Kevin Bacon on "The Following" and his foray into prime time

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With an Emmy-winning performance as a Marine in the TV movie "Taking Chance," Bacon's prolific repertoire has grown. (James Bridges / HBO)

Time to play "Minus Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon."

The actor is on the phone, having just returned from walking his dog in Manhattan on yet another day of record-shattering cold.

The Polar Express has Bacon questioning his judgment.

He was the one, after all, who insisted that The Following - the Fox thriller he stars in, beginning its third season on Monday - be shot in New York rather than Los Angeles.

"The other night, I had a scene in the prison yard where I was fighting in the snow in a T-shirt," he says, a faint shiver in his voice.

For the cast and crew, battling the elements has become part of The Following's identity. "I almost feel like it's a test of courage," he says. "We even have T-shirts that say 'Remember Fort Totten.' We had a couple of nights [at the former Army installation in Queens] that were just unbelievable."

Of course, the show is better known for its startling violence than its wintry mix. For two seasons, Bacon's on-again off-again FBI agent Ryan Hardy has battled the electrifyingly evil serial killer Joe Carroll (played by Rome's James Purefoy).

The Joe character is so malevolently arresting that when Bacon first declared his interest in The Following, both the series' creator (Kevin Williamson) and its executive producer (Marcos Siega) assumed he would want to play the killer.

"When he said he wanted to play Ryan Hardy, for a moment I was, like, 'We have this movie star and he wants to play Ryan?' " says Siega, on the phone from a location shoot in Brooklyn. "Because the villain gets to do so much more. I thought that was the more delicious role.

"When we started to shoot, a lightbulb went off for me," Siega continues. "Ryan is a guy who has been through a lot, who is carrying a tremendous amount of weight around and is suffering internally. And Kevin knows just how to play that."

The cumulative effect of Ryan's burden is about to become evident.

"You turn around two seasons later and I've killed a lot of people and seen a lot of people close to me die," Bacon says of his protagonist. "A guy whose life is surrounded by death and pain, I wanted there to be some residual impact."

The season picks up a year after Carroll has been imprisoned. He's behind bars, but not out of the picture.

"You don't see Joe for the first few episodes," says Bacon, "but you sense as things start to go bad that he's effecting events. Eventually, he does work his way back into Ryan's life in a compelling and interesting way.

"There are new threats, as well, especially one played by Michael Ealy, who is very different than Joe Carroll. If Joe made an explosion in season one, Michael's character is a slow burn," Bacon says with an unexpected, hearty laugh. Does anybody else smell smoke? "I think people will be very pleased with the kinds of creepiness and terror his character can deliver."

The Following makes Bacon and Ealy castmates, but even before this, they were easily linked by playing Six Degrees.

The basic premise is that Bacon has had such a prolific and eclectic career - appearing in about 60 feature films since his debut in 1978's Animal House - that any modern actor can be connected to his work in a few short steps.

Ealy, for instance, was in Last Vegas with Robert DeNiro. And DeNiro was in Sleepers with Bacon. That's a rudimentary second-degree hookup.

How about Eddie Redmayne, who recently won the best-actor Oscar? Redmayne was in Les Miserables with Helena Bonham Carter. She was also in the Steve Martin comedy Novocaine, in which Bacon appeared uncredited. That's one of about 10 routes you could take between the two.

Doing a prime-time series such as The Following only expands Bacon's universality. (He already has an Emmy for playing a Marine in the 2009 TV movie, Taking Chance.)

Still, the 56-year-old actor makes an unlikely TV star, if only because while growing up, his exposure to the medium was surreptitious.

A native Philadelphian, Kevin is one of six children of Edmund Bacon, the renowned architect and city planner often called "the Father of Modern Philadelphia," and Ruth, a teacher.

"We had a TV, a black-and-white," he says. "My parents kept it in the basement - an unfinished, smelly, musty, probably rat-infested basement. It had a broken antenna, so we jammed a coat hanger in there.

"I loved TV," he says, "but I had to sneak it. Sally Starr was my initiation into desire. She was smokin' hot!"

Series work is turning out to be more satisfying than Bacon had imagined. "One of the things about television is you get to spend a lot of time walking in [your character's] shoes, speaking with his voice," he says. "Hour after hour. Season after season. You get to the point where you can give me a situation and I can pretty much tell you how Ryan would react."

You also get more opportunities to walk the dog. Bacon and his actress wife, Kyra (The Closer) Sedgwick, are empty nesters now that their son, Travis, 25, and daughter, Sosie, 22, have moved out.

"I like it," he says. "I adore my kids and spending time with them. But I also like the privacy my wife and I have."

Privacy is a treasured commodity when you're a celebrity in New York.

"It is what it is, and it's been like this a very long time," he says of being recognized everywhere he goes. "I don't honestly know what life would be like without it.

"The main thing is - and people find this hard to believe - it's mostly good. It's mostly people being nice to you. 'I love you!' " he cries, imitating an enthusiastic stranger and then laughing. "That's great. Who gets that? And people handing you free things or getting that table at the restaurant."

But the fame game has changed in recent years. "Technological advances have made it a little more difficult. Everyone has a camera," Bacon says. "When I started, only tourists and paparazzi had cameras.

"I sign an autograph maybe once a year now," he continues. "But I take hundreds and hundreds of selfies with people. It makes life a little harder because nobody knows how to use their cellphone camera. It's always in the wrong mode.

"There's also this weird thing about cellphones," he adds. "When there were cameras, there was an etiquette: 'Can I take a picture?' With cell phones, people feel like it's OK to walk up and just snap a shot of you on the sidewalk or on the subway."

That's cold! But so is everything else on this day. Minus Kevin Bacon.

 


dhiltbrand@phillynews.com

215-854-4875 @daveondemand_tv