Kevin Bacon is an actor who has gained success, and a certain degree of notoriety, for playing quirky, dark roles in movies ranging from major Hollywood releases such as JFK and A Few Good Men to smaller, independent releases, including Diner and this year’s The Woodsman.
It’s a fitting tribute, then, for Bacon to receive the John Cassavetes Award at the 27th Starz Denver International Film Festival. Cassavetes was a legendary filmmaker who moved gracefully from behind the camera to in front of it and back again. A director, writer, producer, and actor, Cassavetes embodied a pioneering spirit in independent film.
Warmly welcomed on the red carpet at the Buell Theatre, Bacon shared what Cassavetes means to him by saying, “John Cassavetes was an amazing filmmaker and maverick. He’s kind of like the father of the independent film in a lot of ways. His ability to bounce back and forth between indies and studio stuff was always very impressive to me.”
Bacon carries on the Cassavetes tradition by choosing edgier roles in films such as Murder in the First and Mystic River. But he’s also had his share of commercial success, appearing in the blockbusters Animal House, Footloose, and Apollo 13.
He’s also dabbled in feature film directing, and his forthcoming Loverboy features a cast that includes himself, Sandra Bullock, Matt Dillon, Marisa Tomei, and his wife, Kyra Sedgwick.
Bacon, arriving on stage bespectacled in black-rim eyeglasses, was eager for the standing ovation to come to a close and for the audience to settle in for his interview with Elvis Mitchell, formerly a film critic at The New York Times.
Bacon was surprisingly low key and unexpectedly modest, but, sans eyewear, he quickly got into the groove and the evening featured many laughs and a special rarity: Bacon doing that classic dance, the Breakdown, live on the Buell stage.
What follows are a few of the highlights from the evening’s interview.
Elvis Mitchell: You have a tendency to play characters who have an appetite for pleasure that gets them into trouble. How much of that is you using it as a way of letting something out, how much of it is you?
Kevin Bacon: Acting is very, very therapeutic for me. I have this feeling, and maybe I’m the only one that this is true about, but I have this feeling that most human beings have a certain kind of darkness, or a certain kind of fire in their belly, a sadness, anger, sexual drive. You know, we live in a society in which we can’t always sort of act on all of those impulses. What I do is – I do them in the movies. And then I get a chance to be like a fairly normal person in life because I exorcise all those demons on the screen.
Really, at my core I have a sort of strong work ethic, just to provide for my family and you know, to keep bringing home the bacon, so to speak. It’s definitely something that’s driven me as much as all the other stuff, you know, going to the darker places, or wanting to be famous, or all those other things.
I find characters who are troubled or living on the edge or seekers of pleasure, those sorts of things.
EM: There are a lot of male actors who aren’t comfortable with that and obviously you really are.
KB: Yeah. There’s really, honestly, there’s nothing I won’t play if I think that the material is strong and the character is interesting. People have asked me about The Woodsman, you know, the guy is a sex offender. People say, ‘Well how could you possibly play a sex offender? Aren’t you concerned about your image or your persona?’ The first thing I say is, ‘Well, first off, I’ve already done it with Sleepers. Second off, I don’t really think about my persona, I don’t really know what my persona is, frankly.’ I don’t think about my image. I don’t think like I have some kind of a moral responsibility to only portray heroic, upstanding guys. I think that’s a slippery slope, because I think you’ll limit yourself a lot.
EM: Barry Levinson (director of Diner) and Christopher Guest (director of The Big Picture), who are essentially comedians, or worked in comedy a lot before they became directors, they were attracted to the fact that you can play comedy very well. And you don’t do it often enough.
KB: I don’t do it often enough, I would like to do it more. I did this movie with Queen Latifah, it’s called Beauty Shop. I have a small part, a supporting part, but I play a hair dresser and they let me just go wild. It was fantastic. I hope that the movie does well just because maybe I could move a little bit away from this dark crap. I mean, I don’t want to be tortured all the time.
EM: This relates to Cassavetes as an actor and a director and I just wonder if you, after having directed, that’s changed the way you’ve acted.
KB: I think it does. I think everything changes the way that I act. I think you wake up in the morning and you experience life and you get older and there’s times in your life when what’s going on personally in your life and the kind of roles that you’re getting are somehow in balance or are reflecting each other in a way that works and sometimes you’re out of balance and it’s not really working.
I think maybe what happens to me is, after I direct, is that I become less tolerant of bad directing as an actor. Because I know that it can be done more efficiently, I know that it can be done with less bullshit, I know that it can be done quicker and in a more positive and strong kind of way.
EM: This is the 20th anniversary of Footloose. We can’t continue this without asking a little bit about what it was like when you saw the Footloose script and you thought, ‘I’m dancing?’
KB: I grew up in Philly and I moved to New York in ‘76. When I was in Philadelphia, dancing was like a big part of my life. That’s where, you know, we just danced.
EM: That’s where American Bandstand came from.
KB: Yeah. American Bandstand. When I was growing up it was The Temptations, The Stylistics, and O’Jays and Howard Melvin & The Blue Notes and going to those dances and grinding away and doing the Breakdown or, you know, the different dances.
(Bacon treats the crowd to his Breakdown moves.)
I loved to dance. I moved to New York and I was all about going to Studio 54 and Xenon and all these places.
I would go alone, literally, to Studio 54 without a date, because I couldn’t afford a date. I couldn’t get anyone to dance with me anyway, because I didn’t have enough coke, I didn’t have enough money, obviously, because I was a waiter.
I would go and I would dance by myself all night. I loved to do it.
At acting school I took a couple dance classes, but it was not dancing by any stretch of the imagination.
EM: In the early part of your career, you had a lot of big moments.
KB: Yeah, well Animal House was a smash hit, but nobody knew that I was in it. And I don’t think they’d really want to hang out with me based on that character anyway. When the movie came out, I was working as a waiter and I got the night off to go down go to the premiere party. And I was thinking, ‘Oh, this is going to be it. I am going to score so heavily tonight because now I’m in a big movie.’ I felt like nobody recognized me; I couldn’t convince people I was in the movie. I went back on the subway and went back to the bar and just skipped the party altogether. That didn’t really do anything for me.