Matt Webb Mitovich is editor at large of TVLine and an AwardsLine contributor. This story appeared in the June 5 issue of AwardsLine.
He has traveled to the moon, survived Alcatraz, put a few good men on trial and, yes, once almost got arrested for dancing. But in the course of more than 35 years of acting, one of the few things Kevin Bacon never explored was a TV role in a regular series—until Fox’s The Following invited him to hunt down a clever killer. Now, his turn as troubled FBI consultant Ryan Hardy could cop him his first Emmy nomination since the HBO miniseries Taking Chance.
What exactly was it that led you to your first series regular TV role?
You have to keep in mind that it was a different world when I started out. There was a real dividing line between being a television actor and being a film actor. But when (wife) Kyra (Sedgwick) got offered The Closer, it started to open up a new world to me, second hand. I saw the satisfaction she was getting, peeling back layers week after week. Simultaneously, I was catching up on a lot of TV—The Sopranos, The Wire, Dexter. The second I made the call, “OK, I’m interested in looking at television,” I was reading all of this great stuff. I simultaneously started developing (projects at Showtime and HBO), and after a few years of that, The Following came along.
Having inhabited a variety of roles over your career, what’s the challenge of playing a hero versus the colorful bad guy?
I’ll speak just to this character: It has to be small, it has to have subtlety, it has to be a lot about what’s not said and what’s not shown, and you have to trust that people will come to him without him saying, “Please love me.” But if I’m playing someone who is more of a villain, I’m going to try and find what the humanity is—maybe it’s a sense of humor, a charm or a swagger, or a sexuality, so it’s not just, “He’s so bad.” Conversely, with a heroic character, I want us to find out, “What’s damaged about him? How does he fuck up?” With The Following, we talked a lot about how I don’t want him to be infallible—here he goes again, kicking ass and taking no names.
But do you wrestle with that when the narrative demands that the FBI bungle something again?
I don’t, because I don’t see Ryan as really part of the FBI. He was an agent, but he left under questionable circumstances. He goes by his own rules and makes mistakes. It’s the moments where he breaks away and takes risks that I think are very interesting and true to who he is. You have to have a character that screws up but ultimately has some wins.
He can’t be Jack Bauer.
Right. Early on, Fox talked to me about this in comparison to 24, but they did say there’d be a lot of differences between the characters.
Would you have considered playing the villain here?
The movies, for whatever reasons, have offered me the opportunities to play villains—I had X-Men: First Class in the can and R.I.P.D. was about to be shot when I read The Following—but I thought that if I go into television, I should do some version of heroic. But this guy is definitely flawed, and (creator) Kevin (Williamson) and I spoke a lot about keeping that piece of it alive.
They kind of dialed back Ryan’s nipping at the vodka….
It’s interesting that you say that. I added it a couple of times and for whatever reasons they’ve opted to not show it. His issues with alcohol have been interesting. There probably are alcoholics who would dispute this as a possibility, but it feels to me like he’s a guy who is a “self-medicator,” and it goes in waves.
Talk about preparing for a scene with James Purefoy versus Natalie Zea.
I don’t think my preparation changes much. The thing about both of them is that they are incredibly smart, generous actors who come in ready to go, with their sleeves rolled up and just no bullshit. I don’t know if it’s a function of Kevin Williamson or what, but I can’t think of a person on this cast that I felt anything other than excited to be working with, and everyone felt thrilled to be on the show. Even the people that come in just for an episode and then die! One of the tragedies of our situation is the fact that people come and go with a lot of frequency.
If Ryan’s love Claire winds up dying, how might that affect him in Season 2?
My discussions with Kevin have been in very broad strokes, but what I really respond to, that he’s brought up to me, is the idea that when you next see Ryan, he’s in a very different place in his life. There’s the idea that we may jump ahead in time, so maybe we’ll have the opportunity to find a more together guy.
What would it mean to win an Emmy—and with such complicated, dark material—in your first foray into regular series television?
I have already gotten so much pleasure from playing this part and interacting with the people that have enjoyed the show. But even a nomination would be the icing on the cake, the lox on the bagel, the olive in the martini.