Far Beyond Footloose
Kevin Bacon is making it outside Hollywood.
From the Print Edition:
Kevin Bacon, May/Jun 00
They say that after a while, dogs and their owners begin to resemble each other. If that is the case, Paulie, beloved pooch of actor, director and musician Kevin Bacon, is doomed to a lifetime of sexy, spiky, tousled hair. At a recent photo shoot, Paulie's behavior, which ranged from well-behaved and cooperative to running around and eating croissants off the table, suggested that the dog has as many moods as Kevin Bacon has roles. In the movie business for more than half his life, Kevin Bacon at 41 has tackled a full spectrum of parts.
Creatively fearless, Bacon never covers the same emotional territory twice. He's been the leading man with character, the charming sociopath who steals a film, the solid supporting actor in a star-driven project; and the classic romantic-comedy foil. This summer, he braves his most ambitious acting challenge to date in Paul Verhoeven's suspense thriller The Hollow Man. But regardless of which project or role he chooses, Bacon's approach to his craft is fairly straightforward.
"When I decided to become an actor, it was all about not being 'me.' It was all about playing a different character," he says. "When I was three or four I was really into hats and I had a whole bunch of different hats, and so I'd put on a different hat and that would be the person I was being that day. So really, to me, becoming an actor was just a question of wanting to put on a bunch of different hats. "I've always felt fundamentally that 'me' on screen is not interesting," he says. "I don't think that I have that electric kind of star thing that makes you able to just watch that person be that person. I think there are actors that have that. I am successful or I fail based on my ability to portray a character, and hopefully a character that is well-written."
The youngest of six children, Bacon left his native Philadelphia to become the youngest student at Circle in the Square Theater in New York City. "If you wanted to be a serious actor, this is where you needed to be," he says. "This is where De Niro was, and Meryl Streep and Raoul Julia and Kevin Kline. Those were the people whose careers I was aspiring to and this is where they were."
His Off-Broadway credits include productions of Album, Poor Little Lambs and Getting Out. In 1983, he made his Broadway debut with Sean Penn in Slab Boys. His career path seems almost mystically simple. "I knew that I wasn't going to stop until I could make my living doing it. While I always had delusions of grandeur--I would sit in bed at night and accept my Oscar or sit on the couch with Ed McMahon and talk to Johnny in my fantasies--I was very shortsighted. I just needed to get an Equity card or I just needed to get one speaking job, or I just needed to try to get myself out of [working in] restaurants. I believed, and I still do, that just making a living as an actor is a tremendous success, because the odds of that happening are a billion to one. I think that if you make the decision that you're in it for the long haul, this is what you've chosen to do with your life, that there are no other options, that giving up is not an option."
His commitment to the ongoing creative evolution of his acting, along with the inevitable career swings that accompany that process, is evident. "Kids come up to me and say, 'I'm thinking about trying acting for a while.' I want to smack 'em. If that's what you're thinking about, then get the f--- out of town. Because nobody should put themselves through this kind of torture and all the pitfalls and all the risk of not making it [if it's] something that you're just 'kind of' experimenting with."
Pausing for a moment, he adds, "I've never really had a strong career plan. It's never been like that for me. I knew that I had one thing, which was that I knew that come hell or high water I was gonna be an actor, and that was how I was gonna make my living." And he has, although the road that spans his nearly 25 years in the film business has not always been a smooth one.
After the enormous success of his 1984 starring role in the film Footloose, Bacon had a rough seven-year stretch. But even during this challenging time, he starred in the arch Hollywood satire, The Big Picture, appeared with Julia Roberts and Kiefer Sutherland in Joel Shumacher's Flatliners, and starred opposite Gary Oldman as an upper-crust Boston serial-killer in Criminal Law. When you factor in the 1990 cult-classic Tremors and John Hughes's She's Having a Baby, it's sort of odd to consider those "the difficult years." But it was during this time that Bacon learned the hard-won lessons of stardom and what inevitably follows when, as an actor, you somehow don't measure up to the classic Hollywood definition of success (read: big box office).
"When Footloose came out, that was the moment where I was the lead in a movie, the movie was a smash, and people were saying I was the 'it boy' or 'the next best-thing,'" he recalls. "But that was fleeting, and after it was gone it was roll up your sleeves and get to work and then try to deal with what it's like to have your next six movies in a row tank." Living in New York City as opposed to Los Angeles is part of what keeps Bacon focused on his work rather than on the trappings of success. "In New York," he says, "it's all put right in your face about what's working and what isn't in your career. L.A. is the best place to be when you are in the No. 1 TV show or produce the No. 1 movie of the weekend or you're nominated for an Oscar.
When you are on the top of the heap it's the best, because it's such an industry town. It's going to be congratulations, congratulations, congratulations. Pats on the back everywhere you go and the offers pouring in. But in how much of your life is that actually true?" He is quick to add: "I think L.A.-bashing gets really old, but I'm scared there. I don't feel right there. From the first time I ever landed there I was hit with a kind of anxiety and paranoia, and I'm not really sure why. I feel a little bit like an outsider. I'll go to a premiere and I get paranoid about it and I feel like I'm gonna end up feeling like a loser. I get over that and I go and I feel like, OK, I really am a part of this business. And there is a lot of business that is done socially and I think that by being in New York I miss out on that. Being out, being seen, going to restaurants, I've literally gotten gigs like that. Someone goes, 'Oh, that's what he looks like now.'"
The transformation began with what might have been a forgettable role in the hands of another actor. After a number of starring roles, Bacon surprised many by choosing a small role as a gay hustler in Oliver Stone's 1991 film, JFK. "JFK was a big, big turning point for me, because after Footloose I kept trying to fit square pegs in round holes," he says. "When JFK came along, I got a chance to go back to what I had been working on Off-Broadway, which was playing character parts. It surprised the industry in a way that was very, very helpful to me. [The role] directly led to The River Wild and Murder in the First and A Few Good Men. Sometimes four days of work will go a long way."
But the experience did not start out on an altogether pleasant note. "It was a great part. But I was afraid of whether or not Oliver and I were gonna connect on it. I didn't audition. We had a table read and I hadn't really put the pieces together yet. He said, 'I want you really to be transformational with this.' I took that very seriously. I really wanted to do something with it. Figure out who the guy was. And when we got to the table read I just didn't have a hook on it yet. There was a lot of stuff that I hadn't gotten a chance to do the work. And it felt wrong. Kevin Costner had met this character that my part in JFK was loosely based on, this guy named Perry Russo, and when we got to this table read there was the whole cast of JFK, you can imagine that, and Oliver goes, 'Yeah, Perry Russo. Kevin's met him. Kevin, read Bacon's lines like Perry Russo.' It was one of the most bizarre and insulting things that I had ever heard of. I was floored. I called up my agent, who was also Oliver's agent, and I said, 'I don't know if I can do this. I don't know if I can work with this guy.' She told me to hang in there. So when we got to the set to actually play the scenes, a lot of what is there is me out there sort of kicking ass."
He followed JFK with a standout performance in A Few Good Men opposite Tom Cruise and Demi Moore. In 1995, Bacon was nominated for a Golden Globe Award for his work in Curtis Hanson's The River Wild with Meryl Streep and David Strathairn.
Ron Howard's Apollo 13 teamed Bacon with Tom Hanks and Bill Paxton. For his gripping performance as a physically and emotionally abused Alcatraz convict on trial for murder in the 1995 film Murder In The First, Bacon was voted Best Actor by the Broadcast Film Critics Association and received Best Supporting Actor nominations from both the Screen Actors Guild and the London Film Critics Circle.
"As a moviegoer," says River Wild director Curtis Hanson, "I think of Kevin as an actor who I not only have liked since first seeing him in Diner, but who also, on a number of occasions, has surprised me with his choices and his performances. As a director [I see that] Kevin comes to work. He's serious about what he does, even though he's fun to be with." Regardless of what role Bacon chooses, his path toward a particular project is intuitive. "There's no kind of movie that I want to make, there's no role," he says. "I just feel like I'll know it when I see it. That's really what it is. I read the high-end stuff. Sometimes you read things that are just kind of crappy, but the part's pretty good. Or the part's not so good, but the director's great and it would be good to work with them. Or the star would really be fun to work with. But if you read something that just really kills, it's very hard when it doesn't work out."
Even with an impressive array of characters in a diverse group of films on his reel, Bacon still fights against whatever the prevailing wisdom du jour is in the mercurial world of filmmaking. "A lot of directors I think are much more comfortable casting someone that they've seen do the thing that they want them to do. They don't really take risks in the casting process. They're not used to it. And studios feel the same way. So if you want to be a character actor, you have to constantly be fighting against that and you have to be willing to fall on your face time and time again. You have to be willing to take risks and make mistakes. Otherwise, you're going to end up doing the same thing again and again and again." But it is the actor's family that remains in the forefront of his consciousness. Bacon has a bottom-line approach to the vagaries of Hollywood.
"Yeah, I sweat it. Damn right. I have to. Unfortunately, it has to do with the shoes on my kids' feet. I have a very, very basic Protestant work ethic. I have a responsibility to my family to provide for them. All this other stuff--the fact that I happen to do it in kind of oddball ways or in ways that are very public--is a choice." What is evident throughout his conversation is his love for his wife, actress Kyra Sedgwick, and their son and daughter--10-year-old Travis and 8-year-old Sosie. Bacon calls them "The Three Reasons."
Bacon met Sedgwick on the set of the American Playhouse production of Lemon Sky. Sedgwick was unimpressed at first. "I was coming out of a relationship and she was coming out of a relationship, and I just looked at her with all that big, blond hair and I got a gigantic crush on her," Bacon recalls. "She saw me with Jane [his late Labrador mutt], and I was a movie actor and she thought that I was too cool for school. She thought I was kind of a jerk. So I started trying to wine and dine her. It was a lot of work because I was really out of practice. I used to really have my moves down, I used to be strong, but I sort of lost my technique. And I kept taking her out to dinner and she kept thinking the whole cast was coming to dinner. Or I'd say I'd see her at the gym or something and she wouldn't show up. She didn't really get what was going on."
The two were married in 1988. For Bacon, his family and the joy that comes from parenthood provide perspective. "I think you've got to find something else other than your art, because then you'll survive. If you look at some of the casualties scattered along the roadside....I mean, every Friday somebody's hot and every Monday somebody's not. And there are a lot of casualties from success as well. I've often said that when you're in the middle of making a movie and your first child is going to be born, you've got to think about the fact that in 10 years that child will be a 10-year-old little boy or little girl. In 10 years, the movie is going to be sitting on the video shelf someplace gathering dust, and who cares?"
Bacon softens visibly as he describes the encouragement and emotional ballast Sedgwick provided him during the difficult period in his career. "When we met, it was at one of the lowest points in my life and career. Relationship-wise I was kind of in shambles, my career felt like it was going nowhere, I was getting rid of agents that I'd had for 12 years, reevaluating whether I'd been just f---ing up all this time. My mother was diagnosed with cancer. I mean, it's hard for people to imagine because it was after Footloose, but in some ways, [Kyra] met me at the bottom of the barrel. So she was there for me. And that's why when things started to get better, I think she can take a lot of credit for that, and she should. When JFK came out and we started to sense that things were starting to turn around a little bit, she had this great attitude which was kind of like, 'Don't turn around and tell us now that you are so surprised that he can act! Where were you the last 10 years? Now you're saying you can't believe how good he is?' It was great. She's got a lot of balls for a chick."
With the often-conflicting demands that the schedules of two successful working actors create, Bacon always places his family first. Never spending more than two weeks apart is a family rule. The rigorous shooting schedule of a special effects?intensive film such as The Hollow Man created its own unique set of challenges for the family. "I left home in April, and the idea was that maybe I'm going to miss Halloween weekend but I'll be back right after that," Bacon recalls. "But in January, I was still shooting the movie. And I was just about to start a tour with the band--and that's a lot to ask from your wife and kids. They were all incredibly supportive. Because they know they come first. Yet I think that you also have to accept the fact that your career means something to you. If you pretend that it doesn't mean anything, then you are sort of living in denial." Bacon is clear on one point.
"My family is always, always number one. That's the reason for everything. I don't really need to prioritize; they are what I do everything for. And once they believe that, work is not a threat to them." For Bacon, pets are another part of the equation. "Jane I got from a pound in Martha's Vineyard. It was summer. Everybody wants a dog, and she was there and she was perfect. I took her out and walked her around in a circle and I was like, 'This is the dog.' She lived until she was at least 17, 18. She was in phenomenal health and she was an amazing dog with nine lives. Once she jumped into the Los Angeles Aqueduct and almost got swept away, but I ran after her and climbed down the side and pulled her out of the middle of the river. She was impaled by a stick. I pulled it out and she was just fine. She once went airborne. 15 feet. Fell off a cliff. Ran out into Lake Shore Drive [in Chicago] in the middle of rush-hour traffic. She was a great dog. Great with kids, amazing swimmer. She was a mutt. A Labrador Deceiver."
Paulie was part of a family plot. "I was out of town," explains Bacon, "and I started hearing murmurings from Kyra, who would let it slip that they went and looked at a puppy. But our vet is really the culprit. The [vet's office] called up and said, 'We really wouldn't call you but he was found in a box in a flea market. He is really special.' So [the family] went over and Kyra fell in love with him. And I'm thrilled to have him. I had a feeling they were going to wear me down, but they always do. They gang up on me about pets."
In The Hollow Man, Bacon plays a scientist who unlocks the secret of invisibility and descends into the abyss of evil. The production was not without its challenges, and the director is quick to give much of the credit to Bacon's unflappably good temperament. "Without him, this movie would have been impossible," Paul Verhoeven says. "You needed somebody who would be able to act when the circumstances were completely against them. It was full of physical suffering and unpleasantness. I felt after talking to him for half an hour that he would be able to tolerate the unpleasantness and keep acting. He was a pleasure to the crew and the other cast members throughout the shooting. He kept a spirit on the set that was absolutely sensational."
"The Hollow Man is the hardest movie I have ever done, it really is," Bacon says. "For about a third of the movie, I'm visible, and there's some acting there and it's fun. Then for the rest of the film, I'm either covered in green from head to toe--green contact lenses, green teeth, green paint, green body suit, green hair. Or the exact same thing in blue or black. So everything that I had to do is in these really uncomfortable, ridiculous get-ups. I looked like I had some kind of horrible 'Cirque du Soleil monster' thing happening and it was very, very hard to try and keep on top of the acting part of it. I just tried to keep as much concentration on it as possible. Come back to what the character is and what the performance should be and not get too wrapped up in the technical sides of it. I may really suck," Bacon says with a laugh, "so then you'll know that I didn't do it."
From the fast-talking disc jockey in Telling Lies in America to the emotionally distant father attempting to connect with his son in the recent My Dog Skip, what is most compelling to watch is Bacon's connection with the characters he creates on screen. From Stir of Echoes' working-class man who has his life upended after being contacted by the spirit of a murdered girl, to Digging to China's cerebral palsy?stricken Ricky, whose soul was wiser than the limitations of his disability, Bacon has created one of the most eclectic bodies of work in film today. "I like well-constructed characters, characters that the writer has spent some time thinking about. I want to feel like there's something there. Sometimes they'll barely describe the guy and you feel like you have to fill in every single blank of who the guy is. A sense of place is very important to me. You know, it's a big country. I've been through most of it and people are often like where they're from. You need to write a biography of your character. Parents, brothers, sisters, events that have shaped your life, your heroes, your abilities. Things that are not in the screenplay. Whether or not you ever see them, I think they need to be addressed. And sometimes they're just kept completely to yourself."
Not afraid to play the villain, Bacon wants to share with the audience something other than mere caricature. "You have to find the humanity, especially within the monsters I've portrayed. So when the evil is there on the surface, it's up to me to find something else at the core. Whether it's charm or vulnerability, sadness or despair or anger. Conversely, when you have a character that is basically a good guy, I've got to find something that's darker inside--some demons that are there to point out." In 1996, Bacon made his directorial debut with the Showtime Original film, Losing Chase. This freshman outing starred Sedgwick, Helen Mirren and Beau Bridges. "I was thrilled to get that cast," Bacon says. "The part of directing that I was the most afraid of was actually talking to actors--and you'd think that would be the easiest for me. Having been on the other end of it and having seen how inept people are at communicating what they want to actors, I was afraid of being that guy [about] who the actors would go, 'What the hell is he talking about?' So I think what I tried to do was cast well, and then empower them because I knew that they were all great actors, and what actors need more than anything is the encouragement to fly. Then the sky is the limit." Even with his impressive body of work, Bacon felt there was still an element missing from his creative life, and it had to do with a different kind of risk-taking. With that in mind, he decided to turn his attention to music.
With his brother, musician Michael Bacon, he formed The Bacon Brothers in 1995. The band cut its first album, Forosoco, which stands for the influences on their music--folk, rock, soul and country--and went on tour. "I needed to put a little more danger back into my creative life," Bacon says. "I think that in some ways is what drove me into it. I went out and played the first time and I had butterflies. It was like, 'Man, I haven't had butterflies since back in the Off-Broadway days.' I mean if you're not taking risks, just roll over. "There's nothing scary to me about making movies. The people I respect and the people I admire are people that go out on a limb, and that is in some ways what the music is about for me. I think it's like, I wanted to be an actor as a career, but I wanted to play music as a dream."
He and his brother reentered the studio late last year to cut their latest album, Getting There, which was followed by a tour that started in January. Touring with Michael has provided another surprising element that was missing from the actor's life: male bonding. "We've always been close, but we have really different lives," Bacon says. "He's got his career, his kid. I've got mine. We live a few blocks from each other but we never saw each other as much [before] as when we started playing. That's when we got a chance to really hang out. It's one of the great bonuses of it. I was at a point in my life where I was going, 'I've been giving a lot back here. I don't have a bunch of guys that I go and play golf with and I don't have that Thursday night poker game and I don't go to strip clubs and I'm not in a 'men-beat-the-drums-in-the-woods group.' And I needed something like that. It's a bunch of guys, and you get together and you play rock-and-roll. There's nothing better for getting together with guys and having a good time."
The music is an outlet for creative expression that is clearly personal. "It evolved in a very organic way," Bacon says. "It's almost like we got a chance to kind of pay our dues, rather than have Sony come down and say, 'You're Kevin Bacon and we're going to package a record.' That would have been a disaster for us, and for me. We played one gig and then somebody said, 'You should call up this club and play up there,' and then we packed our stuff into Michael's station wagon and we did that for a couple of years all up and down the East Coast. Eventually, we made it to New York, opening for other bands." Always aware of the process, he adds, "I mean, one record is a novelty. Two is we're getting there. We're not there yet, but it's a journey, there is a map. We're somewhere along the way. The only thing that would stop us is if we really hated it or we hated each other. But we really do enjoy it." His brother Michael agrees. "My read on the band is that with the first record some people were saying, 'Oh my god, this is really good for an actor,'" Michael says. "And I think the next record has been, 'These guys are really good, period. But are they great?' And I think the next record we have to make great. I think we really can do that. We're growing as a band, we're getting better in the studio, we're going to be better players and I'm ready to make a record that would be very hard to ignore and will make it's own way."
The creative closeness and camaraderie of The Bacon Brothers has reconnected Kevin with what first drew him to acting: a sense of fellowship. "When I first became an actor I felt like I was a member of a community. I was a member of an ensemble--where we would get together and we were sort of on the same plane and we'd roll up our sleeves and we would play together. I haven't felt that for years and years and years," he says. "I don't feel like the movie business creates any kind of cohesiveness between actors. What it does is it separates us because it's so ultracompetitive. I'm constantly feeling that as an actor, unfortunately, all you have to do is try to look out for number one. I wish it wasn't that way. But I can't remember, not since Diner have I felt like I was really in an ensemble. And in music you have to have that. You have to groove. If one person is not grooving, it's not going to work. It's a house of cards and it comes tumbling down. Not that there aren't stars or egos or front men in music, but you know, it just has to groove. And you have to get over the technicalities of it and really try to find the emotion and the magic and the feeling that you get when you are really killing on the stage. To try to bring that into the studio is a very difficult and elusive thing."
Travis needs to be picked up at school and Paulie is definitely in need of a walk. Kevin Bacon is eager to resume his favorite role, that of husband and father. As he puts the leash on Paulie, Bacon takes a last minute to share a bit of his 8-year-old daughter's wisdom during the production of The Hollow Man. "I was about six or seven months into shooting and I was out in L.A. pulling my hair out and missing the family and trying to get through it. And if I would complain, Sosie would say to me, 'Daddy, don't you remember when you called Mommy and you guys were screaming and yelling and jumping up and down because you got the movie?' She totally busted me on it." With that common-sense attitude and the love of his family, it appears Kevin Bacon will stay grounded.
Alysse Minkoff is a freelance writer in Beverly Hills, California.
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