Kiefer Sutherland: ‘I didn’t know how lucky I was being in The Lost Boys’

Kiefer Sutherland remincises on his early days in acting, and remembers how he didn't see his father's films until he was 18

When I was 16 I made my first film called The Bay Boy. We shot the film in Nova Scotia and I remember checking into the Holiday Inn, unpacking my toiletries and looking at myself in the mirror. A crooked smile came across my face and I remember this moment as: my life just started. Because I was paying for this room – my parents had nothing to do with it any more. I was on my own and I remember it as the most exciting moment of my life so far.

Maybe this isn’t what I was supposed to do.

That night the cast ate together in this Chinese restaurant, all sitting round a big table, people asking me what I thought about stuff, taking me seriously; this was so great. Then at the end of the evening I opened my fortune cookie and it said, ‘Go home’. Literally to this day I wonder if I was supposed to go home that day. Maybe this isn’t what I was supposed to do. It’s always made me laugh. It’s like, no matter how good something seems to be, nothing comes free. You’ll always have to pay a little.

I have incredible respect for my mother. She’s one of the smartest people I’ve ever met. But she’s probably the only person I’ve ever been scared of, and she was only five feet two. But she was just a really tough lady. I have a twin sister and I think she felt the same way. It was my mother’s way, ‘You are not special, confront the stuff you have to deal with and get on with it.’ She certainly wasn’t a coddler.

When I look back on my life, and the things I was capable of, going out on my own at 16 – and I never went home again – that was because of the way she raised us. So I tip my hat to her for that and I’m incredibly grateful, and she knows it. I don’t want to sound like I don’t love my mum. I love her enormously. But she didn’t respect you just because you were her kid. You had to work for it.

Growing up, I didn’t have much contact with my father. And I couldn’t go to the movie theatre to see M*A*S*H, 1900 or Fellini’s Casanova – they were adult films. When I was 18 they started bringing out video tapes and I watched his films. They were extraordinary. M*A*S*H, Ordinary People and 1900 freaked me out. Fellini’s Casanova was just such an avant-garde performance. The one I liked best, what’s it called, the red coat movie… Don’t Look Now.

I actually cried on the phone, I was so embarrassed,

I called him up and I actually cried on the phone, I was so embarrassed I didn’t know what an important actor he was. And I considered myself a serious actor. So that was very embarrassing and I apologised for that and he was so sweet, he said: ‘Oh my God, that’s okay, it’s not your fault, how would you know?’

I certainly was always aware that I had a famous father but I also knew he was a very normal person. A lot of young actors, when they become successful, they think they’re supposed to act a certain way. But the truth is you’re not, you’re just supposed to carry on being yourself. And I knew that because of my dad, so I didn’t feel this pressure to change the way I behaved or lived. In that regard I felt I handled fame and success well. Nothing really changed. I’ve got the same friends now that I’ve had for 40 years.

Looking back, if there’s one thing I could tell myself, it would be: don’t be so panicked. Don’t be so nervous. That next job will come. I would have enjoyed my twenties a lot more, I’d have had much more fun if I hadn’t been so worried about what was coming next. Jason Patrick, who I did The Lost Boys with, and I were in a play recently – one of the things we laugh about is, we both wish we’d known how lucky we were. Being in a film like The Lost Boys. We took it too seriously and we didn’t enjoy the moments. The luckiest, most exciting moments anybody ever could possibly have. And we just didn’t see it.

I’m really lucky that I have such a generous and compassionate child.

Was I ready to be a father at 19? That’s probably a better question for my daughter. We’re incredibly close now. But I do remember when she was 15 we were having our usual Sunday dinner at the Hamburger Hamlet in Los Angeles. We were walking out of there and we’d had such a nice evening, a lovely conversation, and we were holding hands as we walked to the car. And I said, “I’m so sorry we had to raise each other.” And she smiled and said, “I wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.” I’m really lucky that I have such a generous and compassionate child. Because that’s the truth, we did have to raise each other, and that’s not a fair thing to do to a child. But I was really young and I did the best I could and she knew that.

DID YOU KNOW…

If you pay for the magazine you should always take it. Vendors are working for a hand up, not a handout.

I remember when I was about 13, I was watching my mother do a production of Virginia Woolf. I was more into music than drama at that time. I’d seen my mother [actress Shirley Douglas] work all my life, I spent many afternoons doing my homework at the theatre while she was onstage doing a play.

But this time was the first I’d seen her do a character where I couldn’t see any part of her in it at all. She was just different. When the play ended the usher had to come and get me because I couldn’t move. I was still sitting in the theatre, just sitting there on my own long after everyone had gone. I just thought it was the most magical thing. Here I am watching this woman who I know through the marrow of my bones, and I didn’t recognise a single thing about her. I though that was the coolest, most powerful thing in the world. That’s when I started to read a lot of plays and I joined a young persons’ theatre group. That’s when the light switch turned on for me. 

Read more Letters To My Younger Self here

I was shocked when I came to write and perform music at how, as an actor, I’d got used to this wall you build between you and the audience; the wall of the character. When you write music and play it live, those are personal stories and that’s you. After 30 years of training to be guarded about that stuff, I realised I would have to open up.

It’s turned out to be one of the great experiences of my life.

I write songs about my drinking which are not flattering to me and it took me a while to get used to doing that. But I remember we played a show about four years ago in Michigan, and I said to the audience, “This is what I was going through when I wrote this – if any of you have gone through the same thing, you’re not alone.” Then I played it, and the reaction was so generous, it encouraged me to get deeper when I wrote. I felt this huge weight lift off my shoulders. That was the moment that touring and playing live started to really matter to me on a real personal level. And it’s turned out to be one of the great experiences of my life.

I’ve really loved my life and I’d have no problem living it backwards. I’ve screwed up – I wish I’d had more time with my daughter growing up – but I really do consider myself one of the luckiest people on the planet. When I think of days I’d love to live again, I think of my eldest daughter’s wedding day in Edinburgh [daughter of his first wife Camelia Kath]. It caught me off guard. When she got out of the car in her wedding dress, I just started to cry like a baby.

Kiefer Sutherland’s new album Reckless and Me is released on April 28. He plays Cottiers, Glasgow on April 7, Manchester, Gorilla on April 8, London, Moth Club on April 9.