Once footloose and fancy free, Kevin Bacon turns heads in ‘The Woodsman’ and becomes Hollywood’s most valuable player
Kevin Bacon is one of the most curious creatures in Hollywood. The man, devoid of any real tabloid hoopla or insufferable career crash-and-burns, would be considered royalty if he lived in London—he’s an unscathable beast capable of always landing on his feet, dimples intact, blue eyes forever blinding.
Bacon’s is a tale of longevity. Here is an actor who can be big-movie poster boy one minute (Footloose) and award-ceremony contender the next (Diner, Mystic River); somebody whose road to stardom is by way of keeping his celebrity always a bit low on Tinseltown’s rapturous radar screen. The man is also, perhaps, one of the most under-rated talents in the business. Maybe this can be best chalked up to quirky decision-making or questionable karma. Nonetheless, Bacon is a real actor with more than 20 years of experience under the belt wrapped around his thin waist—and it is thin. Bacon not only has charisma, but range. There’s …
The B-Movie Kevin: Flatliners, She’s Having a Baby, Tremors.
The co-star Kevin: My Dog Skip, A Few Good Men, Apollo 13.
Bad Boy Kevin: Wild Things, The River Wild, Hollow Man.
Top-notch Kevin: Murder in the First, Mystic River.
And, of course, the “Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.” Bacon, which, to the delight of millions of culture junkies, spawned not only manna for the modern moviegoer’s brain but a bestseller that suggested, thanks to his wide range of roles, that every actor can be linked to him via six movies or less. (Admittedly, I am stumped when it comes to Buster Keaton, but what can you do …)
Bacon’s latest endeavor is The Woodsman (***1/2 out of four). The film is a mid-decade Monster’s Ball and a surprisingly powerful work, a remarkable story about a likeable man you wouldn’t typically like. That man is Walter, in which Bacon breathes a passionate mix of tragedy, fragile hope, redemption and painful self-acceptance. Walter is a convicted pedophile. Just released from serving 12 years in prison, he must adjust to a new life; a life plagued not only with fear but hidden desires he realizes he still must deal with and never unleash. It’s easy, perhaps human, to judge Walter but what makes director Nicole Kassell’s film a triumph is how well she is able to just tell it like it is. Hers is a story about a human being coming to terms with his own weaknesses, a man whose mission is just to move on with his life, demons in check, focusing on the long road ahead.
Co-starring Kyra Sedgwick—Bacon’s real-life wife—and Benjamin Bratt, The Woodsman is Kassell’s first feature. She makes great use of the camera and seems to have an eye for the hypnotic: long shots of corridors, dimly lit, that beg—albeit effectively—the audience to “get” that it’s a metaphor to the protagonist’s stark outlook; numerous scenes shot from different angles, particularly high up as if to spoonfeed the masses further with a mouthful of “look at the bigger picture;” bright flashes or sudden burns that reflect the battered neuro network Bacon’s Walter must contend with. Kassell’s other feat, it seems, is humanizing two of pop culture’s most disturbing anomalies—Mos Def and Eve. (The two music icons are, actually, quite good in The Woodsman.)
But the backstory to the work is particularly yummy. Kassell first spotted the material at a free production of a play entitled “The Woodsman.” That was back in 2000, when Kassell was a student at New York University’s esteemed Graduate Film Program. From there, she shopped it around. Bacon came across the script while he was vacationing in Mexico with his wife.
“I do think it was a challenging role—definitely,” Bacon admits during an interview in San Francisco, where he recently promoted the film. “Challenging in that, you know I wanted to make a movie where you’re in this guy’s skin and you humanized him as much as possible—and as an actor wanting to do more with less. Emotionally, it was challenging because it’s a horrible place to go. It’s the shaking-it-off that’s so hard. It’s knowing you have to go back into that place the next morning at six o clock—that you have to be in this guy’s skin [again]. It’s not a pleasant place to be.”
To winning ends, the script gives us a Walter who doesn’t crowd the air with unnecessary dialogue. Walter is complex, private, wounded, brooding, recovering, slipping down a hole and washing up on shore to a brand new existence—all at the same time. It’s an exquisite character, absolutely rich, likeable when everything we may be programmed to believe would want us not to know this Walter fellow at all.
For Bacon, stepping into Walter’s shoes was both challenging and cathartic.
“Sometimes you play a character that wants to disappear; tries not to be seen; wants not to be spoken to, does not want to talk,” he says. “It’s a torture for Walter to be in there with the shrink [in the movie]. The last thing in the world he wants to do is sit there and talk about his feelings. He’s in denial; he’s trying to push it away. So … how do you get into it [as an actor]? I kind of feel you get into it like you get into any other character—just try to build a strong backstory for your character as possible … I start to fill in the blanks. And sometimes I even deal with things that are even really mundane like ‘what is his favorite meal? What kind of music does he listen to; what’s his favorite color?’ Even if these things don’t become relevant, they could. You carry it with you. And then you think about how it might manifest itself on the exterior. What kind of clothes would Walter wear? How is he going to walk, and talk? What does 12 years in prison do to you … in the way you approach the world?”
Bacon admits that he lured wife Kyra and friend Benjamin Bratt, who plays Walter’s brother-in-law in the movie, into considering the project, which was shot in Philadelphia in just 28 days with a miniscule budget. The pairing of Bacon’s real-life spouse in the film may generate buzz. As Vicki, a coworker in the lumberyard where Walter works, Sedgwick is profoundly on the mark. Here, the actress proves she, too, is one of Hollywood’s hidden acting treasures. Her Vickie, an opinionated, what-you-see-is-what-you-get kind of gal, is the antithesis of Walter and the unexpected union between the two works. But working alongside his wife proved challenging for Bacon, too.
“You know, it was not so much like ‘oh good, thank God we are a couple because that makes it so much easier for me, or easier for her,’ because I don’t think it does,” he says. “Frankly, I think it makes it harder but so many times it’s the opposite. You meet somebody for the first time [on the set] and you have to make this guy your father, or somebody your mother or your best friend … it’s always funny to me … there’s always this cast dinner before you start shooting a picture and you are supposed to immediately bond so that the next day you are getting ready to jump into bed with that person. For Kyra, it was the opposite. We have 16 years of marriage and we’re supposed to pretend it never happened—see this person for the first time, then fall in love. But she was the best person for the part.”
But Bacon, a seasoned actor who has worked with some solid directors, Clint Eastwood among them, found the thought of teaming up with Kassell a bit daunting.
“She is amazing,” Bacon admits, but “truth be told, I sat down with the producer—they never came to me, I sought them out after being approached with the script—and I said, ‘listen, are you going to get another director?’ And he said, ‘no, I really believe in her. And I really believe that she’s got the stuff.’ So I looked at her short films and while they were nowhere near as complex as The Woodsman, I felt that tonally, they were right on the money. The great thing about Nicole is that she is young, and she is a woman and she is very very quiet. She doesn’t have that kind of take-over-a-room sort of ego that a director can have, but she does have a tremendous wisdom way beyond her years and her filmmaking experience. And part of that comes from the ability to say, ‘I don’t know … I don’t know that answer to that but I am going to figure it out.’ It was very impressive to me. And while we didn’t always agree on everything and our relationship was artistically combative, it was always in the name of doing the best possible job we could with the movie and I felt that she was a great collaborator.”
When pressed on what was most challenging during the shoot, Bacon turns to the film’s pivotal scene where Walter approaches a young girl in a park and comes face to face with the past he has been wanting to rectify.
“The interesting thing about that scene,” Bacon says, “is that when I read the script, I said to myself, I don’t exactly know if the whole movie is going to work, but I think I have an idea of how to play that scene. Sometimes, you sort of just hear it—the voice. Specific moments in that scene just felt very clear to me. And then, it was almost like the movie just sort of spread out from there. But that was a hard day. Every day was hard … I can’t say there was this amazing sense of relief [when it was over] because there was another scene waiting to be done.”
Proving once again he is as diverse as he is bookable, Bacon’s next project is bit role opposite Queen Latifah, a woman who seems to rub the box office genie with the same kind of unpredictable fervor found in teenage boys performing Han Solo in a bathroom while deeply studying titillating pictures of Jessica Simpson. The Latifah project (Beautyshop) precedes his second directorial effort, Loverboy, which just premiered at Sundance. After that, it’s back to more brooding waters, with There Truth Lies, which, according to Bacon, goes into “fairly dark and sexually extreme territory—it’s a little more of a genre film, kind of murder mystery.”
The real mystery? Why Hollywood hasn’t given Bacon an Oscar. Thanks to his work in The Woodsman, that all could change.