The Total Film Interview - Kevin Bacon

Kevin Bacon has his back to Total Film, left index finger hovering in the air above his shoulder. “Sit down, man, I’ll be with you in one minute; I gotta make a call.” He dials, cusses, dials again and cusses again before tossing his phone on to an empty armchair, instead turning his attention to a sizeable stack of scrambled eggs (insert your own Full English Breakfast gag here). “Fuck it, let’s start. I’m all yours.” With Bacon, what you see is what you get – no affectations, no bullshit, no movie-star bubble. It’s more a case of blue-collar brio delivered with a sly, predatory smirk.

You’ve seen it in any number of the 40-plus movies he’s made in the last 26 years. Bacon’s in town to promote The Woodsman. By his own admission, it’s a tough sell: a portrait of a ‘recovered’ paedophile that empathises rather than demonises. Anyone looking for easily digestible, knee-jerk moralising had best look elsewhere. Bacon, fearless and confrontational by nature, instead takes his cue from his Mystic River co-star Tim Robbins, playing Walter as a contrite, essentially decent man who’s battling to reclaim his soul from a vampirical sickness.

A poignant and piercing performance, it’s now hard to believe that Bacon first came to our attention while getting his arse spanked by a bloke in a cape (1978’s National Lampoon’s Animal House). Harder still to think he briefly dallied with A-list stardom by cutting loose and defiantly kicking off his Sunday shoes (in 1984’s Footloose). Or maybe not. After all, Bacon’s subsequent career refuses to be boxed, the 46-year-old (!) actor having lunged up and down and left and right as he played multiplex (A Few Good Men, Apollo 13) and minuscule (Diner, Telling Lies In America), gloss (Flatliners, Picture Perfect) and grit (Murder In The First, Sleepers), kinky (Wild Things, Hollow Man) and kiddie (Balto, My Dog Skip). This is a guy who wants to taste it all, craving glittery stardom even as he demands respect as a gristly character actor. (He also longs to be a folk/rock/soul/country musician, but more of that on page 69.)

The Woodsman is the third movie to yoke Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick, his wife of 16 years, the pair having met on the set of TV drama Lemon Sky before playing combustible lovers (literally) in 1991’s god-awful Pyrates. Thankfully it’s their best teaming by far, Sedgwick’s tenacious hope bathing Bacon’s maimed man as they embark on a faltering relationship. A tough movie that sidesteps easy answers, it’s not long before Bacon’s eggs are pushed to one side, cold and forgotten…

In The Woodsman, you invite the audience’s sympathy for a paedophile. It’s the latest example of how you always find the decency in the bad guys you play...
Well, I agree that I try to find the yin-yang of the human condition. I really do believe that there’s darkness lurking in the nicest guy in the world and humanity in the most evil person. But ‘sympathetic’ is impossible to act. I can make a character human. I can make him real. I can play sadness, fear, hunger and sexual arousal. But sympathy? If you said, “Walk into this room and be sympathetic,” I wouldn’t be able to do that.

Did you ever fret that taking this part might damage your career?
There’s nothing I won’t play. I won’t draw the line at anything. Worrying about image is for celebrities, not actors. My concerns were more about not getting paid and whether we could make a compelling movie that people would go and see. I also knew it was gonna be a tough one to make, that it was really gonna suck. I had to go to a dark place…

You’re a parent. Presumably you feel The Woodsman is a responsible film?
Absolutely. It’s a difficult one because when you tell people what the movie’s about they go: “Ahhh…”, y’know? But it’s not gratuitous in any way. It’s not about going to watch a guy do bad things to little girls. It’s about a sick guy trying to get well. So, as a parent, I needed to talk to my kids about it. I said, “Look, I’m doing this movie and this is the kind of person that Daddy’s gonna play…”

Tell us about the lynchpin scene where Walter asks a young girl to sit on his lap. How do you even begin shooting something like that?
Well, I’ll tell you something: when I read the script, I got to that scene and I went, “I get this – I know how I can do this.” Walter hates himself for saying it, but he can’t stop himself. We get this feeling of him on the edge of the precipice, about to fall into the abyss, and we want to reach up to the screen and pull him back. It’s a very important scene.

From a technical standpoint, we hired a smart girl who was very sophisticated about the subject matter. I made it clear to her that I was not this guy and that I wasn’t gonna try to become this guy. I explained that I was a professional pretender, that I was acting and she was acting and our characters just interact. She was amazing.

Your performance is winning you another round of rave reviews. When’s Oscar going to catch up?
Look, I’ve been at this since I was 17. I’m now 46. That’s a lot of Oscar seasons that have come and gone. If it was the thing that kept me going I would’ve jumped out the window by now. Yeah, it would be nice, but if it doesn’t happen I’m still gonna be an actor, y’know? I mean, this is a cheeseball thing to say, but it really means more if someone comes up to me and says, “Thank you for that performance, it really meant something to me.” I’d like to take that and put it on my mantel.

Even so, it must have been galling to see your Mystic River cohorts nab Oscars while you were criminally overlooked.
Maybe, but working with Clint Eastwood was enough. He’s well-prepared, calm and respectful of actors. He’s also quick, shooting two or three takes at most. Sometimes he walks away after filming the rehearsal! Let’s just say you don’t wanna work for anybody else after you’ve worked for him. He makes you realise just how much bullshit there is in Hollywood.

There seems to be two Kevin Bacons: the guy who wants to be a respected actor and the guy who longs to be a movie star.
Yeah. At my core I’m a character actor – I’m drawn to projects that are dark, risky and extreme – but there’s a part of me that wants to kill the bad guy and get the girl and drive a fast car and kick some ass! [Laughs]

Yet A-list stardom has always remained tantalisingly out of reach. Is it because you don’t play the LA game?
Kyra and I chose to live in New York and make certain career sacrifices. You have to realise there’s a level of business that’s done in restaurants and parties. It’s happened to me. I’ve walked through a place and a guy’s gone [snaps fingers], “He would be good for…” I’ve literally gotten gigs like that. But I have to say I don’t mind. That’s not a healthy way to live.

Let’s rewind the clock. Is it true you were a chubby kid with greasy hair?
[Laughs] Yeah, I didn’t have many girlfriends when I was a teenager. I physically matured very late so I spent my teenage years pining over girls I couldn’t get. Plus there’s that whole thing where all the 15- and 16-year-old girls are going out with guys who are 19 and 20. What was I gonna do, go out with a 12 year old?

Thankfully, it all changed for you. You landed your breakthrough role in Footloose because you were deemed “fuckable”...
Yeah. Dawn Steele [then president of Columbia Pictures] had a photo of me that she waved around asking, “Is this guy fuckable?” More people thought I was “fuckable” than “unfuckable”, which is nice, but she still didn’t want me so the director and producer paid for a screentest. I had to do a dance class with a bunch of wardrobe changes. That’s when I first got the ludicrous haircut – they paid for a very, very expensive British hair stylist to make me look the part. I remember looking up at one point to find he had his eyes closed. He was cutting my hair with his eyes closed!

Is it true that you still can’t go clubbing because DJs always put on Kenny Loggins’s Footloose theme tune?
Yeah, it’s hard for people to resist the temptation. It often happens at weddings and bar mitzvahs, too. I find myself surrounded by clapping people who want me to perform tricks. It’s embarrassing. I just wanna dance. I just wanna be there. I don’t wanna put on a show.

Kenny Loggins also wrote Top Gun’s ‘Danger Zone’. Did you and Tom Cruise ever compare theme tunes while making A Few Good Men?
Ha! No, I don’t think it ever came up! We never made that little degree of separation.

Your career wobbled alarmingly after Footloose. You righted it by morphing into a supporting actor...
I guess I didn’t understand how to be the A-list guy. I was resistant to it in a strange sort of way, like I didn’t feel I deserved it. The choices I made were bad ones until I wound up spinning my wheels after 10 years of downwards spiralling.

My agent at the time was Paula Wagner. She said, “I know your work from off-Broadway and the stuff you did back then was edgier, more character-building.” So she talked to Oliver Stone and said, “Do you have something for Kevin in JFK?” He said, “Yeah, if he can be transformational…” I worked for four days on JFK but it changed everything. It led to A Few Good Men, The River Wild, Murder In The First and Apollo 13. It was definitely a turning point.

There’s a pulsing sexuality to many of the characters you portray. Is it fair to say that it’s one of your main weapons as an actor?
I’m never afraid to tap into sexuality. It’s there in The Woodsman, too, albeit in a twisted form. You know, eroticism and desire are as important character choices as any others. They say a lot about the person you’re playing.

Of course, we can’t talk sex without mentioning Wild Things and that shower scene...
First of all, we never set out to do a full-frontal scene. I thought Matt Dillon was blocking me. Then they called me up and said, “Listen, the way we have to cut now, you’re full frontal.” I said, “Oh well, how does it look? Let me see it!” I thought it over and I said, “Alright.” I didn’t think any more about it so I was shocked, really shocked, when everyone kept on about it after the movie’s release. It really wasn’t that big a deal.

Not that big a deal? You nearly took Matt Dillon’s eye out when you turned around!
Aah, that’s not true. That’s just the camera putting on a few pounds… [Awkward pause] Actually, the movie almost came with another surprise for people to talk about, cos Matt was gonna climb in the shower with me! I thought it was great because the whole movie is about secrets coming out, right? As reveals go, that one was just huge. Unfortunately, the financiers didn’t like the idea of men making out. They felt it went too far. They felt it wasn’t right.

Your being an executive producer on Wild Things begs one question: why the hell did you give the threesome to Matt?
[Laughs loudly] I felt it was gonna be sad to miss the threesome with Denise Richards and Neve Campbell, but I wanted to play the other guy. What can I say?

There’s also nudity in Murder In The First...
You can see my nuts!

But the context is entirely different. Was it your toughest role?
Yeah, it was rough, man, really hard. I lost a lot of weight and I didn’t have a lot of weight to lose, you know? Shooting Murder In The First was like shooting The Woodsman, in that there were no good days. Every day was torturous. I was naked and shackled; I had Gary Oldman beating me up; I was covered in bugs; and, to round things off, there was this massive earthquake. The walls were falling in and I was surfing on the parking lot with my legs like this [jumps up to spread legs and totter] and Christian Slater’s trailer crashed on to its side. I got in my car and tried to get back to my family in Westwood, but my cellphone was dead and alarms were going and fires were raging. The freeway turned to rubble. [Runs fingers through hair] The whole shoot kinda freaked me out.

Maybe you should have stuck to making fun movies like Animal House...
John Belushi was great – big heart, fun to watch – but he wasn’t around much because he was doing Saturday Night Live at the weekends. Actually, the shoot was strange because the guys who were in Delta House and the guys who were in Omega House formed cliques, like in the movie. And they didn’t wanna hang out with me because I played a loser. So yeah, there were parties with drink, music and girls, but whenever I knocked on the door they’d be like, “What do you want?”

And then they rubbed salt in the wounds by not inviting you to the movie’s 20th-anniversary reunion party!
Yeah, I’m not sure what that was about…

You mentioned “Six Degrees” a while back. You seem to have taken the whole “Six Degrees Of Kevin Bacon” game in remarkably good grace...
When I first heard about it, I felt insulted because I thought they were making fun of me. I thought they were saying, “Can you believe this loser can be connected to greats like Marlon Brando and Clint Eastwood?” But then I actually met the guys and they seemed like genuine fans. No one was getting rich off the game; there was no pot of gold. It was just a concept.

Have you ever played the game yourself?
Nah. I can’t do it because I don’t have that kind of memory for movies.

How about if you were lobbed an easy one? Let’s say Brando as you’ve just name-checked him...
I dunno. Er, let’s see. Brando, Brando… Didn’t he work with… No, that was… Shit, I can’t do it!

Here’s a clue: Jack Nicholson.
Brando worked with Nicholson?

They were in a Western called The Missouri Breaks...
Oh yeah, right – the one where Brando wears a dress. Okay, here goes: Brando worked with Nicholson on The Missouri Breaks; Nicholson worked with Bacon on A Few Good Men. Two degrees of separation. It ain’t so hard…

The Total Film team are made up of the finest minds in all of film journalism. They are: Editor Jane Crowther, Deputy Editor Matt Maytum, Reviews Ed Matthew Leyland, News Editor Jordan Farley, and Online Editor Emily Murray. Expect exclusive news, reviews, features, and more from the team behind the smarter movie magazine.