A Mind for Mayhem: Sons of Anarchy’s Kurt Sutter

Kurt Sutter’s new FX series, The Bastard Executioner, packs plenty of gore. But that doesn’t mean he’s not a sensitive guy.

Sons of Anarchy creator and Clark native Kurt Sutter's new historical drama for FX is set in the British Isles during the Middle Ages.
Sons of Anarchy creator and Clark native Kurt Sutter's new historical drama for FX is set in the British Isles during the Middle Ages.
Photo Courtesy of FX Networks

Don’t confuse television- series creator Kurt Sutter with the weapon-wielding, meat-eating, racist and homophobic figments of his imagination. While his fictional characters might share his “dreams, desires and defenses,” Sutter insists they “do not share my outlook on life.”

Scratch away his public bravado, and what emerges is a sensitive and socially conscious 55-year-old who has overcome his personal demons to become one of Hollywood’s most admired and sought-after creative forces—thanks mainly to his work as creator, writer and producer of Sons of Anarchy, the long-running FX series about outlaw bikers. His new project, The Bastard Executioner, premiered on FX in mid-September; new episodes air Tuesdays at 10 pm. Set in the Middle Ages, the gore-filled drama should appeal to fans of Game of Thrones and similar fantasy series.

Sutter acknowledges that his creative choices often clash with his personal beliefs. On his electronic sounding board, Sutterink.com, he describes himself as “a centrist-liberal, anti-gun, vegan, Tesla driving, gay priding, civic minded, pro-choice” kind of guy. Yet that mindset seems at odds with his difficult childhood.

Growing up in Clark, in the shadow of Rahway State Prison (the one-time reformatory renamed East Jersey State Prison in 1988), Sutter seemed destined for trouble. His father, a General Motors executive and a sports enthusiast, couldn’t relate to his son, who had no interest in physical activities. His troubled mother turned to booze for comfort. Against this backdrop, the young Sutter developed a self-destructive streak.

“As if my teenage years weren’t bad enough, I packed on 400 pounds during the time I went to Roselle Catholic High School,” he says. Before long, Sutter discovered what he calls “this super diet plan of drugs and alcohol.” The “plan” helped him shed half his weight in a single year.

In those days, Sutter was a loner who spent endless hours in his parents’ house watching reruns of Happy Days and Welcome Back, Kotter. The family’s basement was where an angry and fearful Sutter escaped into vivid, sometimes dark fantasies. Miraculously, he found a creative outlet.

“Writing had always been my form of expression, even though some of the plays I wrote during high school and college were rubbish,” he  says. While at Rutgers University earning his bachelor’s degree in mass media, Sutter took an unsuccessful stab at stand-up comedy.

After graduation, he moved to New York City seeking work as an actor. He taught acting at the Gately Poole Acting Studio in Manhattan. His drinking was an ongoing issue. When he finally got that under control, he headed to Northern Illinois University, where he earned a master’s degree in fine arts.

Sutter ventured to Los Angeles in 1997, where he married and divorced within two years—but at least he was sober. In L.A., he joined the glut of hunky would-be actors scraping by with menial jobs. When not auditioning, he wrote and sent out scripts. His break came in 2001 when he was hired as a writer for the first season of the FX crime drama The Shield. By season six, he was executive producer.

In 2008, Sutter launched Sons of Anarchy on FX. Joining him on the set was his wife, Katey Sagal, who was cast as the club’s matriarch, Gemma Teller. The marriage was his second, her third. Sutter became stepfather to Sagal’s two children, and with Sagal had a daughter, Esme Louise, now eight.

Sons of Anarchy became FX’s biggest hit, reaching 10.6 million viewers by the final season in 2014. Sutter even acted in the series as incarcerated club member “Big Otto” Delaney, who wielded a lethal crucifix and bit off his own tongue rather than squeal on his biker buddies.

Now comes The Bastard Executioner. The series, shot in Wales, is set in early 14th-century England during the reign of King Edward II. The initial 10-episode season will introduce viewers to Australian actor Lee Jones, who plays the warrior knight Wilkin Brattle. Broken by war, Brattle vows to lay down his weapon. But violence seeks him out and he’s forced to go back to the sword.

“I’m really drawn to sort of broken and conflicted heroes,” says Sutter. “Wilkin Brattle is deeply conflicted.”

Initially, Sutter telephoned this reporter from Wales. He then turned up a few weeks later at the Television Critics Association in Beverly Hills to provide a preview of the new series. Jet lagged but eager to talk, Sutter wore his hair pulled back in a ponytail, with his signature dark-rimmed glasses framing his face. The sleeves of his wrinkly blue shirt were pushed up, exposing the tattoos on his forearms.

Outlining the premise of the new drama, Sutter said he steered clear of what he described as a weekly “head-in-the-basket” formula. He teasingly added, “It’s definitely not a CSI: Wales—where viewers will find out who the head belongs to by the end of the episode.”

Viewers can expect the fight scenes to get bloody, but Sutter adheres to certain guidelines. “There’s nothing wrong with colorful brutality, but my mandate, as it was on Sons, is that it always comes from an organic place and it is never done in a vacuum, meaning that for every violent act, there are ramifications.

“It’s a medieval setting, and their laws, in terms of punishment, are a lot more brutal and heinous,” Sutter told the TV critics. “That’s the reality of that world. There’s ways to portray that violence that doesn’t make it openly gratuitous, be it a battle sequence, execution, or a torture scene.”

Sutter will be hard-pressed to surpass some of the punishments doled out during Sons of Anarchy, from castrating child-rapists to face-eating ants, tattoos removed by blowtorch, and an eyeball that had a nasty encounter with a grapefruit knife.

Sutter pops up in the new series as a character called the Dark Mute; he’s appropriately mute about the exact details of his role. Sagal is also on hand, this time as Annora of the Alders, a healer. She welcomes the new challenge. “I played Gemma for seven years—a very dark character, a woman who was defensive,” says Sagal. “With this…there’s divinity to everything and there’s a path to everything. That’s kind of her purpose and her message in trying to guide our hero through to his greatest purpose. To play a part that is rooted in faith rather than fear is really interesting and exciting for me. I put the wig on and I’m in these peasant clothes, brown teeth, and thank God, no high heels.”

Aside from being a prolific storyteller, Sutter is adept at juggling multiple projects. The boxing movie Southpaw, written by Sutter and starring Jake Gyllenhaal, was recently seen at multiplexes nationwide. Also on Sutter’s resume: the 2012 six-part Discovery Channel documentary series Kurt Sutter’s Outlaw Empires.

These days, Sutter is focused on the successful launch of The Bastard Executioner. He hasn’t managed to get back to his native state very often. “My two older sisters still live in Jersey, one in Hoboken, the other in Port Murray,” says the Bel Air resident. “We do manage to connect at least once or twice a year.”

When Sutter does find a spare moment, he’s likely plotting the details of a promised follow-up series to Sons of Anarchy. According to the Hollywood Reporter, the miniseries will focus on the SAMCRO’S Mexican rivals, the Mayans Motorcycle Club.

Winnie Bonelli is a frequent contributor.

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