On Aug. 19, Amazon Studios dropped the pilot for one of the most fascinating and unconventional television projects ever — a series adaptation of the landmark feminist work “I Love Dick,” an epistolary novel that crisscrosses through feminist theory, philosophy, and thwarted desire. The book, technically a work of fiction, is a collection of love letters that filmmaker Chris Kraus writes to attempt to seduce a macho academic named Dick — with the surprisingly enthusiastic help of her husband Sylvère. Ultimately, the book is a journey of soul-searching for Chris; but it’s complicated by the fact that Chris, husband Sylvère, and object of infatuation Dick are all real people with those real relationships to each other. The 1994 book has a place in the pantheon of feminist narratives; Soloway’s girlfriend, the poet Eileen Myles, wrote an introduction to the 2006 version.
Soloway’s adaptation is filmed and set in the present, in arty Marfa, Texas, and though the future of the series is unclear, the 32-minute pilot is a fascinating and brilliant short film. (Amazon released “I Love Dick” as part of its pilot program, which invites viewers to vote for their favorite pilots. Theoretically, the most popular go into production, but there is no guarantee, guideline, or timetable. But Amazon Studios has a very good relationship with Soloway, whose “Transparent” has become the fledgling platform’s flagship claim to critical legitimacy.) Kathryn Hahn finally gets a lead role worthy of her as Chris, and Griffin Dunne plays Sylvère. The object of their mutual and singular fascination is none other than Kevin Bacon, in a coup of casting brilliance that is fundamental to the success of “I Love Dick.” Bacon offers up the perfect combination of self-assured celebrity, devastating good looks, and barely hidden machismo for Dick, who embodies so much that is attractive and repellent in the persistent myth of American masculinity. The viewer first glimpses Bacon’s Dick when he rides up to a Marfa store on a horse and hitches his steed outside with arresting calm. Later, he informs Chris and Sylvère calmly that he is “post-idea” and hasn’t read a book in a decade. Chris’ passion for him is matched only by her hatred for his intellectual positions.
Variety caught up with Bacon to talk about what it’s like to play an object of fascination after being one in the real world for so many years. Along the way, he offered up his own thoughts on what’s going on inside Dick’s head, what it’s like to play a character with such an evocative and provocative name, and how he feels about Hahn’s disheveled, nervous, and desiring Chris.
How did you get involved with this project?
Pretty standard sort of road. I read the pilot, and Jill [Soloway] was in L.A. and I was in New York at the time, and we Skype’d. I said yeah. I loved “Transparent.” And at that point only Kathryn [Hahn] was attached. I think she’s remarkable. I was looking to move away from something that was like, another sort of blood-and-guts, hour-long drama, and to explore. In my movie work, if I do one guy, the next guy I do, I want to do something kind of different. Even in terms of genre — it’s really great to mix it up a little. This was perfect for me.
Were you familiar with the book at all?
Have you read it since?
What do you think of it?
Have you read it?
I haven’t. I read a lot about it, though, and now I definitely want to read it.
I think it’s fascinating. It’s sometimes a little bit above my pay grade intellectually. You know what I mean? There’s a lot of sections of it that are cultural critique, or just really like way too heavy for me to understand. The parts of it that I like are the more memoir parts that are about her obsession with this writer. I feel like it’s a good jumping-off place — but I think if you do read the book, you’ll see that it’s vastly different than the television show.
Is there something in the book that is particularly different from Jill’s vision?
I think that for one thing, the creation of this backdrop of Marfa, Texas became a really big piece of it. I’d never heard of Marfa, Texas. I’d never heard of [minimalist artist] Donald Judd. I immediately started researching that place, because I knew that’s where the script was going to take place. I became fascinated with this little kind of pocket of art that’s sitting out in West Texas and of this guy who was this very iconic figure in that town.
The other thing about the book is that Dick, you don’t really get to know him at all. It’s really very, very deeply about Chris, Sylvére, and Dick is just kind of, it’s almost like he’s just sort of an idea. There’s not that much about him and who he is. I was hoping that in the series version we would be able to explore him a little deeper.
He’s a cipher. Even the fact that his name is Dick, which has connotations of being an actual penis and then of course also being a jerk. What is it like to play a character like this? You’ve been an action hero, you’ve been a romantic lead. Now this is a really different direction, where you’re an object of obsession.
First off — I do think it’s an interesting thing, for him to be an object. Obviously, if I really thought that I was going to sign on for, you know, hopefully many, many episodes and multiple years and just be an object… that would kind of be a drag. [Laughs.] As I said to Jill early on, I’m not really interested in being a one-sided asshole. Because I could play that, you know what I mean? I could play just the full-on asshole, you know, that’s definitely in my wheelhouse. It would be to explore a guy who is traditionally male and has a lot of really strong ideas about men and women and sexuality and all that stuff. But he’s also at a crossroads, and is at a point in his life where his life and his feelings about himself and who he is and how he defines himself as a man are getting complicated.
As you can see, if you look at the last scene of the show — there’s something going on there that’s beyond what you see in the dinner scene, right? You see the dinner scene and you go, well you know, he’s just a jerk, or a misogynist, or whatever it happens to be. But he is definitely struggling with things.
And I mean, I love the character. My feeling about it is — in the best of all possible worlds, I could be part of redefining what it is to be a dick. You know what I mean? If you take words like that, where people sort of put entire genders or races or social crowds or groups or religions in a s–tty kind of categorizing word. A lot of people are able to co-opt that and turn it around, spin it on its ear, so that it becomes something that is no longer just a dismissive kind of negative thing. I feel like, in a way, that’s sort of what maybe we’re going towards? I don’t know. I don’t know where the show’s going. All I know is where this character’s been.
Are you daunted by the idea of expanding upon or complicating Dick?
No, no, I’m not daunted by it. I’m excited by it. I adore Jill and I think the process is… I can’t tell you how intense and amazing the process was to get the pilot done, so I can’t imagine doing a series. We went through some really… I felt profound things in the stuff that we discussed, and the connections that we made, and the way that we rehearsed, and the time that we spent in Marfa shooting it. The whole thing was very intense. I mean daunted, I don’t think that’s really the word. No, I’m excited. I’m thrilled and like I said, I don’t know where it’s going. I have to kind of take a flier with her and trust that she cares about him — and that she loves Dick as much as I do. [Laughs.]
Tell me more about filming the pilot.
Jill has a very specific way of working that involves some kind of connecting exercises. We explored a lot of really intimate stuff, in terms of feelings, and it felt like being in my first weeks in acting school. There was a lot of improvisation, and there was a lot of acting exercises, and all kinds of s–t that you just don’t normally do on a show. It wasn’t just your basic rehearsal. All of us kind of thrown together in Marfa, in this little town, being with the local people and the crew and the way that we all kind of interfaced — it was just a great, cool experience.
When you’re playing opposite Kathryn, there’s two different modes. In the dream sequence is a Dick where he’s a lot more centrally focused on her. Then there’s the real-life Dick — or at least the real-life as-far-as-we-know Dick. What is it like playing the two different things? Do you feel like they’re separate? Do you feel like maybe the dream Dick is the real Dick too?
I think that the dream Dick is the real Dick, too. I do. I don’t want to speak out of turn… I guess what I’m saying is, I feel like in the reality, it seems as though [Dick is] being dismissive, but to me I think there’s as much sexual tension in that scene as there is in the fantasy scene. It’s manifesting itself in a different way, You know what I mean? Because what I feel like is that he doesn’t want… [Laughs.] I don’t know, I don’t think I could say. It’s too early. Um, let’s put it this way. I think when he looks at her — she is a very unexpected and important kind of thing that has popped into his world. Things would be a little bit easier if she wasn’t there. I think he feels the connection with her right away. I think he feels like he’s making a choice, in a way, to not act on it. I guess I feel like, what I said, in the reality of the dinner scene — I feel like there’s as much sexual tension as there is in the fantasy scene.
The episode does a great job of indicating that a lot of sexual tension can manifest as aggression, or as contempt for each other, or even mean-spirited bullying.
It’s like the first time you have a crush when you’re a little kid. It’s like pulling on a girl’s pigtails in front of you in class… It’s ‘cause you dig her. It really is very much like that.
Continuing with your interpretation — do you think that Dick knows that he’s interested in Chris, at this point in time of the show?
I think he knows that he can have her if he wants her.
I know that you’re really thinking about internally occupying this person. I think what’s so interesting to, I guess, everyone else who can’t really inhabit that figure — which includes me — is that he’s such a figure of mystique in so many ways. I think casting you was really brilliant on Soloway’s part, because, as I said, you’ve played a lot of these mysterious and sort of distant characters. It’s just really interesting to see you deciding to consciously and knowingly take on this image and to work with it.
I feel you on that. The book is thought of as a feminist manifesto and I’m sure the show in some ways will be viewed in that kind of way. For me, that’s great, but it’s also an exploration of the complexities of manhood, that at least from where I have to approach it.
But the other piece of it is an exploration of celebrity. I’ve lived with mine for almost my whole life. And it is… It can be a strange and sometimes difficult place to live. When you look at Dick — if he walks out of Marfa and goes to El Paso, he can pretty much disappear. When he walks down the street in Marfa, Texas… he’s Brad Pitt. In that small pond, he is the biggest fish you could possibly imagine. That brings up a lot of feelings for people. Whether or not you’re worthy of this kind of adulation, and whether or not you sometimes get annoyed that everybody’s hanging on your words, or treating you differently. You know what I mean? You see elements of that kind of sychophantic thing that’s happening at the party. So, having that kind of power — maybe we’ll find out that he has some misgivings about that.
He acts out a little bit with that power. In the dinner scene, Sylvère says, oh, this is your provocateur thing. I sort of wondered, as I was watching it, if Dick is really is post-idea, if he really thinks that women can’t make good films. He knows that everyone’s sort of focused on him so maybe he’s making a little bit of a scene because he can.
I think my line is that it’s difficult for women to make good films, because they are working from behind their oppression. You know…
Do you think that’s true, too?
I don’t know. I mean, when I read the script, I don’t think, this guy is full of s–t. I think he makes some pretty good points! [Laughs.] I think it’s difficult, you know? I do. The provocateur piece of it, in my opinion, is the sweeping generalizations, and anybody that makes sweeping generalizations is… it’s always more complex than that. I don’t know. I don’t know. It’s a little bit hard for me because I… I feel like I’m still sorta in it. It’s like when we finish the first season, if we get to that, I’ll have a better sense of what it is. But: I can tell you that when I play a scene like that, I have to love the guy and believe in the guy. And I do.