Hotheaded Sutter is the engine behind FX hit 'Sons of Anarchy'
LOS ANGELES -- For a guy who has outlaw biker gangs rumbling around in his head, Kurt Sutter is fairly . . . well, "nice" doesn't seem the right word, but he's literate and reflective and usually quite reasonable. The times when he gets riled up, though, are what everyone talks about.
Then the ponytailed, tattooed, 46-year-old creator and executive producer of FX's hit drama "Sons of Anarchy" -- the network's highest-rated series ever, which begins its third season on Tuesday -- can be as rude and abrasive as they come.
His Twitter account (sutterink) is a launch pad for four-letter tirades. After "Sons" was snubbed in this year's Emmy race, Sutter filed a blog post calling TV academy voters "lazy sheep." Last year, when an executive was trying to nail down budget details for "Sons," Sutter instructed him to back off, except in colorful language that can't be printed in a family newspaper. The resulting letter from a Fox lawyer, admonishing Sutter for routinely behaving in "an abusive fashion," now hangs framed in Sutter's office.
Sutter doesn't apologize. "I can be arrogant, I can be insufferable," he admitted in a recent interview on the "Sons of Anarchy" set, located in a studio complex in a hardscrabble, heavily industrialized North Hollywood neighborhood. "You really have to have a big ego and a strong personality to do this job."
You also have to be a shrewd marketer, and Sutter's rants and serial misbehavior demonstrate that he can play that role quite well, too. Like, say, Matt Weiner on AMC's "Mad Men" or Sutter's own mentor, Shawn Ryan on FX's "The Shield," Sutter has become a "celebrity show runner," a writer-producer who's become almost as famous as the series he or she oversees. While as recently as five or 10 years ago fans knew little or nothing about the people who made their favorite programs, celebrity show runners have become vital in a TV world packed with niche programs and fans connecting through social media.
Off camera, Sutter flips off authority just like his bikers do on "Sons of Anarchy." And the fans -- on Twitter, at Comic-Con, on blogs -- eat it up. Last season, "Sons" drew an average of 4.5 million total viewers, a stunning 72 percent hike from the previous year, according to the Nielsen Co.
Anger as fuel
Which is not to say that Sutter's whole life is a pose. A recovering addict, he still struggles with finding the right balance. "I got clean and sober about 17 years ago and really try to live my life by those principles" of recovery, he said. But the notion of "exorcising the demons" frequently crops up in conversation. He's not telling off "The Man" simply for the marketing payoff.
"I don't struggle with the desire to do drugs and alcohol anymore," Sutter said, "but I struggle with the obsessive and compulsive behavior that sometimes accompanies people with addictions."
That struggle plays out onscreen and off. "It's hard for Kurt to be a guy who runs a production that spends tens and tens of millions of dollars and has a lot of accountants and production people around," said FX President John Landgraf. "I have no doubt there's a certain amount of pain for Kurt in that process."
Or as Ryan, who gave Sutter his break on "The Shield," put it: "There is an anger in Kurt that fuels his writing. And I think he's very self-aware that it's part of what makes him a really great writer. But it also gets him into trouble."
The third season will be the most ambitious yet for "Sons of Anarchy." Often described as "Hamlet" on motorcycles, the series tells the story of Jax Teller (played by British actor Charlie Hunnam), a member of the outlaw biker gang run by his stepfather, Clay Morrow (Ron Perlman, of "Hellboy" and "Beauty and the Beast" fame) that rules the town of Charming, Calif. (Sutter was a regular motorcycle rider in his youth but had fallen out of the habit until he developed "Sons.")
"He's a guy who's impulsive," Sutter said, "but he's also a guy who's probably too sensitive and too deep a thinker for the world." He was referring to Jax, but he might as well have been talking about himself.