Nepotism may be a dirty word in government, but it's pretty much the rule in Hollywood. Just think about all the great acting dynasties: the Barrymores and the Richardsons, the Douglas clan, and the Bridges and Fondas.
But, as Kiefer Sutherland recently reminded me, having a parent in the biz gets your foot in the door. From there, you're on your own.
Ask Sutherland about his parents - actors Donald Sutherland and Shirley Douglas - and he waxes poetic.
Sutherland, 49, worked alongside his mom in a 1997 production of The Glass Menagerie in Toronto, but until this year, the 24 star had never worked with his famous father, whose remarkable body of work includes MASH, Don't Look Now, The Dirty Dozen, and Invasion of the Body Snatchers.
The duo do share two credits - Max Dugan Returns (1983) and A Time to Kill (1996) - but "we have never shared a line of dialogue," Sutherland said in a recent phone chat.
"It's something I had wanted to do for 35 years, ever since I started working."
They tried a few times over the years, but could never line up their schedules or find the right project.
After years of frustration, the younger Sutherland took charge of the situation and developed a western tailor-made for them.
Scripted by long-term Sutherland collaborator Brad Mirman and helmed by 24 director Jon Cassar, Forsaken opened Friday at select theaters. (Locally at AMC Neshaminy 24 and AMC Loews Cherry Hill 24.)
A modest, $20 million picture that evokes westerns from the era of John Ford and Budd Boetticher, Forsaken features Sutherland as a Civil War veteran-turned-gunslinger named John Henry Clayton who returns to his small Wyoming hometown after a disastrous gun battle plunges him into a crisis of conscience.
Donald Sutherland, 80, plays his father, the Rev. William Clayton, a righteous preacher who had disowned John years earlier. The elder Sutherland makes for a most imposing dad, appearing in the film with a wild mane of unruly white hair that evokes a lion.
His first words on seeing his son approach on horseback cuts the younger man to the quick.
"Your mother is dead!" the reverend says before walking back into the house. John was gone so long he missed his mother's illness, death, and funeral.
Forsaken tracks the men's troubled relationship against the backdrop of a series of violent conflicts between a land baron (Brian Cox) and local farmers.
The film tries to evoke the traditional Hollywood western, said Cassar. "We didn't want a modernized western, but . . . something from the '50s and '60s, from that classic era when the movies were about character, and the action was only in support of that," he said.
"There's no noise, no technology. If you want to talk to someone, you have to look them in the eye."
Once word was out about the film, many of the Sutherlands' friends and former costars signed up for parts, including Cox, Demi Moore, Michael Wincott, and Aaron Poole. "They're all friends of the family," Cassar said.
Kiefer Sutherland said despite the historical setting, the thorny dynamic between father and son will seem familiar.
"There isn't a male friend of mine who at some point or another hasn't had a challenging dynamic with his father," he said, "and I think there's so much there people can recognize."
Sutherland said his own relationship with his father had not been combative. His parents divorced when he and his twin sister, TV and film producer Rachel Sutherland, were 4. The kids lived with their mother in Toronto. Donald Sutherland went on to marry French Canadian actor Francine Racette, with whom he has three children - two of whom also are actors.
Kiefer Sutherland said he developed a closer friendship with his father only when he was in his 20s.
Still, there's a crackling chemistry between the Sutherlands. It makes the on-screen conflict all the more intense. At one point, the reverend says his son brings him nothing but shame.
How does it feel to hear that from your own dad - even if it's a scripted line?
"That's what I think is so rich and complicated about fathers and sons," Sutherland said, laughing. It was an emotional moment for both actors.
"To be able to look into my real father's eyes and to be able to suspend my disbelief and be in that reality. To say, 'That's my father!' " Sutherland said.
He fell silent, leaving the thought to hang in midair.