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'Woodsman' puts Bacon's chops to test

"I wanted to do something more mainstream," Kevin Bacon said. "I wanted to do something where I actually got paid, you know. I was just coming off of 'Mystic River' and I didn't want to do anything dark." He certainly didn't want to play a child molester who is released from prison and tries to control his obsession, lead a normal life, even have a normal relationship.

He read Nicole Kassell's screenplay for "The Woodsman" and, "I felt the movie chose me, in a way. I couldn't say no. And when I met Nicole I found her to be young, yes, and really almost shy. But she seemed to be such a compassionate kind of person that I just felt like she could do it."

Together they made the film, which opens Friday. Bacon plays a pedophile who precariously re-enters society. Bacon's wife, Kyra Sedgwick, plays a woman he meets at work and starts to date. It is a hazardous subject and a difficult role, the kind many actors would avoid.

"I've heard people say you have to love the characters you play," he told me during an interview last September at the Toronto Film Festival. "I don't feel that way. I've played a lot of people that I don't love at all. What's important to me is to try to make them real. That was especially important with this guy. I wanted him to be an everyman, the guy who has lived next door to you for 20 years and you had no idea he has this problem."

The character, named Walter, is released after 12 years in prison and moves into an apartment that is close to a grade school. Well, many apartments are. He gets a job in a lumberyard and meets a fork-lift operator named Vickie (Sedgwick), and knows she will have to learn about his past sooner or later. "The Woodsman" is the first film by Kassell, a recent graduate of the New York University film school. She saw the stage play by Stephen Fechter, optioned it, and wrote the screenplay with Fechter. It was invited to the Directors' Fortnight at Cannes 2004, where she told me, "I wanted to show that such men cannot be dismissed as simply evil, but must be understood in more complex terms, dealing with childhoods in which something usually went very wrong."

Not that the terms are ever explained in detail. "I didn't want this to be a movie where a guy talks a lot about why he is the way he is," Bacon told me. "What I wanted to do was take his sadness, shame, history, his 12 years in prison, all that kind of stuff, and put it in my belly and then find ways to let it out, through the eyes or voice or whatever.'

He does, in a performance of subtle modulation, so that we watch intently, trying to read his emotions. Bacon avoids any strategy to make Walter likeable, but we become sympathetic with his struggle. We hope he makes it.

"There was a sparse quality to the writing that I really responded to," Bacon said. "I felt horror and revolt and then sort of compassionate, and then I would hate myself for feeling that way. I went through this whole series of emotions, and finally I knew how I was going to play Walter. He may be saying something and simultaneously hating himself for saying it, and trying to pull back and knowing that it's wrong and knowing that it's going to ruin his life and the life of his victim and yet, something is taking over and he can't stop himself. It's like the alcoholic reaching for that drink."

It takes a certain courage for an actor to go with a character like this; I suggested to Bacon that most agents would recommend against it.

"I don't have people who would advise me against this based on some sort of 'image.' At some point you have to decide if you're going to be a personality or you're going to be an actor. If playing this kind of a role could have a negative effect on my public personality, I don't care. I'll play anything, if I think there's something compelling, or there's a director I'm dying to work with, or a part I hadn't done before or a co-star I think is great."

That philosophy has taken him from overnight stardom as a sex symbol in "Footloose" (1984) to the dark roles in last year's "Mystic River," by Clint Eastwood, and now in "The Woodsman."

"A long time ago, when I was a kid, I wanted to be a pop star. Then I started taking acting classes. I moved to New York when I was a teenager, and really wanted to be a serious actor. I wanted to do off-Broadway, I wanted to do Chekhov, Shakespeare. I wanted to have a Meryl Streep kind of career. When 'Footloose' came out, I became a pop star but by then that's not what I wanted. I wasn't being taken seriously. I wasn't smart about the industry and the ways that you can parlay pop stardom into a serious acting career if you make the right choices. I spun my wheels for a while, and then I got this part in Oliver Stone's 'JFK.' It's a small part, but very character-driven: Gay, fascist, I mean, it was extreme. That turned things around for me. I didn't even read for it. Oliver just looked at me and said, 'Will you transform yourself for me?' And I said, 'yes.' Off-Broadway, I'd been doing that, but that doesn't mean anybody in the movie industry is going to see you that way."

Bacon said that for him, being an actor means becoming different people, wearing different masks.

"But that's a hard thing to work towards, because people want to see you do the same thing you did before, especially if it made money or they liked you in it. It's hard, really hard, to get what Tom Hanks has, where he truly can go into completely different sorts of roles. You have to fight like crazy to have that kind of career. And you have to be willing to take some risks and not do leads all the time."

On his next film, he said, he will be the director. It's called "Lover Boy," and Kyra Sedgwick stars as a woman who wants to get pregnant, and does.

"It's sort of lighthearted in the beginning, and then you slowly find out that her obsession with this kid is strange. She believes that the two of them are going to create a utopian existence, and it's about that moment when kids start to break away and want to see the world outside. She's incapable of letting that happen. It's dark."

Bacon says he has a role in the film, and so do Sandra Bullock, Oliver Platt, Marisa Tomei, Campbell Scott and Matt Dillon. "It's one of those movies where I could get people to come in for a couple of days here and a couple of days there, and we shot it in New York for next to nothing. I'm hoping to take it to Sundance."

Is he, like Clint Eastwood, increasingly interested in directing?

Bacon thought about that. "You know," he said, " I think of being an actor as kind of a young man's gig. It's emasculating, in a way, people messing with you and putting make-up on you and telling you when to wake up and when to go to sleep, holding your hand to cross the street. I can do it up to a certain point and then I start to feel like a puppet.

"You can sit around and complain that Hollywood doesn't make any good movies. But you can generate your own material. So I read books. I come up with ideas. I was the producer on 'The Woodsman' to help get that off the ground. Sometimes that extends itself to directing."

His wife feels the same way?

"She takes it very seriously. They say that traditionally it doesn't work when a husband and wife act together. So right before we were about to start shooting 'The Woodsman,' there was a big article in the New York Times about why couples in movies don't work. Kyra is like, 'That's it, I'm outta here.' And I said, 'This is not a $40 million romantic comedy, where we're trying to trade somehow on our relationship. People don't really care about us that much in terms of our marriage. It's not something that's in the gossip columns.'"

You talked about having lived most of your life on a movie set, I said. In "The Woodsman" you were directed by someone who was stepping onto a set for the first time on her first day of filming. Was she intimidated, working with veterans like you? How did you deal with that?

"By giving her respect, by collaborating, by showing up on time and by demanding that the crew give her respect. But Nicole was amazing. There's nothing cocky about her. She's not some kid that's made a bunch of rock videos and dresses cool and thinks she knows it all. She is a very, very smart woman who is a compassionate human being and has strong vision that she had been living with for a long time. So I felt ready to put myself in her hands. She'd never directed a movie before," he said, and smiled, "but she'd also never directed a bad movie."

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