Kevin Bacon: 'I still want to kick ass and get the girl'
Kevin Bacon's career nosedived in the years after Footloose, but he has now built a formidable reputation as a character actor. And yet, he tells Liese Spencer, he still yearns to play the hero
Monday 21 February 2005
Kevin Bacon is standing in the middle of the room stretching. One elbow jack-knifes behind his head, then the other. Between his T-shirt and skinny jeans an inch of flat, white stomach appears. The interview's nearly over and I haven't used the F-word once. We've covered the vagaries of acting, the perils of working with your partner and his new role as a paedophile in
The Woodsman, but it's no good; I can't help it: "So what about
Footloose?" I blurt. Bacon's arms drop and he stares at me with penetrating blue eyes, unsmiling. "What do your kids think of it?" "Haven't seen it," he says, sitting down, pissed off. "Really?" "Nah, they're not interested."
Kevin Bacon is standing in the middle of the room stretching. One elbow jack-knifes behind his head, then the other. Between his T-shirt and skinny jeans an inch of flat, white stomach appears. The interview's nearly over and I haven't used the F-word once. We've covered the vagaries of acting, the perils of working with your partner and his new role as a paedophile in The Woodsman, but it's no good; I can't help it: "So what about Footloose?" I blurt. Bacon's arms drop and he stares at me with penetrating blue eyes, unsmiling. "What do your kids think of it?" "Haven't seen it," he says, sitting down, pissed off. "Really?" "Nah, they're not interested."
Bacon may not want to go there, but it's hard to believe that Travis and Sosie, the son and daughter from his long and happy marriage to actress Kyra Sedgwick, are ignorant of the film that made their father's name. Certainly, for anyone who grew up in the Eighties, the teen musical continues to exert a nostalgic fascination out of all proportion to either its box office (good) or artistic (zero) merits. Even when massively moussed hair and jackets with the sleeves pushed up to the elbow were cool, Footloose wasn't. The story of a city boy who moves to a bible-belt backwater where dancing is banned, it was Rebel Without a Cause on tractors - and scored by Kenny Loggins.
And yet, even now, 1984's summer blockbuster refuses to go away. For Bacon, it's frustrating - tormenting, even. In an interview a couple of years ago, the actor described how he and Kyra used to love going dancing but had been forced to give it up: "if I go to a club, eventually what happens is the DJ starts playing "Footloose" and people start forming a circle around me and clapping their hands expecting me to start performing... like a trained monkey or something."
In truth, at 46, the actor is less monkey than workhorse. In the business for more than 25 years, he's made a stack of movies - "too many to count" - and been immortalised as the missing link between industry and obscurity in LA parlour game "six degrees of Kevin Bacon". Put bluntly, he's a jobbing actor, albeit a high-end one. Sleepers, Murder in the First, JFK, A Few Good Men, Apollo 13, The River Wild, Mystic River: even his hits are stolid Hollywood fare, the kind of expensive, self-styled classics rubber-stamped by the Academy before gathering dust on video shop shelves.
But it wasn't always so. After Footloose, Bacon was on the brink of joining an A-list bratpack that included Tom Cruise, Christian Slater and his friend Sean Penn. For a brief time he had his pick of leading roles. Unfortunately, in his anxiety to establish himself as something more than a pin-up, he plunged straight into a string of flops. "I did She's Having a Baby and I was really proud of that," he remembers. "It was a funny movie, it was a heartfelt movie. It was from a director, John Hughes, who'd just had one smash after another and it was, in my opinion, his best movie. And it didn't work. Nobody saw it." The next four or five years, he says, were hard.
"I ended a long relationship and met my wife, which was great but also very emotional because we met, got married and had a baby within a year. All of a sudden, my life changed completely. My mother got cancer and died a few years later. I felt a tremendous sense of responsibility and I just did not feel like things were clicking in terms of the movies, the opportunities, I was getting. I did things like The Air Up There where I went to Africa for three months - y'know missed my daughter's first birthday - and ended up with another comedy that didn't work."
By the time he appeared in 1990's daft medical thriller, Flatliners, his heartbeat wasn't the only thing that needed jump-starting. What finally turned things around was a new agent. "She said to me, 'I remember the stuff you were doing 15 years ago, on the New York stage. We need to tap into that dangerous, edgier kind of thing." A small part followed in Oliver Stone's sprawling conspiracy theory thriller, JFK. "I'd lost a lot of confidence," admits Bacon, "but the four days I worked on that changed everything." Even in a film over-stuffed with star cameos, Bacon's transformation into the swaggering gay hustler Willie O' Keefe was remarkable. And while he may not have had many lines, what he did say stuck in the mind. "You don't know shit Mr Garrison," he told Kevin Costner, "'cos you ain't never bin fucked in the ass."
With the repulsive Willie, the Footloose blight was broken and Bacon could start living up to the talent promised by his early performance as a smart young drunk in Barry Levinson's 1982 drama Diner. " JFK came out and films started raining," says Bacon. Still, while the actor might have come in from the cold, his above-the-titles moment had passed. As far as the studios were concerned, he didn't have the pulling power to carry a picture. Instead, he got Hollywood's consolation prize: he got to be a character actor.
"With JFK Kyra was like, 'yeah, you're good but how come people haven't seen that before?'", says Bacon. "But you know, you can do good work and unless it makes money, it doesn't matter. Like, I did this thing with her called Lemon Sky. Probably the best thing I've ever done. Made it for PBS. Nobody saw it."
So Bacon began to take supporting roles in films that people would see. If some of the many mainstream movies he has subsequently popped up in are predictable, Bacon's performances - as the second lead, as best friend, as bad guy - are not. Instead he's shown a versatility and skill that often threatens to outclass the star. In Apollo 13 he cannily decided to be "the quiet one" - instantly making his character more intriguing than windy old Tom Hanks, while in The River Wild the amoral energy of his white-trash anti-hero was more appealing than Meryl Streep's "supermom".
Born into a Philadelphia family of high achievers - his Mum was a teacher and liberal political activist, his Dad a famous city planner - Kevin was the youngest, by far, of six kids. From an early age, he had to steal scenes from an ensemble cast. By the time he was nine, all his siblings had left home. At 17, he did too, skipping college to go to New York and study drama at The Circle in the Square. It was the seventies. Kevin took drugs, chased girls, had fun. Beneath it all, though, was the twin determination to be a serious actor and to make it big. "Yeah, in terms of what I aspired to, the two things have sorta gone hand in hand,' he agrees, "or rather they've been conflicting."
The result is Bacon's cult status, affectionately held among audiences, as a Hollywood star without many starring roles. He's the industry insider who plays the outsider but still yearns to be "in a big studio picture kicking ass, getting the girl, driving the car," the fantastic actor who's done more than his share of B-movies (the giant-earthworm-horror Tremors, the invisible-man romp The Hollow Man, the schoolgirl sex-thriller Wild Things.)
When it comes to casting, Bacon's looks have worked both for and against him. Ironically - for the film that was to become the chewing gum on the heel of his career - he wasn't even a shoo-in for Footloose. Indeed, so unconvinced was the then-studio-head Dawn Steel that she famously went around Columbia flashing a photo of Bacon asking, "is he fuckable?" Sure, his high cheekbones, snub nose and deep-set blue eyes were handsome enough but there was something subversive, un-American about that knowing smirk. It's this ambiguity, this almost-pretty, almost-mean thing that makes Bacon so compelling.
Even if he's not physically constrained - in space, on a raft, in a prison cell - Bacon generally picks roles which involve psychological repression of one kind or another: anger, violence, or deviancy, for instance. With his cocky strut, he has become adept at playing predatory, sexually ambivalent characters such as Meg Ryan's desperate dog-walking suitor/stalker in In The Cut. (Typically, Bacon auditioned for the lead "I wanted that part, I wanted it real bad" but ended up with the disturbing cameo.)
No-one understands Bacon's unsettling appeal better than Bacon who, in his new film, has cast himself as the creep next door. Except that, in Bacon's hands, Walter is not a creep. He's an ordinary guy who happens to be a paedophile. "I wanted to make my character a real person," he says. "People who do bad things to children are often larger-than-life figures. Hollywood does that because audiences like to see the bad guys destroyed. In Sleepers, I played an abuser of young boys. When I was killed, the audience felt great. That doesn't happen in The Woodsman."
The ultimate perversion of his eternal boyishness, Walter seems the perfect part for Bacon. "If you'd asked me at the time, was I interested in playing a sex offender I would've said no," says Bacon. "I did it in Sleepers, I was just coming off Mystic River, which thematically was about bad things happening to children, and I was just about to direct Kyra in a movie that was also, if not about sexual abuse, about children getting into sad, sad situations. It was exactly the opposite of what I was looking for. I wanted to do something mainstream, I wanted to do something heroic, I wanted to get paid. You know, I didn't want to step into dark, indie world. But it was great material. It was like it chose me.'"
Shrinking with fear and self-loathing, Bacon's understated performance is powerfully sympathetic. How did he approach the character? "Same as any other," he says. "There's whatever research you might want to do - in this case, you can read clinical studies, psychological studies of paedophiles, or crime statistics and they might help to a certain extent but it's not like I could go and hang out with sex offenders and find out what a sex offender looks like and walks like and talks like. It's very different in that way from playing a marine or a cop, or a lawyer or a priest... I also felt very strongly that I wanted Walter to be an Everyman. I didn't want there to be anything all that special about him. Aside from this, you know, sickness, this affliction."
Sedgwick plays the woman Walter meets when he is paroled after 12 years in prison. "Kyra loved the part," says Bacon, "But she had a lot of apprehension about working together. Traditionally it's been the kiss of death, you know? But I talked her into it, I was like, 'it's not like we're trying to trade on our relationship in some romantic comedy, you know ? It's not "Bennifer"'."
The pair do, however, have an intense sex scene. "I found that element to be one of the most fascinating things about the screenplay," says Bacon. "Walter could have just been an island. The fact that you throw into the mix a heterosexual relationship with a full-grown, sexy woman... it's another confusing piece of the puzzle. You know, those scenes are desperate but they're also strangely erotic. In the middle of this process where you're feeling so weird about sexuality - especially about this character's - to then have this..."
How many people will witness it remains to be seen. "At festivals the response has been amazing," says Bacon, "However, that's very different from people who work all week and have to choose a movie, say, on a Friday night." Still, even if the film turns out to be another Lemon Sky, Bacon has chalked up one more serious film, put one more degree of separation between himself and Footloose.
"You've always been trying to get away from the boy-next-door thing..." I begin. Bacon's mouth cracks into a gimlet smile. "Think I've got far away enough now?"
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