BMDQ&A: Kevin Bacon On COP CAR

The star of the sharp thriller on why it's not a B-movie.

In Jon Watts’ crime film bildungsroman Cop Car, star Kevin Bacon gives a terse, dark cowboy performance as dirty Sheriff Kretzer, who misplaces his cruiser, laden with secrets in the trunk, and must track it down after two young boys (James Freedson-Jackson and Hays Wellford) stumble upon it and take it for a joy ride.

I was lucky to chat with Bacon about the film, and about the, at the time, very recent announcement that Cop Car director Watts’ next project would be taking on a certain web-slinger.

Q: This week, Jon Watts was announced as the next director for Spider-Man. What do you think makes him right for the gig, after working with him on Cop Car?

A: I have to say that, as exciting as that story is, it really didn’t surprise me too much. Because, I just think that he’s got a great eye, and a great sense of storytelling, both with the way that he writes and conceives story, and the way that he works with the actors and the places he puts the camera, and how he chooses to move it.

I look at his ability, after having done so little work, and I’m just kind of like, ‘wow.’ I’m frankly jealous of how good he is. I don’t know what the whole inner workings were amongst Marvel, in terms of their decision-making process, but it was not a shock to me.

Q: What is it about Cop Car that you think is connecting with audiences?

A: Well, I think that the story is a simple one, but at the same time, he lets the audience be part of figuring out what the heck’s going on. And rather than have the characters or filmmakers say, ‘well, this is this and this is this,’ we’re sort of pulled in. You know, who are these kids? Where did they come from? Where are they? Whose car is this? What’s going on? What’s in the trunk? What’s the story with this sheriff? What’s his history? And it’s really like, as an audience, you’re pulled into it by the fact that you’re not told everything. And that is a really smart way, I think, to build tension.

And really what you need in a thriller -- and that’s what I think of this movie as, a thriller -- you need tension. You need tension that gets a little bit of release, you let a touch of air out of the balloon and maybe just blow it right back up. And that’s what drives it all the way to the end of the film.

And I think that on the flip side of that, it’s got so much heart, that it’s almost hard to really categorize it as a genre film. You know, I’m going to a horror festival, and it’s funny because when you look at the film, it’s about things like boyhood and loss of innocence, and the hard realities of the world pulling you out of your utopian, childlike existence. There’s a lot of heart in there that I think is also kind of unusual for what could be considered “genre.” I mean, people talk about it kind of like a B-movie. I’m not sure I quite understand that. I’m a big fan of what sometimes are considered to be B-movies, so I really don’t take it as an insult, but I’m not sure I quite understand that thinking.

Q: Were there any specific movies that you watched as a reference point in anticipation of making Cop Car, or that Jon had the kids watch?

A: I don’t watch movies as reference points to play characters. I think about who this guy is and who I’m going to make him. To watch another performance, or even to watch something that’s in the same world, doesn’t have anything to do with what my particular job is. If I was directing a film, and that’s all I was doing, sure, I’d look at the great chase scenes, but as an actor, I really don’t think it’s helpful. I think you really just need to focus on your character and figure out who he is.

But Jon said, very openly, that the Coen Brothers and early Spielberg were influences, and I guess maybe Stephen King, things like that. But I really think that’s more of his role.

Q: What was it about your role as Sheriff Kretzer that you found interesting or compelling?

A: Putting the pieces together that weren’t there on the page and hoping that, even without putting them on the page, that we would still see a well-rounded character. Because this is one of those parts where you’re really reading between the lines, right? He’s not a character that expresses himself in an honest, confessional way. You know, there are those characters that do that: ‘Honey, I feel lost in my life right now and I need to find something to give me purpose,’ a speech like that. This guy, when he opens his mouth, he’s usually bullshitting, right? Or he’s threatening or manipulating, and he doesn’t say all that much.

So to make him an interesting, well-rounded character was really the challenge, and it was just a function of trusting Jon, that Jon was going to be able to tell that story, as I like to say, between the lines, and that we were on the same page with some of the choices that I was going to make about some of the backstory kind of stuff.

Q: It’s this great coming-of-age story. Did you have a moment in your childhood that you look back on and say ‘that’s when I came of age. That’s when I grew up.’ Or is that the kind of thing that only happens in cinema?

A: I’m still waiting. [laughs]

No, I really believe that coming of age is something that -- well, let’s talk about specifically when a boy becomes a man, which I believe is germane to this movie. I don’t think it necessarily applies in the same way for women. I think it’s a different process for women.

It’s true that movies are often about that, but I do think that it can happen in a lot of different points in life. And it also isn’t necessarily always just a one-shot; it’s kind of a process. So yeah, I have a moment in my teens that things sort of felt that way. But [laughs] probably better not to go into that specifically.

A: How was it dealing with [the boys in the film] James and Hays?

A: James and Hays were fantastic. The first great job that Jon did was finding those two kids. You know, having worked with children and having directed children, I’ve done a lot of work with kids, probably more kids than animals.

And the problem is that, if you’re a child actor, chances are, even if you’ve shown an interest in it, your parents have probably supported this, and unless you’ve never done anything and you’re just discovered, you’re already off on a career. And a lot of what that career’s going to be about is commercials and modeling sessions. Because you’re out there to get a gig, right? And those are two things that are kind of counter-points to being a good actor. So the challenge is to find kids who haven’t been tainted by that kind of work, and are actually able to get into a scene and look people in the eyes and convey something emotionally, other than ‘I love this cereal.’

And it took a lot of time, and he saw a ton of kids, and then he waited until the last minute to decide who was going to play who. So they came out to Colorado Springs, and we started to work with them, and then they made the decision about which kid was which. And when you look at the movie, you can’t really imagine them swapping roles. It was so perfect, everything about them, the look, everything.

And they were great. I loved working with them.

Q: Are there any roles of yours that you would love to revisit, or future characters that you’d jump at a chance to play?

A: The only character of mine that I’ve been interested in revisiting is the character from Tremors. And it’s too bad because I’ve put the idea out there, and sort of offered myself up there, and it doesn’t seem to be anything that either Universal or the filmmakers are really interested in pursuing.

And the reason is that, for me, at the time, the movie is kind of a silly genre thing, underground worms -- I mean, that’s kind of the definition of a B-movie, in a way. But I just looked at it recently, and that’s not something that I do, go back and look at my old films, but because I was thinking about it, I did. And it’s a really good film! It’s funny and it’s scary and it’s cool, and it’s all done with non-CGI.

But I look at that guy, and I think, ‘well, I’m interested to see who he would be in twenty years.’ I’d like to see what happened to him. His whole thing is that he wanted to get out. He was stuck, and he was going to leave this town. So did that happen, or did it not happen? And where is he if he did get out?

This was originally published in the August issue of Birth.Movies.Death. magazine. See Cop Car at the Alamo Drafthouse this month.