Kevin Bacon has explored many different areas of horror over the course of his long career, and this week sees him taking a key role in the topical slasher movie They/Them. Premiering August 5 on Peacock and produced by Blumhouse, the feature directorial debut of screenwriter John Logan (Skyfall, Gladiator) is set at a remote gay conversion facility called Whistler Camp, run by Bacon’s Owen Whistler. When a varied group of LGBTQ+ youth arrive, each with their own reasons for being there, he promises them, “This is a safe space for everyone”—but needless to say, that proves not to be the case. A masked killer begins prowling the woods around the camp, and some of the kids begin discovering unexpected truths about the place and its owner. Bacon, who began his career as one of the doomed counselors in Friday the 13th, spoke with FANGORIA about this distinctive and relevant variation on the genre.
I guess the headline here is that you’re returning to summer-camp horror for the first time since Friday the 13th. Was there a sense of nostalgia, or of bringing your career full circle with They/Them?
You know, I didn’t really think about Friday the 13th that much until today [laughs], till that question started coming up. Friday the 13th was so many years ago; I was a kid living in New York doing some theater, I got an opportunity to do a movie. To the other side of the George Washington Bridge we went, and stayed at a motel by the side of the road. And then it became this iconic thing; there were a lot of slasher movies being made for very low budgets back then, so I looked at it really as a gig. It’s not like I was thinking, “I really want to be in a slasher movie!” That was not my impetus; my impetus was to have a job and pay my rent. That was a very different thing than this film, which obviously has a very specific point of view, even beyond the genre.
You’re also credited as an executive producer on They/Them, so what exactly was your involvement in it, and when did you become a part of it?
I became a part of it pretty much right away, when John had finished writing it. He wrote it with me in mind, and of course, when I read it, I was like, “Jeez, thanks a lot!” [Laughs] He said he had always pictured me doing it, and I have a pretty long history with Blumhouse; this is the fourth project I’ve done with them. So Jason Blum came to me, and John came to me, and I said, “Yeah, let’s do it.” I really liked the idea that John had taken on this thing he found truly terrifying and horrible, the idea that there are still 20 states that allow this gay conversion therapy. He said, “I could have made a dark little indie film about something of this nature, but I decided to frame it in a very, hopefully accessible package, which is horror, which a lot of people really enjoy.” It had the potential to bring a lot of people in, and I thought that was a brilliant approach, and when I read Owen’s first speech, I felt I could definitely have fun with this character.
So I came on, and was involved in the process. I take it seriously when I’m listed as a producer, just in terms of having a seat at the table. But also, I think John wanted to have me set a tone in terms of the set, and professionalism, and commitment. The very first scene we shot was that first speech, and we were off and running from there.
When you saw all the young actors coming in, did you have any thoughts like, “This was me all those years ago?”
Yeah, I did. I love to work with young actors; there’s an energy to that, just being around young people and knowing that they are the future. I remember walking out on that porch for the first time and looking across all those faces of these people who, when I was doing something like Friday the 13th, would be so underrepresented in our business, and if they wanted to work in our business, certainly would not be upfront about who they really were. And here we are now, and if we can look at it as progress—sometimes it’s hard to acknowledge that there is progress—we can, for a second, look at that and go, “That’s pretty cool; here’s a mainstream film that is representing these young people in a very authentic way.” I found it very moving, and I was very proud to be part of it.
Owen Whistler turns out to have some surprises to his character; how did you calibrate your performance so as to hint at them without making it clear where he’s going to go?
Well, in the early scenes, I really didn’t want to hint at them. I wanted to create a guy who was gentle and convincing and really trying to make it look like this is the safest place to be, when in fact that’s not quite the case. That’s what’s fun about being an actor, when you can surprise an audience. I’ve been in so many things that even surprising people, in terms of me doing anything they haven’t see me do before, is a little bit of a challenge at this point. But if you can take a character to a place they don’t expect, that’s a lot of fun.
Were you able to do any research into these kinds of camps, or talk to people who had been through that kind of situation?
Well, John had put together a tremendous amount of research, which he shared pretty much immediately…I think it was almost attached to the script. A lot of reading about laws, about the history, anecdotal stories about people who had been through things like this. That was really helpful. Keeping in mind that this is out of his imagination, and this particular camp and the techniques that are used and all those kinds of things…it is a horror movie, it’s supposed to be a ride as well as a social commentary.
When you shot the movie, were you actually isolated in a location that was cut off from the rest of the world?
At the camp, yes, although I didn’t live there, and neither did anyone else on the movie. Everyone was within commuting distance, probably 45 minutes or an hour away. I would have stayed out there, except that to be cut off from my family for that amount of time… I mean, there was no cell service, so when we were at camp, you couldn’t make calls in or out or get internet or anything like that. I didn’t want to be that isolated. But I love the outdoors; I’ve done quite a bit of camping myself, so it felt very comfortable to me to be out there.
Getting back to what you were saying before, having been in and out of the horror genre for so many years, do you find that now, a lot more of it is socially conscious or relevant than it was a couple of decades ago?
Sure, with Get Out kind of leading the charge with that. That being said, I don’t think every horror movie that’s made now is going to have to have a social point of view. But I will say that any horror movie I would want to be involved with would have to have real serious character development. And if you look at something like the slasher movies of the ’80s, it wasn’t really about character development. It was more about kills, and the victims were often people who had done things that society had deemed immoral, whether it was premarital sex or drugs or being gay or being overweight or dressing trashy; these were all things that you got killed for. So I think we’ve moved away from that, at least.
But I also want to point out that horror sometimes is, to me, almost a little bit too broad a category, because before and during the slasher movies being made, there was also Rosemary's Baby , there was The Exorcist, there was Don't Look Now, there was The Shining, and a lot of much more character-based scary movies. So for my involvement, at the very least, even if there was no message, I would want to be in a movie that had good characters.
They/Them lands on Peacock August 5, also check out our exclusive Convo X Fango with Bacon and writer/director John Logan.