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If Mount Vesuvius were to erupt in modern times, surely Kiefer Sutherland’s super-spy character Jack Bauer would find a way to minimize casualties and ultimately save the day. Alas, this is director Paul W.S. Anderson’s disaster film Pompeii, in which the city is destroyed by the volcano’s fury, and Bauer is nowhere to be found.
Instead, Sutherland was cast as Roman Senator Corvis, a cruel man whose only interest lies in gaining political power and making the heroic Milo (Game of Thrones star Kit Harington) suffer.
That villainy wasn’t even remotely on display in June during a visit to the film’s Toronto set, where the good-natured Sutherland – relaxed and comfortable in sunglasses, jeans and a T-shirt – had come in on his day off to discuss the making of Pompeii.
Spinoff Online: We hear your character is super-nice. He’s a really nice guy. He gets along with everybody …
Kiefer Sutherland: Obviously, he’s the antagonist of the film, but it’s very different. I’ve played a lot of nasty characters over the course of my career — I would think the worst one was a film called Eye for an Eye. This is not that guy. He’s very funny, in an awful way, but he’s very funny. With a class system like you had at that time, if someone was wealthy and powerful, the ease with which they dispatched other people’s lives was kind of frightening. He does it with great aplomb. He’s funny. I haven’t really had a character to play that has had the dialogue that is as rich as in the script, so it’s been a real pleasure. But you’re right, he’s an asshole.
Would you also describe this as a disaster movie?
It was described to me as a gladiator movie and a disaster movie. I was like, “Well, why are you sending me this? This would be the last thing I’d be interested in doing.” I’m in an odd position because my brother is actually my agent, so I had to talk to him longer than that. He said, “Trust me, just really read it. Just trust me.” And I did. I was so surprised how beautifully well-written the script was. The dialogue was really rich. The structure is unbelievably sound and it’s a very classic love story. So, yes, it’s a gladiator movie. Yes, it has elements of a disaster movie, but there’s such a well-told story at the root of it that those seem to be in the backdrop or in the background. The story is actually really engaging, so I followed that. But yes, having gone through a month of riding horses and chariots through ash where you couldn’t see a foot in front of you … yes, it’s a disaster.
Can you talk more about that, about the preparation to ride the horses and so on?
No, because I’ve been doing this my whole life. I started riding horses when I was about 16, 17 years old. I rode them in Young Guns. I rodeoed on the USTRC [United States Team Roping Championship] circuit with the National Finals of ‘94/’96, so horses were really familiar to me. The chariot was not. I drive a chariot with four horses. The chariot is unbelievably light. That’s a nervous proposition. I’m very alert when I actually pull those reins in because they are unbelievably powerful. So whoever started charting horsepower for cars really underestimated the power of a horse because I would say I have four horsepower. I’ve ridden a moped with 16, and these four horses would kick the moped’s ass. That was something I had to get used to, but the horseback riding, I’m familiar with that.
Again, I did extensive training for Three Musketeers with fencing, so I had to step up with the sword play in that. Obviously with 24, there was unbelievable physical combat. Nothing is unfamiliar. It’s a question of learning the specific dance for this film. Each battle sequence is a dance. I used to always make the joke that if you were in a bar fight with an actor, you’d have no problem because they are trained to miss you by that much. And they will and I’ve done it. So, it really is more of a dance. You learn the choreography of that and you’re good to go.
With really big films like this, sometimes the complaint is the villain doesn’t seem to have much of a motivation. He’s just kind of evil or mean. Is there a play on class?
It’s two-fold. A lot of it directly informs an audience of that. He wants to marry this girl. He’s come to Pompeii to marry this girl and to take over the father’s company. He has a line where he says, “As soon as this deal is done and the marriage is settled …” The line earlier is my right-hand guy says, “What a mouth on her,” and he says, “Yes. As soon as the deal is done and the marriage is settled, I’ll take great pleasure in shutting it.” That’s exactly what he’s there for. The deal and the marriage, and then he goes back to Rome.
How does he deal with the crisis at hand once this chain of events starts happening?
With unbelievable arrogance, with the arrogancy you would expect. He actually has a line where he’s making a speech in the arena. The tremors start and he’s like, “Come on. Come on. Get over it.” He doesn’t pay attention to it. It’s not a threat to him. Everything he’s had in his life, he’s been able to control. It’s also an interesting kind of result in Pompeii when you actually look because it happened so fast. One of the most awesome things I saw there was a mother holding her child, and she died so quickly that she couldn’t bring her own child to her breast. She was literally holding her up like that and they were locked like that forever. I don’t think any of them had any idea that could possibly happen. That’s an interesting aspect of the movie when it gets into that stage.
Is it important for you to find something relatable in a character like this or do you just let go?
It’s a combination of things. But no, and the same with Eye for an Eye. In Eye for an Eye, that character was a much more realistic character than this. I had two daughters at the time and I would try to build a character that was my greatest nightmare, if my daughter were to run into this person, so I developed the character on this. This is much more fun. I keep pushing it and Paul goes, “OK, yeah, that was funny. Back off a bit. That was a bit flamboyant.” The shape of the character for me is what I relate to in the context of the story and how much fun can I have with that part in the balance of what he’s doing and what she’s doing and so forth. So no, it’s not that kind of character where I have to have some kind of some deep emotional or intrinsic connection.
Paul is such a nice guy. How is he when he’s commanding this huge set?
Well, he hasn’t faltered. He’s a nice guy. I keep waiting. He’s a nice guy. OK, I get that. He’s a nice guy in prep. OK, I get that. What’s going to happen when you’ve got 400 extras, 300 people in armor, 16 horses standing by and it starts to rain? He’s just a nice guy. He rolls with it. And through that, he’s worked with this crew many times, so he has great familiarity with them. He commands a set with absolute authority. He’s the guy in charge. And as an actor, to work for a director who knows exactly what he wants. He’s so technically proficient that I’m not even aware we’re shooting a 3D movie. That is a real testament to him and his crew that have done this before and know how to do it. But as nice as he is, he’s very clear about what he wants. It’s such a gift to work in that. There’s a real safety in that. Again, I can push this direction all I want, but he’ll pull me back and make sure I’m fitting into the context of this film. It’s just one of the most comfortable environments I’ve ever been in.
Toronto hardly screams Roman architecture to me. Can you talk about the movie’s production value?
I can’t specifically say whether it’s Toronto or not, but what is interesting is unlike a film like 300, where they had no sets and literally you’d have a stool or a table covered in green tape, we have sets. They are tangible so as an actor, it’s very easy to work with. What I can’t wait to see is the multi-layered backdrop. You’re going to see Pompeii in the background with everything they shot there. That’s going to be extraordinary. And if you take a look at a film like Gladiator, the technology they had is almost archaic compared to what the technology is now. I’m expecting a lot from Paul in this area, and I can’t wait. It’s a back lot, so for me, it’s not Toronto or Los Angeles. It’s a back lot. I can’t speak to whether we have a better set here in Toronto than we would have had somewhere else. It’s just nice to be here because my mother and sister are here.
It’s just funny that in a city like this we have …
It’s hysterical. I don’t know where they shot Ben-Hur, but I guarantee it was not in Rome.
You’ve been working in the industry for a really long time. If you could go back in time, is there any advice you would give yourself that you’ve learned along the way?
Most of my career I’ve spent really nervous. Just about work, getting work and having it in. I would probably tell myself to lighten up a bit and relax. It’s going to be all right. Enjoy it a little more. I’ve had people come up to me and go, “Oh, my God, Lost Boys is one of my favorite films,” or “Young Guns was one of my favorite films.” And I wish I enjoyed them more because when I look back on them, the opportunities to have had, and they were great people I was working with, Stand By Me, I wish I had enjoyed them more. I was so nervous about being out of work, or this was my last job, that I forgot to realize how lucky I was. Does that make any sense?
Out of all the movies you’ve done, what’s the most research or the most prep you’ve ever done for a role?
Dark City would have been one of them, just because physically it was a really different character, and I had to try a bunch of different things until I got to that place. And then 24 because it was always such a long period of time, whether it was physical training or figuring out how that character is going to evolve. But I spent a lot of time thinking about that.
Were you a little surprised that you were coming back to TV?
Well, not TV. I love the medium, so TV, not so much. But 24, yeah. Yeah, if you had asked me that a year ago, I would have said, “No, that’s ridiculous.” The studio has been getting a lot of mail about wanting the show back. Howard Gordon had an idea, if we were going to do a ninth season. He honed it down to 12 episodes and finally just said, “If you guys really want to do this, I’ll do it.” He called me up and pitched me the idea and I was like, “That’s really cool.” It’s a great group of people, so I’m thrilled to come back to work with them.
Pompeii opens Feb. 21.