Living inside a dark, violent world will take a toll on anyone, even when it’s just one part of your life — or a part, among many.
“I was having really bad dreams on ‘The Following,'” Kevin Bacon said, remembering his three-season stint leading the Fox serial killer drama. “Part of that was the fact that I was so inundated with violence every day I went to work. I was killing somebody, somebody was killing me, I was using guns, knives, fighting, and that kind of caught up to me. It was a dark fucking place to go to.”
Bacon dove into treacherous waters yet again with Showtime’s “City on a Hill,” an hourlong drama set to wrap its first season Sunday, August 18. Starring as the Boston-based FBI Agent Jackie Rohr, the Golden Globe-winning actor is immersed in the dirty life of a crooked cop: He plants evidence, steals drugs, takes bribes, uses drugs, drinks anything with liquor in it, and brandishes his badge like a billy club. When it’s casually mentioned that Jackie has shades of darkness in him, Bacon cut in and said, “Shades?”
“The things Jackie does… he’s got real blood on his hands,” Bacon said. “Besides broken hearts and ruining people’s careers, he says it: ‘I’m a bad guy. I treat everyone the same: Bad.'”
Bacon isn’t a method actor. He doesn’t ask his cast and crew to call him by his character’s name between takes, but he tries to “use myself and lose myself” in each job. That means he wants to bring his own feelings and physicality into the role — “What else am I going to use?” — but Bacon doesn’t want to be thinking about himself, or his image, while the cameras are rolling.
“I want to lose myself in it. I want the time between action and cut not to feel like I’m me. I want to feel like I’m in someone else’s shoes,” he said. “That’s the difference between an actor and a celebrity. A celebrity tries to put across an image — you gotta hold onto the image of this star, or this movie, or this brand, or all those kind of things. I’ve tried that in the past, or had my flirtations with it, and it doesn’t work. It’s just not who I am. I just have to be true to the character.”
Despite the superficial similarities between “The Following” and “City on a Hill” — FBI agents that err toward danger — Bacon said he didn’t think about absorbing Jackie’s negative attributes when he took the part. The role was too good, the script too tempting.
“At the moment when I read it, I had heard nothing about it. It wasn’t on my radar at all,” he said. “So I get this and I go, ‘This is fucking fantastic. How could an actor not want to play this part?'”
Bacon acknowledged there’s a chance that if “City on a Hill” keeps getting renewed (Showtime picked up Season 2 already), spending that much time with Jackie could rub off on him.
“There is that risk,” he said. “On the other hand, what really would be hard for me to live in was a shitty part in a show that means nothing to me — where I’m Dr. Whatever, you know what I mean? That would eat away at me in a big way. I don’t care how big the paycheck was — that would be frightening.”
A lot of the drive toward risk over comfort stems back to how Bacon sees himself as an actor. He takes his job seriously — he’s been studying theater since his teens, and tosses out examples of the Strasberg technique like others might reference classic literature — and doesn’t see himself as a celebrity. But he doesn’t see himself as a movie star, either. Unlike plenty of beloved, famous leads, he’s unwilling to coast on his inherent likability. In fact, he doesn’t think he has much to offer in that department.
“I don’t know that I necessarily have that thing that is inherently watchable — some actors really do. I’d love to use the names, but I’m not going to because it always sounds like I’m dissing them, like they’re not great actors. But there are men and women who are so inherently watchable, that if you give them the three G’s — the gun, the girl, and the good lighting — we’ll see them do anything. I don’t think I’m that guy.”
These are the traits of a star — your Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, or Meryl Streep. Bacon believes he’s a character actor; someone who can inhabit unconventional roles with conviction and command, but who can’t coast on their star power. While he admits people may like watching him act, they wouldn’t want to see him in any old role. That could be why he’s so willing to poke fun at his own image, like when he’s played alternate versions of himself in “Will & Grace” (as an egocentric actor eager for a stalker), “Bored to Death” (another image-obsessed actor looking for a plum part), and “SMILF” (as a dreamboat in a fantasy sequence).
“I can’t really just be a version of Kevin because, to me, Kevin’s not really interesting. And I’m not interested in being Kevin — not for work,” he said.
So while other beloved famous faces make easy livings doing episodic sitcoms or crime-of-the-week procedurals, Bacon chases the writing wherever it goes. “The Following,” no matter how much you liked it, was far from your average network cop show. “I Love Dick,” his Amazon series opposite Kathryn Hahn, was so odd and experimental it only lasted one season. Even similar roles to Jackie Rohr — like when he played Boston FBI agents in “Black Mass” and “Patriots Day” and a Boston cop in “Mystic River” — were all easily distinguishable from each other. (For instance, Sean Devine wouldn’t be caught dead with Jackie Rohr.) Some are good cops, some aren’t. Bacon is trying to find the honesty in each portrayal, warts and all.
“Do I have fears about the things coming out of my mouth? I do — and the things that I do — but if you look at my work, I’ve never really been afraid to do anything,” he said. “If you’re thinking about that kind of stuff, then you’re probably thinking about how people will think of Kevin, and, honestly, I don’t give a shit. I want them to look at my work.”
While Bacon makes it clear that he and Jackie are very different people, the tools he uses to connect with the character elicit at least one identifying parallel between the men.
“When we meet [Jackie] he says, ‘I just want my retirement. I want to take it easy.’ But I don’t quite believe it,” Bacon said. “He’s still really, really, really driven — but driven in a way that’s different than when you’re young. When you’re driven when you’re young, you’re trying to get ahead. When you’re driven when you’re older, you’re trying not to get caught. Someone is chasing you, and that’s what it feels like to me: He’s being chased.”
Bacon, who turned 61 in July, said he’s not looking to retire either.
“[At my age] people start to go, ‘Yeah, I’m gonna do less, I’m gonna work less, I’m gonna slow down. Play golf. […] I’m going to get nostalgic about my life and my career and all that kind of stuff. I’m not there — like, at all. I’m completely, still, pedal to the metal, looking for the next thing, driving straight down the road.”
It would be unfair to say movie stars don’t have that drive; they do. But while they’re looking for the next part that fits their image, Bacon is looking for the next role to shatter his. It’s a risk, sure, but he’s always ready to take it.
“City on a Hill” airs its Season 1 finale Sunday, August 18 at 9 p.m. ET on Showtime. Season 2 has been picked up by the network.