Kevin Bacon: Bacon Bounces Back
Was Kevin Bacon ever a movie star? Without hesitation, he described himself that way in this profile from the December 1992 issue of Movieline magazine. After having spent a few years in independent movies, Bacon made the decision to return to mainstream Hollywood fare in order to have his work seen by a larger audience. Writer Stephen Saban walks Bacon through his filmography to date collecting anecdotes along the way.
It’s a warm, damp night in SoHo, and I sit on the stoop of a dark and empty bar where Kevin Bacon is due to meet me for drinks any minute now. He’ll be surprised to learn, as I was, that our meeting place is unexpectedly closed tonight for a private party. Their loss. Now, without the sudden presence of a star, their sordid soiree has no chance of a mention in tomorrow’s columns.
When Kevin steps out of a cab 15 minutes later, dressed in jeans, a pinstriped white shirt and a black jacket, he’s apologizing–and sweating–profusely. “Sorry I’m late. Sorry I’m wet,” he says. “I was out running.”
“Running? Dressed like that?”
“Well, no, I changed, but…” His hand waves through the air, then comes to a stop. It’s apparently all too much to explain. His usually eccentric blond hair is lacquered flat and, if it weren’t for his trademark nose, I wouldn’t have recognized him.
“This is your worst nightmare,” he says, smiling like the charming killer he played in Criminal Law. “But I’m very hungry and I have to eat.” (Clearly, he knows I told his people that I didn’t want to conduct the interview over dinner.) I shrug that this is okay by me–what are the options?
“I know you,” Bacon says suddenly, peering at me intently.
“Do you remember where we met?”
“No. Studio 54?” he asks.
“At a party your sister Karin gave. Years ago. You had just been in Friday the 13th and I asked you how you got that arrow through your neck. And there was another time, too, more recently, when we were both staying at the Sunset Marquis in L.A. I had a noisy party in my villa and the night manager kept calling me and saying keep it down because Mr. and Mrs. Bacon, in an adjacent villa, are complaining. You weren’t even married at the time.”
He laughs, and we wander down the street in search of a cafe. “Somebody told me it was Elton John’s party.”
“One of my guests was playing the baby grand. I told the manager I thought it was supposed to be a rock’n’roll hotel.”
“Yeah, it used to be,” Kevin says. “You used to be able to drive cars into the pool! That place was a real home-away-from-home for me. I was able to sneak my dog into the villas.”
We arrive at Spring and West Broadway, the heart of SoHo, and go into the first restaurant we see. Immediately, Kevin orders a shot of Cuervo and a Pilsner Urquell, and I love him for that.
“Do you like giving interviews?” I ask him while he’s trying to read the menu.
“I don’t do ’em for fun, I’ll tell you that!” he says. He’s not wearing glasses, and I know he needs them. “My take on interviews is that in some ways they’re just another acting exercise. You give the impression that you’re sharing some part of your inner being without actually doing it. Of course, once in a while I end up actually saying things that I believe very strongly.
“You know, I have a very hard time with these movie-business magazines,” he says, putting his menu down. “I mean, I really can’t read them because I always get completely depressed. They’re such a reminder of the business. It’s always who’s doing well and who’s hot and all that kind of shit. It can’t help but bug you in some way or another–unless, of course, you happen to be the person they’re saying is hot.”
“Are you happy with your career so far?” I ask.
“I’m very happy,” he says. “I mean, it’s been a long career and the fact that I still work makes me happy; that I can still get a gig is pretty amazing to me. But I wish I was in a different place–I always do. The struggle changes once you get successful. It’s been a different kind of struggle for me since Footloose.”
“You think Footloose is the movie that made you a star?”
“No. Diner was, in a lot of ways, a small movie. It’s a fantastic movie, don’t get me wrong. But people thought of me as a character actor after Diner, and they wanted me to be the friend of the guy or the brother of the guy or the weird kid. Because of Footloose I was given the opportunity to have a leading-man career. And, looking back, I think I sabotaged it. I wasn’t ready for or didn’t feel comfortable with it. I made the wrong choices and I resisted playing into the whole thing. I’ve had to struggle back from years of bombs, one after the other. I’m not saying I was doing bad work; I don’t hate the work I did all those years. I’m proud of it. I don’t have regrets.” Shifting in his chair, he says, “I finally went through a lot of big changes, got married and had kids, so I’m in a much better place in terms of myself, my career, and who I am as an actor–and all that kind of crap.”
Little Kevin, happy at last?
I ask about his childhood. He says he’s the youngest of six children born to Philadelphia city planner Edmund Bacon and his wife Ruth–all born, incidentally, in the same house where his father still lives.
“I was a very driven child,” he says, “unusually independent. My earliest memories are of me thinking that I was gonna do something, that I didn’t need anybody else.” Doing something began with performing in church plays and enrolling in acting classes. After high school, he skipped college and headed directly for New York to become an Actor for Real. “I needed to do something I didn’t have to read and write for,” he says.
“You have to read scripts,” I remind him.
“Okay, I have to read a little. But I don’t have to add and subtract–that’s what I should have said. I’m not an inherently academic person. I wanted to do something that would make me famous.”
“I read somewhere that at a young age you dreamed of being looked at and admired.”
“Oh yeah,” he says, smiling. “Acting or rock’n’roll! My brother is a musician, and when I was a kid he was an aspiring rock star. Now he’s a composer. He was so good, so musical, that I chose the other path: I wanted to be a teen idol. It was the time of David Cassidy, Bobby Sherman, the little Michael Jackson, Donny Osmond, Jack Wild, The Monkees–those were the guys. And that’s what I aspired to. But when I came to New York and started really studying, all those aspirations went out the window. Then, what I wanted to be was a serious, well-respected stage actor like, in those days, Kevin Kline, Raul Julia, John Heard, William Hurt–those were the guys in the New York theater circles–but unfortunately, I became a big teen star, exactly what I didn’t want!”
I’m on my second vodka and Kevin’s on his second beer before we get around to ordering dinner. Then I ask him whether JFK is his favorite of his own films.
“I don’t think I have one favorite. I can’t say that JFK is my favorite one–I’m hardly in it.”
“You’re in it at least three times. And in drag, I might add.” Kevin laughs. “Mmm, that was good” he says. “It’s my favorite drag scene in a movie. And that was my first day of shooting, thank you. The script said we were to be dressed up, but it didn’t say I was gonna be Marie Antoinette! But I was happy to put it on.”
“Just to be in the film?”
“Well, no. I thought it was a fun scene.”
“It’s so brief in the movie. Did it actually take a long time?”
“All day. We got there and they showed us this bag of, you know… tools. S&M stuff. They had this ’60s gay porn movie playing, so I decided to start jerking off. So I’m jerking off and Joe [Pesci] is whipping Tommy [Lee Jones].” He laughs fondly at the memory. “It was great! Fantastic! I love that kinda shit.”
Okay, back to your favorite movie,” I say. “Maybe if I put it this way: If only one of them could survive a fire…”
“Let me put it this way. The most challenging work and the best work I’ve ever done was in a thing I did for PBS called Lemon Sky, a play by Lanford Wilson.”
“And your wife, Kyra Sedgwick, was in it. Coincidence?”
“Well, I met her while I was doing it,” he says, then suddenly bristles. “Hey, I don’t need to get my wife gigs!”
“That’s not what I meant,” I say. Kyra, after all, has Born on the Fourth of July and Singles on her resume. “I just thought perhaps it was your favorite work because your wife is in it.”
“No, that has nothing to do with it,” he says. “I think it’s the rawest, most complex work that I’ve had to do, and the thing I’m most proud of. And–fitting into the strange irony of my life–it’s the thing that probably the least number of people have seen!” He laughs.
“I haven’t, for example,” I say.
“What time is it, by the way? I have to call the gang.” He looks at my watch and sees that it’s 9:15. “I’ll call later, after they’re in bed.”
While we’re eating dinner,” I say, “let’s go over all your movies and mine them for anecdotes.”
“Anecdotes?” he says, horrified. “I’ve got, like, 20 movies!”
“Twenty-three, to date.”
“You’ll have to name the movies then, ’cause I can’t.”
“National Lampoon’s Animal House,” I begin.
“I know that’s the first one–right? They cast me straight out of acting school. I went for this goofy audition for this movie, and then I forgot all about it. I’m living in this two-room shit-hole with another guy in a welfare hotel at 85th and Broadway. Then, months later, they called me up and said they wanted me to do some movie for scale.
Honestly, I not only didn’t know how much scale was, I didn’t know what the fuck it was. At that point, I think it was, like, $785 a week. Man, when I found that out…!”
“That was a lot?”
“Oh. My. God,” he says. “It was incredible! But they needed me out there the day after tomorrow. I had to get on a plane the next day. So I was flown first class to San Francisco, stayed in a hotel overnight…Man, I was in seventh fucking heaven.”
“I guess you knew then that you’d chosen the right career?”
“Oh yeah. I’d been on a couple of flights before, but I’d never flown first class. I couldn’t believe you didn’t have to pay for a beer in first class, couldn’t believe it. I take out my script and start reading it, hoping the stewardesses will notice. By the way,” he says with a grin, “this story has no punchline.”
“I don’t care. It’s a cute story. Next: Starting Over?”
“Alan Pakula cast me in the film and I was completely thrilled, but you have to watch very quickly. I think I’m buying furniture in Bloomingdale’s when Burt Reynolds needs a Valium.”
“Tell me again how they put that arrow through your neck in Friday the 13th.”
“Fake neck and chest,” he says. “I had to be on my knees underneath the bed with two other guys; one’s got the arrow, the other’s got the blood pump. The thing is that, because of the budget, they’re only gonna do this gig once; they can’t afford to build another neck for take two. So it takes forever to set it up; my position was really starting to hurt, but I wasn’t allowed to move. Finally, the guy pokes the arrow through and the blood thing breaks, so he blows the blood through the tube so it looks like it’s spurting.
Meanwhile, I’m trying to act like I’m dying–but nobody had thought about that, so I get a big mouthful of the blood. An hour later, my tongue’s tingling, right? So then the special-effects guy tells me the blood’s a mixture of food coloring, Karo syrup and developing fluid, so maybe I’d better rinse my mouth out. That movie was a nightmare.”
Hero at Large and Only When I Laugh bring no stories to mind, and of Forty Deuce–in which he re-created his off-Broadway role as a gay hustler–Kevin says only, “I thought there was some real magical kind of poetry there.”
Enormous Changes at the Last Minute, though, we agree on. “Art film,” Kevin says.
Quicksilver brings a sour look and a terse remark: “Not a good movie.”
“White Water Summer?”
“It was supposed to be a kind of camping movie, then it became about white water. It was endless reshoots; I reshot more in that film than I have in anything else–over a year. In one scene–because of all the reshooting at all the different locations all over the world–I get hit over the head with a rock and fall off this cliff in Northern California, it cuts to a shot of me in midair in Canada, and when I land I’m in New Zealand. I swear.”
“End of the Line?”
“An independent film with a small, fun part I wanted to do. I mean, these things come along where somebody says it’ll take a couple of weeks and I go for it. The big draw for me was meeting Levon Helm.”
“Planes, Trains, and Automobiles?”
“Cameo–no, not even that–I was an extra. I did it to do something with John Candy.”
“She’s Having a Baby?”
“One of my favorite movies I’ve ever done. I think it got the short end of the stick. It was very painful for me that it got such a critical bashing. Nobody went to see it.”
“I played a psychotic killer. At one point, Tess Harper says, ‘A woman was raped and butchered, and I’m not even sure which came first.'” He laughs.
“Nasty,” I say, “but you’re pretty charming in it.”
“Well, I wanted to make him incredibly charming. He’s a Waspy, blue-blood kinda guy. When I found out that Gary Oldman was going to play the other guy, I took it. Gary was in two of my favorite movies that year, Sid and Nancy and Prick Up Your Ears, so I was very happy to work with him.”
Odd, perhaps, to bring it up at this particular moment–talking, as we are, about his playing a murdering sicko–but I ask, “Can you see how people might think you’re a lot like the characters you play?”
“Okay. Here’s the thing that I do. If I see a character’s a nice guy, I’ll create someone who, when you look in his eyes, you’ll see he’s darker–deeper–than just ‘Mr. Nice Guy.’ I look for the thing that gives them some sadness, some anger, some danger, some sort of an edge. Now, if the character is a killer or a racist or ambitious, whatever, then I’ll find the nice guy.”
“Oh. Then that explains why, in He Said, She Said you play a misogynist, but you almost managed to make her seem overbearing and wrong.”
Bacon nods in agreement. “I had to do that. I mean, the guy’s the fucking hero of the movie. That’s why I like doing these smaller parts sometimes, because the pressure’s off in terms of that. I mean, in JFK you don’t wanna see a whole movie about that guy Willie O’Keefe.” Agreed.
“The Big Picture?”
“Good movie. It was a case of art imitating life. Christopher Guest set the movie up at Columbia when David Puttnam was the head of the studio. But by the time the movie was going, Puttnam had been fired and Dawn Steel had replaced him. The exact same thing happens in The Big Picture. This guy’s got this movie he wants to make and the studio executive gets fired and is replaced by a woman.”
“I’m sorry, I hate to toot my own horn, but it’s a very good movie. They sent me the script and I loved it. No other actors were really responding to it. I saw the movie as this fantastic, subtle comedy.”
“So, what, they wanted you? How does that work? Is it usually true that filmmakers offer you parts? Or do you go after them?”
“It depends,” he says. “Some things I audition for. But there’s no formula. I’ve had 15 auditions for, like, a nothing film by some guy who hasn’t done anything–then again, Oliver Stone and Rob Reiner will say, ‘You like it? It’s yours.’ I am starting to realize a pattern: If I really gotta spend a long time waiting to hear about something, it’s not gonna work out.”
“Now we’re up to Flatliners.”
“It was the first movie I was in since Footloose that made any money. It did very well. A good career move, certainly. But it was a hard film for me to do, because I had a hard time with the character. He’s honest, straightforward, decent–I wondered what the hell I was gonna play.” He laughs. “Joel Schumacher’s take on it was 180 degrees from mine. I thought the only way to deliver this idea of people medically committing suicide and bringing each other back was to approach it with hyperrealism. His take was to make it as gothic and fantastic as possible. But whatever he did worked.”
“Okay, here’s an anecdote,” he says, grinning. “We go out to this park in Queens, right under the Manhattan Bridge. It’s me, Tony Spiridakis [who wrote the film], Joe Mantegna, Ken Olin and John Malkovich, and we’re supposed to be skinny-dipping when some girl steals our clothes. And we have to run naked through the park and jump into the back of this convertible and drive away. ‘Great,’ I thought, ‘this is gonna be fun.’ I didn’t really wanna get naked in the middle of a New York City park but, you know, it was going to be an interesting night. So the wardrobe people come up to us and say we have two options for things to wear, then we’ll do a rehearsal and the director will look to see what parts of what we’re wearing he actually sees on-camera, and they’ll adjust and cut and double-stick. They said they’d hired a male dresser for the night because they thought it’d be weird for a girl to be doing this for us. Well, they got, like, the gayest guy in New York City to do it. Which is, you know…”
“A good job for him?”
He gives me that fifty-fifty hand gesture. “A good job for him,” he agrees. “They hand us these jockstraps; one is like a flesh-colored dance belt, the other is basically a sock–I don’t know what else to call it. So we all try these things on and go through rehearsal. Afterward, all of us have to go, two by two, into this trailer with this dresser. He gets on his knees, takes out a pair of scissors, and starts cutting these things off of us and double-sticking parts back on. And they got us these flowing kimono-type robes to wear. And we’re covered in baby oil so we’d look wet.”
“It sounds like a JFK scene, something Clay Shaw might have set up with Willie O’Keefe,” I say.
“Exactly! Exactly!” he says. “I said, ‘Look, this is the goofiest shoot, we’re gonna be doing this all night long, you gotta get us a case of beer.’ They did, and we had so much fun running around with these little socks on.”
“Why couldn’t you just do the scene naked?”
“Because there were cops there, and New York City law prohibits it. Our asses could be hanging out, but for some reason our dicks had to be covered.”
“There’s no dick permit?”
“No dick permit.”
“Okay,” I say. “We covered JFK. Now you’ve just finished A Few Good Men. Do you have a new policy for choosing movies? I mean, moving directly from JFK to A Few Good Men, from Stone to Reiner, makes for a pretty impressive doubleheader.”
“Yes, it’s true, I’m more choosy. Career is a part of it, but it’s also because I have a family. I want to do movies that I think people are gonna see, for a change. I’m tired of doing things that only one person will tell me they’ve seen. If I want that, I’ll do a play. I’ve done my turn in the independent market. After I was a big movie star, I went back to independent films because I really believe in them. But I’m fucking sick of it. I want big, mainstream movies. Quality, yes, but big, mainstream movies that people are gonna see.”
“You mean–big, mainstream movies so you’re a big, mainstream movie star?”
“Yeah,” he says, matter-of-factly.
“How does that make you feel?”
“I dunno. I’ve been a movie star for so long that I don’t know what it would feel like not to be one.” He pushes his chair back, gets up. “I’m gonna call my old lady. Be right back.”
When he returns, we’re ready to leave. “Let’s go play some miniature golf,” I say. “Not far from here, down in Tribeca, an 18-hole mini golf course is installed in a gallery, under the title Putt-Modernism, with each hole designed by a different artist. It’s open until midnight.” When we get outside, it’s pouring down rain, so I start to hail a cab.
“Let’s walk,” Kevin says, “it can’t be that far.” It isn’t, but–what the hell. Kevin’s wet again, and now so am I. He tells me as we walk that he thinks he’s related to that philosopher who’s accused of writing Shakespeare’s plays, but probably not to that other Francis, the disagreeable British painter. Then, out of the blue, this: “You know what I hate?” he asks. “When they pun my name in headlines. Like ‘Kevin Bacon Sizzles’ or ‘Bacon Brings it Home’ or ‘Kevin Bacon Fries.'”
“At least those are positive,” I tell him. “I’d been thinking about calling this piece ‘Kevin Bacon: What a Ham!'”
The Artists Space gallery is crowded, hot and noisy; it seems everybody in lower Manhattan wants to play golf tonight. Kevin holds the score card, penciling in our strokes at each hole. He shoots way over par at most of them–at Sandy Skoglund’s green, made entirely of what looks like Cheez Doodles; at Cindy Sherman’s, where we’re given the choice of sinking the ball into either the vagina or mouth of a nude woman; at the Elvis shrine. He remains good-humored about the fact that I am winning.
After I get a hole-in-one at the last green, Kevin hands me the card to total our scores. He didn’t get into acting to add and subtract, remember?
We step into the cool air outside. It’s stopped raining. We walk to a bar on a nearby corner, and he orders us beers. “Kevin, you know, with this Woody and Mia brouhaha raging, is there something you should tell me now about your home life before it gets out of hand?”
“You mean, am I twiddling the kids?” he says, laughing, flashing that Criminal Law grin. “No. I think if you have to suddenly express your dark side, you should leave the kids alone and go on a random killing spree.”
Stephen Saban is a contributing editor at Details. This is his first article for us.