Kiefer Sutherland Talks the President’s Next Move on ‘Designated Survivor’

Designated Survivor- Kiefer Sutherland
Maarten de Boer/GettyImages
Designated Survivor- Kiefer Sutherland

When ABC’s political thriller, Designated Survivor, debuted last year, it was instantly identifiable by its compelling premise: What would happen if the U.S. government as we know it was wiped out by a terrorist attack and a low-level cabinet member was suddenly thrust into the highest position in the land? Well, we got our answer in the form of President Tom Kirkman (Kiefer Sutherland)—an unapologetic idealist who spent Season One navigating threats and conspiracies stemming from both inside and outside his White House.

But here’s the catch to starting off with such a nifty central idea: You’ve gotta figure out what the heck happens next. That’s where the series finds itself as it returns for Season 2, and it’ll be tackling that hurdle head-on by fast-forwarding the action. Kirkman is now in his second year of office, and his challenge is less how to adjust to this new world than how to effectively lead it. Here, Sutherland explains the checks and balances.

Last we saw Kirkman, he’d just completed his first 100 days. What will this time leap achieve?
It’s a year later. The country has accepted him as the president, and he’s accepted the responsibility. In terms of the Capitol bombing, we aren’t minimizing the tragedy, just like 9/11 was never minimized, but people do move forward. By distancing ourselves from that setup—which obviously I had reacted to very positively, because I signed on to the show—the story can be broadened. We’re going outside of that now.

What kind of uncharted territory will the show be venturing into?
I’m excited to see how we’ll deal with the issue of whether power does corrupt. Is this president capable of maintaining his core sense of values? There are some significant dynamic shifts that are game-changers, left turns that I don’t think the audience is expecting. Plus, we’re going to
be exploring the impact that the presidency is having on Kirkman’s family more.

Some fans floated the theory that the first lady, Alex Kirkman (Natascha McElhone), may have a hidden agenda. Will that bear fruit?
It’s great whenever an audience starts getting involved and tries to anticipate the trajectory. That happened a lot on 24. But I’m not going to say whether the theory is crazy or not—I’ll leave it at that!

Kirkman brings in political director Lyor Boone (Paulo Costanzo) to help him out this season. Does that mean he’s gone from outsider to insider? Become more savvy? There’s a way that the [political] system works, and it’s interesting to watch Kirkman resist on one level but have to engage on another. Some disagreements come back and bite him in the ass.

Will FBI agent Wells (Maggie Q) still be around to protect him?
She will no longer be shackled to the conspiracy storyline. Intelligence is key to the government, and these two will continue to work hand in hand.

Since there’s a time jump, will we see Kirkman run for reelection?
My character is going to have to be confronted with the notion of running for office—and if he wants to do that, he’s got to start campaigning. We have more flexibility than we did in Season 1, but there are still certain rules in place. We don’t want to get to the point where we’ve moved the series along too quickly, because the president only gets to hang around for eight years!

Designated Survivor, Season Returns Sept. 27, 10/9c, ABC @ABCDesignated