as an ordinary person, I'm so excited to hear those details!"

But Sutherland is not an ordinary person, of course. He's the leader of the free world, or at least pretending at a job he experiences as "mind-numbingly complicated -- and WE'RE only making (stuff) up!"

President Kirkman hasn't been his only performance of late. In the early weeks of shooting "Designated Survivor," Sutherland was also shooting a sci-fi feature "Flatliners" alongside Ellen Page and James Norton.

Meanwhile, he's been touring in support of his debut country album, "Down in a Hole."

"The truth is, I really like what I do," he said when asked about this jam-packed schedule. "When `24' ended (in 2010) I didn't know what to do. ... I had a real hard time. So I learned something about myself."

In 2012, he starred in the spiritually based Fox drama "Touch," an ambitious misfire that lasted just two seasons.

Now he's back in a new series that handicappers are forecasting as a surefire hit.

"My response to that is, `We'll see,"' said Sutherland. "One of the great benefits of having done this for 30 years is you approach everything with cautious optimism. You can survive with that.

"But all of the components of this show feel right to me." He smiled. "We'll see."