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The Following

A preview of Kevin Bacon playing the broken hero in a genuinely surprising serial killer thriller.

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With his stark blue eyes, snout-like nose and skinny frame, Kevin Bacon is often cast as the villain in films — he was a child molester in The Woodsman; an evil prison warden in Sleepers; and Julianne Moore's creepy new love interest in Crazy, Stupid, Love.

But, this time, Bacon is not the bad guy.

Death and mayhem? It's my happy place. 

The Following, his new TV series, is a psychological thriller about a handsome and charismatic serial killer created by Kevin Williamson.

The Following.

Dream casting ... Kevin Bacon in The Following.

Bacon plays introverted FBI agent Ryan Hardy, an alcoholic loner with a pacemaker who has made it his life mission to thwart murderer Joe Carroll (James Purefoy).

Hardy was responsible for Carroll's capture in 2003, but only after the deranged killer murdered 14 female students, gouging his victims' eyes out in the gothic style of Edgar Allan Poe. Now, Carroll has escaped from jail and leads a cult following of wannabe slayers in his wake.

Bacon says he was drawn to playing the complex hero figure, who in some ways is the opposite of Carroll: "Aside from these horrific deeds, Carroll is extremely well read, which my character is not; he's a people person, which I'm not, he's charming, and is able to make connections, personal connections with people. I push people away, I'm not well educated — he's someone that I admire and you see us meet each other and he kind of seduces me.

Actors Leonardo DiCaprio, left, Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick.

Off screen ... actors Leonardo DiCaprio, left, Kevin Bacon and Kyra Sedgwick at a basketball game. Photo: AP

"And the sad thing is that the times in my life when I've been closest to him, either questioning him before I know he's the killer, tracking him, putting him in jail . . . those are the times I am the most alive — I don't know what he needs from me but that's what I need from him."

Having Bacon attached to his latest project is a dream come true for creator Williamson, who told his casting director to find someone "like Kevin Bacon". The Following premiered in the US in January with 10.4 million viewers.

While Williamson has explored the serial-killer theme many times before — most famously with the Scream and I Know What You Did Last Summer movies — The Following is his first horror script written for television. And it's considerably darker than his other small-screen works, Dawson's Creek and The Vampire Diaries.

The Following has Williamson's signature blend of blood, fear and gore — mixed with a bit of romance. He says he set out to make another horror film but couldn't figure out how to end it — and so, given Fox picks up the show for further seasons, this killer will be on the loose for a while.

Both Scream and The Following grew out of Williamson's interest in Daniel Rolling, aka the Gainseville Ripper, who butchered five students in Florida in 1990. Rolling would mutilate his victims' bodies and place them in various poses for the police to find, often using mirrors to exaggerate the carnage.

"I found that so horrific and just the nature of how he splayed his victims I found very theatrical," Williamson says. "He did these horrific things to display them when you walked in the door and you would see their severed limbs.

"That's what Joe Carroll is — he's this theatrical killer, he's this narcissistic and full-of-himself literary professor who wrote a really bad novel and fancies himself as an artist. He may not be able to write a good book but he can kill well and organise other killers well."

There are also loose references to the murders committed by Jeffrey Dahmer and Ted Bundy, who famously escaped from a courthouse library in much the same way Carroll escapes from jail in the pilot episode.

"I've always been fascinated by the dark mind, and the psychology of that, and why people do what they do," Williamson says. "You know, I was always trying to understand the pathology and the psychology and so I started reading the Leopold and Loeb murder case, and that was the rubric — that sort of relationship. Jeffrey Dahmer was making a lot of zombies in his bedroom, and it was just creepy and scary and diabolical, and he came off as the smartest man on the planet."

Although a show about a serial killer is not new (Dexter has been running since 2006), The Following is likely to add further fuel to the discussion in America about violence, most recently reignited by the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting. It's a subject, however, that Williamson won't be drawn on.

"There are so many things at play when it comes to that issue and so I wouldn't even want to begin to be the expert," he says. "I just know I write fiction and I believe we should be able to write our fiction. There is a difference between fiction and reality and if you can't tell the difference then that's a problem.

"And I would just say that this show is not for children, so some good parenting could come into play, and I would not let my child watch it, OK? And that would be my answer to that."

Although the murders in the show are gruesome, Williamson says much of the violence is actually inferred. "There are a few moments that are shocking, but if you really think about it, it's all off camera," he says. "It's more implied."

Nevertheless, it remains yet another tale about serial killers.

"It's a different version of what I've done but everything is still there," he says. "Death and mayhem? It's my happy place."

Turning on to television

It used to be that a television actor's greatest ambition was to move into films. These days, however, actors of Kevin Bacon's stature are scrambling to work on the small screen.

Bacon, who hasn't auditioned for a role in 25 years, says he was eager to move into television.

"I don't plan to stop making movies now — I have a 15-episode season and that leaves me time to do pictures — but I was all of a sudden watching TV," he says.

"I'd be hanging out with friends and bullshitting about what happened on Breaking Bad. So all of a sudden I went, maybe I want to be in here."

Bacon's wife, Kyra Sedgwick, has also had a successful run on television in crime drama The Closer. Bacon says he watched her become increasingly absorbed in the role.

"She really loved the opportunity to get deeper and deeper into a character. Because she was on television, I started to become a big television consumer, which I really wasn't, and then simultaneously television just started to explode in terms of popular culture. The level of writing had just gone up and up, and the amount of movies that were made seemed to be closing."

The shows he watches on television — Breaking Bad, Homeland, The Killing – have central characters battling life-and-death situations. The hero in each is also a little messed up, which is what drew Bacon to Ryan Hardy in The Following.

"Really, those are the types of shows that I found myself drawn to, shows where there's a lot at stake. I liked how complex and flawed the character was. He had so many vulnerabilities with things that had been going on in his past, his heart [operation], the alcohol, being kicked out of the FBI, unsurmountable struggles. So to be heroic, I wanted to wear that hat, but I wanted it to be a struggle."

The X-Men: First Class star admits he has found the return to television a challenge. Bacon likes to prepare and he became frustrated with the little time allowed to learn each script and the constant flow of new characters.

"There was a woman who came in the other day — she's my girlfriend — and I was kissing her within five minutes of meeting her, you know what I mean? And we had no history at all. I didn't know anything about her."

Playing the same character for an extended period of time may also be trying for an actor who relishes new and different roles.

"If I seem to be getting just one kind of role or one genre of film, then I want to switch it up . . . Which is why it's going to be interesting to see what it's like to play the same guy for a long period of time," Bacon says.

"When I became an actor my entire focus was to be able to walk in different men's shoes. And people say, isn't it more fun to be the bad guy? But it's not, necessarily . . . putting on a space suit, jumping back in time, playing an FBI agent or a killer — that's fun, putting on the hats."