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Kevin Bacon talks about “Sleepers” and that game named after him

From the archives!

Here is my interview with Kevin Bacon for Sleepers, interviewed at the Venice Biennale in 1996.

Kevin Bacon is wearing a tight fitting teeshirt and jeans – both brown. He is weary and wants to get it over with.

Bacon – Fire away! Hit me with your best shot.

Bacon – I love the movie. I’m thrilled with it. It’s extremely powerful, a very brave movie. It has a tremendous amount of detail and complexity and it’s so much more – if you look at so many pictures that have this kind of director, this kind of cast, this kind of size they’re often fun and entertaining but they’re kind of thin and this is a very — thick movie. (He laughs.)

Had you read the book?

Bacon – No, Barry just sent me the script and he said ‘I think you’d put an interesting spin on this character’ and to me that’s the thing that is the most exciting, when a director like that says, ‘Hey, what are you gonna do with this?’ Not, ‘Let me tell you who you are gonna be, and look like and walk and talk like.’ Not, ‘I’m gonna give you a chance to work in my movie and be part of my vision.’ He says to an actor, ‘What are you gonna bring to the table?’ That’s what I like to hear.

Also the fact that you’ve worked with him before, you’re in a position where you have a director who knows you and who is not saying ‘You’re up for the role,’ rather ‘It’s yours if you want it.’ right? That’s a pretty enviable position to be in, isn’t it?

Bacon – Luckily I’m at a point where that is generally what happens anyway. I don’t usually go in and audition or — beg. (laughs) But yeah, it’s great to have somebody who knows you, certainly.

So, what did you bring to the table?

Bacon – I started thinking about where the guy might be from and what sort of life he might have had and the way I was gonna walk and talk and the dialect and the look – any of the details that I would add to any other character. I wanted to make him as believable as possible. You run the risk with a character that’s so evil, of him becoming a cartoon, of becoming what I call ‘crazy eyes acting’. (snorts/snickers) I thought it would be much more terrifying and powerful if this was a guy who you could be sitting next to on a bus or living next door to.

Yet he still is an extreme character, more so than the roles you usually play…

Bacon – I like to play as many different kinds of characters as possible, that’s my battle in this career of mine; to keep people guessing, to keep myself interested and excited, to bounce around between different genres of filmmaking and to keep Hollywood on it’s toes. Hollywood has absolutely no imagination when it comes to casting. It seems to have less and less all the time. Generally what people want to see you do is exactly what they just saw you do and they wanna see you do it again because it’s safe and it’s easy. To actually fight against that is a constant struggle.

Does that mean you will turn down certain roles purely on that basis alone, in order to avoid the trap of getting stereotyped?

Bacon – Yeah. Absolutely.

The subject matter is sensitive and highly topical – re prison rape – it’s interesting that the homosexual nature of the act is completely sublimated to the power play that is involved.

Bacon – I don’t think of this guy as a homosexual. In fact, I wore my wedding ring, if you noticed. He’s a paedophile, he’s an abuser, he’s a power obsessed, twisted, angry monster. The sexual abuses he’s giving to these kids is not really about being gay. It’s a very different thing. I always saw him as being married and essentially straight. It’s much more of a hateful, deeper thing than that.

I agree he is not a homosexual character yet, I was curious to see that you brought a touch of effeminateness to your character.

Bacon – Oh, you thought so? Huh, okay.

Oh yes, the way you held the cigarette, the way your eyelids grew heavy when you made him undress as if you were surrendering to some sort of sexual desire.

Bacon – I didn’t consciously bring an effeminate aspect. But I’m certainly looking at him in a sexual way. There’s no doubt he gets sexual pleasure from this, but it’s not purely homosexual, it’s more of a power thing, an abusive pursuit, of abusing young men.

Do you have a dark side?

Bacon – I honestly believe it’s a natural state of the human condition to have a dark side. We all do. In characters who are essentially good and decent, I’ve always tried to bring a little bit of a dark side in there, or some kind of vulnerability or some hurt that is bubbling under the surface. The odd thing about playing dark characters and acting in general is that it’s strangely therapeutic. If you happen to be playing a character and you have to break down crying in the scene, you can exorcise the demons. Fight scenes are great for all that.

Some would say that to be so successful in your portrayal of a monster that you must have some anger inside.

Bacon – Oh, I have a lot of anger. Maybe I should lie down on the couch and tell you about it! (laughs) The world is my therapist. (laughs) There are people who have some anger and then there are — liars. That’s just part of being a human being. I don’t think it’s possible to live your life in a blissful state, I don’t believe in that.

Are you angry about abstract things like injustice and poverty or the guy who cut you off on the freeway?

Bacon – No. Well, I am angry about those all things but I think it’s much more obtuse than just specific issues.

Can you have success in parts other than these character roles we often see you in, say romantic leading roles?

Bacon – I don’t know. I would like to be able to do more of that, to do more romantic comedy and get with the girls.

Do you think the best parts are evil?

Bacon – No, not necessarily. The part I had in Murder in the First – the guy was a criminal but he was basically a decent, honest character. He’s almost a hero and it was a great part. And a victim, that’s the other end of the stick. My character in Apollo 13 was a great part and essentially he is misunderstood, he’s the odd man out but he’s also heroic – all three of those guys were. What I’m not really interested in are one dimensional heroes or bad guys. I like characters with complexity and characters that relate to something that’s actually real. When you live your life as a movie star, you tend to lie in this oddly, fantasy-like world because there are always people who are trying to get at you so you put the walls up and you start to push yourself away from human beings, just the run-of-the-mill people. What can happen is I believe you can lose touch with being able to reflect on the human condition. So it’s always been important to me to try to stay in touch with people and get out and walk down the street and live my life with some semblance of normalcy. I don’t live in LA, I never have and never will. I live in New York and Connecticut. I go back and forth.

Re playing in a film that also stars Hoffman and De Niro–

Bacon – I was heavily influenced by both their films when I was becoming an actor, moving to New York and giving it a shot. They were two remarkable talents. The odd thing about being in Sleepers with them was that I didn’t meet them until yesterday, here in Venice.

Yeah, you didn’t have any scenes with them at all.

Bacon – I was in my own little movie there, with the four young guys so maybe someday we’ll get a chance to actually work together.

Did you discuss the rape scenes a lot before you did them?

Bacon – Yeah, we talked about how it would be done though it wasn’t like I wanted to clarify things before I took the part, I trusted that Barry would be handling things with good taste. For one thing, they’re young kids and you have to be careful. We all knew we had a responsibility, way beyond the film, just for their own safety and peace of mind. God forbid the making of something like that should become in any way a painful experience. And it wasn’t – we had a great time. We laughed all the time. I love those guys, they’re really great, funny and vibrant kids. We laughed even between all those scenes, more than ever. It’s not the way that I pictured it. I thought maybe I was gonna be withdrawn and would have to stay away from them and stuff. But it doing that wouldn’t have had any application to actually making a film like this. I like kids. I was a kid myself. I got two of my own. And Barry is a very funny guy and these guys are all just bouncing off the walls, they’re just fun, great kids as we had a lot of fun. It helped a lot because it put them at ease, and for them to be able to trust me meant that they had to get to know me outside of the character, they couldn’t really relate to me as the character. For their parents to be able to trust me, they had to see that I wasn’t some actor over in the corner getting ready to do all this stuff, some wacko, psychobag. It freed me up to really go all the way with it, too. When he’s screaming at them and hitting in the lunch room and making them eat the food off the floor, you can’t play that stuff with any kind of doubts about what you’re gonna do, you’ve just got to get in there and play it full out.

Did the young actors understand what you were depicting?

Bacon – Oh yeah, these are city kids. They are very savvy. They’re between 12 and 14 years old.

About your band, which you formed with your brother —

Bacon – We’re called the Bacon Brothers – acoustic rock music, original stuff. We’re talking to a bunch of people about a cd. Been playing together for a long time, but in this capacity for a year and a half and we mostly do 4-500 seat clubs Bottom Line in NY. I sing, write, play guitar. Two accoustic guitars, percussionist, bass player – three part harmionies.

We’ll probably record. A bunch of companies have been interested. It’s an interesting thing, you people have this warped idea that if you are a movie actor then the record industry is waiting for you with open arms but the fact of the matter is that there is no precedent for success by movie stars in the music business, apart from a couple of novelty singles here and there. Almost no one has become succesful. Singers become actors.

What will you call your first cd?

Bacon – I don’t know but I can tell you it wouldn’t be a play on ‘Bacon’ or food because if I see another goddamn article that says ‘Kevin brings home the bacon’ or ‘fries and sizzles’ I think I’ll puke.

What’s this ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon’ all about?

Bacon – It’s a game. It’s been around the States for like, over a year. It’s a computer programme, they’re putting a book out. There is a CD Rom – it’s called the Kevin Bacon game. These three guys from the University of Pittsburg or Virginia – I don’t know where they’re from – they were sitting around and they came up with this idea that any actor can be traced back to me by connecting them with other actors who end up having worked with me. Any actor who has ever been in a movie, including the talkies and films from the twenties, within six degrees of separation you can trace them back to me. It just means I’ve done a lot movies that have a lot of actors in them. Big casts, that’s all it says.

Pauline Adamek

Pauline Adamek is a Los Angeles-based arts enthusiast with twenty-five years' experience covering International Film Festivals and reviewing new Theatre, Film and Restaurants.

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