Kevin Bacon on Cheesesteaks, Playing Villains, and “Six Degrees”
The “professional pretender” talks about playing vile characters, as he does in Showtime’s new season of City on a Hill.
From Friday the 13th and Footloose to JFK, A Few Good Men, and a plethora of new projects, Philly’s own Kevin Bacon has had a career more prolific and wide-ranging than most. Here, he tells us what it’s like playing bad guys and advises us where to get great fried chicken in Philly.
It’s 9 a.m. here, so you’re either on the West Coast and an early riser or you’re back on the East Coast.
You know, I am an early riser, but I’m also on the East Coast right now. I’m usually up by about six. I try my best not to get out of bed when the time has a five in front of it. [laughs] I get about seven hours of sleep a night. My wife just wants everybody to sleep as long as humanly possible.
Where on the East Coast, specifically?
We’re up in northwestern Connecticut. I have a farm here that I got in the early ’80s. Unfortunately, we have this very strange and hopefully temporary gypsy moth infestation. It’s kind of a drag. But we love it here. I grew up right in the middle of the City of Philadelphia, but I always loved horses and the country. I actually kind of got this place on a goof. I was living in Manhattan around the time of Footloose and dating a girl, and we came up to this area to visit some family of hers. And just as something fun to do on the weekend, we had a local broker show us houses — you know how people go to open houses with no intention of buying, just for fun. But then I bought it.
Are you out here working or just vacationing?
I’m about to do a small part — but a good part! — in a Netflix film called Leave the World Behind. We’re shooting on Long Island. It’s with Ethan Hawke and Mahershala Ali and, even though I regrettably don’t have any scenes with her, Julia Roberts. It’s a very cool script by Sam Esmail, who did Mr. Robot.
Not exactly. It’s more like an impending-disaster kind of film. It’s not post-apocalyptic. Pre-apocalyptic.
Congrats on the new season of City on a Hill. I’ve been watching religiously since Season 1. And I have to congratulate you on playing one of the more loathsome characters on TV these days. For readers who haven’t seen the show, first of all, watch it. Second, you play Jackie Rohr, a corrupt, over-the-top-sleazy and reprehensible Boston FBI agent who should have retired long, long ago. He’s just … vile. Is it fun playing such a bad person?
I have played so many vile characters in my life. But this show is really well-written, and the character isn’t just vile. He’s interesting and complex and really different from me. Actors, we’re professional pretenders. I became an actor to try to be someone other than myself and convincingly walk in the shoes of a man unlike me. I never felt like “I” had something interesting to look at or watch. It was all about losing myself into characters.
He’s total trash in the first season, but you do see some faint glimmers of hope for him in the second. Does he redeem himself in the third?
In the third season, he has some very, very, you know, existential moral decisions to make. He realizes that the man he is working for is even more despicable than him, and he has to confront whether to look the other way, and I think that’s a question that everybody faces at some point.
One of the more unexpected attributes of the character is that he is incredibly well-read, constantly quoting philosophers or great works of literature, which doesn’t automatically connect with the rest of his rough-around-the-edges character. This is not a guy I would have predicted read a lot.
He’s clearly a streetwise guy and clearly did not come from any kind of wealth or erudition or an educated kind of world, but he has somehow found his way to books. You never actually see him pick up a book in the show. I like to think that books were his escape in what was clearly a nightmare childhood. It’s also interesting that he takes a piece of writing and uses it in a way that fits his version of the truth, like he does with Lincoln Steffens early in the series.
Are you, like the character, well-read?
No! I’m the opposite of a reader. I find it exhausting. I have never been good at reading. Even scripts, I read begrudgingly. My wife will sit in bed at night and delve deep into a book, but not me. If I’m trying to get to bed, I’ll do a crossword puzzle — an easy one. None of that New York Times stuff.
When I originally set up this interview, the timing was due to the debut of the third season of City on a Hill, but I understand you actually have another project debuting right about now.
Yes, They/Them. You speak the slash, so it’s said “They Slash Them.” And it’s on Peacock. It’s about a “conversion camp.” I’m amazed that this quote-unquote therapy is still used in some parts of the country. The writer, John Logan — he wrote huge things like Gladiator and The Aviator — could have just done this dark little sort of indie exposé of this industry. But instead, he found a genre that’s widely crowd-pleasing, so he turned it into a slasher movie, very much in the vein of the 1980s slasher movies.
If memory serves me correctly, one of your first major movies was a certain 1980s slasher movie.
Yep. Friday the 13th was partly where I got my start.
Sounds like you’ve been keeping yourself busy.
I have. I’ve had a very busy pandemic. I’m also in this thriller called One Way in which I play Machine Gun Kelly’s dad. I play a bad guy — again — in the new Toxic Avenger movie. And then one I’m really excited about is Space Oddity, about a family whose kid is planning a trip to Mars. Kyra Sedgwick just so happens to be the director. I like to say that I’m sleeping with the director. [laughs]
And because you can’t be busy enough, you’re also on tour right now with your brother, with a concert in Ocean City on August 2nd. How did this Bacon Brothers business even become a thing?
We’ve been doing it since 1995. I always loved music, but my brother, who is nine years older than me, was a real singer-songwriter. He and my sister were always putting little bands together in our basement at 21st and Locust. I eventually picked up the guitar. I’m not a good guitar player by any stretch of the imagination, but I can play enough to write songs. And then my friend Harry Spivak, whose family was Electric Factory Concerts, proposed the idea of a Bacon Brothers show at the TLA. And we really put the band together for that one show, but it took off.
Dare I ask, do you do the song “Footloose”?
[Laughs] At some point, I said to my brother, “I think we need to embrace the beast and play it.” So we did, and we still do. I can’t sing like Kenny Loggins — far from it — but people get a kick out of it.
I’m sure you hate it, but I feel like I can’t interview you without asking you about Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon. Technology has come a long way since that idea originated in the ’90s. I’m talking to you on Zoom. So does that count? Am I now in the one-degree club?
Um, no, Victor. Sorry. It’s actually supposed to be about whether we have worked in a movie together. If you’re on an elevator with me or on Zoom or whatever, that doesn’t count. But if you work with me on a movie, then you are one degree, and if you’ve worked with somebody who worked with me, two.
Et cetera, et cetera, et cetera. Considering your prolific career, the club must have really grown since it started.
I would say, honestly, that if we’re gonna keep discussing this in a rational way and have an intelligent conversation about it, you’d be hard-pressed to find somebody in Hollywood that would be six degrees away. The most would be maybe four or five.
Moving on, then. Much is known about your dad, the urban planner Edmund Bacon, who has been called the Father of Modern Philadelphia and is basically the guy responsible for Center City looking the way it does. What about your mother?
My mother grew up in New York, and my father and mother met in Flint, Michigan, during the autoworker strikes. They had both gone out there to try to support the unionization of the autoworkers. They got involved and moved to Philadelphia, where my mother became a nursery-school teacher. One of the things she did was start a nursery school at a housing project. She was also a social activist, very involved in the civil rights and anti-war movements, and then she started teaching early education at Community College of Philadelphia. She also worked at Graterford Prison. She created a “family room” there. When the inmates were allowed to have visitation, she created this room where the children could spend time with them and they could play and do activities together, instead of a bare room with everybody sitting on plastic chairs.
Sounds like she was ahead of her time.
She was. She was a remarkable person, without a doubt. She really spent her life — people talk about this “giving back” thing, but she really spent her life doing her best to give back.
As for your dad, did you have a sense when you were growing up here of just how significant a figure he was in the city?
Yeah, because he made sure everybody knew about it. People would stop him on the street, and he would love it. He loved being in the papers, good or bad. He embraced the celebrity that he had. He loved to be in the spotlight, for sure.
Speaking of parents, you, of course, are one. I was happy to see your daughter Sosie pop up in Mare of Easttown. I understand your son Travis does music for film. And Kyra acts and directs. Have the four of you ever done a project together?
We are so focused on trying to find that thing. I’ve directed Sosie, and Kyra has directed Sosie. And Travis has scored some things for us. He’s also in a metal band. I would love to do something with the four of us, and there may be something in the works, but I can’t talk about it. But when Sosie was doing Mare of Easttown, she would call me up from Philly to have a conversation about the accent. She wanted to hear me go back into my Philly accent so she could get it right.
Do you get back to Philadelphia at all these days?
Absolutely. I have two sisters, one in Center City and one in Northern Liberties. And I have a nephew and his wife and their daughter. And my brother has a place out in the country near Philly. So I do get back.
Is there one spot you have to get to whenever you’re in Philly?
You know, it’s funny. I really don’t go out that much when I’m there, though I really like the fried chicken at the Love. My sister introduced me to that. Other than that, people are always asking you what your favorite cheesesteak is. But my feelings about that … I have a strong feeling that if you go to the cheesesteak place in your neighborhood, it should be as good as any other cheesesteak in any other neighborhood. You get some bread. You get some steaks. You put the steaks on the grill with onions. I like a short walk to the steak shop. This is not rocket science. It’s a sandwich.
Six Degrees? Pfft. Try Two.
The game, Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, created in the early ’90s by three drunk college students in Reading, is simple: If Actor X was in a movie with Kevin Bacon, Actor X is one degree of separation from him. If Actor Y was in a movie with Actor X, then Actor Y is two degrees away. And so forth and so on. Here, we found the surprising two-degree separations of some Hollywood legends from Kevin Bacon.
Clockwise from top:
- Sally Field was in Forrest Gump with Tom Hanks, who was in Apollo 13 with Kevin Bacon.
Sophia Loren was in Prêt-à-Porter with Julia Roberts, who was in Flatliners with Kevin Bacon.
Sidney Poitier was in The Greatest Story Ever Told with Roddy McDowall, who was in The Big Picture with Kevin Bacon.
Marilyn Monroe was in Some Like It Hot with Jack Lemmon, who was in JFK with Kevin Bacon.
Tina Turner was in Last Action Hero with Sharon Stone, who was in He Said, She Said with Kevin Bacon.
James Earl Jones was in The Hunt for Red October with Alec Baldwin, who was in She’s Having a Baby with Kevin Bacon.
Faye Dunaway was in Chinatown with Jack Nicholson, who was in A Few Good Men with Kevin Bacon.
Orson Welles was in The Muppet Movie with Steve Martin, who was in Planes, Trains and Automobiles with Kevin Bacon.
Published as “On the Record: Faking Bad” in the August 2022 issue of Philadelphia magazine.