Steering a Career

Kiefer Sutherland

Kiefer Sutherland and the Impossibility of Steering a Career

By Mark Leiren-Young, BFA ’85

From the spring 2016 edition of the UVic Torch Alumni Magazine.

The average person will have something like 72 careers in their working life. Okay, those stats may not be entirely accurate – it might be more like 3,000 – but what people used to call “a career path” is now more like a career labyrinth.

These days almost no one has a job trajectory that follows a straight line – even people who look like everything has gone according to their master plan.

I recently interviewed Kiefer Sutherland about his career as a rodeo cowboy. You may know Sutherland from his roles in movies like The Lost Boys and Young Guns, or maybe you caught him on TV in the role of 24’s Jack Bauer. But I wanted to know why he spent several years wandering the American west as a team roper.

If anyone had a path that looked like it was lined with rose petals it was Sutherland. His parents – Donald Sutherland (M*A*S*H, the Hunger Games series and too many other movies to mention) and Shirley Douglas (Wind at My Back, Nellie McClung) – are Canadian acting royalty.

Kiefer Sutherland landed his first role as a kid, courtesy of a family friend and, to the outside world, it looked like he never stopped working. But he did. His career and life went south and casting directors stopped calling. “I was in one of the dips, this was like an eight-year dip, and I had to find something to do.”

Sutherland wasn’t getting the roles and, even though he likely had more than enough royalties to pay the bills, he wanted to keep working. He needed to keep working. “I have to have an activity or work or a reason to get up in the morning, otherwise I’ll just get massively depressed and the wheels will come off.”

He always had a way with horses. “I was living up in Whitefish, Montana…and I was kind of training ranch horses and trail horses. And most of the guys there were cattle guys and I got invited to a couple of what we called, ‘ropings’.” This is the rodeo event where two cowboys team up to show how quickly they can lasso and take down a steer (a castrated male calf).

Sutherland partnered with rodeo pro John English and traveled the American rodeo circuit catching cattle.

Then the movie star got a call about a television project – a little action show called 24. Just before his new series about fighting terrorists was set to debut, the Twin Towers fell and Sutherland suspected his show might never make it on the air and he’d be riding back into the sunset with his lasso.

Instead, Sutherland’s show captured the zeitgeist and held it hostage. The Canadian actor became America’s post 9-11 action icon.

When I was starting out as a professional writer in the pre-Internet era, I wanted to be a freelancer and jump from job to job. Most people thought that was insane. Most writers I knew were looking for jobs at newspapers and magazines – jobs that everyone knew would last forever. This was back when jobs lasted forever.

I had worked for one magazine for over two years when my boss, who I’d never met in person, invited me for lunch. I assumed I was being fired. It turned out she had a question: “How does freelancing work?”

Over the years I’ve had similar conversations with several editors who read and edited the writing on the wall and decided they wanted to explore working for themselves, or at least working for multiple companies because it was becoming clear that most careers had become jobs. Other colleagues explored entirely new options.

One of the journalists I admired most is now a corporate lawyer who, I’m sure, writes impossibly elegant briefs.

Talking about the ups and downs and curves in a career, Sutherland told me, “I don’t know anybody who’s had a career that went…” – then he stopped in mid-thought – “Okay, that’s not true, I know one person. Tom Cruise’s career went up to here and kind of stayed up there for 30 years. The rest of our careers don’t.”

The trick is to do what Sutherland did, find another horse to saddle up and enjoy the ride.