Nothing can poison an actor's reputation like stardom. Before he played Ren MacCormack, a dancing James Dean who taught an entire town how to boogie in "Footloose" (1984), before the film became a monster hit and made him a teen heartthrob, Kevin Bacon was a respected character actor known for taking risks.
The Philadelphia-born actor's first serious role was playing a hustler-junkie who tried to earn drug money by selling a kid to a middle-aged sicko in Alan Brown's late '70s off-Broadway play, "Forty Deuce." And when Bacon moved on to feature films, he continued playing flawed, unsympathetic assholes. Director John Landis says on the DVD version of "Animal House" that he hired the unknown to play the cocky, repellent frat boy Chip Diller because no other actor looked as "smarmy." For Bacon's breakthrough performance, in Barry Levinson's 1982 ensemble classic, "Diner," he played Fenwick, a smug, alcoholic hothead who, in the movie's funniest scene, drunkenly trashes Jesus' manger in the middle of downtown Baltimore.
But after "Footloose," Bacon struggled in the '80s. He continued to work, even though his teen idol status prevented him from playing unlikable jerks. He ended up stuck leading horrible movies like "Quicksilver" or being overlooked in sadly ignored indie films like "The Big Picture." Typecast and frustrated, the actor almost gave up his craft until Oliver Stone resuscitated his career. The director gave him a tiny part in "J.F.K." and essentially returned Bacon to his roots playing scumbags in ensemble pictures. As the frightening, cunning male prostitute Willie O'Keefe -- only appearing during a five-minute scene with Kevin Costner -- Bacon stole the rest of the three-hour opus away from every other big-name star in the film.
From there, Bacon went on to juggle acclaimed supporting roles in blockbusters like "Apollo 13" and "A Few Good Men," and occasional, underappreciated lead roles in smaller pictures like "Murder in the First" and "Wild Things." Since 1996, Bacon has split time between acting and playing and touring with the Bacon Brothers, a blues act led by him and his brother Michael. He returns to the screen on Friday with another risky role in "Hollow Man," a psychosexual take on "The Invisible Man" tale directed by Paul Verhoeven ("RoboCop," "Total Recall," "Starship Troopers"). In it, Bacon plays Sebastian Caine, a scientist whose creepiest desires manifest after he takes an experimental serum that makes him invisible. The role fits perfectly among the other damaged characters that populate Bacon's risumi.
Bacon took time out from a recent tour to discuss his roller-coaster career over the phone.
So, what is the film that inspired you to start acting?
"Midnight Cowboy" was certainly the most inspirational. I was really never much of a film buff as a kid, but it came to Philly and I went. There was something about what Dustin [Hoffman] and Jon [Voight] were doing that inspired me. I knew that those guys weren't really those guys -- Jon wasn't a hustler from Texas, and Dustin wasn't really homeless -- but they were so transformational with those characterizations that I thought to myself, Well, now, that's acting.
How old were you at the time?
I was 12. It had an effect because I started taking acting classes when I was about 13.
When looking over such a long career, is there a performance that you're most proud of giving, and why?
I think "Murder in the First," because of the same things that made me so in awe of Dustin and Jon. It was a role that was so far from myself, at least in terms of the external kinds of stuff. For whatever reason, I was able to tap into something ... that was so dark and emotional ... But, of course, nobody saw it. That's my lot in life, I guess: The things I'm most proud of are things that no one ever sees.
It seems like so many of your best performances are in films that go unnoticed. "The Big Picture" immediately comes to mind ...
Yeah, "The Big Picture" was a movie that I had a great time making. I was very proud, but it got caught in a life-imitating-art situation where the guy who green-lit the picture was fired by the studio while we were shooting it. A new regime came in, who actually couldn't stand it. They dumped it, you know ... opened it in two theaters with no advertising.
Do you look back on films like "The Big Picture" and "Murder in the First" and think, How wasn't this a hit? Is there maybe one that really stands out?
[Laughs] Well, you know, I got a lot of those. Most of 'em! "Murder in the First" was dumped in January, and really, with a tragic, difficult film like that, you're not going to get any recognition unless it's released in the fall. I lobbied hard for that, but was told, "Shut up, kid. We're Warner Bros. and we know how to market films." "Stir of Echoes" was another one that disappointed me in terms of how it was released. I thought it was a good movie, but that was a question of them jockeying for position with "The Sixth Sense." They decided to put it out after "The Sixth Sense." Bad move.
You mentioned earlier regarding your performance in "Murder in the First" that you were able to "tap into something dark." My take on your career is that you broke out as a fresh-faced hero with "Footloose," but I've thought that your finest stuff completely went against that typecast when you played unscrupulous, slimy characters. Maybe you could comment on the gallery of creeps you've played over the years.
Let's start with Willie O'Keefe from "J.F.K."
"J.F.K." was one of those times that you can look at a specific point in your career and say things changed because of this. It was really like a benchmark kind of thing for me. When I became an actor I wanted to do edgy character parts. I wanted to do people from all walks of life. I looked at Meryl Streep and thought, "That's an actor," i.e. someone who could wear different hats and make it believable. The last thing I wanted to be was a pop star, and then, all of a sudden, I was. In the years between "Footloose" and "J.F.K.," I was spinning my wheels. You know, I was trying to do independent films and hope they'd break out, but nothing was really happening. And then came "J.F.K." It took me four days to [do my part]. When I was making it, did I think, Oh my God, I can't believe I'm playing this character? Not at all. I had already done similar types of guys on stage. I already had played a male prostitute in a stage play called "Forty Deuce," that later became a feature film. But that movie completely changed things for me.
In terms of more phone calls, better scripts?
[The phone] just started ringing for different kinds of characters. It led directly to "A Few Good Men" and "The River Wild" and "Murder in the First." It just changed things ... thankfully.
OK. How about Sean Nokes from "Sleepers"?
Up until that point Barry [Levinson, director of "Sleepers"] was the only person to hire me twice. He sent me the book, and said that he'd be curious to see what my take would be on this guy. I knew nothing about the character. As I was reading it, I was seeing all of these great, cool parts -- the lawyer, the cute writer, etc. -- and then I get to Nokes, the guy who was molesting the kids, and I said, "Oh, of course, that's me." [Laughs] Gimme the child molester. But then I just viewed it as an interesting role with a director I like. I guess there's people that can't do this, people who would say, "No, I can't ask a 10-year-old kid for a blow job in a movie. What would my fans think?" I don't know. I just don't think in terms of image or things like that. I really think in terms of character.
How about Billy Magic in "Telling Lies in America," another of your films that more people should have seen. He's another of those shady guys.
Yeah, but Billy is cool, though, because he's one of those guys -- unlike Nokes in "Sleepers" or the guy in "The River Wild" -- who kinda has a heart of gold. He's not fundamentally evil. He's made some mistakes, and he definitely cut some corners in his life, but there's also something a bit tragically sympathetic about him.
Would you say the same about the crooked cop, Ray Duquette, in "Wild Things"?
God, I love that movie, and that character was fun. When I first read the script, I said to my wife [actress Kyra Sedgwick], "This is the worst piece of shit I've ever read -- and I love it." That was my take, and some people got that that's where we were going with it. But most people just saw it as being over-the-top. It was an attempt at something very specific, which was to take a sexy, "Peyton Place"-type ... I don't even call it film noir, because that implies a darker, more serious tone.
Yeah, it's more "camp noir." So, this leads us to your latest role, Sebastian Caine in "Hollow Man." Describe him.
Evil, evil, evil character. Caine starts out megalomaniacal. He is a very self-involved, vain, voyeuristic, childlike, power-hungry, but brilliant guy.
So he's a lawyer ...
[Laughs] Yeah, right. But he's not a killer and he's not a rapist. But when he becomes invisible, the power that that gives him is so seductive that it eventually pushes him over the edge. He becomes a monster. My feelings are -- and Paul may disagree with this -- if everyone had an opportunity to become invisible, they may sneak into a women's locker room, or they may steal something in a store, but they wouldn't necessarily go as far as this guy does. But the seeds were planted in this guy.
And Verhoeven sees that differently, that inherently people would just go nuts and ...
Yeah. I think he does. [Laughter.] He has less trust in the fundamental good of human beings.
God bless him. So, what's it like working with him?
It was great. It was a very, very hard shoot for all of us, but Paul is a perfectionist and he's a genius. And he is incredibly well prepared and passionate and committed and tireless. It can be a little overwhelming sometimes, but I also found it kind of infectious. In a lot of ways, I really needed that to get through it because it wasn't an easy character or an easy experience.
What attracts you to a script -- like "Hollow Man" -- these days? Are you choosier now?
Yes, because there's a lot of other stuff that's happening right now -- my band, my wife, her career, the kids, the kids' school. When I was younger, it was very easy for me to just pack my bag and go, and as a result, I did a lot of movies. I worked all the time. I don't want to be that way anymore ... [sighs] I just can't. It's actually good. And it's definitely made me more choosy. But you're only as choosy as you can be based on the amount of money you need to keep yourself afloat. It's hard to say why I decide to do something, but it's easy to say the reasons why not to do something. I don't base my decision on the size of the part, or the size of the salary, or the size of the budget, and I feel that once you take those three things out of your decision-making process, then the sky's the limit.
If you could rewrite your career, would you do anything different?
Hindsight is 20/20. [Long pause]
Would you have, say, dodged "Footloose" because of the stardom and the pigeonholing that accompanied it?
I dunno. That's a hard thing to say. I'd say no. All in all ... look, you take one piece out of the puzzle, and who knows whether I'd still be working now. I've been lucky. It's still a struggle, and there's a lot of things about it that beat me up but I feel like I'm still lucky to be able to make a living doing something that a lot of people don't get a chance to do.