Connectivity was the theme in Austin on Saturday: Kevin Bacon made his first trip to the SXSW Film Festival to chat about his career, including the 20th anniversary of the “six degrees” game that links him to every other actor in Hollywood. The star of Footloose has gone from being “horrified” by the pop phenomenon to embracing it for his charity network: SixDegrees.org. Film veteran Bacon is now starring in the second season of his first TV show, Fox’s The Following, which was just renewed for a third season despite this year’s ratings slip. Bacon reflected on his career with Deadline as SXSW’s 2014 edition kicked off:
DEADLINE: Your first role was in Animal House, which the recent passing of Harold Ramis brought back into mind. And that role couldn’t be farther from the “Kevin Bacon” audiences have come to know.
KEVIN BACON: Between me and Neidermeyer, he’s the one you want the worst fate to befall. And that’s fun to do. I was so grateful to [John] Landis and Harold Ramis and all those guys for giving me that part. They came to my acting school and I didn’t have an agent, I didn’t have a pot to piss in. When the movie came out I was still a waiter — I had to ask for the night off in order to go to the premiere. So that was a huge movie in my life, but it didn’t change my life, really, other than I thought, “OK, now I’ve actually worked and got paid to be an actor.” But it certainly didn’t put me on the map. It was still a struggle to try and get an agent. It was still a struggle to make ends meet; I ended up waiting tables for quite a few years after the movie came out.
DEADLINE: Why did it take you so long time to come to television with The Following?
BACON: TV has undergone a renaissance, but when I started that just was not the perception. So it was a very difficult decision. Most of it was clouded by my own snobbery. There was a directive amongst my representation to never, ever come to me with a television show because I would perceive that as a vote of no confidence, and it would anger me. And then my focus started to shift. I started to think about all the shows that I was watching and consuming over an entire weekend — The Sopranos, The Wire, Dexter, Six Feet Under. I was seeing iconic performances, not the least of which with [his wife] Kyra [Sedgwick] and seeing her life in the seven years she was on [The Closer]. I went, “Why am I being such an asshole? Why not? What I really love to do is act. Why not put yourself in a situation where you have a greater chance and more time in front of the camera, over the course of months — years, if you’re lucky?” I threw my hat into the ring and said, “OK, I’m open to the idea now.” In the next two weeks I read three or four of the best scripts I’d ever read. Pilots. And I thought, I really have been missing out.
DEADLINE: Now that you’re in the second season of The Following, how is your character arc, and the overarching story, expanding from Season 1?
BACON: Masks are playing a big part of this season, both literal and figurative masks. My character started out wearing a mask that this whole life, this darkness, and this killer was behind him. That he’d moved on from the booze and the obsession. And he’d come to find out that the obsession is deeper than ever. The central relationship this season has remained Joe Carroll. He died last year and I was absolutely sure that he was not dead, and I turned out to be right so my focus has been on him.
DEADLINE: How much input do you find yourself giving, or wanting to give, on where your character goes in the show?
BACON: I go back and forth on that. I do feel like I’ve given quite a bit, and I’ve written an extensive backstory which has sometimes but not always been used — or, if it’s used, it’s used by me in my own head. That being said, I’m not a writer and I’m not in the writers’ room. I’m not someone who comes onstage and says, “I’m rewriting this now.” I don’t think it’s fair to the writers or the director, or the other actors. Also on our show things are morphing depending on storylines that seem to be working, or characters that are popping, or don’t necessarily. It’s kind of a house of cards — you move one piece and the whole piece shifts down the line. Kevin Williamson and I have a relationship now that’s more trusting. I’m new to TV so it’s been a learning process.
DEADLINE: Why do you think ratings have been up and down this season?
BACON: I take it extremely personally and I feel a tremendous amount of responsibility. I’ve spoken to pretty much everybody on the show and asked, “What can I do? What am I not doing?” Ratings aside, I want it to be the best it possibly can be. I don’t want to be in a situation where I’m kind of washing my hands of it and saying, “You guys figure it out.” That’s not the way I roll. What’s interesting to me is that we’re one of those shows that has a giant piece of our viewership from different platforms, not live viewing. Maybe it’s too scary and people don’t want to watch it at night, or it’s an age thing. My kids rarely watch anything live. But you find that the extended viewership is often really not reported. It’s tough to figure out how to do that and also how to monetize that. The traditional live read is sort of antiquated, I think. But I’m not a suit. That’s my impression. People stop me on the street and that’s my focus group. They seem to be extremely supportive and very happy with this season.
DEADLINE: How has your relationship with the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game and the concept of connectivity changed for you over the years?
BACON: The idea that we are all connected on the planet is kind of a beautiful thing. And it’s an idea that the Internet and social media have driven home. Now that’s the way we communicate all the time. We take these ideas and retweet them, which is basically the same kind of idea. It’s an exponential whisper down the line. The truth is, I was horrified by it at first because I was trying so hard to be taken seriously as an actor and I thought I was being made fun of. I felt like the joke was, he’s such a lightweight — can you believe he would be connected to Meryl Streep? Of course this is just the way my own insecurity works. But over the course of time I realized I can’t get away from it because it’s not going away so I might as well embrace it. The Six Degrees.org thing came out of a feeling I was having that I needed to do more giving back in my life, and I was inspired by Paul Newman. I thought to myself, “What do I have, what’s my tomato sauce?”
DEADLINE: How does the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon parlor game translate into your SixDegrees.org charity?
BACON: We’re trying to connect grassroots charities with celebrities and vice versa. Our idea is, if you’re out there and you’re shooting in a town, let’s say, we can connect you to something or some group that’s involved in something that’s interesting to you, in a very casual kind of way. It also pays both ways. One of the top comments I get from people is, “Oh my god, you’re like a regular person!” That’s kind of a bizarre thing to live with. I know a lot of famous people and their lives may not be regular, but they are regular people.
DEADLINE: You’ve also got an upcoming feature with Blumhouse, 6 Miranda Drive. Were you interested in doing microbudget horror which is also a segment that’s historically not been the hottest thing for a movie star to do?
BACON: I reached out to Jason Blum quite a few years ago because I really liked what he was doing. People are sometimes dismissive of genre. But I think he’s got a really good take on who the good filmmakers are in this world. That combined with the idea of, “Let’s see what happens if we’re not completely bogged down up front with a giant budget. Take something and make it contained, make it interesting and scary and see what happens.” I was in the first Friday The 13th and that was a microbudget horror film. The microbudgets were probably bigger then than they are now! But Greg McLean is great — Wolf Creek is a f***ing terrifying movie. I’ve seen Wolf Creek 2 which is right now like the #1 movie in Australia, and it’s even better than the first. It’s interesting and he’s a great shooter. 6 Miranda Drive is a movie that’s emotional; I read it and thought, if this came to me and it wasn’t a horror movie but a low-budget drama, I would think about doing it anyway. It’s a really interesting story the perfect American family that is kind of falling apart. To me it’s like a really scary Ordinary People. The greats are The Shining, Rosemary’s Baby, Don’t Look Now, The Exorcist — those movies were not really slashers, they were about psychological terror and had very deep emotional backdrops. If we do our best, 6 Miranda Drive can be that kind of a movie.