Kevin Bacon’s career stretches back 35 years, with roles in more than 60 movies ranging from Animal House and Tremors to Mystic River and X-Men: First Class. It’s a resume so long and so diverse that in 1994 he became the subject of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, a trivia game in which players are challenged to link arbitrary Hollywood actors through their film roles to Bacon within six steps.
Now, at 54, Bacon is taking the next step in that storied career with his first lead role on television with Fox’s The Following. He plays FBI Special Agent Ryan Hardy, who’s drawn into the middle of a social network of serial killers created by murderous mastermind Joe Carroll (played by Rome’s James Purefoy), a former college professor imprisoned by Hardy for murdering young women in honor of Edgar Allan Poe. At the beginning of the series, created by Kevin Williamson (Scream, The Vampire Diaries), Carroll has escaped death row, and Hardy must find him once again.
"I think we're making a thriller and it's a tense, fast-paced, exciting thriller that has a lot of moments that are a real surprise, and that's really what hit me when I was reading the script," Bacon said in a conference call with reporters. "Nobody really prepared me. I really honestly wasn't looking for something on network, but they said, 'I think this might be something that you should really take a look at.' I found it to be such a page-turner and had so many moments when I thought, 'Oh, my God, I really did not see that coming.' You combine that with two other things -- one is this giant concept of the idea of this cult that Kevin Williamson has created, and just the creepiness of that idea. To me the most important thing is that it's an exploration of these characters and their relationships. The fact that we're able to go back in flashback and get some insight into why they have become who they have become, the fact you can meet this guy Ryan Hardy and know that something's bothering him deeply, but not learn all the details of that in the first episode, is kind of an exciting thing for an actor to go and peel the layers back."
Part of what drives Hardy is his guilt at carrying the deaths of many victims on his shoulders, something that adds to the layers of the character.
"Ryan is nothing if he's not a guilty person," Bacon said. "He's got a lot of baggage and a lot of that baggage is guilt. As I said, he stopped [Joe] but not before he killed a lot of people. [Ryan] has guilt about a lot of stuff even before Joe Carroll came into his life -- things that give the opportunity down the road we may get a chance to explore. Kevin Williamson said to me very early on in our conversations -- and it was probably the most important piece that I needed to start to put this character together – ‘This is a guy who has been surrounded by death, and that's continuing in his life.' I think part of him feels like maybe he has some piece of that, that he has some responsibility for that and I think he feels tremendously guilty."
The actor elaborated on his character's relationship with Purefoy’s Joe Carroll, saying viewers will get the chance to see when the two met.
"We go back and we meet Ryan when he first meets Joe and before he knows that Joe is a suspect," Bacon said. "He's just interviewing him by happenstance on this college campus. What you see is that he gets strangely seduced by Joe, not in a sexual way, just in a friendship kind of way. Joe sees into Ryan and is able to kind of play him like a violin. There's a lot of qualities of Joe that Ryan really admires. My character is not an extremely well-read and well-educated man. He's not a people person. He's not a charmer, he's not a dynamic speaker and he's maybe not even somebody that you necessarily want to go and have a beer with. Joe Carroll is all those things. I think Ryan looks up to him in a strange kind of way. It's one of the dynamics of the show that I think is interesting and one that we continue to play with."
While much of Bacon's insight had more to do with his character, he was also able to provide a brief impression of Carroll as a contrast to Agent Hardy.
"Joe has followers and believes that he can create more and more people that come around to his way of thinking and likes to be surrounded by people," he said. "We'll see his admirers and the people that are close to him grow and grow and grow. Yet, except for maybe a few, he doesn't seem to really deeply care about those people. They're expendable in a way. It's one of the sociopathic episodes of his personality. [Ryan] has nobody in his life. He pushes the people in his life away. When Weston comes to him, he doesn't want Weston to be close to him. He doesn't want Agent Parker to come into his life. Even with Claire, he's walked away from her. He's very resistant to doing anything than just being a man alone on an island. Yet, as the show evolves, I think he has more of an ability to let people in, to take help, advice -- you'll see more of that.
"The difference between Ryan and Joe is that the people Ryan does let in are the people he cares about very deeply. Extremely deeply."
While this is Bacon's first leading role in television, he's no stranger to the medium: For instance, he directed four episodes of TNT's The Closer, which starred his wife Kyra Sedgwick.
"I had been looking for a television series for a long time and trying to get my head around it," Bacon said. "My initial call, if you will, to my representatives was probably three or four years ago, but it just took some time to find the right one. I had seen Kyra's experience secondhand and was also finding myself to be more and more of a television consumer as the quality of the shows and writing just seem to be getting better and better. I just found myself very knocked out by so many shows, sitting down and spending a weekend watching every episode of The Wire. [The Following] had the qualities that I was drawn to."
Beyond qualities of the show, Bacon also praised The Following’s characterization of Ryan Hardy and the high stakes of the concept.
"When I was trying to choose a series, I wanted to be the hero. I wanted the character to be complex and flawed, because that's the kind of hero that I like to play and the kind of heroes that I like to see," he said. "That's the stuff performances are made of. I found as I was shifting and sifting through stories and pilots that I would really like something, but then I would think to myself, 'I don't know if the stakes are high enough.' I wanted to do something that was about life and death. When I was looking at the things that I was drawn to in a series, things like Breaking Bad and The Killing and Homeland and The Wire -- even Game of Thrones -- a lot of them are about life and death."
As for The Following itself, Bacon hopes viewers will come for the psychological thriller aspect of the series and stay for the emotional depth of the characters.
"It'll keep you on the edge of your seat. It will shock you and surprise you," he said. "Hopefully, you will get drawn into not only what's going on plot-wise, but also what's going on emotionally with these characters that you'll want to come back the next week to see where things go."
The Following premieres Monday at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Fox.