Kevin Bacon stars in “The Woodsman.”
Comes Out of the Woods
by Brad Balfour
It's not an easy role for anyone play – a pedophile just released from prison who struggles against resuming his criminal behavior while trying to establish a normal life. But if anyone can handle playing this role, the ever-versatile Kevin Bacon can, for The Woodsman is both challenging for the subject matter and the restraint he showed in playing the character. But Bacon is a remarkable character actor – able to be a song-and-dance man in Footloose or a hardnosed cop in Mystic River. Now Bacon grapples with one of the hardest but best parts of his career.
When you first read the script, were you intrigued or repulsed?
Initially, I wasn't offered the part. I was walking up the beach in Willowbridge, the British West Indies on Christmas Eve and saw this guy who I know peripherally. He's not in the film industry, but in Philadelphia real estate or something like that. He said, "They sent me this script and asked me to invest in it" and told me there was another actor involved. That's all he said. He told me to take a look at it and let him know if it was a good investment. Normally, I would never take a screenplay under those conditions. You can't read everything. You'd spend your whole life reading scripts from people on beaches. I got home on January 2nd or 3rd and it was sitting there. I picked it up and read it and a barrage of feelings washed over me – anger, disgust, confusion, and compassion, feeling angry with myself for feeling compassionate. I put it down and knew that it was probably going to be my next movie.
How did you research the role?
I didn't go out and hang around with sex offenders.
How far inside yourself did you go to prepare for this role? I've played a lot of different characters. For me, the reason I became an actor was to put on many different skins and to live inside someone else's persona. In a lot of ways, Walter is a different guy than me. He talks, walks, and looks different. To me that's what being an actor is. By the same token when it comes to getting in touch emotionally, you have to tap into that reality, you have to use your own life experience. An important element to this character is an underlying sense of shame. And certainly, we've all done shameful things in our lives, so it's a question of tapping into that.
Jack Nicholson observed that 70% of a character is you and the other 30% is something else. I just saw the struggle of a sick guy trying to get well. No, I didn't see myself in the character. Money was invested to make this, but people don't forgive a child molester. Even in prison, murderers won't forgive this thing. It's not like a gambling or alcohol addiction; so how hard is it to put across a story that people will go to? First off, it's a lot of money by our standards, but not for the film industry. [The budget] was under three [million] dollars. It's basically a labor of love. I worked for nothing. It came together because people believed in it. Working conditions were not good and the page count was heavy every day. But I felt strongly that we needed to make it for the price. It would have been ridiculous to go out to raise the budget. Even to spend five million, to me, would not have been a good idea. It's difficult. I think one of the hardest jobs is to make it clear to people that they are not going to a movie where they'll see bad things happen to children because that is really rough to take. Walter's background wasn't as fully delineated; there was less of his back-story than say for Vicky (the girlfriend played by Bacon's wife Kyra Sedgwick). I lobbied pretty hard to take out as many lines as I could. I thought we'd be doing ourselves a disservice in simplifying the issue and Walter's struggle. Okay, Walter is this way because of this, or this is what Walter did. I wanted more to see Walter rather than talk about him. The fact of the matter is that there are some things that tend to be statistically prevalent. You've heard of the cyclical abuse. A large percentage of the people who will commit this type of sexual offense were abused themselves. So rather than have something that you could wrap up in a neat little bow and walk away from the theater thinking 'Oh yeah, the problem is this,' it was better to leave it open. Did you take on the role with trepidation considering that you are a parent? No. I feel like my parenting is my parenting and I take it very seriously. I put a lot of time into it and it's important. My work is my work. If I only took the movies that I thought would be nice for my kids to see you could just about eliminate pretty much all the movies that I've done. I can't do My Dog Skip every time.
Did you see the original stage production of The Woodsman? No, I did not. I don't think I'd really want to see another actor play the part. That might be counterproductive. Nicole [Kassell, the screenwriter/director] did a tremendous amount of research herself, clinical studies, case histories, psychological profiles. She had reams of material she gave to us, because she had researched this so thoroughly, so detailed, for years. So there's that part of it that I read and absorbed. But aside from that, the research is what I would have done for any other part. My own autobiography of who Walter is, whatever information I get from the script and then whatever information I come up with in my imagination that the director and I discuss. And then how does that manifest itself in the way he walks and talks, looks. In the past I've done research on prison life and that was very helpful.
What happens to Walter after the final credits roll? (Laughing) Are you talking about Woodsman II? I don't think I'll be signing up. Well, let me take it back a little. I feel that with Walter's journey, when he gets out of prison, he mistakenly feels "I've done the crime, I've done the time," and this is all behind him. I think in his head he almost feels he's the victim. I don't think he's really taken responsibility for the fact there have been victims of these crimes. I also think he's sitting there, for instance, with the shrink and he doesn't want to be there. He feels I'm cured. And what happens through the course of the movie and, of course, with the little girl is that he starts to come to terms that he has done terrible, maybe irrevocable damage, to people he has come in contact with. So this is something he's going to live with every day of his life. So while I don't think of it as a happy ending, I do think that realization is hopeful. Because maybe then he will continue to seek out the help he needs, and continue to make retribution.
Though, he did a terrible thing, it was one where he didn't physically assault someone. Had Walter been a rapist, or a murderer would the movie have had the same impact? As an audience you make those decisions. I certainly wouldn't pass a judgment on Walter and say that's not such a terrible thing. I think that is a terrible thing, just about the worst thing. Everyone is going to make their decision watching this film based on their own experience. I don't honestly set out, or collectively, we set out to say, 'Oh please like this guy.' The film is not manipulative in that way. If you look at it technically there's no big music swelling when you're supposed to feel something. It's much more obtuse than that. It doesn't have a nice, happy ending, nor does it slam the door on the character at the end or have him die a horrific death – the way a child molester is normally handled. We were just trying to tell this one guy's story in a real way. And for me, that's what's scary. Scary is not the sex offender as a monster. What's scary is that it's closer to the truth, just like regular human beings in a lot of ways. You couldn't pick them out in a room, and they are closer than you think in your schools, your churches, or the person you ride next to on the bus. It's incredibly widespread. At its best, the film will hopefully spark a discussion, to bring out some dialogue that we would really prefer not to talk about and instead sweep under the rug. Do you make films to prompt such discussions? Sometimes I do, sometimes I don't. I'm not on a soapbox to get things going. I just think about the character first. It's not the same guy I played last time. I'm just trying to put on different hats and different skins. If the film ends up being controversial, for some reason, and brings up some issues then that's interesting. That's more a director's vision or choice to tell stories in that way.
Do you consider this one of the hardest roles you've played? All roles are hard in different ways. Some are physical. Actually the hardest role physically I did was the Hollow Man, and I was invisible in the movie. But it was incredibly, physically taxing and it got delayed. Murder in the First was both physically and emotionally terribly difficult. I would say this one is right up there. Other times it's hard because the script sucks or the director is an asshole. How was it working with Kyra? It's great in the sense of here's a fantastic actress when you get to the set. You're there for each other. It's someone you trust, and you throw the ball back – which is good. In terms of a marriage, it's probably not the best thing. What we found through the years is that she works, and I become sort of her support system. And then I work, and she becomes my support system. And when we're both working in the same project at the same time, it's hard for us to be there for each other as husband and wife. We sort of have to come back together after the job's over. Would you have been able to handle the emotional aspects of The Woodsman if Kyra wasn't there? Yes, I don't ask my costar to hold me up. That's not why she's in the part, she in the part because she's the best person. What happens when she's the boss as in the case of Cavedweller [for Showtime] which Kyra produced and said, "Come, I need a rock star"? I'm used to her being the boss [laughs good naturedly]. There's nothing new about that. What's happening with your music career as the Bacon Brothers [his band with brother Michael]? We're going out tomorrow morning. We have a 5 a.m. pickup out to Phoenix to plan a gig and then that's it for the year. I'm hoping to go back in the studio in the spring. Aren't you producing your next film? I've got Loverboy that I directed, Kyra and I produced, and she stars in it. That's going to premiere in the premiere category at the Sundance. I did Beauty Shop, starring Queen Latifah. I play a hairdresser named Jorge. I'm looking forward to everyone seeing that one. And I have a movie called Where the Truth Lies with Alison Lohman, Colin Firth and myself. Have you ever through about giving up the acting? There's times, especially when I'm doing the interviews.
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