Kevin Bacon on the Problems With ‘Animal House,’ Going Full Frontal, and Coming Full Circle
The prolific actor sat down with Marlow Stern to discuss his gritty new Showtime series ‘City on a Hill,’ how he and Kyra Sedgwick have made Hollywood marriage work, and much more.
“You know what? This is the first place I worked in in New York,” offers Kevin Bacon. “Got the job when I was 18. Was here six months. I was terrible. I was a busboy who got bumped up to waiter, and then I dropped a bottle of ketchup on the floor and it went all over this guy with a white suit on, so I got stuck being a busboy again.”
We’re seated across from one another at Cafe Fiorello, a wood-accented, old-school Italian restaurant on the Upper West Side of Manhattan—Bacon’s neighborhood for more than 40 years.
At 17, Bacon left home to pursue an acting career in New York City. “I took the train from Philly, got on the 1, got off at 72nd Street, looked around and went, I’m here,” he recalls.
After a soap-opera stint, along with small parts in films like Animal House and Friday the 13th, Bacon finally made a name for himself with 1982’s Diner, and became a bona fide teen idol two years later in Footloose. He then turned his back on being a leading man, instead pursuing a wide range of challenging character parts, from a gay prostitute in JFK, to a ruthless criminal in The River Wild, to the command pilot in Apollo 13.
And Bacon, who is 60—but doesn’t look a day over 40—is back with another rich character part in City on a Hill, a new Showtime series that premieres June 16.
Created by Chuck MacLean and produced by Ben Affleck and Matt Damon, the series opens in crime-ridden 1992 Boston as Jackie Rohr (Bacon), a shady FBI agent with a penchant for cocaine and hookers, teams up with Decourcey Ward (Aldis Hodge), a black district attorney from Brooklyn, to solve a series of armored-car robberies. The case leads the unlikely duo down a path toward exposing citywide corruption, and cleaning up the titular City on a Hill.
In Jackie, Bacon and MacLean have created a complex and charismatic TV antihero who demands your attention—and will for weeks (and perhaps years) to come.
While digging into an avocado toast, Bacon reflects on his new role and long, fruitful career.
I read that you felt Animal House was going to be a bigger deal for your career but it didn’t do much, so you had to go back to busing tables.
After I left here, I got a job on 72nd between West End and Broadway at the All State Café, which was a great downstairs bar-burger kinda place. Mostly locals, regulars. I worked there on and off for a couple of years, and when Animal House came out I was waiting tables there. And I still kept working there for at least a year after Animal House came out.
That must have been a bit of a mindfuck, being in this huge hit movie and still waiting tables.
[Laughs] It was. It was a great lesson. Very humbling. You do your first movie and you think to yourself, “That’s it, baby!” And that’s not really the truth. The one thing I’m grateful for is I have a very strong work ethic. There was never a part of me that really thought that this was gonna be easy, or that I deserved something or didn’t deserve something. I knew I was going to have to work for it—and sometimes “work for it” meant being a busboy or being a waiter.
I grew up loving Animal House. How do you think it plays today?
Well, when you look at it, there are certainly things that are shockingly—
—like the scene with the passed-out 13-year-old girl.
Yeah. Just jaw-droppingly inappropriate. I feel it’s less about looking at what’s right and what’s wrong about the movie and being able to say, well, have we learned something from the cultural perspective, or from a perspective of whatever it happens to be, you know? Human rights, race, gender, whatever these things are, if we’re able to have a different perspective, hopefully that’s a good thing, because it implies that we’ve actually come somewhere; that we’ve matured, or become more enlightened.
You have an activist streak. I heard that you got that from your mother.
My parents were extremely liberal. For me, it was civil rights and being really opposed to the Vietnam War. My mom took me to quite a few rallies as a little boy, so I remember walking in crowds in Washington, D.C. and in Philly, and hearing the chants about civil rights and ending the war.
I remember you speaking out against Prop 8—and later appearing in the play 8—and for the reproductive rights of women.
And the environment. When my wife and I started talking about this thing, which back then we were allowed to call global warming, people were so dismissive of the idea, thinking we were “wacky.” And now here it is on our doorstep, and it’s not looking too good. There was a moment in time where we could have made a difference about it. I have a very conflicted relationship to—not to activism, but to celebrity activism, per se, because a lot of times it falls on political lines, and I go back and forth from saying, well, I’m an American citizen so therefore I should stand up and lend my voice to things I care about because that’s my right as a person, and on the other hand, it becomes very easy for people to say, well of course, here’s another celebrity flying around in a private jet—I don’t have a private jet, by the way—and talking about saving the environment. I think it’s very easy for people on the other side to say I’m a privileged famous person so it’s easy [to speak out], and, why should anybody listen to a loudmouth celebrity? Sometimes it can provide fuel for the fire. You don’t want to do something that has the opposite effect. So I think to myself, what is the other option? And that’s putting your money where your mouth is.
Now to City on a Hill. Is this Clint Eastwood’s fault? How did a guy from Philly become Mr. Boston?
The weird thing is that even before Mystic River I had done a couple of things in Boston, and Kyra [Sedgwick] and I met in Boston. And then it went to Black Mass, and Patriot’s Day, and R.I.P.D. I don’t know! I’m not really sure.
Well, you’ve got the accent down. It’s a tough one.
The funny thing about accents is, of course there’s going to be a lot of talk about that because my accent is pretty strong in this one, but I try to think about it as much as possible as not so much an accent but delivering Jackie’s voice—which goes beyond just the sounds that I make, specifically, with the aahs and what I do with my r’s. It’s more about the music of where he is, where it’s placed, what happens to his face and his body—it’s a whole thing. So the character in Mystic is a totally different voice.
It is the best accent to say “cocksucker” in. You cawksuckah!
[Laughs] It is. It really is. That’s true. It does work very well. In fact, I added one the other day because it just rolls off the tongue. It was my last scene in the last episode, and I decided to put it in as a last word. They’ll probably cut it out!
It’s a fascinating character because you shouldn’t follow Jackie, who’s a pretty unsavory guy, but you do. And I think a lot of that has to do with your performance and your own inherent likability.
He is good at his job. I got to be honest with you, I don’t set out to make the character likable. If you line up all the things I’ve done as an actor, and the specific sins I’ve gone through, the list is pretty long. I’ve done about as bad as anyone could do. When I do these things or take these parts, I do it because I’ve always wanted to explore all of the elements of human existence, and of the human character. I want to make every character a human being. Monsters are for Game of Thrones. Monsters are the white walkers. And that’s not really what the world is. It’s an easy thing to let ourselves off as a species when a guy does a triple murder and we say, “Oh, that guy is a monster.” Well he’s not a monster, unfortunately. He’s a real person.
Jackie does seem like a fun character to play. He’s such a manic guy, wild guy—doing bumps, sleeping with prostitutes, flipping everyone against each other.
All that stuff. And it’s fun because it’s so well-written, and everyone is so good on the show. Chuck [MacLean] really digs into the backstories of all these characters and you see as the show goes on, it’s not like the women are just there to be the wives of the main characters. They have their own rich stories.
Your career has had a unique arc to it. There were the post-Footloose years, where you really in a way eschewed being a teen idol and were a leading man, then did all these intriguing character parts in the ‘90s, and now in the 2010s you’re back to being a leading man in The Following and now City on a Hill.
The reason that I got into doing those character parts is I realized after Footloose that I wasn’t really a leading man, in my mind. I am a character actor. I need a place where I can do my shit, and to just be “the guy” is not that interesting to me, but I also think it’s not that interesting to the audience. I guess I don’t think I’m inherently all that interesting without something cool to play.
I did want to tell you that I fuck with Death Sentence hard. That movie got a pretty unfair shake, in my opinion.
Leave it to me to pick the one James Wan movie that doesn’t make two-hundred million dollars! It is hardcore. I loved it. One of the cool things about it was, you had Garrett [Hedlund] and then a lot of the other guys they cast as the gang members were stunt guys.
A movie my generation grew up with was Wild Things, which is now regarded as a bit of a sleazy cult classic. And you were a producer on that, so I’m curious: was the full-frontal scene your idea?
I’ll tell you exactly how that happened.
And you didn’t really see that at the time in movies—especially a studio movie.
No, you really didn’t—and we still don’t. I was in the shower, I get out of the shower, and it was never my intention for it to be that way. The director, John McNaughton, called me because I had a no-nudity clause in my contract, and he said, “Listen, in your shower scene, you actually are completely nude. And I have to talk to you about it because you might be in a position where you have to sue yourself to cut it out of the film as a producer.” So I said, “How is it?” and he said, “It’s good.” The weird thing is that, when the movie came out, I started to do press for the movie and that was every single question. I was not expecting it. I really wasn’t.
Talking about your dick for an entire press tour.
Yeah, exactly. It says a lot about our culture. I’m sure you’ve been to countless press junkets but when you do the TV part of it, you sit down and you do 40 domestic [interviews], break for lunch, and then you do 40 international, and almost nobody internationally asked me about it.
It’s the 35th anniversary of Footloose and Animal House came out 41 years ago, so you’ve been around for a bit. What do you think’s been the secret to your longevity?
There’s no secret to longevity. Longevity is the secret. Just hang in there, man!
But longevity does seem quite difficult when it comes to Hollywood relationships, and you and Kyra Sedgwick have been going strong for over 30 years. That must not be easy when you’re spending so much time apart on sets, etc.
You know I’ve heard that argument, and I’d like to someday see the statistics about whether marriage works better or worse in our industry, but honestly, I doubt it does. Marriage for the most part doesn’t work.
Isn’t there an added degree of difficulty though, given that you’re simulating sex scenes and romantic scenes with beautiful people all the time?
But is it? What’s going to break a marriage up—simulating a sex scene, or actually going out there and having sex with somebody else? And if you have to travel and spend some time apart from each other, can’t that also be something of a bonus? Because you can then come back together and it feels all fresh and new.
Absence makes the heart grow fonder.
Yeah. So, I don’t know if marriage is any harder in our business, and I’ve given up trying to describe why it works between us. But I did write a song about it recently called “Play.” People always say all this work goes into it, but we play, and I think that helps.
City on a Hill is very much a show about corruption, and you yourself have dealt with that firsthand with Bernie Madoff. I’ve been grifted for small sums of money, but I can’t imagine what that could have been like.
Listen, I mean, it was a real dark day. It’s very complicated to describe. He was a very despicable person, and there are also a lot of people who have a lot less. What a lot of people don’t understand is, there was the money that you invested and then there was the money that that was in theory worth, but it wasn’t worth that, so what’s the actual number? We looked at each other and though, man, that sucks. But we’ve got each other, we’ve got our kids, we’ve got our family, we’ve got some nice places to live—a great apartment in New York, that’s worth something—so what can you do? Just get the fuck back to work.