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Far Beyond Footloose

Kevin Bacon is making it outside Hollywood.
Alysse Minkoff
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.'"

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