Kiefer Sutherland: There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about 9/11

In the lead-up to the US release of Mira Nair’s latest film, The Reluctant Fundamentalist, on April 26th, the director and several cast members have been in New York to promote the film.

First up, an interview with Kiefer Sutherland, who plays Jim Cross, the boss and quasi-surrogate father to Riz Ahmed’s Changez.

You could hear that very distinct voice of his in the hallway as he approached the room, and then right after, Mira greeting him with great affection.

What is unique about working with Mira as a director?

She’s the Mum you’ve always wanted.

Someone asked me ‘What’s it like working with a feminist director?’ and actually, her point-of-view is asexual.  She’s got a point-of-view, period. It’s not feminine or masculine. But her nature on the set is very motherly. She creates a safe environment for you to try things. It doesn’t mean that she won’t crack the whip to get the day done, but there’s a real nurturing quality to her that I don’t normally run into, and I love her to death.

Can you give an example of that ‘cracking the whip’?

We had had a 15-hour day in New Delhi, she had a samosa in one hand and it was a great line: “Enough is enough!” This was her crew there, they knew her and, fuck me, did they not move! Everything just went ba-ba-ba-boom, done!

Your character seems to see a lot of parallels between Changez and himself, even though he doesn’t come out and express it – what do you think struck a chord?

He saw an opportunity.  My character’s an opportunist.  In many ways he represents America in the film.  He’ll nurture you and take care of you as long as you feed him. And when you don’t feed him, he’ll cut you loose, you’re dead.  And that’s exactly what he does in the movie.  He saw an opportunity.

The manipulation is: “We have all these things in common,” the reality is: “You’re gonna help me take you for everything you’ve got.”

Do you think the moment where you’re wailing on him (Changez) in the lobby by the elevator, is he upset because the opportunity is gone…

No, it’s a mirror. If you’re chasing the American dream full throttle like Jim is and then your protégé says ‘I don’t need it’ – there’s a dynamic power shift. He can’t handle that.

What was the shooting of the film like for you? Any adventures? Was it all shot indoors?

Well, I got to go to New Delhi, but there were some other quite exotic locations that I did not get to go to. It’s odd, even in New Delhi, for instance that scene, by the elevator, we could have shot that in New York or Atlanta.  I wish we had done it on the street somehow, it’s a hard place to shoot.

In the press notes it said how 9/11 really impacted you as a father…

There’s not a day goes by that I don’t think about it. I don’t have a computer, so I can’t speak about the Internet, but I have friends that have gone on it, half drunk late at night and they see things they wish they hadn’t.

It was 5:45 in the morning in Los Angeles and I was on my way to work on 24 and I got a call saying I don’t know if we’re going to work today and I flipped on the TV and the first tower had been hit, the second tower had not, and literally five minutes later, the second tower was hit. And like everybody else, mesmerized, I just sat there watching, waiting to find out if I had to go to work, and I watched these two people, and you know how you make stuff up in your head, I had decided that – for whatever reason – these two people didn’t know each other, they shared an office for a year and a half, and here, all of a sudden, they’re standing at a window, and they made a choice to hold each other’s hands and jump. And I think about that. My life would have been very different had I not seen that.

I called my ex-wife and said ‘Are you watching this?’, she said ‘Yeah’, she was crying, and we had probably the nicest conversation of our entire marriage.  It brought my entire family closer together. Nothing was to be taken for granted after that, and I think everybody felt like that. When you hear the stories, about New York and how it changed the city, and it’s had a very profound, lasting effect. I think about it all the time.

How did that impact you in the movie?

It’s not so much in the movie as when I read the script. So, my focus has always been clearly on those two people first, then imaging the fear and suffering of the people in the towers, and the people on the planes, and all their families, and so forth. I didn’t spend much time thinking about the ripple effect of people of a different faith (i.e. Muslim) or a different color, how their lives were massively impacted, and I was kind of embarrassed that I hadn’t really thought about it. I consider myself relatively progressive, and it just….. I think I was so angry after 9/11, like many people, that the better part of me didn’t surface right away. When I read the script I was profoundly impacted by that.

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