Kevin Bacon has been in a lot of films. Can you guess how many films Kevin Bacon has been in? Neither can Kevin Bacon.
“Jesus Christ, I don’t even know how many movies I’ve made,” says the actor, almost sounding surprised by this realisation, as though the considerable quantity of Kevin Bacon films has only just dawned on him, right here, over a martini in The Bar Room of The Beekman Hotel. “It’s a lot.”
We count 71. Which is fairly stratospheric. To put it in context, Bacon’s Apollo 13 co-star Tom Hanks, two years his senior, has appeared in ‘just’ 56. Bacon’s filmography is remarkable not just for its length but more so for its breadth: name a genre and the man has ticked it off. He’s been in historical thrillers, crime thrillers, legal dramas, docudramas, comedy-dramas, rom-coms, straight-up coms, superhero films, indie films, erotic films, monster films, slashers, popcorn trash, highbrow Oscarbait, sci-fis, musicals… I don’t think he’s gone full Downton Abbey, but given how ITV cranks ’em out, the phone call can’t be too far off, surely?
(Examples of the cited genres, running in order: JFK, Sleepers, A Few Good Men, Apollo 13, Diner, Crazy Stupid Love, Animal House, X Men: First Class, The Woodsman, Wild Things, Tremors, Friday the 13th, R.I.P.D, Mystic River, Flatliners, Footloose, and I bet at least one of those titles prompted a ‘he was in that?!’ Mine was Friday the 13th.)
He’s been in a lot of films but his presence tends not to define these films: ‘A Kevin Bacon film’ doesn’t carry the same built-in expectations as ‘A Tom Hanks film’ or ‘A Clint Eastwood film’ (directed Bacon in Mystic River) or even ‘A Jason Statham film’ (was in Cellular with Sherri Shepherd, who was in Beauty Shop with Kevin Bacon). That’s because ‘Kevin Bacon films’ don’t really exist; despite the number of films starring Kevin Bacon (a lot), his name is rarely in the centre of the poster, generally it will flank names like Kevin Costner (JFK), Tom Cruise (A Few Good Men), Johnny Depp (Black Mass).
I’m not The Guy. I’m the other guy
As the man himself says: “I’m a character actor. I always have been. I had a moment when I was a leading man, I was a pop idol or whatever it was, but the truth is, that’s not really who I am. I’m a character actor. Every piece of work that I’ve ever done, that’s been of value, is because they were interesting, well-defined characters. And the characters, at their essence, were different than me.
“I need to play somebody that’s different than me. It gives me my way in. There are a lot of people who are so inherently interesting, visually, vocally, physically, that you can just give them lines and we’re gonna want to watch them. You don’t even need to write a great part for them because you just want to see them. That’s not me. I’m not that guy.”
(Succinct version): “I’m not The Guy. I’m the other guy.”
So yeah, Kevin Bacon has been in a lot of films – at least 71, don’t you know – but it’s a TV project that prompts Square Mile to book a beautiful Beekman Residences penthouse for the cover shoot. City on a Hill is a fictional account of Operation Ceasefire, the revolutionary police imperative imposed on Boston in the 1990s. The ensemble piece is dominated by Bacon’s Jacky Rhodes, a charismatic, coke-snorting cop whose, um, creative approach toward law enforcement puts him at loggerheads with Aldis Hodge’s new District Attorney. “It’s a good part,” grins Bacon with the satisfaction of a man who has read a lot of bad ones. “It’s a really good part.”
In my experience, the big names tend to interview dry: because it’s the middle of the day or they’re on some fitness regime or they swore off the booze in 2015 after the unfortunate incident of, well, let’s not go there. The martini is one of several giveaways that Bacon is a bit of a dude. He looks at least two decades younger than his 60 years: boasting a moustache part Texan oil baron, part 1970s porn star, while his tousled mane of hair can only be explained by a rapidly balding portrait locked somewhere in a Manhattan attic.
The moustache, I should stress, was grown for Jacky Rhodes, and does more to establish the character than any monologue. The role wasn’t written for Bacon but you wouldn’t know it; in a strong cast, his is the performance you can’t take your eyes off, propelling the show beyond the boundaries of the standard police procedural. In other words, he’s The Guy.
“Sometimes I read a part and I’ll say, ‘I could do this part, it’s an interesting script, it’s a good director. It’s gonna take me some work to figure out who this guy is, and I’m going to have to do some research. Sometimes I see the job in front of me.
Posing for a picture is the complete opposite of acting. The last thing you want to do as an actor is pose
“Every once in a while – this hasn’t happened that many times in my life – I read a part and I hear it. I heard his voice immediately. Right from the page, it went right into my head. And I saw him. And I saw the look. And I saw the clothes. And I heard the voice, and I heard his style of speaking. It’s definitely a challenging part, because he goes in so many different directions, the way his mind works, but in some ways it just plays itself.”
(Other roles that spoke directly to him? “Murder in the First. Diner. Tremors.”)
He has a reputation as one of the nicest men in Hollywood, and remains unfailingly polite and accommodating throughout the photoshoot, despite the fact that photoshoots aren’t really Kevin Bacon’s thing: “It’s actually the complete opposite of acting, posing for a picture. The last thing you want to do as an actor is pose. It’s about being, it’s about living, it’s about trying to create a world where the camera’s not there. Whereas being a model, or being a person who has their picture taken, is all about doing things for the camera.”
He’s been pretending the camera isn’t there for more than four decades now. It’s fair to say he’s become pretty good at it.
You don’t always get a parade
There’s this kid who walks into a movie theatre. Can’t be more than 12 or 13 years old. Pays his dollar, sits down to a screening of Midnight Cowboy, the Dustin Hoffman and Jon Voight drama that’s been picking up rave reviews since it premiered a few months back. Alone in this dark little corner of Philadelphia, the kid sits enchanted as The Magic Of Cinema™ does its thing. What impresses him the most, more than the Oscar-nominated leads and Oscar-winning direction, more than Harry Nilsson’s cover of "Everybody’s Talkin’’ that went on to land a Grammy, more even than Hoffman’s iconic “I’m walking here!”, one of the great Hollywood ad libs, all of this is good stuff, sure, but what really thrills the kid is that the filmmakers somehow got a homeless person and a cowboy to be in the same movie! How cool is that?
A few months later the kid is back. Pays his dollar again, sits down to a screening of The Graduate. Looks up and nearly spits out his popcorn. (Metaphorically, at least.) There on-screen is Dustin Hoffman – familiar yet utterly transformed. Epiphany strikes. ‘Holy fucking shit! That is the same guy! That guy who was the homeless guy is a preppy college kid! How the fuck do they do that?’
Thus young Kevin Bacon realised that actors play characters, and through this realisation established a clear idea of what an actor should be, what type of actor he wanted to be. “My entire intention was to walk in somebody else’s shoes. Being me was not only not what my idea about acting was, but also I thought it would be boring.
“The thing that first propelled when I was a very young child was fame. When I was ten or 11, that’s what I wanted. I wanted the fame, I wanted the billboard, I wanted the money, I wanted the girls. It was very clear to me that I wanted to be a star. I started with, ‘I wanna be a star’ – and I thought to myself, ‘I don’t really care, I can be a rock star, I can be an actor – either one is fine, as long as I’m a star.’ But when I actually chose acting, or it chose me, I put the star thing behind me – I wanted to be good, I wanted to be respected; I want to be taken seriously, I want to learn my craft. All those other things went up in front of it.”
I tried to be a leading man – it’s not that I didn’t try. I tried, and it didn’t work
And yet for a brief period in the late 1980s, Kevin Bacon was a star, or certainly on the cusp of becoming one. He wasn’t first choice for Footloose – Tom Cruise had scheduling conflicts; Rob Lowe got injured – but the film was a hit, and its 26-year-old lead danced his way onto many a teenager’s bedroom wall. Even today, Bacon can’t attend a wedding without the DJ putting on Kenny Loggins’ iconic title track.
“When the Footloose thing happened, there were a lot of people whispering in your ear, and you can’t help but get swept up in the idea of stardom and fame and female adoration – but when it came to me, it’s not really who I was and it’s not really what I wanted. I tried to chase it, and I tried to be a leading man – it’s not that I didn’t try. I tried, and it didn’t work. Good or bad, it was just one unsuccessful movie after another.”
He hated Los Angeles, which probably didn’t help when it came to cracking Hollywood. He wrote numerous songs about the spiritual isolation of the city. (Oh yeah, Bacon’s in a band. Along with his elder brother Michael. Call themselves The Bacon Brothers.) These are the opening lyrics to ‘City of Fear’: “You scared me when I met you / The way you sparkled in the dark / I drove around for hours / But you never showed your heart”.
His struggles lasted half a decade, and then JFK came along and Kevin Bacon went from ‘Failed Leading Man’ to ‘Successful Ensemble Player’. His role as male prostitute Willie O’Keefe didn’t resurrect his career so much as completely change the trajectory of it.
“Things shifted. I went from the Footloose guy, the Tremors guy, to character acting… For better or worse, I’m not someone who’s taken much advice or guidance from anybody. I’ve probably learnt by osmosis, you know, but I’m not someone who’s sought out guidance.
I had an agent [Paula Wagner] who guided me toward JFK. She said, ‘I want to see you do edgier, I want to see you do character’, and I’ll always be grateful to her for that.”
‘Doing character’ has served Bacon well, as his star on the Hollywood Walk Of Fame will attest. (Amazing where walking in somebody else’s shoes can take you.) Even so, it can’t have been the easiest thing; I mean, sure, he had always aspired to be an actor rather than a ‘Star capital-S’, but every actor wants to play the lead, right? Did he struggle to accept his calling as the other guy?
Why can’t I be that guy? Why can’t I get awards? Why can’t I have that kind of box office success?
He ponders the question. “No, would be the first answer I would say. On some days no. And on some days, yes.” Another long silence. “Everybody wants more, right? Everybody wants something, whatever it happens to be. My wife and I like to say, ‘well, yeah, I got this but what I really wanted was a parade.’” He chuckles. “You don’t always get a parade. But I think that as you go through life, you can either choose the path of gratitude or you can choose the path of bitterness. I’ve tried to choose the path of gratitude.”
Even during the inevitable bouts of actorly angst – “Why can’t I be that guy? Why can’t I get awards? Why can’t I have that kind of box office success?” – he always tried to stay grateful. Tried to appreciate his career, and simultaneously look beyond it. After all:
“If all you have is your career, and if you really, really believe that everything you do and you put up on the screen is that fucking important, if that’s the most important thing to you, it’s probably gonna let you down. It’s definitely gonna let you down, eventually. So you’ve gotta find something else, whatever that is. Yoga. Fishing. Professional sports team. A marriage and children. A pet. The environment. Whatever it is, you’ve gotta find something else other than this shit. Cos this is just pft – it’s just dust in the wind, really.”
I want this fucking thing
Kevin Bacon has been in a lot of films but he rarely watches these films. “Everyone thinks this is bullshit,” he says drily, but it’s absolutely true. He’ll watch the films a lot during the filming process, and he’ll watch the finished product twice – once on his own or with his wife; once with an audience – and then that’s it, done, onto the next one.
Quite a few years ago, maybe ten, Bacon had what he describes as a “weird experience”. One of the Footloose producers got in touch: Bacon’s screentest for Ren McCormack had been excavated from the Paramount vault, and a) was he OK with its inclusion on the Blu-Ray DVD?, and b) would he like to see it? Affirmative to both.
The tape was sent over, Bacon stuck it on. Then he pressed pause.
Man, I was a real combination of hungry, cocky, and terrified
“I’ll never forget this. I put it on pause, went into the bathroom to look into the mirror, and see if I could see the same guy there that I saw in the screentest.
"What I saw in the screentest was cockiness, some talent – I wouldn’t say drop dead, but there was some talent – but I really saw the hunger. You could just see I was like, ‘I want this fucking thing. I want it bad.’ And I was really struck with that, cos you kinda forget.”
Did Bacon recognise that person?
“Not really, no,” he admits. “It’s not just a physical thing. It was… different. A different version of the same guy.”
The hunger drove him from Philadelphia to New York at 17, swapping his adolescence for a job as a waiter and a place at Circle in the Square Theatre School and the chance to become a proper actor. “Man, I was a real combination of hungry, cocky, and terrified. All of those things combined.”
He studied the craft of acting, learning techniques that he would utilize for the rest of his career – such as ‘The Private Moment’, Lee Stasboug’s interpretation of the Stanislavski Method.
Allow Bacon to explain:
“In acting school, you’d create your room onstage in front of your classmates. You’d live up there for about 20 minutes, and you’d just do what you’d do in your life. It could be excruciatingly boring to watch. And eventually you work your way toward doing something that you would stop doing if anybody else walked in the room. It’s a very valuable exercise. When I was a kid, I was like, ‘ah, fuck, I don’t really get it.’ But now I’ve realised.”
In public, “we’re all doing a certain version of acting, right? But when we get home, or when we look at ourselves in the mirror, or when we are alone in our kitchen, or whatever it is, those private moments are very telling about who we are. So as an actor to be able to recreate those, to be able to build that character so that you’re able to show those, is a very, very valuable thing.”
Look for the scene in City on a Hill where Jacky finds himself at an existential lowpoint. Standing outside a bar in the rain, he checks his reflection in the window. Smoothes back his hair, gathers himself, and then breezes inside – transitioning from private to public – as though he hasn’t a care in the world.
Movies is my lifeblood
Kevin Bacon has been in a lot of films but he attained cultural immortality through a parlour game.
Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon aka Bacon’s Law was invented by a group of Albright College students in the 1990s. It posited that everyone in Hollywood could be linked back to Bacon within six steps or fewer. (Eg Elvis Presley was in Change of Habit with Edward Asner, who was in JFK with Kevin Bacon. Elvis has a ‘Bacon Number’ of two.)
The students appeared on The Jon Stewart Show, and Six Degrees went worldwide. Initially Bacon was “horrified”; “I thought it was a giant joke at my expense,” he told the South by Southwest film festival in 2013. However he came to see the funny side, and has referenced the game in everything from sitcom appearances to TED Talks to EE adverts to the name of his charity sixdegrees.org.
Ah yes, those EE adverts – a fixture of British TV since 2012, and the first exposure to Kevin Bacon for much of the nation’s youth. Riffing off Six Degrees…, the adverts celebrate the ‘connectedness’ of Kevin Bacon, and by extension EE customers – “I’m not here to talk about Kevin Bacon, Hollywood A-lister,” beams Bacon – “I’m here to talk about Kevin Bacon, centre of the universe”. They’re fun, and they allow Bacon the luxury of not having to choose his films for the paycheque.
The paycheque is one of three factors that Bacon has learned to remove from the equation when he goes about choosing a role; the other two are the size of that role and the size of the budget. You can call it –
‘Bacon’s Formula (for a Happy Hollywood Career)’
- Size of the paycheque: “I’m not saying I don’t want to make every dollar I possibly can, I’m not an idiot. Yes, I’m going to negotiate for every dollar that I can possibly get – but I’m not going to not do something like The Woodsman, Cop Car, I’m going to not do it because I’m not going to get paid. It’s stupid. I want to act. If the part’s great I want to act.”
- Size of the budget: “I’ve always been a fan of independent filmmaking, I still watch independent films, I love independent films, I’m not going to say, listen if it’s not a superhero movie don’t even come to me. There are actors that do that! They basically say, if you’re not making it for $250m I’m not into it."
- Size of the part: “That, I think, is really, really crucial. If you can give me two days on a movie, and give me a role, lines to say, something to do that I’ve never done before, that’s going to be interesting and shocking, I’ll do it. I don’t care.”
These ideals are becoming increasingly difficult to follow in modern Hollywood, where the options for actors tend to be superhero blockbuster or tiny indie production, with precious little in-between. The dearth of what Bacon terms “the mid-range budget kind of thing” is just one of several major reshapings of the cinematic landscape.
“Every decade, someone says to me, ‘the business has changed. It’s changed’. And every decade I will say, ‘the business has not changed.’ Now it has changed.”
He compares the impact of streaming platforms on the film industry to that of Napster on music: a fundamental realignment of How Things Work, one that happened so quickly the rules of this brave new world haven’t even been fully established.
I love movies. I grew up on movies. I wanted to be in movies. I got into movies
“I don’t want to be that guy [adopts a Grampa Simpson-esque drone], ‘oh, in the old days…’ cos fuck that. There are things that are better, and things that are worse and harder, but it definitely has changed. And it changes so rapidly. When I started out, if you saw a slight shift in audience interest – let’s say, all of a sudden, people start to like romcoms: so they make more romcoms. That would happen over five years. Now it’s like over the weekend! ‘Oh, you like that? We’re going to make that.’
“One of the biggest and greatest shifts that I’ve seen, which I’ve also embraced, is television. Because when I started out, I didn’t want to be a television actor – I was not interested in television in any form. There were two different types of actors: TV actors and movie actors, and I was a movie-slash-stage actor, and I would never go to TV. And now? TV is where it’s at.
“It breaks my heart in a way, because I love movies. I grew up on movies. I wanted to be in movies. I got into movies. Movies is my lifeblood. I try to be a movie consumer. I sit there in an empty little theatre, and watch something that I found in the paper that seems like an awesome idea that somebody created out of spit and glue. But it’s hard.”
I want to dream
Kevin Bacon has been in a lot of films but he still gets nervous before the release of every new project, whether big screen or small. He claims to currently be losing sleep over how City on a Hill will be received; whether the work of the cast and production team, which has so far existed within a bubble, will survive its exposure to the outside world – or whether it’ll be a case of one season and done.
Part of this nervousness is because he wants the work of the cast and crew to achieve critical recognition and a wide audience. Part of it stems from professional pride: nobody wants a dud. And part of it comes from the ongoing fear that he will be somehow found out – ‘imposter syndrome’, I suppose you would call it, even if it seems strange for an actor to have both imposter syndrome and a star on Hollywood Boulevard.
“I think to myself, ‘this one’s gotta work. This one’s gotta work.’ Whatever one I’m in at that moment. Please, please, this one’s gotta work. But what I’ve worked out is that, if it doesn’t, I’ll probably get another job. It doesn’t feel that way – every time that I finish a job I think, ‘this is my very last one, I’ll never work after this.’ I’ll probably get something, but you know, we’ll see.”
Is that true of every project – or just the ones that he has high hopes for?
There’ve been plenty of times in my life where I needed the money. I didn’t start out a wealthy person
“Definitely. Noooo! No, no, no! Every single one. Every. Single. One. Yeah, definitely. Yeah, yeah. I don’t wanna be in things that aren’t well received. Even though I love the work, and I love being proud of the things that I’ve done, there have been a ton of things that I’m really, really, really proud of that nobody saw. And in some ways, being proud of it and having nobody see it is harder. Because you’ve done the work, you’ve put in the time, you feel like what you did was good and then nobody sees it. So yeah, I do care, I care a lot. I care a lot, which is why I don’t put myself into things that I don’t care about.”
He must have done some stuff for the money?
“Oh, definitely! At some point in my career? Definitely. There’ve been plenty of times in my life where I needed the money. I didn’t start out a wealthy person. I started out a person with no money. There were times when I had to work because I need to get paid. But, once I sign on, I’m all in. I tend to just believe in it. Even when it feels like it’s going south, even when it feels like the footage is not that good or whatever, I want to commit to whatever project it is. I want to dream.”
See you down the road
The afternoon is turning into evening. On the upper East Side, Bacon’s wife of 30 years, the actress Kyra Sedgwick, has dinner in the oven. The pair met on the 1988 TV play Lemon Sky.
Theirs is one of the most enduring of Hollywood marriages: they celebrated their 30th anniversary with a duet of the Bees Gees song ‘To Love Somebody’. “You don’t know what it’s like / To love somebody / To love somebody / The way I love you.”
Bacon moved to New York to pursue a teenage dream, and has never really left, although a few years ago Sedgwick finally persuaded him to buy a property in California. “I’m really, truly bicoastal,” he smiles. “Now I’ve found it. I can’t really explain it but I’ve found it.”
We linger a little longer, discussing LA, New York and London – Bacon speaks effusively of Kensington and Janet’s Bar on Old Brompton Road. He picks up the cheque with an achingly casual, “I got this.” Then he dons his sunglasses and takes his leave. “See you down the road.”
Kevin Bacon, ladies and gentleman. Actor, musician, husband, father, cinephile, philanthropist and all round fucking dude.
City on a Hill will premiere on 16 June on Showtime in the US. It will be coming soon to Sky Atlantic