Is Kevin Bacon the Center of the Universe?
Younger readers may not remember this, but in the mid-nineties, the internet was a new and confusing world and Kevin Bacon was the center of it. Bacon used to be so ubiquitous that a popular game developed in which the goal was to link him to other actors based on movies they appeared in. The game coincided with the rise of the internet, so one of the first things a lot of people did online was to play Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.
In the November 1996 issue of Movieline magazine, Martha Frankel asked Bacon about the on-line game, his marriage to actress Kyra Sedgwick and how he feels about the Footloose soundtrack.
A confession: when people ask it I’m online, I nod and say. “Of course,” but the truth is that all I’ve ever done online is read the news. And I’m not too sure if I’m doing that right. So when I heard about The Kevin Bacon Game online. I didn’t get annoyed that it took me a week just to find it. I didn’t mind that my phone bill was going to be in the hundreds. I didn’t mind that there seemed to be three different games but I could only manage to get into one of them. The Oracle of Bacon at Virginia (the “Virginia” is short for the University of Virginia, and this is the last you’ll hear of it). I had too much fun playing it to care how hard it was to locate, or how expensive, or anything. The fact is, it’s a hoot.
Here’s how it works. Once you find the game on the Internet, all you have to do is type in the name of any actor, living or dead. (It’s got to be someone who’s been in at least one American movie–no fair choosing an actor who made one movie with Sergei Eisenstein and got exiled to Siberia the year after.) Within seconds, the computer will give you the path leading from the name you chose to Kevin Bacon. And get this: the creators claim it will never take more than four jumps to get to Kevin Bacon. Some people, like those who play The Kevin Bacon Game on the phone during work hours (the newest threat to Hollywood productivity), claim that the computer takes all the fun out of playing the game. But for me the joke was the same and I didn’t have to tax my brain. I played for hours, and even when I didn’t play fair, I couldn’t stump the computer. Alfred Hitchcock? Not an actor, but let’s just see:
Alfred Hitchcock was in Show Business at War with Orson Welles.
Orson Welles was in A Safe Place with Jack Nicholson.
Jack Nicholson was in A Few Good Men with Kevin Bacon. Thus, even Alfred Hitchcock has a Bacon number of three. The only actor I could stump the computer with was Lassie.
Kevin Bacon and I are supposed to meet in Millbrook, a quaint little town that’s roughly equal distance from his house in Connecticut and mine in upstate New York. I’ve always liked his work, and we share the same birthday, so I hope that might make us kindred souls. But on the way down the parkway, I suddenly have a vision that Bacon is going to pull up to the restaurant in a Porsche, dressed in a white linen suit. Everybody is going to fawn over him. The food will be great, the portions will be small, and it’ll cost a fortune, which I’ll have to pay, because Bacon is a star and he probably never picks up checks. By the time I pull into Millbrook, I’m expecting the worst.
I follow the directions, turning into the alley past the drugstore, and find myself in a paved parking lot looking at a tiny concrete building that houses a Mexican take-out place. Right on time. Bacon pulls up in his Ford Explorer, which I notice is filled with all the detritus of children (he and his wife, actress Kyra Sedgwick, have two kids). Bacon is wearing worn, black high-tops with no socks, cutoff sweat pants, and a white T-shirt. A simple gold wedding band and three Band-Aids are the only decoration.
We order our burritos and take them outside, where we sit at a picnic table out in the parking lot. We have to keep shifting our feet, because the rubber bottoms of our shoes feel like they’re melting into the pavement. When I tell Bacon about my Porsche-and-attitude image of him, he laughs and says, “A white suit and a Porsche? I don’t think so. And people fawning? Not on your life. I’m a New Yorker–I’m used to people either leaving me alone, or being rude. And I’m comfortable with that. I think there’s an unwritten law in New York City that you can walk down the street and be unencumbered. People will leave you alone.”
“Do people recognize you all the time?”
“Yes. absolutely. I honestly cannot remember an anonymous moment. Except for when I went to Africa to do The Air Up There. That was sort of cool. And where we live in Connecticut, we’ve lived there for so long and we know everybody and they know us, so I get the feeling of being, if not anonymous, then at least unobserved when I’m there.
“I’ll tell you a funny story about getting recognized. I ran into Stanley Tucci on the street the other day. We’re standing on the corner of Broadway and 60th Street, just catching up with each other, and someone walks by and they go, “Hey. Stanley, I liked your work on ‘Murder One.'” A girl comes by and says, ‘Hey, Kevin, you were really good in Murder in the First.’ Then another girl stops, looks at Stanley, and says, ‘Loved you in Big Night.’ This guy walks past and says. ‘Kevin, thought you were great in Apollo 13.’ I said to Stanley, ‘What is this, the corner of Self-Esteem and Compliment? Maybe we should never leave here.'”
“That’s not so surprising if you’ve ever gone online and seen your game,” I say. “It claims you’re the center of the universe.”
“I’ve never been online, period. I’m a computer moron. I know that’s bad to say, because everyone is so into it.”
“Well, if you ever do get online, The Oracle of Bacon is pretty funny.”
“I thought it was called Temple of the Pig. That’s what somebody told me it was called.”
“One of them is,” I tell him, “but I couldn’t figure out how to get it on my computer. I heard they refer to you in that game as ‘The Pig.’ I have to admit I don’t get that. Is it because they think you’re a pig in your being, or is it a joke on your little turned-up nose, or what?”
Bacon’s smile is slightly askew. Just as I suddenly realize that the nickname refers to the fact that Kevin’s last name is a pig product (duh!), he replies, “Haven’t a clue. But I know the game’s been on-line for over a year. You’re late on this story.”
“Not if I’ve only just played it, and if you’ve never even been online, I’m not. I mean, I just learned how to navigate the thing, so I figure there are others out there in the same boat. It’s like learning a new language.”
“Boy,” says Bacon. “I’ll tell you, Sleepers has opened up a lot more game possibilities, what with Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Brad Pitt being in it. And also these kids–I think that’s going to take the game to a whole new generation. Long after I’m dead …” Bacon starts to laugh.
“Yes,” I say. “Sleepers seems to star everyone who wasn’t in JFK. So I guess it’s absolutely true, Kevin. You are the center of the universe.”
“You know what’s funny? I never met De Niro or Hoffman. Not once. All my scenes were with the kids, so I never even got to see them.”
”Sleepers is the second film you’ve made with Barry Levinson. The first time, in Diner, you were just a snot-nosed kid, right?”
“Sort of,” he replies. “I haven’t worked with Barry since Diner, and I never really thought I would work with him again. I kind of had this feeling that Diner was such a personal story for him, and that he somehow saw me as that guy, and didn’t really see me as anything else.”
“Did you see yourself as that guy?”
“Well, there were things that were similar, definitely. But I was never so self-destructive. And Barry’s response to that was he wanted to go really far from Diner when he cast me again. He tracked me down in Canada when I was making Losing Chase [a Showtime film that Bacon directed], and sent me a note which said, I think you could put an interesting spin on this character.’ For an actor, that’s like the greatest thing you can hear from a director. There’s a difference between saying that and saying. ‘Hey, I’ve got this part, I think I can show you how to play it,’ or ‘Hey, I’ve got this part, you’re just like this guy,” whatever the fuck that means. But when a director says, ‘I want to see what it is that you’re going to bring to the table,’ that’s the best possible work environment. Barry creates an environment that makes you want to explore.
“When I took Sleepers, I thought to myself, this is going to be a really heavy, horrible experience, because I gotta do all this bad stuff to little boys. It’s the story of four friends from Hell’s Kitchen who get sent to a juvenile home, and I play the guy who tortures and abuses them. He’s the head baddie. A sadist, a pedophile, an extremely bad person.”
“You’ve played bad before,” I point out.
“Not this bad, though. I kind of pride myself on trying to discover some kind of humanity in the darkest of characters, and I think usually I’m pretty successful. I don’t know if I was in this case. I mean, I didn’t play him with drool coming down his chin; I tried to play him real, but he’s pretty dark. The funny part was that I thought I’d have to stay away from the kids between takes, to stay in character and not relate to them in a very human way. That’s not the way it turned out at all. It was one of the best times I ever had making a movie. It was a gas to be with these kids. We’d sit around and carry on, tell jokes and stories, and then the camera would roll and–boom!–I’d be beating them and doing all these things to them. Very strange.”
“Do you and Kyra read each other’s scripts and talk things out, or just follow your own hearts?”
“Oh, we definitely take a look at what the other one is interested in. I don’t really like to commit to any-thing she hasn’t seen, because maybe she’ll read it and go, ‘God, this is a complete piece of shit, you’re making a big mistake.'”
“How do you feel watching Kyra on-screen? I loved the romance between her and John Travolta in Phenomenon.”
“I think it’s always a testament to how good an actress she is if she makes it look like she is hot for someone else. At the premiere of Phenomenon, a reporter asked me how I felt about the attraction between Kyra and John onscreen. And I said something like, ‘My wife is such a good actress that she made it look like she was in love with him when I know she’s really in love with me.’ Then I heard that the next day, they were making fun of that remark on the ‘Today’ show, saying how corny it was.”
“Only in Hollywood do people make fun of you for admitting to loving your wife, or trusting her.”
“Yeah,” Bacon says, “if you’re fucking a model, that helps your career. To be married to the same person for eight years is, if anything, something they think you should avoid talking about.”
“Are you sorry that you and Kyra got married before you had your time to fuck supermodels?”
Bacon starts to laugh. “I’ll tell you, I have a theory about that. My theory is that any idiot can get laid when they’re famous. That’s easy. It’s getting laid when you’re not famous that takes some talent.”
“Talking about talent, you’re an actor, you’re a director, you’re a rock star…” I am referring to the band that Bacon and his brother, Michael, have formed, aptly named The Bacon Brothers.
“Not a rock star.” he corrects me, “just a rocker.”
“I have to say I’m very uncomfortable with actors who are in bands. I don’t think I’ve interviewed anyone in the past several months who wasn’t in a band. Bruce Willis, Lou Diamond Phillips.
“Do you feel the same way about rockers who want to be actors?” he asks.
“I think that’s worse. Personally I would be willing to lose the entire rain forest if there was a guarantee that I’d never have to see Sting in another film ever.”
Bacon smacks my hand. “I’ve been blessed to have an acting career, and I’m eternally grateful, but the real secret obsession I had was to get up and play rock and roll. When t was a kid, my heroes weren’t actors. I never went to the movies, or hardly ever, and if I did it would be maybe something where I could catch a glimpse of titties or a horror movie. To this day, if I meet an actor, it’s really not that big a deal for me. But if I met Wilson Pickett. I’d shit in my pants. But, believe me, I’m not gonna give up my day job.”
“Do you play original songs?”
“A lot of original staff we’ve written,” he says. “But we do some covers too. ‘Don’t Look Back’ by The Temptations. ‘I Want You Back’ by The Jackson 5. And we do ‘Saturday Night at the Movies,’ which we wrote another verse for.”
“Sing it,” I demand.
With the sweetest voice. Bacon starts to sing, “There’s lots of sex and violence too, to keep us coming back. And if you get a big bucket of butter corn, yon might have a heart attack. If you don’t like long, long lines, spending lots of dough, you can wait a month or two and see it all on HBO.”
I am clapping.
“As an encore, we do a little song called ‘Footloose.'”
My surprise is apparent.
“I figure I have to embrace the beast. When that fucking movie came out, for the next 12 years of my life, every time I’d go to a wedding, a bar mitzvah, or a club, the disc jockey would put it on, at which point people would form a circle around me and start to clap in unison, expecting me to start flipping and performing tricks like a trained monkey. I’ve gotten to the point where I’ll go up to the guy and I’ll say, “Here’s 20 bucks, please don’t play that song.” But the thing is, I love that record. I think the songs are great.”
“Is there anything different about your band?”
“The thing I think is different is that we joke around and laugh and tell jokes. Most bands are really hostile, there’s a threat to it. And we don’t have that.”
“I agree. I doubt the Stones would have been so popular if they were user-friendly. What’s the biggest gig you ever played?”
“We opened for Three Dog Night at the Meadowlands [in New Jersey]. I didn’t think it was going to work out well, because there were no bathrooms and the trailer was being used by 10-year-old tap dancing girls. There were pig races going on and I thought, what the fuck did I get myself into? But the people were really responsive.”
“So what’s next, movies or music?”
“I just finished a movie callled Picture Perfect, with Jennifer Aniston. It’s a romantic comedy directed by Glenn Caron, the guy who did ‘Moonlighting.’ The movie is built around Jennifer.”
“So are you ‘the guy,’ like they always say that any woman in a film is ‘the girl’?”
“I guess I am. I’m son of her dreamboat. But then she realizes that maybe I’m not who she really wants. He’s a fairly successful mid-level advertising guy who is very vain — vanity is at the core of this character. He’s incapable of having a relationship with someone who is available. He’s only interested in sleeping with women who are either married or have boyfriends. That’s his flaw.”
“Wait, I know him.”
“I’m sure you do. Every woman who read the script felt like she knew him.”
“Are you very vain?”
Bacon nods. “Yeah, uh-huh, definitely. Absolutely. Actors are by nature vain people. Aside from looking good, vanity is about wanting to be watched, wanting to be seen. Actors who deny that are totally full of it. I think that’s really fundamentally what drives them into being actors. Now, that said, in my own work I’m not afraid to be ugly. I only want to look good if I think it’s part of who the character is, or part of the story we want to tell. In The River Wild, for instance, my character’s not a nice guy, but he should look good. Because you have to sort of be seeing him through the Meryl Streep character’s eyes. He’s a prick, but he should look good, because you had to know what drew Meryl to him. In Sleepers, no, the guy did not need to look good. And Barry made sure that the camera angles were unflattering.”
“So, Kevin, what’s with the Band-Aids?”
“Cuts,” he says, smiling. “I’m helping this kid build a tree house for my kids. He’s 16 but he’s the contractor and I’m just the help. I am not very good at it, obviously, so I keep getting hurt. And when you have kids, they make you put a Band-Aid on every single little nick.”
And with that, the center of the universe lays a $20 bill down on the table, bids me farewell and jumps in his car to go home to his family.
Martha Frankel interviewed Bruce Willis for the August issue of Movieline.