Kiefer Sutherland's Evolution From ‘24’ to ‘Touch’

Kiefer Sutherland with David Mazouz in "Touch." Richard Foreman / FOX

This is not the Kiefer Sutherland you remember.

Flanked by two boys, the actor is filming a scene for an upcoming episode of his new Fox series, Touch, in a downtown Los Angeles alley. There are no bad guys to apprehend, no threat to world peace, only two nervous kids in need of attention. In Sutherland, they find an unlikely ally.

The way Sutherland handles the guest actor, 13-year-old Malachi Smith—calling him “sweetheart” and assuring him his performance is “awesome” in between takes—is a far cry from the intense, repressed Jack Bauer he embodied for eight seasons on 24. In Touch, he plays Martin Bohm, a widowed father raising a mute son who is learning to communicate through a kind of higher power. His 11-year-old, Jake (newcomer David Mazouz), possesses a special gift to sort out number patterns that connect people and events across the world. Martin takes cues from his son, connecting the figures to the people whose lives they affect. It’s a thought-provoking, magnetic performance.

Sutherland says he responded to Touch—the story of a father learning about the interconnectivity of people and how that can be used for the greater good—as a father and grandfather, and because of the helplessness he felt when his kids were young. The actor, 45, got married for the first time at 19 and has a 24-year-old daughter and 36-year-old stepdaughter from that relationship. His 6-year-old grandson hangs out on set after school.

“Any parent will relate to this script in the sense that there’s a real feeling of inadequacy within the character,” says Sutherland, snacking on some peanuts and smoking cigarettes during a break. “He’s never going to win this. There’s no miraculous moment where his son is going to start speaking or hug him, and yet he fights for it every day. I have a lot of respect for his courage. Those are the real moments as a parent when you realize you don’t know everything.”

After saving the world eight times on 24, Sutherland couldn’t be blamed if he had run in the opposite direction from another demanding series. He spent two years away performing in a couple of films, Melancholia and Monsters vs Aliens; an online series for Hulu, The Confession; and his Broadway debut, That Championship Season. When casting began for Touch, Fox president Kevin Reilly and Fox chairman Peter Rice thought of him, realizing that Bohm and Bauer share a power and heroism. Viewers seem to agree—14.6 million people tuned in to a special preview in January, which will be reaired March 15. (The following episode of Touch will air Thursday, March 22.)

“As an actor, Kiefer is able to credibly take you into the extraordinary, but constantly keep alive the ordinary,” Reilly says. “And he creates an urgency and an empathy in so many little places along the way.”

It was the optimistic ideology of writer Tim Kring (Heroes) that ultimately sold Sutherland, who also is an executive producer on the project: “I’ve been doing this for a long time,” Sutherland says. “Cynicism is easy. Hopeful is difficult, especially without being corny or saccharine or sweet.”

This comes from a man with his own share of personal stumbles, from public fighting to spending 48 days in jail four years ago on a DUI charge. “As embarrassing as a situation might be, you did it. Buck up. I don’t think anybody goes out to be an ass,” he says. “Circumstances happen and people make mistakes, and I would be the first to say that I made a mistake—that I embarrassed myself and that I embarrassed people close to me.”

That said, it’s equally important to “cut yourself some slack”—advice Sutherland gives his daughters when they are too hard on themselves.

“Try and keep a balanced perspective on your life. And my God, above and beyond, please focus on tomorrow. Every day you get a new shot to be better than you were the day before. Try. It’s not always going to happen. But try. I certainly have.”