Kevin Bacon was naked when they chained him to the wall. The temperature in the dungeon lingered somewhere in the 40s, and water dripped down the side of the set. Hunched in the cold, Bacon could feel dirt on his skin, steel cuffs cutting into his wrists, and crickets crawling through his hair. And that was before the beatings.
Murder in the First, Bacon's new film, is based on the story of Henri Young, a petty thief who spent three years in the cramped, barbaric isolation of Alcatraz's solitary after a botched attempt to escape. He was beaten there and in Murder in the First the warden who dishes out much of the discipline is Gary Oldman, not a thespian known for his restraint. Oldman's blackjack was fake, of course, but it had a leather casing, and the whipping left welts on Bacon's skin. ''It hurt,'' says director Marc Rocco. ''Every welt that he takes in the movie, he had on his body.''
You might expect Bacon to brag about the bruises acting, like pro wrestling, has a streak of battlefield machismo but he demurs. Yes, he's pleased by his career momentum; a series of red-meat roles in JFK, A Few Good Men, The River Wild, and Murder in the First has converted the erstwhile Cute Guy into one of the top character actors in Hollywood. But ask about handcuffs and live rats and getting flogged with a blackjack and Bacon will tell you, quite bluntly, that it sucked.
''I was very unhappy,'' he says. ''Extremely unhappy.''
Welcome to the Kevin Bacon paradox. Though directors call him a workhorse (considering the frigid wipeouts of River Wild and the penal-colony sadism of Murder in the First, he just might be the most clobbered actor on the big screen), Bacon calls himself a ''sissy.'' Though lean and sturdy, he's scared of earthquakes, scared of flying, and scared of getting sick. Though cool and quiet and not known as a glad-hander, Bacon consistently wins kudos from colleagues who appreciate his bone-dry humor and average-Joe ability to tell it like it is. ''He's very forthright and says just what he thinks, and you respect that,'' says actor David Strathairn, who went mano a mano with Bacon's leering thief in River.
''He's a good athlete, but he doesn't necessarily like doing the action scenes,'' echoes Ron Howard, who is directing Bacon in the upcoming Apollo 13. ''He's the first to tell you that he can do it, but he'd just as soon be doing My Dinner With Andre.''
When things got especially harrowing during Murder in the First, Bacon would holler to Rocco from the gloom of the dungeon: ''I'm not a Method actor! If you wanted Daniel Day-Lewis, you should've got him!''
Bacon is in a nicer place at the moment: his trailer on the set of Apollo 13, the story of an aborted voyage to the moon. The neck of an acoustic guitar is propped next to a Great Songs of the '70s songbook, and the wall blossoms with photos of his wife, actress Kyra Sedgwick (Singles, Born on the Fourth of July), and their towheaded kids, Travis, 5, and Sosie, 2 1/2.
Though Bacon can cocoon, he can't hide. As part of Apollo 13's meticulous authenticity, he and fellow astronauts Tom Hanks and Bill Paxton have been taking their licks, zipping through the cloud layer on a big NASA KC-135 airplane. The jet, as it does for the astronauts, flies precise parabolic curves to simulate space travel, which means that for 25 seconds at a time the cast is weightless.
Sounds fun, no?
''I don't like it,'' Bacon says with a crooked grin, spearing clumps of salad. ''Everybody else is all gung ho about it, but if I never did it again, , it'd be too soon.'' Same goes for those icy, whiplash scenes on the rapids of The River Wild. ''I'm too old to throw myself down a river,'' the ancient 36-year-old deadpans. ''I mean, I'm not a thrill seeker, and yet I keep getting into these situations.''
Truth be told, discomfort has put Bacon's career back in the comfort zone. Praise for Murder in the First and a Golden Globe nomination for The River Wild prove the pain is paying off. Bacon is willing to take his punches because ''acting is a rush. It's one of my favorite things to do, and it can be so transcendental for me.'' But he also knows that no drubbing rivals the one occasionally served up at the box office.
''You know, in between Footloose and Flatliners, I didn't do any movies that people went to,'' he explains clinically, launching into a self-flagellating list of flops in which he starred. ''She's Having a Baby. He Said, She Said. Quicksilver. The Big Picture. End of the Line. Criminal Law. Enormous Changes at the Last Minute. Queens Logic. Believe me, I got some. And there's more in there, I know. Tremors. It did well on video, but nobody saw it in the theater.
''And it was devastating to me. Every single time,'' Bacon continues, swinging his elbows like a designated hitter, ''I felt like, 'Okay, here we go, here we go ' A strikeout. You do the work and you throw yourself into it so completely. And the movie opens, and people don't go, and it's like everything that you banked on and everything that you cared about just goes up in smoke.''
Forced to find a new game plan, Bacon came up with a very '90s solution: downsizing. In 1991, he did a striking don't-get-popcorn-or-you'll-miss-it cameo as a jittery male hooker in Oliver Stone's JFK. ''It was a small part, but it clarified some things for me and for people in the business,'' Bacon says. ''I didn't have to be a leading guy. I was really happy doing these character things.''
Call it a homecoming. Truth is, long before Footloose turned him into a skinny-tied Travolta, Kevin Bacon was banking on life as an Off Broadway theater rat. Spared the usual parental hand-wringing (''We were totally supportive of the whole idea,'' says his 84-year-old father, Edmund Bacon, the former director of the Philadelphia City Planning Commission), Bacon left home at 17, moved into a New York flophouse, studied his craft, and waltzed straight into the time-honored groove of auditions and waiting on tables. ''I didn't even think about movie stars that much. I never thought about Hollywood ; or Los Angeles,'' he recalls. ''I wasn't as interested in the pop side of it so much as I was in getting an Obie award. And then, in a strange kind of way, I became this pop star.''
His acrobatic arrival after spots in National Lampoon's Animal House and Diner came as city slicker and dancin' fool Ren McCormick in 1984's Footloose. That Bible Belt Grease plucked Bacon from the pages of Playbill and dropped him squarely in the territory of Tiger Beat. ''It was the last thing in the world that I wanted. I was already into my 20s, and I was like, 'Aw, God, I can't have this! I want to be thought of as a serious actor!'''
Now he's getting his wish thanks, in part, to his own oddly flexible face. Blessed with pug nostrils, bristly hair (sans mousse, Bacon says his 'do ''looks like Jim Carrey's in Dumb and Dumber''), and a skeletal profile that bears the slightest trace of Nosferatu, Bacon is one of the few stars able to cross the line from cute to creepy. For Murder, the actor starved himself, traded in the funky fluidity of his movements for a Quasimodo limp, and subjected his face to prosthetic scars. ''A lot of guys playing that same role would try and hold on to the thread of glamour, because they're movie stars,'' says Rocco. ''That doesn't concern Kevin.''
Downsizing has its downside Bacon often gets sandwiched between hams like Jack Nicholson and beefcake like Tom Cruise but he actually feels a liberation in letting someone else carry a movie. ''My sense is he stopped trying to control it and just wants to enjoy it,'' says Howard. ''He just seems to be going for the scripts and the characters and not worrying about orchestrating things.'' Plus, adds Rocco, ''acting, as much as he loves it, is not the most important thing in his life. His family is.''
Bacon and Sedgwick, 29, met seven years ago on the set of the PBS American Playhouse version of Lanford Wilson's play Lemon Sky, just as he was in the throes of box office agony. ''Ultimately, you have to find something that's going to sustain you aside from the success or failure of your films,'' he says. ''Which is why, luckily, as I was starting to get as low as I felt, I met my wife, and she helped me climb out of that tunnel.''
She still does. Though they have a spread in Connecticut and a pied-á-terre in Manhattan, Bacon makes a point of shuttling the family along with him to work. ''We have a very, very, extremely tight family unit,'' he says, ''and it comes from more time spent together than any other situation I can possibly imagine.'' During the abuse of Murder in the First (in which Sedgwick cameos as a call girl), Bacon was beset by nightmares ''I was just filled with horrible thoughts all the time: blood, decapitation, torture'' and his wife adopted the role of guardian angel.
''She was great in terms of getting me through the whole experience,'' he says. ''There were times when she would sit up in bed and say, 'Look, this isn't real. You're not this guy. You're going someplace, and you should try to come back from there a little bit.'''