Still playing his moment

Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters
Kevin Bacon found fame quickly but took much longer to learn to live with himself, he tells Tom Lamont.

There’s a state that veteran Hollywood actors can reach, beyond ravenous ambition, but with retirement still distant, that seems to make them contented as professionals and mellow as people.

Kevin Bacon, now 65, has hit that sweet spot. Continually employed for decades, he shares a Manhattan apartment as well as a Connecticut farm with his wife of 35 years, Kyra Sedgwick, and their two adult children, Travis and Sosie. Bacon is in a country band with his brother, Michael, and otherwise channels any musical overspill into adorable Instagram videos of the Family Bacon (barnyard animals included) covering pop songs old and new.

The hunger of the 1980s lead-actor-in-waiting, the frustration of the bit-player in mid-career who kept a wary eye on his place in the order of things ... these concerns have worn away, Bacon says, with time and with reflection.

"Obviously, I’m not in this to do worse than I did last year," he tells me, leaning right back on a camel-coloured sofa in his apartment. "But as long as I feel like it’s a good part, an interesting part, something cool, I got no problem moving down a call-sheet."

At the outset of a career, he says, "you get on set and you start to see that it’s hierarchical. Who’s getting paid more? Who’s getting a bigger trailer? Who has the bigger part?" The tendency at first is to see the hierarchy and to try to climb. Bacon strived for a while. "And when I kind of rethought it, and rethought about the possibility of being number 10 on a call-sheet, or number two, or number 25, or whatever — that’s when I figured out who I was as an actor. So I no longer have a problem doing a small part. As you can clearly see."

We’ve been brought together to talk about Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F, a sequel in which Bacon makes a very enjoyable appearance opposite Eddie Murphy, as a villain. He seems fond of the Beverly Hills Cop franchise, now 40 years old and in its fourth instalment. He also talks with animation about another movie of his that’s due out soon, a slasher sequel to the lads' movie night classics X and Pearl, called MaXXXine, set in the Hollywood of 1984 — the Hollywood that Bacon came up in. That was the year he became a star thanks to Footloose, a hit movie full of immortal pop songs written by Dean Pitchford, in which Bacon starred as Ren, a punky arrival in a small American town, a town stirred to frisky rebellion by Ren’s infectious talent for dance.

The night before our conversation, Bacon performed with his brother at Pitchford’s induction into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. They sang the theme tune from Footloose, Bacon on vocals and tambourine, dancing around the stage in respectful, adrenalised homage to his younger self.

He was suitably anxious about the performance, he admits, now that it’s over. "There’s always the possibility that people are gonna say, ‘This is a joke. You’re not a real musician,’ all those insecurity things. I don’t have ’em as much as I used to, just because of doing it for so long. But it still exists."

We talk about his childhood. Or, rather, we skip through it quickly at Bacon’s request. "This is a real funny thing to say. But I don’t think that much about my childhood. I really don’t. It’s as though my life kind of began when I left home, when I moved to New York."

Bacon was 17 at the time. He’d grown up in Philadelphia, the youngest of six kids born to Ruth, a teacher, and Edmund, an architect. Both Mr and Mrs Bacon had strong political convictions. "My mother used to take me as a child to rallies in Washington DC, against the Vietnam war. I remember my dad coming home and just raging about that war." None of this rubbed off on him. "When I left home, I wasn’t thinking about the world. I was really just thinking about me."

He was auditioning for screen parts, appearing in plays, hungry to make it. Actually, Bacon corrects, "hungry is an understatement. I was starving for success. And for creative fulfilment. And money. And girls. And fame. All of the coolness. All those things."

Kevin Bacon in Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F. Photo: supplied
Kevin Bacon in Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F. Photo: supplied
At the age of 19 he got a supporting part in 1978’s Animal House and, two years later, he was killed off quite horribly in the first Friday the 13th movie, stabbed through the throat with an arrow. He was 23 when he was cast as a high schooler with moves in Footloose, and to prepare himself to play someone younger he enrolled for a day as a student at Payson High in Utah, also a shooting location for the film. Locals helped out on the set. Recently, one of them sent Bacon an album of snapshots. "There were some really touching photographs. Most specifically, the ones that hit me were me and [Footloose co-star] Chris Penn, who is sadly no longer with us. We were just a couple of dudes, playing around."

Footloose was a massive hit: with complicated results for Bacon’s ego. He laughs, remembering himself in his mid-20s. "I didn’t read the newspapers. I’d read a paper if I thought there was maybe gonna be something about me in it." For ages he’d ached to be a leading man and now this seemed not only possible, but inevitable. "But, yeah, there was a lot of pressure in it when it finally happened. I’m not sure that I was really ready. I continued doing leads for a lot of years, but I wasn’t really doing it very well. I was doing it OK. But the movies weren’t successful. My picker was off. Like, I couldn’t choose! I didn’t want anybody’s advice. I was making some bad mistakes."

He met Sedgwick in 1987 on the set of a movie called Lemon Sky. There’s a gorgeous blurry Polaroid of the two of them on sun loungers, reading magazines, tangibly aware of each other. Like him, Sedgwick was one of six siblings, an East Coast native with a pronounced work ethic, icky about certain conventions of Hollywood life. ("For a long time we sort of defined ourselves as being haters, you know? ‘We don’t like California! We’re not gonna live in California!’.") They married in 1988 and had their son Travis in 1989, followed by their daughter Sosie in 1992. "Kyra was 22 or 23 when she got pregnant," Bacon recalls. "She has always put something — the children, the world, her own self exploration in terms of her life and her heart — in front of her pursuit of fame and glory. You can’t say the same about me."

Listening to him, you get a sense that part of the project (and the success) of the Bacon-Sedgwick marriage has been to get him to drag his head out of his own backside and notice the world. "Kyra was very, very early on climate change," he says. "Like, really early. Like, people would say to her, ‘What are you talking about? It’s just weather. Shut up. Why are you such a f...... tree-hugger?’ I remember that so clearly."

What happened to make Bacon catch up?

"You have kids. You start looking at them. It’s a natural progression to go, ‘Maybe there needs to be a better world’."

Bacon and Sedgwick have had their ups and downs: money made on Bacon’s years-long deal to promote the British mobile network EE, but also money lost when they fell foul of Bernie Madoff’s ponzi scheme. (In 2022, Bacon admitted to losing "most of our money" at that time). He has always said yes to a lot of movies. When a popular parlour game took off in the 1990s — you’ll have heard of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, the conceit being that any pair of actors can be connected via a chain of movies in which he has appeared — it touched a nerve at first, upsetting him. He thought he’d become a joke in the culture. By the 2000s, with Sedgwick’s help, Bacon took ownership of what might have been a career-crusher, founding a charity called Six Degrees that remains productive to this day.

"Eventually, when you start caring about things outside yourself, you also start caring about things like reproductive rights, gun violence, personal freedoms, people not being able to vote. Eventually, you kind of have to get out of the ‘me’ thing."

He has spoken in the past about being on the star-crowded set of A Few Good Men in the early ’90s: Tom Cruise, Keifer Sutherland, Jack Nicholson. It was Nicholson, in Bacon’s memory, who looked out for his castmates as much as for himself. Bacon was also struck by Nicholson’s lack of care about being liked by the movie’s future audience. After that, Bacon settled in to one of the great Hollywood runs, playing dicks: Wade in The River Wild (1994); Jack Swigert in Apollo 13 (1995); the corrupt and abusive Sean Nokes in Sleepers (1996); an invisible creep in Hollow Man (2000); the brooding Detective Devine in Mystic River (2003); an oily spin doctor in Frost/Nixon (2008); an obstructive third-wheel in the romcom Crazy Stupid Love (2011). Amid this, Bacon did also get his moment as a leading man, winning a best actor award at the Golden Globes for his portrayal of an Iraq war veteran in 2009’s Taking Chance.

A couple of months ago, after a campaign by fans of Footloose, he returned to Payson High for the first time in four decades. Led around, shown the old steel locker he’d used for a day, he ended the visit with a speech from the bleachers that praised the enduring message of Footloose: "To be forgiving of people who are not exactly the same as you ... to have compassion." Back in the 1980s, he tells me, "I don’t think all that stuff really hit me." Bacon pulls a funny pose: a dancer, frozen mid-leap. "The whole marketing around the movie was, ‘I dance! I dance! The songs are good and everybody dances!’ But there’s some really good stuff in that film — messages that still apply."

Can he believe that, with another polarising election looming, the state of forgiveness and compassion in America can seem so parlous?

"Can I believe it? Yeah. I live it every day." This January, Sedgwick and Bacon became spokespeople for a political organisation called Swing Left, that aims to encourage swing states to vote Democrat. Bacon says he and his wife were moved to speak up through awareness of their good fortune.

"I can’t tell you how many times, in the course of our week, we literally look at each other, me and Kyra, and say how grateful we are that our children are OK. There’s a lot of kids these days who aren’t. The pandemic was extremely tough on people. 9/11. Columbine. Covid. Trump. It’s one thing after another, y’know?"

Bacon in slasher sequel MaXXXine. Photo: supplied
Bacon in slasher sequel MaXXXine. Photo: supplied
He sits back on the couch. His son is a musician now. His daughter is an actor. "I’m always thinking about ’em. We kinda had this idea, both Kyra and I, that when they got to 18 we’d say to ourselves: ‘All good!’." Bacon puts his hands on his knees. They’re in their 30s and — he shakes his head — nope. "That’s not really what happens," he says.

There comes a point, at the finish of yet another movie, when Bacon will sit in a screening room with Sedgwick and watch it carefully: just the two of them. This will have happened with the new Beverly Hills Cop, and 80-odd movies before it. "Like, I won’t do that with friends of mine. Even good friends of mine. I know that I need her to be there. And it’s gonna be safe." They do it for Sedgwick’s stuff, too. After a screening has finished, they talk about the director’s choices. The other actors in the thing. They go out for lunch or dinner, still gabbing.

Recently, they sat down to watch a cut of a movie called Connescence, a two-handed romantic drama in which they both star. It’s the first movie they’ve made together since 2004. Sedgwick noted in an Instagram post that they seemed to have settled into a rhythm of making one every 20 years or so. "Maybe we’ll join forces again in 2044," she wrote.

Bacon will be in his mid-80s by then. Earlier this year, he released a country album with his brother. Bacon wrote a song for the album, Old Bronco, in which he compares himself to a truck that’s falling apart. I quote some of the lyrics to him: "My body has seen better days / my shocks are a little bit rusty / but before I drop this heavy load / I roll a few more miles down the road."

Thinking about mortality, just a bit?

Bacon smiles. "This interview notwithstanding, if you wanna learn something about me, you should listen to the lyrics of the songs I write. That being said, at this point, mortality doesn’t scare me. Check back in with me when I’m on my deathbed ... but I don’t think about it that much. Only every once in a while."

The couple’s dog died last year, their fourth to come and go since they got together. "We looked at each other. And I went, ‘Let’s do the maths here. I don’t think I’m ready for another 15 years of picking up shit.’ That’s the only time I’ve thought about the mortality thing. Related to an animal."

I ask for tips, his playbook, how he and Sedgwick have stayed durable as a couple.

No playbook, he says, before making an effort to explain. "We’re pretty good at leaving our work at the office. The thing about it is, Kyra’s the type of person who would be very clear if her emotional needs weren’t being met in some sort of way. If the core piece of our love and our marriage was getting short shrift, she would bring it up in a heartbeat. And we would work through it."

He thinks it has probably also helped that the nature of their professions involves a lot of fresh scenery, a lot of surprise, a level of open-mindedness and empathy that — after a self-centred start to his career — he now finds necessary to put in a performance on screen. "It’s slow, it’s mellow," he says, "but things do change. Our life is full of change. That’s the thing about being self-employed, doing the kind of gig that we do. Where are we gonna be tomorrow? Whose shoes are we gonna be walkin’ in?"

He quotes some lyrics from a different song he wrote: "There’s a suitcase with your name on it / there’s one with my name, too / Making plans we know will change / is just something that we do ... Y’know, that kinda sums it all up."

The movie

• Beverly Hills Cop: Axel F is screening on Netflix.  — The Observer