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ARI SHAPIRO, host:

In the TV show "24," Jack Bauer's a federal agent in the counterterrorism unit. Each season, we live through 24 hours of his day in real time, and he has some terrible days. In six seasons, Bauer has survived a nuclear explosion, a nerve gas attack, an abduction by the Chinese government, and he's died twice, at least for a few minutes, anyway. This Sunday, he returns to Fox for another day and season seven. It was delayed for a year because of the Hollywood writers' strike. As before, this season finds Bauer trying to stop a terrorist plot using any means necessary.

(Soundbite of TV show "24")

Mr. KIEFER SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) (Shouting) Show me where the device is.

(Soundbite of bang)

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) (Whispering) So help me God, I will kill you, and you will stay dead this time.

(Shouting) Where is the device?

SHAPIRO: Kiefer Sutherland has played Jack Bauer since 2001. He came to our New York bureau to chat about the show. Good morning.

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (Actor) How are you?

SHAPIRO: Fine, thanks. How are you?

Mr. SUTHERLAND: Good, thank you.

SHAPIRO: Well, let's start where the season picks up. There's a Senate hearing into Jack Bauer's use of torture on terrorism suspects, and torture is sort of a motif that has run through the seasons of "24." At this point, his actions have caught up with him, and he's about to be indicted. So, let's listen to a clip.

(Soundbite of TV show "24")

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) Am I above the law? No, sir. I am more than willing to be judged by the people you claim to represent. I will let them decide what price I should pay. But please do not sit there with that smug look on your face and expect me to regret the decisions that I have made.

SHAPIRO: This sounds a lot like a real hearing that took place a few months ago with some Bush administration officials called to testify about torture.

Mr. SUTHERLAND: Well, I think one of the things that's kind of remarkable about "24," I mean, we ended up shooting, I think, the first eight episodes before the terrible events of 9/11. There are a lot of things with regard to "24" that, unfortunately, are tracking a lot of issues that are happening almost in real time. And so, yes, that's not surprising. With regards to the torture aspect, we were using that as a dramatic device to show you how important a situation was. Then obviously, the events in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo and everything else became a real focal point for us as a nation to look at what we were doing. So, it only seemed sensible that we as a show would do the same thing, and so, we took what used to be a dramatic device just to set up a sense of importance, this seventh season takes a real hard look at it. And Jack Bauer as a character has to really come to terms with a lot of the things that he's done in this season.

SHAPIRO: In fact, he does at one point in the show say he thinks he ought to be accountable for his own actions. Let's listen to this clip.

(Soundbite of TV show "24")

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) In the name of protecting this country, we've created two worlds, ours and the people we promise to protect. They deserve to know the truth, and they can decide how far they want to let us go.

Mr. SUTHERLAND: Well, I think in the Senate hearing, Jack Bauer's very disenfranchised with the government, and many of the things that he has done he was asked to do by that government. And so, he has a great contempt for that government condemning him for his actions. But what he articulates later in the clip that we're discussing now is that on a much more personal level he feels a deep sense of regret, and he feels that outside of his blind ideology - which kind of drove him for at least the first four seasons - that he feels that we have stepped off course and that he himself has stepped off course, and that's something that he deals with all through season seven.

SHAPIRO: Well, as a show that is so tied into the national zeitgeist and as an executive producer on that show, how much do you think about, or care about, the impact that the show might have on the real world?

Mr. SUTHERLAND: Well, again, I've always considered "24" to be this really fantastical idea that came about before it was viewed as something that was paralleling things that were happening in the world, and I've always tried to maintain the show on that level.

SHAPIRO: And yet, West Point commanders have had conversations with the show's writers when they say...

Mr. SUTHERLAND: Yes. There was a time when - I think was someone - I think it was the head of West Point, you know, they had conversations with the writers from "24," because they were worried that a show like "24" was affecting the behavior of their soldiers. And I think if that's - if you're really concerned about that, we've got a much bigger problem...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SUTHERLAND: In the military than you can imagine. If you're going to actually blame "24" for situations in Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, that's just ludicrous to me.

SHAPIRO: What do you think the real-time format provides that you don't get out of a ticking-time-bomb show that isn't in real time, like, say, the old "Mission Impossible"?

Mr. SUTHERLAND: Exactly that, a ticking time bomb. When you're sitting there watching a television show and you see a clock come up and you know that the episode is an hour long and something's going to happen, and a clock starts winding down from 15 seconds.

(Soundbite of laugher)

Mr. SUTHERLAND: And it hasn't happened yet, it makes you sit up.

SHAPIRO: Does your pulse jump when you hear that little ticking second sound?

Mr. SUTHERLAND: Well, mine doesn't, because I read the script.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SUTHERLAND: But I was hoping that someone else's does.

SHAPIRO: Mine does.

Mr. SUTHERLAND: Good. Then, we succeeded.

SHAPIRO: Why do you think people like Jack Bauer so much, even though his actions are so often morally ambiguous?

Mr. SUTHERLAND: Hmm. Because I think the world is ambiguous. I think Jack Bauer lives in the grey. It's muddy; it's dirty. And you know, I always reference back to the first season when I was attracted to him as a character. This is a guy who's responsible for protecting the first black president in the United States and taking on terrorists and protecting a potential coup, and couldn't handle his 16-year-old daughter. I related to that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SUTHERLAND: Jack Bauer, I think one of the things that's interesting about this character is, is that there's no winning in a lot of the choices that he has to make. And I think on some level - on a much smaller level, I think all of us feel like that about three or four times a day.

SHAPIRO: Are we over analyzing Jack Bauer - the grand we, America - in the last eight years?

Mr. SUTHERLAND: You know, that's not my place to say. I'm certainly - as an actor, it's been an honor to play him and to have people talk about - I mean, if you go back to Chekov, and he's describing what he loved about theater and what he now hates about theater, and he says, you know, I watch these high priests of a sacred art - and he's talking about actors - and I watch this high priests of a sacred art depict the way we will eat, drink, walk about, make love and wear our clothes, and then I see them try and squeeze a moral out of the tritest words and the emptiest phrases. What he is saying to me is we have the capacity, as actors and as writers and as filmmakers and as TV-show makers and theater performers, to get people to talk. And I think "24" has done that amazingly well.

SHAPIRO: Kiefer Sutherland, thank you very much.

Mr. SUTHERLAND: Oh, thank you very much for having me. Happy New Year.

SHAPIRO: The new season of "24" begins this Sunday night on Fox.

(Soundbite of movie "24")

Mr. SUTHERLAND: (As Jack Bauer) This is Morning Edition from NPR News.

SHAPIRO: That's Kiefer Sutherland. I'm Ari Shapiro.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

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