Kiefer Sutherland Interview MONSTERS vs. ALIENS

     March 23, 2009

Written by Steve ‘Frosty’ Weintraub

Opening this Friday is DreamWorks new animated movie “Monsters vs. Aliens”. But unlike the previous films the company has released, this one is in 3-D. In fact, this marks the beginning of a whole new direction for the company as all their future animated films will be in 3-D.

For those that haven’t seen a commercial or heard of the film yet, “Monsters vs. Aliens” features the voices of Reese Witherspoon, Hugh Laurie, Will Arnett, Seth Rogen, Rainn Wilson, Stephen Colbert, Kiefer Sutherland and Paul Rudd and it’s about monsters invading Earth. Here’s the synopsis:

When California girl Susan Murphy is unwittingly clobbered by a meteor full of outer space gunk on her wedding day, she mysteriously grows to 49-feet-11-inches tall. Alerted to the threat of this new monster, the military jumps into action and Susan is captured and secreted away to a covert government compound. There, she is renamed Ginormica and placed in confinement with a ragtag group of other monsters: the brilliant but insect-headed Dr. Cockroach, Ph.D.; the macho half-ape, half-fish The Missing Link; the gelatinous and indestructible B.O.B.; and the 350-foot grub called Insectosaurus. Their confinement is cut short, however, when a mysterious alien robot lands on Earth and begins storming the country. In a moment of desperation, The President is persuaded by General W.R. Monger to enlist the motley crew of Monsters to combat the Alien Robot and save the world from imminent destruction.

Anyway, a few days ago I got to participate in a small press conference with Kiefer Sutherland and the transcript is below. He talked about making the movie, what’s up with “24”, and a lot more. Finally, if you’d like to watch some movie clips from “MVA”, click here.

Question: Your voice is amazing and I don’t think that anybody knows you have all these voices inside there.

Sutherland: You have no idea.

Question: Reese [Witherspoon] says that nobody realizes how funny you are. Do you want to do a comedy or something with more voices?

Sutherland: I think that all of us have been funny at a dinner, which is very different than making a movie, or being on stage, and being funny. The great comedians of our time have a natural gift, a natural gift of timing, physical comedy, and all of those things. It’s not what I was drawn to when I started working as an actor. I think one of the reasons why I did an animated film and could be funny was that I got to leave the physicality at the door. The animators can make that physicality charming and what it is. I’ve always been drawn to the more dramatic dynamic of the human condition. That’s why I do what I do. Certainly in the context of this I was making ‘24’ at the same time, when I was doing ‘Monsters vs. Aliens’ so for five days a week, 14 hours a day, I would do that. Then for six hours a week I get to play this character and let loose. I could be five. That was a fantastic counter balance to that work.

Question: Can you tell us where you got that fantastic voice? Wyle E. Coyote?

Sutherland: No, he never spoke. Yosemite Sam. It was a combination. For the military part I loved the sergeant in ‘Full Metal Jacket’ because he was so relentless. To counterbalance that would humor I loved the voice of Yosemite Sam. He always started off the cartoons with the same line which was ‘I hate rabbits.’ The producers laughed so we took the voice in that directions.

Question: This character seems like he could have been a belligerent chicken hawk but he turns out to be more complex and sympathetic. How did that evolve?

Sutherland: It was the writers. It lent itself towards the general point of the film. I’ve never chosen a character. I’ve always been drawn to an entire story and however I fit in then great. This was no different. I loved the idea that they were making a movie, geared towards young children, telling them it was all right to be different. Not only was it all right to be different but also that thing that might make you feel awkward about being different, could be your greatest quality. In the context of our movie it allows Ginormica to save the planet. I don’t think that there is a more important message that you could actually send to children. Consequently, my character is the same. He has this responsibility to run this prison, but he knows and says in his first speech, that these monsters are not viscous or dangerous and maniacal. They are simply different. ‘We have to keep them away from society because society won’t understand.’ But even when he’s putting Ginormica in her cell, and she starts to cry, he says ‘Please don’t cry.’ And he starts to go because he can’t handle that. He does feel bad for them. Then all of a sudden he gets this opportunity to show how special they are and I think he’s very proud of that. He’s pretty excited about getting out of that prison too.

Question: One of the things about you character is that he has these throw away lines like he’s ninety years old. Is there anything with the writers that you came up with?

Sutherland: No, I threw those in hoping there would be a sequel. No, I think one of the things in their perception of a general, and this is Conrad [Vernon] and the writers, is that these guys are just so eccentric. They probably shouldn’t be doing what they are doing. He just mumbles and talks to himself constantly. Half of the sentences are to the characters and the other half are to himself about what he’s just lied about.

Question: What initially resonated with you about the character when you first read the script? Was there something that grabbed you immediately?

Sutherland: Again, it wasn’t the character. The main thing that resonated with me was the idea that you can tell children it’s all right to be different. I certainly remember growing up as a kid, that terrible moment when you decide to make a fashion statement at seven, and you wear your socks outside your pants. You think its cool but you go to school and it’s not cool. I remember those times. I had a backpack, I can’t believe that I’m telling this, Levi’s had a backpack that was like a Levi’s pocket. It was the most coveted thing and my mom had no money. I got mine a year late. Do you know what a Bedazzler is? It’s a rhinestone gun. My mother was a great product of the 60’s and somehow I had gotten this backpack. Between when I went to bed, and I was so excited about taking this to school, my mother had bedazzled it to hell with my name in rhinestones, a peace sign, and some other shit. I had to bury that backpack on my way to school everyday for like two years. I finally told her that someone stole it. This desire to fit in is just unrelenting for children. The idea of being able to tell them ‘You’re alright.’ No matter what anybody else says, just you as you are, you’re all right. I love that idea. I can’t tell you how much that resonated with me.

Question: ‘24’ is so serious. This was a relief for you?

Sutherland: Fantastic. It was a perfect counter balance. In many ways it reminded me, because as you pointed out it’s very different to do a funny character voice, but it reminded me of improv when I was in theatre school at 17 years old. It re-engaged me to acting in a different way. Not so much in the context of making this specific film, but realizing ‘Wow, when ‘24’ is done I could go and play a character that is completely different.’ It reminded me that it’s an option. It was liberating in a lot of ways.

Question: Is there a movie or animated film that shaped you as a kid?

Sutherland: Absolutely. It’s funny, Walt Disney made an animated movie every seven years, for each generation. It was like clock work. I guess that’s what that guy was. The movie for my generation was ‘Bambi’. I still would have to say that you would be hard pressed to find a more dramatic film. Just in the key elements from the mother dieing in the first act, to the coming of age, to twitter-pated and falling in love, to meeting your father, to being confronted with the big challenge of saving the forest, and then succeeding. From a writing stand point you couldn’t find a more dramatic film. It was a coming of age story and I don’t remember a specific message I got from it when I was seven years old. As much as a cried when the mother died, and all the things I felt, by the end of the movie I wanted more. It was the gateway for me and my love of film really. It was very passionate story, told beautifully, and I fell in love with films from that point.

Question: You have been acting for a long time. Is there ever a chance that you could do a comedy and go in a different direction? Are you pigeon holed as a dramatic guy?

Sutherland: I think that there are certainly other actors who have managed to dance around being pigeon holed, or typecast, much better than I. For a good 10 years stretch I was the bad guy. Before that I was the teenage guy. The last 10 years I’ve been the Jack Bauer guy. Apparently it doesn’t bother me that much because I haven’t done much about it really. I would hate to think I’m completely limited. I wasn’t talking specifically about a comedy, but just in the freedom of the experience that I had in this I realized that I could approach other characters, even in a dramatic level, in a very different fashion than I have been. I wouldn’t like to carry a comedy but I certainly wouldn’t mind doing a small part in something. That would be fun.

Question: The General is in this unknown area with all these monsters. It’s a reference to Area 51. Have you ever gone on the extraterrestrial highway and do you believe there are aliens out there?

Sutherland: I’ve never been on the extraterrestrial highway. I have never sought out Area 51. I think it would be very arrogant to think that in a universe that we can’t even find the ends of, that we are the only organisms out there. Do I think they are in the shape of the aliens in our film? Probably not. Do I believe that there are other things out there? Absolutely.

Question: This is great year for ‘24’. Do you think it’s because of the writer’s strike and having more time to get it together? Next year will be maybe the same?

Sutherland: As much as the writer’s strike was a difficult time for everybody, there were some benefits for us absolutely. We had 15 months to shoot what we normally shoot in 10. We certainly got hit for it quite hard in season six, but it’s been a difficulty that we’ve had since the very first season on. It’s a three-act play for us. Each eight episodes transition into another story. Some of those transition points have been really sticky for us and really difficult. Because of the time we were afforded we were at about episode 16 or 17 and they just shut down. They were having a hard time with that transition and they just stopped. They took the three weeks and figured something out. It was very technical, it was not character driven, not dialogue driven, but a structural entity that lead us into that last transition into the final eight episodes. We would not have had that time, and historically have never had that kind of time, specifically at that time in the season. It was a huge benefit for us and that’s why we are starting in May this year instead of August. That way we will have finished 22 episodes by the time it goes to air again. If at any given moment we need to kind of stop and figure something out we’ve afforded ourselves that time. I don’t know why it took us seven years to figure that out, and a writer’s strike, but we have. Thank you for what you said.

Question: Were you concerned about the time off going in, that the viewers might have moved on?

Sutherland: They had moved on. If you take a look at television as a medium it’s lost 40 percent of its viewership. I was aware of the terrible ramifications for Major League Baseball after it went on strike. National Hockey League went on strike and it was replaced by fucking poker. Poker did better and you can’t find a hockey game now. I was terrified. The fact that we were able to come back and manage to do the same numbers we had been doing in the previous years, you have no idea the relief. The whole crew and everybody have been working together for seven and a half years. We have 98 percent of the same people that were there on day one. I think of it like that, nine marriages, and 15 kids born on our show. You have no idea the relief that we had. We were very, very scared about it.

Question: Your latest roles you are either a cop or agent. Now you are a General. Why do people like to see you in that role?

Sutherland: The fantastic thing about this film is that they are not going to see me. I actually think with regards to this project it’s my voice. My voice is deep and I can push it pretty hard. It lends itself to this kind of character. I don’t think it’s anymore than that really.

Question: Do you think there will be a time where Jack Bauer is going to be in movies or animated series?

Sutherland: I’ve never thought about an animated series. We thought it would always be cruel and unusual punishment to ask the writers to write in 10 months the equivalent of 12 films. Then in their off time say to them ‘By the way, if you have a great idea for a feature film, that is so special, write that as well.’ We have collectively agreed that we would entertain the idea of a film when the series is finished. If people still wanted to see something like that we’d be really excited to do it. The format that we would make the movie in, we have discussed, would be a two-hour representation of a 24 hour day. We would lose the real time aspect. That would be a huge freedom for the writers. Its something we would not even start to do until the series was finished.

Question: Isn’t that something you already rehearsed at the start of the series with the whole chapter in South Africa?

Sutherland: No, the whole thing in South Africa was never meant as an idea for a film. The writers had written four episodes for the beginning of season seven that actually took place in Africa. They couldn’t figure out how to get Jack Bauer to the States in real time and stay true to that story. The idea that they had come up with, which I really liked a lot, was that if you had a plane that was flying at 600 miles per hour and left the west coast in Africa, which was 11 hours back in time, it could conceivably get to Washington D.C. in 11 hours. You would just be changing the time standards but he would get off the plane, literally he gets on the plane at 11 o’clock in African time, and he lands in east coast standard time at 11:01. I think a couple of the writers laughed and said ‘No, we’re not going to do that.’ So those were kind of shelved. We basically started season seven on episode five for what they had written. I loved those episodes that were in Africa so Howard Gordon decided to condense those into a two-hour thing. We used it as a prequel to set up the season. In answer to your question about how long we were off the air, it was a way for us to actually put something out in November instead of waiting all the way till January. It gave us something to reconnect to an audience with.

Question: I’m from Brazil and for sure there will be another actor doing the General’s voice there. How do you feel about that? Would you be curious to see that work?

Sutherland: Yes, I went to Brazil and I got to see ‘24’ like that as well. I commend those actors because its unbelievable difficult. I have done the voices for Japanese anime cartoons that have come here. One of the things is that we do the voice before they do any animation here, but to actually take a cartoon or animated film that’s already been done and try to loop into the voice of a cartoon character, its one of the most difficult things you could ever imagine. I take my hat off to all of those actors. This film has been dubbed in 43 different languages. Mr. Katzenberg actually hires those actors himself. He goes through the casting himself. It’s an unbelievably difficult job and it’s not very gratifying. People don’t come up to you and say ‘Oh, I love your voice in …’ It’s kind of thankless. I have the deepest respect for those actors. It’s always funny to hear another country’s perception of what you sound like.

Question: What Japanese animation did you do?

Sutherland: Oh, I can’t remember. It was a long time ago. I can’t remember the title of the film but I do remember how difficult it was to do.

Question: When you record the General in bits and pieces what is it like to actually see the finished product? Is it different than you imagined?

Sutherland: What’s funny is that you never see any animation. The only thing I ever saw was the character. We don’t do it in bits and pieces. We do the whole film in one pass. Then they take it and start animating to it, they have their ideas, they change it, and the script changes. Then you do a whole other pass. I would have to say anywhere between 12 and 15 times I did the whole film. Then when it’s down to the wire and it’s almost all done you make small little changes from scene to scene. For the most part you are doing the entire script. It’s kind of cool.

Question: Is there a creative freedom to being in a vocal booth by yourself?

Sutherland: Huge. Again, I am limited by my physicality. I’m 5’10, I can only run so fast, I can only do this, I can only jump so high. To be able to check that at the door, and create a character solely based on it’s emotional quality and vocal potential, that’s massive. It’s great.

Question: What are you doing on your hiatus?

Sutherland: This is it, man. We start back on ‘24’ in May. I start back in April but we start shooting in early May.

Question: Is Chloe as fabulous as she is on the show?

Sutherland: Yeah, she’s one of the funniest people on the planet. Mary Lynn [Rajskub], yeah she is great.

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