Last year Kiefer Sutherland walked into his 45th acting audition in two years and got the usual reaction. The director heard his husky voice, saw the 16-year-old’s jutting chin, moist eyes and sandy hair and thought this has to be Donald Sutherland’s son. Most aspiring actors would kill for such recognition. Not Kiefer. For too long, he had gotten the handshake, the how’s your father, but not the part.
This audition was different. “The kid has a haunting quality to him,” says director Daniel Petrie, whose credits include Fort Apache, the Bronx and A Raisin in the Sun. He called Kiefer back four times and finally hired him as the lead in Bay Boy, a coming-of-age story filmed in Nova Scotia. Based in part on the director’s childhood experiences there, the movie will premiere next fall. “As soon as Kiefer began to assert his personality, the parental thing just disappeared,” Petrie recalls. “He’s his own man as an actor.”
Having played only one tiny film role, with his dad in 1983’s Max Dugan Returns, Kiefer struggled at first as Bay Boy’s leading man. “The second day I had one long church confession scene that we had to do 23 times,” he says. “That’s when you start to sweat, and you can’t sit still. I wanted to cry.” Sutherland added extra rehearsals to his 12-hour workdays, and his dedication impressed co-star Liv Ullmann, who plays his mom. Says she, “I’ve never seen him late, tired or complaining.” Between takes, Sutherland slipped from room to room in the creaky shingled house in Sydney that served as a set, hugging crew members, telling jokes and teasing Liv, who marveled at his ease in switching from adolescent pranks to adult socializing. “I thought I could mother him,” she says, “but he fathered me instead.” Kiefer’s own father was invited by the crew to visit, but he declined. “He thought this was my turn,” says Kiefer. “I earned the spot, so I should have the light.”
Such independence comes naturally in the Sutherland family. Donald and his then wife, Canadian actress Shirley Douglas, never quite broke with their offbeat, ’60s life-style as they raised Kiefer and his twin sister, Rachel, in L.A. A political activist, Shirley was once accused of trying to buy hand grenades for the Black Panthers. (The charges were eventually dropped.) Following the breakup of his seven-year marriage to Shirley, Donald romanced Jane Fonda before touring with her anti-war variety show.
When Kiefer was 10, Shirley, the daughter of Tommy Douglas, a Canadian Socialist leader, took the twins to live in Toronto. Kiefer found it hard to adjust. Accustomed to spending equal time with each parent, he often traveled to L.A. to see his dad. During the visits, he also became close to Donald’s companion since 1972, French-Canadian actress Francine Racette; she has enlarged Kiefer’s family by providing him with three stepbrothers. But in Toronto, he was a loner. His sister, now at private school in Ottawa, studied a lot, but Kiefer found most classes boring. He took up sports instead, becoming one of Ontario’s top 440-yard schoolboy runners. He changed schools frequently and made his dislike for one boarding institution so well-known that officials asked him to leave.
One constant in all this was his love for the family trade. When very young, he visited his father on the set and at 9 took his first L.A. stage role in a Warsaw ghetto tale, Throne of Straw. He also starred in school productions and read scenes at home with his mother and her son by her first marriage, actor Tom Douglas, 24. Soon after his father got him the Max Dugan role, Kiefer left home to become an actor.
The idea of a 15-year-old boy renting a room from friends in Toronto didn’t exactly thrill either Donald or Shirley. “But my parents are wonderful with things like that,” says Kiefer, who visits his mom frequently and calls his dad twice a week. “You tell them about it and they say, ‘Forget it.’ But when I actually did it, they called up and asked me if I needed any help.”
Now 17, with those two years of fruitless auditions behind him, Kiefer lives alone in a tiny Toronto flat and is looking for work again. So far he’s had no takers, which at least leaves plenty of time to make up for his lost schooling. Donald wishes that Kiefer gave more of his energy to education, but even he admits that his son has a natural bent for performing. “When he was 2,” Donald remembers, “he ran in circles and hit his head against the wall. I told him to stop, but he said he was just trying to make me laugh.” In Bay Boy, Kiefer won’t make people laugh much, but he may get their attention.