by Una La Marche | December 1, 2010 | People
Let’s dispense with the puns right up front. I have met Kevin Bacon in person, and yes, he is sizzling (I wish I could kill two birds by working in “six degrees,” but that’s not hot, not even in Celsius). He’s footloose, and yes, as of late, thanks to some high-profile projects like X-Men: First Class, he’s been bringing home a certain pork product occasionally employed as a euphemism for money.
But even though the 52-year-old actor is, as he admits, a “known quantity,” enjoying a sort of rediscovered alpha-celebrity status thanks to raw talent, memorable roles and pop-culture fame (how many other stars have namesake games that earn a permanent spot in the cultural zeitgeist?), things haven’t always come easy. And even after 35 years in the moviemaking business, he takes nothing for granted.
In late 2009 Bacon was in between acting jobs and putting all of his energy into his band, The Bacon Brothers, which he fronts alongside his older brother, Michael. The siblings have been performing together since the mid-’90s, and it shows: Bounding across the stage at B.B. King Blues Club & Grill in Manhattan during a sold-out set last October, Bacon exhibited rock-star confidence, dancing and jumping and banging on a tambourine as if the energy coiled in his whippet-thin frame was too powerful for him to control.
And when he grabbed the microphone, unleashing a throaty Bon Jovi-esque growl, it was clear this was no vanity project. In fact, Bacon’s passion for music started long before Hollywood came calling, in his childhood home on Locust Street in Society Hill.
GROWING UP BACON
To hear him tell it, the Bacon family was practically a real-life version of The Partridge Family. “My brother, Michael, and my sister Hilda performed in bands when I was a little kid,” he told me over breakfast in Manhattan, where he has lived for more than 30 years. “I think my sister Karin played the flute a little bit. My mother tinkered around on the mandolin.”
By the time he was in high school, Bacon was playing percussion in a number of bands and had also started to write songs. But then he took an acting class. And the rest is, if not history, at least a very long Netflix queue. “All of a sudden, I [thought], Well, my brother is doing the music thing. I’m gonna see if I can become an actor,” Bacon says. He left home at 17 and moved to New York, where he found work in theater and on soap operas like Guiding Light. In 1988, after costarring with her in a PBS television adaptation of Lanford Wilson’s play Lemon Sky, he married actress Kyra Sedgwick.
He had already found a fan base and garnered critical acclaim with his work in the two film classics Diner and Footloose, but it wasn’t until the early ’90s, after breakout roles in Oliver Stone’s JFK and A Few Good Men, in which he costarred with Tom Cruise, Demi Moore and Jack Nicholson, that Bacon became a bona fide movie star. His Hollywood stock soared, and he started working nonstop.
In 1995, a year that found him at the height of his fame with starring roles in Apollo 13 and Murder in the First, The Bacon Brothers were born. At first Bacon was reluctant to return to his musical roots, but once he and Michael started playing shows—beginning at small clubs in upstate New York and Philadelphia—he relished the thrill of live performance. “Anything can happen,” he says. “Forget a lyric, break a string or knock something over... there’s no second take. It got me those butterflies back.” Singing and songwriting also allowed Bacon to showcase his hometown pride in a way he couldn’t through his acting. “Even though I don’t get back that often, I kind of feel like I’m always pulling for Philly,” he says. “I don’t really think it gets its props, you know?”
Near the end of 2009, it was obvious, as much as he loved being able to focus on making music, Bacon was jonesing for an acting job. “Acting is very therapeutic, sometimes even cathartic,” he told me the morning after the B.B. King show. “I love doing it. I love the time between ‘action’ and ‘cut.’ The rest of the stuff can get a little old, you know—waiting for the phone to ring, sitting in a makeup chair. But the time that I’m actually acting, which is a minuscule part of my life, is extremely satisfying.” At that point, more than a year had passed since he’d filmed Taking Chance, an HBO historical drama about bringing home a fallen soldier from Iraq (which thus far hadn’t garnered much recognition for its leading man). And earlier in 2009, after rumors swirled that he and Sedgwick lost a significant amount of their savings in Bernard Madoff’s Ponzi scheme, Bacon had publicly stated that he needed work. It suddenly seemed possible, as he pulled down a woolen cap to shield himself against the cold October morning, that being Hollywood’s known quantity might not be enough anymore.
This makes it all the more satisfying to report that just 12 months later, Bacon seems to be back at the top of his game. “It’s been a great year,” he tells me cheerfully by phone from London, where he’s staying while filming the latest installment in the X-Men franchise. “It’s almost embarrassing to say that it’s been such a great year when I think about how so many people in this country and the rest of the world have struggled. But I’ve had work, and the work has been really satisfying and fun, and I’ve really enjoyed acting.”
He has no doubt been bolstered by the Golden Globe and the SAG Award he picked up in January. At both ceremonies, Bacon took home the prize for Best Actor in a Miniseries or Motion Picture Made for Television for Taking Chance—a career milestone he didn’t see coming. “The response was certainly beyond anything that I had expected,” he says. “It was great. I mean, I can’t say that you walk away from it and you get the statues and the phone’s ringing off the hook the next day. I wish I could say that that’s the way it happens.”
NEW YEAR, NEW ROLES
Bacon's dance card for 2011 is filling up fast: Bacon has a bit role in a comedy with Steve Carell and Julianne Moore (tentatively titled Crazy, Stupid, Love) and stars alongside Rainn Wilson and Ellen Page in Super, an offbeat caper about a regular guy who decides to don a superhero costume and fight evil.
On both jobs, Bacon says, he enjoyed working with great actors and having the freedom to do something light without the weight of the success of the films on his shoulders. “You can be in a situation as an actor where you’re saying, ‘Well, I gotta wait for the perfect thing,’” he explains. “But sometimes I find it’s good to just throw yourself into something. You realize, I gotta stop saying no and see what happens if I just kick things into gear. Super was a good example of that. They had another actor who fell out, and it was basically working for free for four days in Shreveport and I said, ‘Yeah, why not? This looks like fun.’”
In X-Men: First Class, slated to open in early June, Bacon plays mutant villain Sebastian Shaw. Although it’s his first major action role (the only thing that comes close, he says, is 2000’s Hollow Man), it’s not a particularly demanding part physically. “I’ll let the younger actors do that,” he laughs. “I’m more one of those sit-in-my-chair-and-destroy-the-world type of guys.” He had to cancel some Bacon Brothers shows due to filming conflicts, but he still brought his guitar with him to the set, despite a recent bout of writer’s block. (“I’m usually a super-, super-prolific kind of writer,” he says. “But right now, the songs are just not coming.”) He shouldn’t worry: If the past year is any indication, it’s safe to say that Kevin Bacon will be singing a new tune in no time.
photograph by tim white
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