In “Cop Car,” Kevin Bacon plays a crooked middle-of-nowhere Southern sheriff with a buzz cut, a mustache and a pair of tinted sunglasses that obscure his eyes. That’s how the actor always saw him. A pitiless thriller with a fragmented structure and a few touches of Cormac McCarthy, it pits his character against two boys, who’ve accidentally absconded with his cop car, unaware that he has a man he was about to dispose of lying in the trunk.
Your character has dialogue, but not much of it, and you’re essentially, for most of the film, doing a silent screen performance.
There was a time when I looked at parts — when I was younger and dumber — based on how many lines I had. How big is the part? Do I have a big scene? My wife and I call those your “big, naked crying scenes.” The camera is an amazing, beautiful tool when used in the right way, because it can look past what the naked eye sees. It can take an audience inside a character without the character having to say anything. It’s what I call reading between the lines — the lines being the things people say to each other. For my character it’s certainly not so much what he says, because he’s a bulls—ter, and everything that comes out of his mouth is a lie anyway. It’s about what you discover and what you start to hypothesize about — how he ended up in this situations, how did those things end up in the trunk of his car, what his homelife is like, how did he become sheriff. All that stuff you can imagine but we don’t have to tell you about them.
How quickly did you find the character?
Sometimes I hear the character’s voice and sometimes I have to discover it. When I say “voice,” I don’t mean just his voice. I mean the essence of who they are, the way they’re going to look and feel and seems and dress and walk and talk and react. Will they smoke? Will they not? What will they drink? Will they be sober? Sometimes you have to work hard to discover those things about the character. There have been times when I read something and I went, “Hmm, I like it but I don’t have the hook yet.” But with something like “Cop Car,” I got him, I saw him. And that [points to the poster, with his character on it], that is exactly who he was. It’s not different than what I saw when I read it.
Is it easier to get that kind of collaboration in an indie than on a big budget film?
Yeaaaaah. I mean, I don’t think having a big budget is an excuse not to collaborate with me. I don’t care about the other actors; you can do whatever you want with other actors. But I want to be collaborated with. Funny you should mention that, because that is a bit of a deal breaker, far as I’m concerned. I don’t want to just be told, “This is exactly who you’re going to be.”
That must be easier, since you’ve worked with your share of auteurs. I imagine Clint Eastwood is pretty open to actors’ imput.
Clint works in a really interesting way. He expects you to figure out your character and don’t even talk to him about it. He didn’t even know I was going to do a Boston accent [in “Mystic River”] until the first scene was rolling. He goes up to me and says [in a really good Clint Eastwood impersonation], “Yeah, you’re doing an accent.” We would go off on our own and rehearse — get a hotel room and rehearse, because he didn’t want to rehearse. Meryl Streep — not to drop a name — told me, “You’re going to really like working with Clint.” The reason she said that is because Meryl is someone who does her homework. She figures out her character and gets to set and gives it to you. But you’ve got to know she’s going to be ready to go, and that’s what Clint expects. Different people have different processes. Some want to discover their character while they’re playing it. I’m the opposite. I want to know who the guy is and get in there and just do it.
Not terribly long ago “Cop Car” would have been a studio picture. Now it’s an indie, largely being released on VOD.
You can’t really sit around and complain about things and say, “In the old days…” I agree, a movie like “Cop Car” 10, 15, 20 years ago, people would go out and spend $20 million to make it, because there was a market for that. That medium range film has all but been replaced by television. Someone said to me, “When I started out, kids watched TV and adults went to the movies.” Now that’s flipped. The place to make those things — dramas, even thrillers — is on television. That’s where it’s being embraced.
A large chunk of your résumé is playing not very nice people, if not outright villains. Marlon Brando used to say he liked playing not nice characters because it allowed him to explore the good and dark parts of human nature. Do you feel something similarly heavy?
I feel all of us have a certain amount of darkness in our soul. My job enables me to exorcise those impulses, in a way that I wouldn’t necessarily have a chance to do if I was living a straight and narrow life. Some point in your day you might have this need to punch a wall, or the extreme would be “Cop Car” — take an uzi and start trying to get the guy across the street. I get to do that for a living. That’s not who I am, but I think it’s also good to work this stuff out.
Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge