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Kevin Bacon, Staying Out On a Limb

With 'The Woodsman,' Actor Doesn't Deviate From Risky Role Choices

By Desson Thomson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 9, 2005; Page N01


Kevin Bacon sits loose and easy in his hotel chair, like he's half-expecting some higher A-list type to take his seat. Like, any second now, a trio of public relations minions could arrive, chirruping: "Excuse me, sir. This chair is for Kevin Spacey." But until that time, Kevin Bacon is going to enjoy the leathery softness anyway. Easy come, easy go.

Speaking of Spacey, the Other Kevin is gadding about antsily in the background of this Toronto piano lounge, holding court for his movie about Bobby Darin, "Beyond the Sea." Spacey, dressed in a tux, is surrounded by film festival attendees. But Kevin Bacon? He apparently couldn't care less, ignoring the commotion behind him. He's wearing a leather jacket. Jeans. His legs are crossed. His hair doesn't look washed. (Does it ever? Unless it's crew-cut for "JFK" or "A Few Good Men.") It's the uniform for who he is: an Everyman who speaks gently and carries no big shtick. He lives very comfortably inside himself, thank you; has never lived in Hollywood -- he's a New York City resident since the 1970s -- and, right now, has a little time to talk about his latest film, "The Woodsman," opening in Washington theaters this weekend.

Kevin Bacon's penchant for taking roles that surprise or even shock moviegoers has put him in a wide range of films -- and prompted the creation of a game based on the claim that Bacon can be linked to any other actor in six steps. (Stefano Paltera -- AP)

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The movie, which takes its title from the fairy tale character who saves Little Red Riding Hood from the wolf, is certainly no bedtime story for kids. The film, starring Bacon and his wife, Kyra Sedgwick, is about Walter (played by Bacon), a young man who tries to piece his life together after 12 years in prison for child molestation. He gets a job at a lumberyard and becomes increasingly friendly with Vickie (Sedgwick), a colleague who isn't aware of his background. Walter spends his life worrying about losing Vickie when she learns the truth, about being detected and humiliated at his job, and the burning question: Can he curb his dark impulses?

"A studio wouldn't go near this movie," says Bacon, 46, also the film's executive producer. "As it was, with a shoestring budget, we had a hard time getting anyone to finance it. At 2004's Sundance, everyone applauded the movie and then no one picked it up. It took a couple of days for somebody to stick their toe in the water before interest picked up."

After a few days, Bacon and producer Lee Daniels found the perfect candidate: Bob Berney of Newmarket Films, whose box office alchemy with such indie projects as "My Big Fat Greek Wedding," "The Passion of the Christ" and "Monster" is well documented. What Berney will achieve with "The Woodsman" is his personal challenge. Bacon has already met his own: to take on a dark role and be satisfied with it. But Bacon is a family man, and a father of two children. Why do this?

"I think you are either a personality or an actor," he says. "You've got to make a choice. There's nothing I won't do. I'm out there to play different kinds of parts, different kinds of people. They can't all be lovers. Or heroes. That's not why I became an actor. In 'Sleepers,' my character was lusting after boys. But it was a part that I found interesting. Something I hadn't done before. When I took on 'The Woodsman,' I didn't have my image, my persona, in mind because, frankly, I don't even know what it is."

When he read the script, which was adapted from a Steven Fechter play, Bacon was "knocked out by it. It took me on this emotional roller coaster between revulsion and hatred and fear, with a glimmer of compassion. That feeling of compassion made me angry at myself. . . . I certainly wasn't looking for something dark, where bad things happen to kids, you know, I was just coming off 'Mystic River' and 'Trapped.' And I was getting ready to act in and direct 'Loverboy,' which is also about sad things happening to children. But the movie kind of chose me. I felt like I didn't have a choice."

It was about a man returning to Philadelphia, Bacon's home town. First-time feature director Nicole Kassell and co-writer Fechter had been seriously thinking about Sedgwick for the supporting role, even before Bacon had been involved with the project. They'd be shooting in Philly, where his father (famed city planner Edmund Bacon, now in his nineties) still lives. And it was another opportunity to jump into the unknown without trepidation.

There's nothing I won't do.

The worries he did have, Bacon continues, were more mundane. He had been planning to take a rest from the rigors of independent moviemaking, where the entire production budget wouldn't pay for the hairdressers on "The Aviator." Would people even watch a film about a sex offender, no matter how "sensitively done"?

"I was thinking: Is it going to be a lot of work that I put my heart and soul into and no one's going to go? And am I going to be able to do a good job, handle the complexities of this character? Those are the kind of fears I had."

Since Sundance last January, Bacon and company have been working the international festival circuit. Their grunt work seems to be paying off, albeit slowly. The movie was nominated for the Independent Spirit and Gotham awards, Bacon got a special mention at the Flanders International fest, and the film took the Jury Prize at the Deauville festival in September. Festival stats are an independent movie's best hope: An accumulation of appearances and awards will always draw attention around Oscar time, and "The Woodsman" has its share of nomination possibilities, including Bacon's performance, the screenplay and Sedgwick's supporting role.

If Bacon's career has been about anything, it's a sort of wild-card freedom. While most actors look to play heroic, nice or adorable, Bacon is always looking for that X-factor role, the one that surprises, maybe even shocks. (Although he can play nice, too, as his roles in "Footloose" and "She's Having a Baby" demonstrated.) This approach isn't likely to make him a cover boy (although, let it be stated for the record, at least one magazine pronounced Bacon one of the 100 sexiest stars in movie history), but it has given him license to assume any role.

"I hope so, I hope so," he concurs. "That's always been my dream. That's the thing I spent my entire career hoping to accomplish."

When Bacon first became an actor in New York in the 1970s, he says, casting agents kept telling him he should play the boy next door. That didn't sit well.

"I wanted to be dangerous," he says. "I wanted to be poor. I wanted to be rich. I wanted to be a nice guy. I wanted to be an [anatomical expletive]. You know what I mean?"

So Bacon took his energies off-Broadway, where he could play more interesting roles, between the mid-1970s and into the 1980s. After some television work, he got a bit part in 1978's "Animal House," as Chip Diller. His first big break was in 1982 when he played Timothy Fenwick Jr. in Barry Levinson's convivial ensemble comedy, "Diner." His most famous role came two years later as Ren McCormack in "Footloose," about a city kid whose dancing moves and life-affirming spirit liberate a small town from its tight-lipped ways. The movie was a hit, Bacon was a sensation, and he found himself enjoying a goofy kind of fame.

"It was a blessing and curse," he says. "It was fantastic. But all of a sudden here I was, David Cassidy. I was so resistant to the idea."

He segued into the kind of roles he had been seeking: serious, light, comedic, scary. He was Ensign Pulver in a TV production of "Mister Roberts." He was a bike courier recovering from a former life as a stock market genius in "Quicksilver." A 1988 TV production of Lanford Wilson's play "Lemon Sky" not only gave him a good role as a son trying to reunite with an abusive father but also introduced him to Sedgwick, who had a small role.

"I fell in love with her," Bacon says. "Eventually talked her into falling in love with me. It wasn't love at first sight on her part."

They soon married. She returned pregnant from their honeymoon. Travis was born in 1989, and so was a working partnership, now 16 years old. She was in her early twenties; he was 30.

Their working relationship continues. Sedgwick stars with Bacon in his directorial film debut, "Loverboy," an emotional family drama chosen for this year's Sundance Film Festival. It's a real family drama: Their 12-year-old daughter, Sosie, is also in the cast, and Bacon's brother Michael (who plays with him in the band the Bacon Brothers) composed the score.

Through the '80s and '90s, Bacon segued into the roles that have given him the footloose category he really wanted. He was a soft-spoken killer ("Criminal Law"), a blue-collar guy chasing giant underground worms ("Tremors"), an astronaut ("Apollo 13") and was even invisible ("Hollow Man"). And in Clint Eastwood's 2003 "Mystic River," he was a police detective still struggling with a traumatic incident in his childhood. Bacon's wild card acting résumé continues: He plays an Austrian hairdresser in the upcoming Queen Latifah comedy "Beauty Shop."

Bacon's frequent appearances in ensemble movies, as well as his genre-hopping, inspired an odd kind of cultural fame -- and, yes, a game. Three Pennsylvania college students, inspired by John Guare's play "Six Degrees of Separation," invented "Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon," claiming that Bacon could be linked to any actor in six steps.

The satirists at the Onion once jokingly linked Bacon with Osama bin Laden.

He's taken his six-steps status in stride. "At first I was kind of embarrassed by it. I thought it was a joke at my expense. Like, do you believe this [expletive] can be connected to, you know, Laurence Olivier? But now I really don't have a problem with it."

He grins slyly.

"It would bug me more if it was 'Six Degrees of Kevin Spacey.' "

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