Kevin Bacon has followed characters into some dark places, most harrowingly, perhaps, as a convicted (and conflicted) child molester in the 2004 film "The Woodsman."
But when it came to "The Following," the Fox drama premiering Monday night about a charismatic serial killer who's made apprentices of his admirers, the Philadelphia-born actor wanted to be the hunter, not the predator.
"When I was trying to find something to do on TV, I knew that I wanted to do the hero," said Bacon after a Television Critics Association news conference earlier this month.
"Whatever kind of hero that was. You know, I wanted him to be complex . . . to be a complicated character," he said, citing Claire Danes' CIA agent in Showtime's "Homeland" as an example of someone who "makes mistakes," but "as an audience member, you look at that and go, 'Oh, please don't do the wrong thing.' Because you really are rooting for her."
So "I did want to be the hero. And I knew that when I looked at television, the things that I was drawn to, as a viewer, were really stories about life and death."
There are plenty of those in "The Following," the latest series from Kevin Williamson ("The Vampire Diaries," "Dawson's Creek"), who said he'd always wanted "someone like Kevin Bacon" to play Ryan Hardy, the former FBI agent who in the premiere is called back to help track escaped murderer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy, "Rome"), years after capturing the homicidal English professor.
"I kept saying, 'Well, we need to find someone like Kevin Bacon' to play Ryan," Williamson said.
"And my agent goes, 'Well, why don't we give it to Kevin Bacon? He's reading television scripts.' But he was looking at cable. And this is a network show. And someone gave it to him to read and I got the phone call: He wants to meet you. And I start, you know, dancing around my kitchen, to 'Footloose,' " he said, laughing.
"I mean, he was in 'Friday the 13th,' the first one," said Williamson.
Purefoy, whom Bacon had leaned over and kissed during the news conference after a reporter remarked on the pair's chemistry, is also a fan.
"Simplicity is everything, to any artist. And Kevin is really simple in his choices, to a degree that I'm envious of," he said. "It's a great pleasure watching him do his stuff."
Since the show was announced last year, Fox executives, too, have been gleeful about landing Bacon, the youthful-looking 54-year-old whose wide-ranging work -- inspiration for, yes, the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon game -- has included only a very few TV appearances since leaving behind daytime soaps early in his career. (He was nominated for an Emmy, and won a Golden Globe, for starring in the 2009 HBO movie "Taking Chance.")
But Bacon, whose wife, Kyra Sedgwick, starred in TNT's "The Closer" for seven seasons, said he had been looking for a television project "for a long time, probably three or four years."
"I would read great, funny half-hour things, I would read things that were, you know, a little more soapy or whatever, and I liked them -- there was some great writing -- but I started to realize that I really needed to find something that I could be the hero," he said.
Originally, Bacon assumed that like Sedgwick, he'd be working in cable.
But then he read the script for "The Following."
"I could not put it down. It was just such a page-turner. I thought it was such an interesting character. And given the fast-paced, kind of heart-pounding nature of it, it still had a lot of great heart and a certain kind of almost sentimentality that I really responded to."
It also turned out to be a project that could be filmed in New York, where Bacon and Sedgwick, whose children are 20 and 23, live, and for fewer than the standard broadcast order of 22 episodes per season: "The Following" order is for 15.
As work schedules go, "it's ideal," Bacon said. And though no one's ever called a network drama series an easy gig, he recognizes that it could have been harder.
"When I compare it to Kyra, the truth is, she was in almost every scene" of "The Closer" (which filmed in Los Angeles).
"And she talked so much. And the more she talked, the more they wrote. And so in some ways, it's easier for me. My thing's a little more physical. But I do get a couple of days off," he said. "When the bad guys work, a lot of times I'm not there."
He approached playing Ryan Hardy, he said, the way he approaches any role.
"One of the first things that I do for any character is I build my own backstory . . . and I'll start with whatever the writer wants to share with me in terms of his ideas," Bacon said.
"What appeals to me always is what the person is on the inside. I mean, what was my relationship with my parents like? How did I grow up? Why am I drinking so much? . . . Why did I go into the FBI? Why did the FBI kick me out? What have I been doing these last 10 years between then and now? I am not the writer, you know. I'm the guy who thinks about my part and who he is and who he could be."
I asked if he could pinpoint any of the ways his own upbringing -- Bacon's the youngest child of the late architect and Philadelphia city planner Edmund Bacon, who'd appeared on the cover of Time when Kevin was 6 -- had influenced the person he became.
"There's like nature and nurture, right? Which is constantly changing. As I like to say, I was driving in my Prius listening to NPR the other day, and there was a great thing about happiness and the nature of happiness, and how much of it is actually hereditary," Bacon replied.
"I come from a family of six. And long before I knew what an actor was, I could remember walking into a room and wanting people to watch me, wanting to amuse people, be seen. I felt like an actor when I was coming right out of the box. Or let me just say, performer of some kind. So that's like a natural thing for me.
"On the other hand, on the nurture side, my father, while he was not a wealthy man, was very successful in his job as a city planner in Philadelphia.
"So he was my first exposure to fame and to what fame really was. And I knew that I wanted that, too."
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