Kiefer Sutherland admits that after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, he was “angry” and had misconceptions about terrorism that he says were wrong. Sutherland also says that “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is the type of movie for people who feel the way he used to feel, and he hopes the movie will open people’s eyes about their own fears and prejudices.
Sutherland plays Jim Cross, a ruthless New York City business executive who hires an ambitious Pakistani immigrant/recent Princeton graduate named Changez (played by Riz Ahmed), who becomes a rising star at their corporate firm. Although Jim becomes a mentor of sorts to Changez, their relationship is profoundly affected after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. I sat down with Sutherland for this interview at the “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” press junket in New York City on the day that the movie had its New York premiere at the 2013 Tribeca Film Festival.
What was your process of developing the Jim Cross character when you knew that what he did was affecting other characters in scenes you probably wouldn’t see until the final cut of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”?
I likened Jim Cross to being an opportunist. He saw a really good thing, he took advantage of it, and when it no longer served its purpose, he got rid of it. It was that simple. The lines for each character were so beautifully drawn in the script that it wasn’t something you had to manufacture. It was just, “Play the part. Don’t get in the way,” more than anything. But literally, the character, for me, was that simple.
Do you think Jim Cross has a family?
No. It’s an interesting question that I would expect from a professor in theater school — and I mean that respectfully. The reason I can answer that quickly is the scene, which is not as pronounced as when we shot it in the movie, where he has a lover, and he’s gay. And there’s a sense of estrangement for him in why he identifies with Changez because of [Jim Cross’] sense of estrangement.
The reason why [Jim] admired [Changez] was because he was truly a self-made man, in the sense that he’d almost manufactured his life. [Jim Cross] talks about his father as a shoe salesman. And clearly, the way he talked about him was that he had passed, and that was the end of that, and he got to reinvent himself. And he admired Changez because [Changez] was doing the same thing.
Did you like Jim Cross’ personality?
I don’t. I didn’t and I don’t. I would be deeply disappointed in myself if I was that man. There’s a big difference between liking and understanding. I believe I understood that character. Anybody who can cut somebody off that fast, there’s not a lot of merit to that person. To invest that much in developing a person, and then being able to shut them down like that is not of real great interest to me.
But having said that, I would’ve played any character in this movie. I wanted to be part of telling this story, which I thought was important. “Eye for an Eye” had the worst character I ever played; I have two daughters, and I played a character where I’m raping a 15-year-old girl. It’s the worst, but I wanted to tell that story.
I wanted to work with John Schlesinger, and I thought at that time in Los Angeles, when violence was being sensationalized on the news on a level like nothing we’d ever seen during the Rodney King era, and this feeling of judicial process failing a city, which was really prevalent in ’92 in Los Angeles, I wanted to be a part of that film. They wouldn’t let me play Sally Field’s character. My point is that, as an actor, I try to choose a story I want to be a prt of telling, as opposed to chasing a role.
Where were you on Sept. 11, 2001? And how did it impact your life?
How did 9/11 impact me? Profoundly. I don’t think there’s a day where I don’t think about it. I was on my way to work. It was about 5:45 in the morning in L.A.
The first tower had been hit. Someone called me and said, “I don’t know if you’re coming into work today.” I turned on the news. The first tower had been hit. The second tower had not. I watched the second tower get hit.
And then I watched these two people come out to the window, looking for help. And they made a decision, and they looked at each other, held each other’s hands, and they jumped. And it just totaled me. It’s one of those things. I don’t have a computer, but I have friends that have seen stuff on the Internet where they go, “Wow, I wish I hadn’t seen that.” This was one of those moments.
I remember I called my ex-wife at the time and my kids. It brought my family a lot closer, but it was one of those huge, moving moments. And my focus was always because of that visual image, clearly focused on the people in the towers and the people on the planes and their families and their friends and the loss of them.
What I had failed to acknowledge was the profound ripple effect that 9/11 had — that people of different faiths, of different colors and ethnicities, their lives were inexplicably altered as well, based on prejudice, ignorance, anger, racism. And when I read [“The Reluctant Fundamentalist”] script for the very first time, I was kind of ashamed of myself that I hadn’t thought about [9/11] in a larger perspective. And so I desperately wanted to be a part of this film.
Jim Cross is a tough interviewer. Did you draw from any real-life experiences when doing that brutal interview scene with Changez?
Not specifically. No, I didn’t. It’s a power dynamic. You spend more time focusing on the rhythm of that dialogue … How do you make it kind of flow? It’s a really pedantic scene, so how do you give it some bounce? And it’s also my introduction in the movie. You think about technical stuff more than anything else. The dynamic is written beautifully, so it’s not something that you have to help facilitate or anything like that.
The second you said “interview,” I thought about Rob Reiner. It was the nicest interview. He was the only guy who hired me right there on the spot, for “Stand by Me.” I’ve actually been really lucky with regards to that.
What did you find special or unique about Mira Nair as a director? Was there anything uniquely feminine about her approach to directing “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”?
I’m going to contrast myself. I don’t find her viewpoint womanly or feminine. I think it’s that of a person. I think she has a very pragmatic, almost asexual point of view in regards to filmmaking. Having said that, on the set, she was mother you wish you had. There’s an unbelievable nurturing quality that she has as a filmmaker that is extraordinary. And she creates an environment that is unbelievably comforting and that is warm.
I think I went through two or three different dialects before we settled on the way I would speak in this movie. I would never have thought of trying that. She creates an atmosphere for you that is so comfortable that it allows you to try something different.
But as a filmmaker, I think she’s unbelievably pragmatic and almost asexual. It’s not a specifically masculine or demonstrative point of view, and it’s not a feminine one either. I think that kind of work, she must do in the script before, because the script was so solid that it really was an act of “Just make sure you don’t ruin it.”
What do you think “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” is about politically or ideologically?
It’s about what we missed. You focus all of your attention on the immediate issue of 9/11, and you forget about the ramifications of what we’ve done. And the truth is that in regards to racism and prejudice and ignorance, we change some people’s lives in a really negative and horrible way. And I think we need to take a serious look at that so that we don’t do it again.
To be honest, before I get all lofty like that, I was angry after 9/11. “Profiling? Complaining about profiling? Are you f*cking kidding me? All of the bombers came from Saudi Arabia! Profile the f*cking sh*t out of it!”
I was wrong. And when I read [“The Reluctant Fundamentalist”], I knew that. And I hope the film has the same impact on an audience that it had with me when I read it.
Did people talk about politics on the set of “The Reluctant Fundamentalist”?
No, not really. I think Riz and I had a conversation here and there. He told me an amazing story. I was actually in Sweden doing a film [“Melancholia”] with Lars von Trier, so I wasn’t here for the whole thing about the mosque [built near the former World Trade Center site].
Actually, what was odd about it, was when I heard about that mosque [while I was] in Sweden, it had been reported that they were building it on the site of the bombing. They were wrong. I was like, “Well, that’s stupid. Why would they do that? Why would you ask for that fight?” Well, it was a mile-and-a-half away. It was bullsh*t!
Riz has a story that he was just walking home and came across a rally in New York against [the mosque]. And they turned, saw him, and he had to run. And he was telling me that story, and I said, “Well, that’s why we’re making this film.”
Again, I think so much of this about ignorance and fear. Ignorance and fear can do a lot. And I think for someone to watch this movie and to be able to personalize on some level this situation, hopefully, they will take a breath the next time they want to do something stupid.
What is your perspective on how 9/11 changed America’s relationship with the Middle East?
The United States had never been attacked on its continent in its entire history by being bombed by 22 bombers from Saudi Arabia. And as far as this country is concerned, they think they are at war with the Middle East. Period. That’s a dynamic shift. In 1978, we had an issue in Iran.
To say that this country has had an easy run ideologically with the Middle East is a mistake, but 9/11 certainly shifted that. My concern about that is that it’s far too complex a region. The average person in this country doesn’t know too much about the Middle East, doesn’t understand why certain things happen, and we need to take the time to learn that and understand why we’ve allowed ourselves to become this diametrically opposed.
What’s next for you?
I’m doing a film called “Pompeii” right now with Paul Anderson. And then I’m going to do a film with my father [Donald Sutherland] in Calgary: a western. That’s my schedule as of now.
Are there any updates about the “24” movie?
We’ll see what happens. I worked very hard and for a long time trying to get that put together. There’s a lot of moving parts.
What can you say to fans of “Touch” who want to know what’s going to happen next on the show? What have you heard the most from people who talk to you about “Touch”?
I think the nicest thing is that sometimes parents and children get to watch it together. It’s something that they actually enjoy together, so I like that.
For more info: “The Reluctant Fundamentalist” website
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