oral history

Kim vs. the Cougar: The Oral History of 24’s Most Infamous Scene

Photo-Illustration: Vulture

All this week, Vulture has gone micro with our series of oral histories that get at iconic movie scenes, memorable TV curiosities, and impressively nerdy characters. We wrap it all up with one of our favorite big small TV moments: Kimberly Bauer getting stuck in a snare and menaced by a mountain lion on 24. The tense, wordless footage that finds Kim (played by Elisha Cuthbert), the daughter of antihero Jack Bauer (Kiefer Sutherland), desperately trying to escape the trap she’s stumbled into aired on February 4, 2003, waist-deep into the Fox action drama’s to-the-hilt second season. “The cougar episode,” as season two’s eleventh hour was infamously nicknamed (real title: “Day 2: 6:00 p.m.-7:00 p.m.”), served as a lightning rod for viewers’ long-simmering resentment toward the perpetually imperiled Bauer offspring and is now a guilty-pleasure pop-culture reference point that many people who’ve never even seen 24 will get. To close out our theme week, Vulture asked Cuthbert, series co-creator Robert Cochran, and other players from 24’s second season to relive the behind-the-scenes drama and dissect why Kim couldn’t catch a break — and, yes, we finish it off with some Happy Endings.

Robert Cochran (co-creator and executive producer, 24): The Angeles Crest Forest is just outside of L.A. Most of us on the writing staff, the producers, we had been in it or through it at one time or another. They have mountain lions up there, cougars up there. So we said, “Okay, well, what if she sees a cougar?” We were just looking for something to toss in that would put her in jeopardy as she was roaming around up there.

Elisha Cuthbert (Kim Bauer): The cougar was just supposed to be in the background, I think. I remember reading it in the script and thinking, Oh, it’s just a mountain lion in the back, in the environment, and not so much with me. It was just there because they wanted to show that I was in danger, being off on my own.

Cochran: There was a little phrase we used to rebound back and forth in the writers’ room. When an idea would come up, someone would say, “I’m watching, I’m watching.” That’s what we were looking for: Would we keep watching? If we would, then we didn’t worry if an idea was good or bad in some abstract way.

Cuthbert: I didn’t hone in on the actual story lines and go, “Oh, this is crazy.” Because a lot of 24 was so crazy. Every week was crazy. I was always blown away by so many different things that were happening to my character. So actually reading the cougar scene, it was sort of an afterthought. It really didn’t shock me that much, honestly.

Cochran: It was a minor thing to us. It was just a shot. It didn’t attack her, we didn’t spend time with the cougar stalking her. We just thought, “Okay, that’ll just add to the fact that she’s in danger.”

Cuthbert: I just wanted it to be as believable as possible, because I was 18, 19 years old and I was just so happy to be on this show. I remember getting the script and being like, “Okay, how am I going to make this work?”

Cochran: We had the first five or six episodes laid out, but shooting just chews them up in a hurry. You start working on several shows at once. By halfway through the season, we were just a couple of episodes ahead.

Innis Casey (Miguel, Kim’s season-two boyfriend): There were days when [the writers] were changing things as they were going. You never knew what was going to happen and you didn’t get material very early. We didn’t know what we were going to do next.

Cuthbert: At one point I believe the cougar scene started turning and warping into, you know, maybe it attacks me, or it almost lunges at me — which I still didn’t think was all that crazy.

Melissa Barker (Cuthbert’s stunt performer): I was on set that day just in case — it was the only day that week I was on set — and there was a lot Elisha had to do before lunch: climbing rocks and running and falling. She did all that stuff herself.

Casey: They wanted as much of the actor as possible doing the stunts. The audience needed to believe that that’s really the actor doing all that stuff.

Cuthbert: That week of filming, I do remember very clearly being very sick. I happened to have the flu.

Barker: I do remember that. I remember I was trying to make sure she had water and make sure that she was okay.

Cuthbert: When you’re working with animals, you have to be introduced to the animal before you get in to work with the animal. And like I said, I was suffering from a pretty bad flu at the time. I remember asking the director if I could skip the cat intro and just go to my trailer and sleep. And he said, “You know what, it’s mandatory that you just introduce yourself.”

Casey: Obviously, safety was a priority for them. It was like, quadruple-questioning, double-checking everything, going over all these steps to be sure the actor’s okay with it.

Barker: I thought [the cougar introduction] was unusual. If you’re going to be in contact with the animal in the scene, then you want to build a rapport. But a lot of animal handlers, in my experience — because I’ve told this story to them many times — they say, “If there’s no need for you to be around that animal, then don’t be.” But ultimately, it’s at the discretion of the handler.

Cuthbert: So Melissa and I went to just be introduced to the cat.

Barker: At first, the handler was having me just hold my hand out and the mountain lion was very mouthy. You know how dogs will put their mouths on you and they don’t really bite, it’s just rough play? Kind of like that. The animal handler would correct it, try to get it to stop, but it kept doing it.

Cuthbert: The trainer was like, “This cat plays with my 9-year-old daughter.” I remember going [under my breath], “Wow, that’s crazy, but whatever.”

Barker: Then it was Elisha’s turn. She had her hand out and the mountain lion started to do the same thing. From what I could tell, she was nervous and went to pull away, because I think it kind of freaked her out, the way it was putting its mouth on her.

Cuthbert: I wasn’t fearful of the cat, that’s the funny thing. I remember being sort of uninterested because I wasn’t feeling well.

Barker: She pulled away, and it just clenched down and bit down on her hand, right between the thumb and the pointer finger.

Cuthbert: Either something in the woods spooked it and I happened to be in front of the cat, or maybe it was because I was so ill. Maybe it sensed that I was weak. Nothing would have provoked it. I have no idea why it decided to bite me but it definitely did.

Barker: It bled like crazy and they had to take her to the hospital.

Cuthbert: Because of the show, I had all these, like, cuts and fake blood on me. So when I got to the hospital, they knew an actor was coming in that had been attacked by a mountain lion. They thought I was, like, totally mauled. I was like, “No, it’s just my hand! I just got bit on the hand!” So the fake blood kind of threw the nurses a bit. I remember that being funny.

Barker: They were going to stop shooting for the day but they had one more scene they wanted to get done: a shot she was supposed to be in, with the mountain lion kind of off in the distance. So they had me do that scene, and they just set the camera on the back of my head. The mountain lion was kind of agitated, because I think it got a taste of blood, like, Mmm, I want more. They ended up having to put a small leash around its neck, and there was a handler just out of sight holding onto it so that it wouldn’t do anything unexpected, because of where it was at emotionally.

Cuthbert: I didn’t come back to the set until the next day and then they decided they were just going to film some B-roll of the cat and cut it in, so that I would not have to actually interact with it anymore.

Cochran: So we tossed it in, but it didn’t go over very well. It wasn’t one of our greater inspirations.

Cuthbert: I think the reason people didn’t like it was because it was never executed the way it was supposed to be. Because of the incident happening on set and us not being able to film what we needed to film. If you look back and watch the episode, you can see that we’re never in the same frame. It was, cut to the cat, cut back to me.

Casey: To me, it was like, why did they even put that in there? It didn’t seem really significant.

Cuthbert: It kind of came across like, what is this? This is sort of insignificant and kind of stupid.

Barker: I do remember hearing people say, like, “What was that about?”

Cochran: It certainly got a lot of the kind of attention we weren’t expecting. It probably wasn’t until some weeks later that we began to get the feedback that maybe fans weren’t so happy with that. We certainly got the message.

Cuthbert: I don’t know if I was aware of how much viewers didn’t like the cougar scene. I was definitely aware of how frustrating my character was starting to become to people, because I was always in peril. TV Guide had named me the character you most loved to hate. Which was kind of like a compliment, but also backhanded: “We love hating you.”

Cochran: She was always being kidnapped or threatened or locked in a room or God knows what. I always felt the cougar thing was kind of a cumulative reaction to Kim, almost like the last straw. “What’s going to happen to this girl next? Oh my God, a cougar.”

Cuthbert: I think my character’s story line was getting crazy throughout the season. I think it was really difficult for the writers to write for my character because the show was about Kiefer, it was about Jack.

Barker: Maybe in some ways, having his daughter there was trying too hard to fit in to what was going on.

Cuthbert: Even though I was his daughter, I couldn’t be involved in the action, but they had to write something for me. I give them credit for finding ways to keep my character doing stuff.

Cochran: There may be something about teenage girls getting into trouble that irritates people. This season, Homeland’s had that issue with Dana. People just find it irritating that teenage girls should be … I don’t know what people are thinking. Elisha did a great job. She did everything we asked her to do.

Cuthbert: I remember [Happy Endings executive producer Jonathan Groff and co-executive producers David Caspe and Josh Bycel] asking me if they could do a throwback to the cougar on Happy Endings and I thought it was hilarious. I thought it was so funny.

Josh Bycel (Happy Endings co-executive producer): I was a huge fan of 24. Huge, huge fan, watched every episode, loved the show. That was definitely a joke that I had in my writer’s draft. That was a joke that we had from the very beginning.

Gail Lerner (Happy Endings co-executive producer): We were just pitching on the idea of, under what circumstances would Elisha’s character [Alex] go on a date? We just started joking about what would be the most extreme thing.

Bycel: We were like, listen, [Kim Bauer] is her most famous, iconic role, it was an iconic episode, she hasn’t really done comedy yet, so let’s just sort of do a fun nod to it.

Lerner: Before that script [from the episode “Your Couples Friends & Neighbors”] went out, we asked her, “Does this seem funny to you?” Because we didn’t want to step on her toes by surprising her.

Bycel: The thing that I vividly remember was just her reaction. That was a moment for us, when she laughed really hard at that. Then we thought, “Oh, she’s funny. We can do stuff with her. She gets it.”

Cuthbert: It was such a brilliant joke, because [the cougar trap]’s one of those episodes that people remember. Sometimes it takes the outlandish to stick with people.

Bycel: Honestly, when we made that reference, we didn’t think people would even make the connection. You just never know what people are going to latch onto and think is funny or iconic or interesting.

Cuthbert: There’s still scar tissue in my hand from the wound. Sometimes if it’s cold or rainy, I have like a little bit of arthritis in it. It’ll be with me for life, I think. But you know what? It makes for great conversation at parties and great talk-show conversation. It’s just one of those war stories, you know?

Oral History of Kim vs. the Cougar on 24