There is an etiquette to meeting a Hollywood star for breakfast. Certain do’s and don’t. Do be on time. Don’t be late. That’s about it, really… Unless the Hollywood star is Kevin Bacon. Here you have some latitude, as I discover when I arrive a little late for breakfast with him because my train has broken down. My grovelling apologies are met with a friendly: ‘Hey, no worries, man. It happens. What you going to have? Think I’m going for the vegetarian with poached egg and wheat toast.’
He looks like he could do with a square meal. He is a knife thin 5ft 11in, and the black shirt he is wearing open down to his ribs makes him look hungry and lupine, an impression compounded by the tufty whiskers on his chin. The depth of his voice, meanwhile, seems to belong to a heavier man. Though there is something cold about his looks — he has a crooked smile, angular cheekbones, an upturned nose and deep-set blue eyes that seem chilly — his manner is warm.
His nice guyness is legendary in Hollywood. Actually, he is a legend in Hollywood, full stop — the 50-year-old actor who has a connection with just about every film that has been made and ever will be made. This phenomenon — his being the centre of Hollywood gravity — was turned into the popular Internet game, book and board game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. It challenges players to link other actors to Bacon in six films or fewer. The ‘Bacon number’ of an actor or actress is the number of degrees of separation he or she has from Bacon. The higher the Bacon number, the farther away from Kevin Bacon the actor is. For example, John Wayne has a Bacon number of two: Wayne was in The Longest Day with Robert Wagner, Wagner was in Wild Things with Bacon.
At first Bacon was suspicious that it was a joke at his expense, that it showed he was too promiscuous as an actor — he has been in more than 50 films — and that, while not unattractive, he wasn’t matinee idol handsome enough to be the leading man.’
But his niceness prevailed. He went along with it. Set up a charitable foundation on the back of it. Now, when I ask him whether it has been a blessing or a curse, he says: ‘I don’t think it’s been a good thing for my career. I thought it was going to go away a long time ago but it’s still there. It’s so random that it should be me. The name “Kevin Bacon” sounds a little like “separation”, that’s all it is. With me in it, it is silly and fun. Take me out of it and the idea of connectivity is kind of beautiful. A powerful, small world idea that says that whatever you or I are doing will effect other people down the road for good or ill.’
The British actor Michael Sheen, who played Tony Blair in the Queen, now has a Bacon number of one. In the film Frost/Nixon, written by Peter Morgan, he plays David Frost. Bacon plays Nixon’s chief of staff, Colonel Jack Brennan, an ex marine who guides Nixon through the strategy of the 1977 David Frost/Richard Nixon interviews. For the actor, this film represents another collaboration with director Ron Howard, having starred in his 1995 film Apollo 13. ‘I was really enthusiastic to come back and work with him again.’ Bacon says. ‘He joins a very short list of directors who’ve actually hired me twice.’
Frost was an unlikely choice as the man to do the first interview with the disgraced former President. ‘I think Nixon’s men thought Frost would be a safe bet,’ Bacon says, splashing Tabasco on his eggs. ‘To me the movie has a boxing element to it. You have a young upstart who gets in the ring with the hardened champion. No one thinks he is going to make it to the third round and they have their coaches, their teams. They went to great lengths to negotiate how the interview would go, what the terms were, what was off limits. My character was in Nixon’s camp anticipating questions, giving moral support. Nixon was fascinated by the armed services, especially the marines. There was a side to him that wished he was cut from that cloth. He was raised as a Quaker and had a different mind set.’
Bacon, who met Jack Brennan as part of his research, says he always gets on well with military types. He has played several, and was especially convincing as a cold-blooded marine in A Few Good Men. I ask if he has ever wondered whether he could have cut it in the Army. ‘I don’t have the right mentality. I was raised to feel disdain for the military. Raised in a liberal household during the Vietnam War. My mother was a political activist and was horrified when she saw me playing with guns. She was very progressive that way. I don’t think I could cut it in the Army but, hey, it was never going to arise. I’m an actor. I play marines. I’ve had them say “you could do it” and I say ‘“trust me, I could not”. I don’t think I have the marine mentality.’ He gesticulates with his fork, conducting the conversation with it. ‘But I don’t question my manliness. That’s not something I struggle with. One of the fun things about being an actor is that you can put yourself in situations where you test yourself. We all have fantasies about kicking someone’s ass, or shooting guns or going down raging rivers. Those are some aspects of being a man. You have to be able to do that stuff. I always try and do my own fight scenes rather than use stunt guys.’
For Apollo 13 he certainly tested himself physically. ‘We shot up there in zero G. Got a sense of what it was like. They took us up in this KC137 airplane over the Gulf of Mexico. You climb straight up then dive. Your stomach as you go over the top… Man. The centrifugal force throws you up and then the gravitation pulls you down. We did 40 runs and when I got down again I kissed the ground. Ron then said, “Why don’t we shoot the movie up there?” And I said “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me.” Then he said: ‘You don’t have to go. Absolutely no pressure. If you don’t want to go, you don’t have to go. Tom’s gonna go. Gary’s gonna go. Bill’s gonna go. I’m gonna go.” After that I had to say yes.’
I like watching that film with my sons, I say, because it teaches them, well, how to be men. How to have grace under pressure. ‘I know what you mean, you can be manly without having to kill someone or beat someone up.’
Bacon married the actress Kyra Sedgwick 20 years ago. They have two children, a boy now 19, and a girl 16. Did he watch Apollo 13 with his son? ‘To be honest I never watch my old movies. If they come on television I will flick on. I’ve no idea whether my son has watched Apollo 13. We never talk about films. I’m pretty sure they’ve never seen Footloose.’
Ah yes, Footloose. Another blessing and curse. It was the summer blockbuster of 1984 and it haunts him still. The story of a city boy who moves to a bible-belt backwater where dancing is banned, it was notable not only for it’s dancing but also its massively moussed hair and jackets with the sleeves pushed up. After that film he was more or less forced to give up dancing in public: If they went to a club, the DJ would eventually play “Footloose” and people would form a circle around him clapping their hands expectantly. Once, during the US Open, he was spotted in the crowd and Footloose duly came on the PA system. He has always played guitar and is to this day in a band The Bacon Brothers — his older brother Michael being the other frontman. They have released three albums but inevitably, when they play a gig, someone will shout out: ‘Do “Footloose”‘. Though it is not one of their songs, they usually oblige.
After Footloose, Bacon seemed to be a paid up member of the ‘Bratpack’ of 80s stars who included Tom Cruise, Christian Slater and his friend Sean Penn. It was assumed he would have his pick of leading roles. A string of box office flops followed and, in the early 1990, just after he turned 30, he was standing with his pregnant wife on the corner of 86th Street and Broadway when he had a panic attack and collapsed on the sidewalk. His mother had been diagnosed with cancer, he was in Tremors, a movie about underground worms, and as he said later ‘my career felt like it was completely in the shitter’.
After the panic attack it was time to reappraise. His agent reminded him of how he had played edgy roles on the New York stage – junkies, male prostitutes. She told him they should look for something small, something character driven. Oliver Stone was casting JFK. Bacon’s transformation into the swaggering gay hustler Willie O’ Keefe in that film was mercurial. And while he may not have had many lines, what he did say was memorable. “You don’t know shit Mr Garrison,” he told Kevin Costner’s character, “‘cos you ain’t never bin fucked in the ass.”
After this he was in great demand as a character actor. The hits followed: Sleepers, Murder in the First, The River Wild, Mystic River and Hollow Man.
All the while he was living in New York rather than Hollywood and his children were kept at arm’s length from the movie industry. ‘Their idea of us is as parents not film actors. We’re the people who tell them to clean up the room. Make pancakes on a Sunday.’
And walk around the house naked? ‘Not any more.’
Why did he stop doing that? ‘I’ve haven’t done that since…’ His sideways grin. ‘In fact I don’t think I’ve ever done that. It’s just one of those stories.’
Norman Mailer said that once a newspaper touches a story, the facts are lost forever, even to the protagonists, so perhaps that is it. Even so, Bacon was once quoted as saying: ‘There’s something therapeutic about nudity. Clothing is one of the external things about a character. Take away the Gucci or Levis and we’re all the same. But not when the nanny is around. I will with my wife and kids.’
The only time his children think of him as an actor, he says, is: ‘When I have to pack up my bags from time to time. The idea of them watching us pretend to be other people is not that attractive. I guess in Hollywood all their friends’ parents would be connected with the film industry because it is a one-industry town but that is not true of New York. None of their friend’s parents are actors.’
I ask what his friends in New York do for a living. ‘I have friends who are musicians, one is a painter, one is a screenwriter. I know actors but it’s not like I hang out with them, so my kids don’t either.’
He reckons his perspective on life changed as soon as he had children. ‘Yeah that is the moment when you step out of yourself. My whole world evolves around them. I have accepted work I might not have wanted to do because I wanted to provide for them. You have to keep your family together. It is a responsibility. With a boy you work so hard because you know they have to have the right stuff to get out in the world and take the slings and arrows. It’s so bittersweet because you’re happy to see them take on the world, but it is sad when they need you less and less. You have to let go and they are going to have to learn about rejection. Rejection from a girlfriend. Rejection after a job interview. You want to warn them but you can’t.’
He speaks with feeling on this subject. He has been nominated for everything from Screen Actors Guild Awards and Golden Globes but an Oscar nomination always eluded him. His biggest indignity was being removed from the poster of Mystic River, while co-stars Sean Penn and Tim Robbins won Oscars.
The way he and his wife raise their children is different from the way they were raised. He rolls his wedding ring distractedly on his finger as he speaks of this. ‘I am so much closer to my kids than I was to my parents. Not in an overbearing, too involved, step over the boundaries way, but we talk about things. Spend time together. Enjoy each other’s company. My son plays guitar in a band. He hands down never wanted to be an actor. My daughter is still trying to figure out what she wants to do. My wife and I have pounded the table so hard about their not being actors that I think the only reason they would now do it would be out of rebellion. They have had so many years hearing my wife and I talk about the rejection involved. The heartache. Both of us, as well as we’ve done, felt we didn’t want them to be subjected to that. In retrospect I could probably have been a little less adamant.’
His son looks nothing like him, he says. ‘He’s big, dark haired, taller. Not like me, a skinny runt. He could take me down in a second. He has no desire to be famous whereas I had a strong desire to be famous.’
Er, why? ‘I grew up in Philadelphia, a big city but also provincial. It feels like a small town. My father was the head of the city planning division and had wide, sweeping ideas. Kind of he turned it into a platform for urban renewal and became famous in Philadelphia. Not wealthy but famous. He was on the cover of Time Magazine. I saw that and whether it was nature or nurture I don’t know, but I knew I wanted to be more famous than him. I knew I wanted to kick his ass. We got on OK but I had to beat him.’
What would Freud have made of that, does he suppose? ‘I don’t know. Was it Oedipal, you mean? I don’t know. But I do know I always craved love and attention. There was always a side of me that wanted to perform. That feeling of walking into a room and wanting everyone to look at me. I was the youngest of six and was trying to get attention.’
His parent’s didn’t pay him enough attention, he reckons. ‘Not as much attention as I pay my children. They were always supportive of what I did, but they were busy people. Every night they would be out at meetings.’
He doesn’t think he is like his father in terms of personality. ‘I’d like to think I’m not as self-obsessed. He was super self-involved in a way that I don’t think I am, even in this ego driven profession.’
His father never took the young Kevin to the movies and he wasn’t a movie fan until his late teens. ‘Part of the reason was that it hurt me to not be in the movie. It was killing me that I wasn’t in it. I was hungry. I would go home and want to act it out.’
By the time he was nine, all his five siblings had left home. At 17, he did too, skipping college to go to New York and study drama at The Circle in the Square with a view to becoming a film star. So which was the movie that converted him? ‘Midnight Cowboy. I saw that and thought yeah that’s what I want to do, that kind of acting, in that kind of film.’
He says that the dramatic ups and downs of his career have taught him that if he is to feel fulfilled he has to take three things out of the equation. The first is the size of his part. The second is the size of the budget. And the third is the size of his salary. Once you get rid of those things, your possibilities exponentially explode. You get to work with the directors who matter. You get to make movies like The Woodsman.
In that 2004 film, which he produced, he plays Walter, a reformed child abuser, out on parole. The tension in the film comes from the potential for abuse, as Walter struggles to control his proclivity. Bacon’s performance is immensely sympathetic. ‘Of course paedophilia happens way more than we hear about or talk about,’ he says now. ‘Because so much is ambiguous.’
What made his performance more arresting was his apparent normality. ‘Yeah I wasn’t drooling or hiding in the bushes. For me the first thing people do is call them monster. I’ve done it myself. “Monster. Monster.” The more frightening reality is that they might not be a monster. No horns. Just regular guys sitting in this restaurant, or on the bus, or in church and we are unable to identify them and that, to me, is so much more frightening.’
Kevin Bacon believes we all have darkness in our souls — anger, unhealthy sexual drives and violence — but we also have innate goodness. On balance, he tries to be a good person, he says. He tries to be positive too. ‘If you have a bad morning, it doesn’t mean you have to have a bad afternoon.’