Kiefer Sutherland's art hits frighteningly close to home

Tue Mar 25, 7:29 AM ET
Susan Wloszczyna USA TODAY

Kiefer Sutherland (news) was appearing on NBC's Today to promote tonight's return of his hit Fox series 24 (9 ET/PT) after a two-week break when a woman came up to him in the hall and asked, ''Shouldn't you be glowing?''

The jet-lagged actor thought she meant he should be sweating. She shook her head. ''No, I mean the bomb that went off in the huge canyon.'' Oh. That glowing.

When last we saw Sutherland's counterterrorist agent Jack Bauer, he was jumping out of a plane and into a desert in advance of a nuclear blast. It wasn't the first time that the tense serial drama proved to be a timely reflection of our fears.

Sutherland, 36, may not star in a reality show. But reality has a habit of encroaching on his art. The tragic events of 9/11 forced a month's delay of the premiere of 24, and editing cuts were made in the pilot that involved a plane blowing up.

The parallels take place on the big screen as well. The suspense thriller Phone Booth, in which Sutherland provides the sinister-smooth voice of an unseen sniper who holds Colin Farrell's sleazy publicist hostage in a Manhattan phone booth, will open April 4. Its release was postponed last fall when its gunman plot proved too close to the real-life shootings that killed 10 and terrorized the Washington, D.C., area in October.

''I thought it was a very responsible decision based on what we learned from 24,'' he says. ''We have a responsibility not to send something into the fray and clog up time and energy that should be focused on the victims.''

At least when his series butts up against actual world issues, Sutherland says, ''it is a fantastic scenario, one guy dealing with all this. One of its appeals is the heightened, make-believe quality to it.'' As for the simulation of a nuke exploding, he suggests, ''once a fear is out there and talked about, why can't you show it? We have a responsibility to chronicle what is happening on TV and in film.''

In Phone Booth, ''I play someone who says people like the Enron executives who take advantage of our system will be held accountable at my expense.''

Phone Booth is Sutherland's fourth film pairing with director Joel Schumacher (after 1987's The Lost Boys, 1990's Flatliners and 1996's A Time to Kill).

The director has been a kind of good-luck charm to Sutherland throughout his career. So he didn't hesitate when Schumacher asked him to do two days of recording after the actor originally hired as the sniper's voice, Ron Eldard (Black Hawk Down, ER), didn't pan out.

Sutherland is shooting the season's final two episodes of 24 this week and he's aware that with the war in Iraq, reality may intrude: ''Who knows what will happen?''

Romance could also intrude. Bauer may get involved with the sister of a terrorist. ''Certainly, strong powers within our show would like that,'' Sutherland says. ''But Jack started the season reeling from the loss of his wife and that has to be given its time.''

He is sure of one thing: Bauer's ex-lover and CIA mole, Nina, who killed his wife, is in jail -- ''for now.''