Footloose and now fancy free … Kevin Bacon Photograph: Harry Borden/The Guardian
Having broken through off Broadway with Sean Penn and Val Kilmer, it’s no surprise that the actor has spent 35 years striving to put being a teen idol behind him. ‘I’m drawn to dark things,’ he says
by Ryan Gilbey – The Guardian
Alarm bells would ring for most couples if one partner suggested marriage as the perfect subject for a horror movie. Kevin Bacon does not seem perturbed, though, that his latest film, You Should Have Left, was inspired by just such an idea that his wife, the actor Kyra Sedgwick, came up with.
“I’m drawn to dark things,” he says down the phone from their farm in Connecticut. “On some level, it’s therapeutic. I have a marriage that works and I didn’t have a tremendous amount of trauma as a child and yet I feel all human beings have darkness in their souls. Fear and anger and doubt live within us. Part of what I like about my job is tapping into those demons. I became an actor because I wanted to explore all sides of the human condition. Being heroic or handsome or winning the big game – I couldn’t care less about those things! But to go into the darker corners of a man’s psyche is an interesting thing to do.”
It is in this discomfort zone that he has played, among other things, a menacing killer (The River Wild), a sadistic warden (Sleepers) and a paedophile (The Woodsman). Theo, his character in You Should Have Left, is initially nothing more than an understandably jealous husband: his much younger wife (Amanda Seyfried) is an actor whose latest project demands some intimate love scenes. Theo’s paranoia is bad enough, but when the couple move to a rural retreat in Wales, they encounter ghosts, mysteriously unpredictable topography and other problems far beyond the remit of Relate.
Bacon, who wears his 62 years lightly, is genial and laidback during our conversation. It is a different matter in the movie, where he is raddled and jittery, his boyish looks showing signs of corrosion. The script is littered with references to his character’s advancing years and declining virility. “We acknowledge from the start that Theo’s wife is too young for him,” says the writer-director David Koepp, who previously worked with Bacon on the chilling, underrated Stir of Echoes. “I told Kevin: ‘To do that, I’ll have to make jokes about your age. Right away. And frequently.’ He said: ‘Great! I’m all for it.’”
There is an emotional intimacy that’s created in the acting workspace that you wouldn’t find in an office
Even when it emerges that Theo has some skeletons, possibly literal ones, in his closet, Bacon remains a stubbornly sympathetic presence. How is that? “His light characters have darkness in them and his dark ones have light in them,” Koepp explains. “I’ve always found him unique in that way. You can see it going back to his early movies like She’s Having a Baby. It’s this delightful John Hughes comedy but there’s something in him, a sliver of darkness, that makes you wonder whether he’ll be faithful and follow the rules.”
Bacon relishes Theo’s humiliation most strongly in the scene in which he visits his wife on set, gets mistaken for her father and then stands around with the crew listening to her moans of sexual pleasure. “When David sent me that, I said: ‘That is so fucking perfect! The one day you show up, your wife is in the middle of a sex scene!’ The other thing he captured so well is when you visit someone on set and you always feel like persona non grata. You’re always the third wheel.” Even him? “Even me. If you’re in a relationship with an actor, you learn pretty quickly that when they go off to work, there is an emotional intimacy that’s created in the acting workspace that you wouldn’t find in an office. People say: ‘Oh, it was like a family’ and if you’re not part of that family you can feel insecure. I’ve definitely experienced that.”
He first stepped on to a movie set at the age of 19 in the frat house comedy National Lampoon’s Animal House. “I’d only ever worked on stage so to be thrown into this – all the people, cameras, cranes, dolly tracks, walkie-talkies – my jaw absolutely dropped. But I also fell in love with it. Every piece of it felt so magnificent to me.” Was the raucousness of Animal House reflected off-camera? “It was pretty raucous, yeah. It did kind of spill over.”
Convinced that he was going to be a star after that movie, Bacon quit his waiter’s job in New York, then sat back as the months rolled by without offers. Eventually he returned to menial work and off-off-Broadway theatre. He landed a small role in Friday the 13th – his character was killed by a post-coital arrow through the throat –and had a spell on a daytime soap. What sort of actor was he back then? “As a reaction to some kind of insecurity, I was incredibly cocky and unwilling to take any kind of advice. Even though I was in acting school, there was always a part of me that thought it was kind of a waste of time. That I knew pretty much everything there was to know about acting and life and love and the world.”
I loved Andrea Arnold’s silent takes. It was my wife who said: ‘Listen old man. Stay open to new ideas’
These days, he says, he feels that he has got more to learn than ever. In 2017, he starred in the Amazon series I Love Dick; several episodes were directed by the British film-maker Andrea Arnold, who sometimes asked the cast to perform silent takes, moving through a scene without saying their lines. “I loved Andrea’s silent-take thing,” he says. “I went into that show knowing there would be exercises and weird stuff; what I thought of as hippy-dippy shit. It was my wife who said: ‘Listen, old man. You need to leave yourself open to some new ideas.’ And I heard her on that. I really did.”
It is not widely remembered that Bacon is a director himself – Helen Mirren won a Golden Globe for her performance in his 1996 TV movie Losing Chase – and actors who work with him in the future, he says, can expect the Andrea Arnold silent treatment.
To anyone unfamiliar with Bacon’s early stage work, it was his turn in Barry Levinson’s buddy movie Diner, set in the late 1950s and released in 1982, that hinted at his complexity. As Fenwick, the grinning prankster first seen punching windows, he conveyed the inner hurt of a young man who hides his true intelligence until he is alone. Perhaps Bacon would have stuck to more parts like that had he not been sent hurtling in another direction after landing the lead role in the 1984 teen hit Footloose, where he played a jiving rebel in a town where dancing is forbidden.
Casting agents had told him when he started out that he was the clean-cut type. “They would say: ‘You’re gonna be good for the soaps and commercials. You’ll be the boy next door.’” He groans at the memory. “That wasn’t who I felt I was, so I worked hard to be anything but.” He won an Off Broadway Theatre award in his early 20s for playing a junkie hustler in Forty Deuce; the underground director and Andy Warhol associate Paul Morrissey directed him in the film version. “It was oddball. To call it ‘independent’ would be an understatement.” And then? “Then I had this whole career with Footloose.” He makes it sound like toothache.
I have such respect for him for taking a chance. He liberated himself from what you have to do if you’re a movie star
For six years or so, he was essentially waylaid while he tried to reconcile the actor that the industry wanted him to be with the one he knew he was. There was the odd decent picture during that period (the glorious B-movie Tremors, the film-business comedy The Big Picture) but Footloose had tripped him up. “That film was kind of an anomaly,” he says. “Look, I’m basically a character actor.”
To help Hollywood get the message, he asked the influential agent Paula Wagner to represent him. Wagner, whose clients included Sean Penn and Val Kilmer, Bacon’s co-stars from the 1983 Broadway production of The Slab Boys, was already a fan. “Kevin’s talent always felt natural and organic,” she tells me. “What I admired when we met was that he wanted to grow as an actor. He was thoughtful, determined and committed to changing up what he was doing. I told him: ‘If someone calls me and says they have the perfect role for Kevin Bacon, my assumption will be that it’s not the perfect role for Kevin Bacon.’”
Her first and most radical step was to introduce him to the director Oliver Stone, who was preparing JFK. It is Bacon’s brief turn in that picture as Willie O’Keefe, the gay jailbird with a flat-top, a twinkle and a salty turn of phrase (“You don’t know shit ’cos you never been fucked in the ass!”) that he identifies now as the turning point in his career. “JFK gave me the chance to take what I’d learned as a stage actor and put it on screen,” he says. The roles that came his way subsequently were smaller than the ones he had been used to, but infinitely more interesting. “I have such respect for him for taking that chance,” says Wagner. “He liberated himself from the pressure of what you have to do if you’re a movie star.”
Bacon has hardly stopped sizzling since, appearing in movies both prestigious (A Few Good Men, Apollo 13, Mystic River) and gleefully trashy (Wild Things, Hollow Man) as well as the occasional blockbuster (X-Men: First Class). Recently, he was compelling as a corrupt FBI agent in the Showtime series City on a Hill.
It’s an elusive thing, the Oscars, and he doesn’t play that game. But he certainly deserves one
The parlour game Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, through which he can be linked to any actor in history in a handful of steps, is proof of his ubiquity, longevity and range. Koepp, though, would like to see him do more comedy. “Kevin’s got terrific comic timing. Both our movies together are a bit dour by nature but I would love to do something with him where he gets to be funny on screen.”
What would Bacon himself like? “I don’t get hired twice by directors all that often,” he reflects. “I love it when you see that relationship, that Scorsese, De Niro-type thing. I’ve never had that but I’d love it.” Nor has he ever been nominated for an Oscar, despite surely coming close for The Woodsman.
“Well, he should be!” says Wagner. “It’s an elusive thing, the Oscars, and he doesn’t play that game. It’s something that happens or it doesn’t. But he certainly deserves one.”
Not that Bacon feels he has anything to complain about. “I’m grateful that the parts that come to me are sort of all over the map,” he says. “All I ever wanted was to not be pigeonholed.”
He got his wish: no one is likely to mistake him for the boy, or the 62-year-old, next door.
You Should Have Left is available on Blu-ray and DVD on 12 October from Universal Pictures Home Entertainment.