Film

Kevin Bacon wanted to show how conversion therapy can seem ‘terrifyingly reasonable’ in They/Them

Patrick Kelleher August 5, 2022
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Kevin Bacon playing a conversion camp leader in They/Them.

Kevin Bacon plays a conversion camp leader in They/Them. (Josh Stringer/Blumhouse)

Kevin Bacon explains how his new LGBTQ+ slasher They/Them exposes the true horror of conversion therapy.

In the film, Bacon plays Owen Whistler, a surprisingly gregarious and charming conversion camp leader. If you’ve seen Boy Erased or The Miseducation of Cameron Post, the camp – and its menacing boss – will look familiar to you. These are people who prey on LGBTQ+ youth and profit off the false and dangerous idea that they can be changed.

It would have been easy for Kevin Bacon to go full-scale villain in They/Them, but instead he delivers a more nuanced portrait of a man who, on the surface, appears reasonable.

“I’ve known [writer and director] John Logan for a very long time and a lot of what we talked about was trying to deliver a guy who was terrifyingly reasonable in his approach to this horrific idea,” Bacon tells PinkNews.

“I liked the basic concept that John spoke about when he talked about making a movie that is in a very accessible genre, and then having it play to young people who are able to see themselves on the screen and be able to route for people that are more like them, that they can identify with. Because he’s an amazing writer, it was a really well written bad guy. I was like: ‘Yeah, I’m in.'”

They/Them is a horror film with a ‘bold social commentary’

Bacon is joined in his conversion therapy crusade by none other than True Blood star (and, dare we say it, gay icon) Carrie Preston. In They/Them, she plays a menacing “therapist” who fills queer people’s heads with self-hatred. She has one particularly chilling scene where she attempts to convert one of the camp’s inmates.

Carrie Preston in They/Them.
Carrie Preston in They/Them. (Blumhouse)

“When I read that scene I thought, I can’t play this part, I cannot say those words, that’s a horrible thing to do!” Preston tells PinkNews. “And then I thought, well you know what, no, I want to be a part of this story because I like what it’s saying and I think it’s a very important thing.

“It’s a horror movie and it’s fun in that way, but it also has a bold social commentary. It was right in line of my mission as an actor to be a part of a story like that. So I thought, no, I’m going to throw myself into this.” 

When Preston was filming her conversion therapy scene, writer and director John Logan told her to remain “as still as possible” throughout. 

“That was a great piece of direction because he’s a brilliant writer and we were able to trust his words,” Preston says. She was able to tap into the character’s psyche by reminding herself that she’s a “horrible person” who doesn’t realise how bad she really is.

“That’s what you do when you’re playing a bad guy – they don’t think they’re bad, they think what they’re doing is right.”

In this particular movie the horror is the idea that someone can be changed.

Both Bacon and Preston are keenly aware of the real-world horrors LGBTQ+ people are facing today. Bacon was interested in exploring and exposing some of those injustices in the slasher genre, which has historically appealed to a wide audience.

“You have a choice to take the idea of gay conversion and make a dark, indie arthouse kind of film with it, and chances are it could do really well, but you have a bigger chance of exposing something in a genre that sometimes has a great, wide appeal,” Bacon says.

Kevin Bacon as Owen Whistler in They/Them.
Kevin Bacon as Owen Whistler in They/Them. (Josh Stringer/Blumhouse)

He draws attention to Jordan Peele’s Get Out as a “perfect example” of a horror film that has “a very strong social commentary”.

“I think people are starting to realise that you can reach people with horror. In this particular movie the horror is the idea that someone can be changed.” 

Kevin Bacon’s conversion camp leader ‘seems so reasonable’

John Logan, writer and director of They/Them, knew right from the get-go that he wanted Kevin Bacon to play the unsettlingly charming conversion camp leader.

“I started with Kevin Bacon because when I started writing the movie I kept hearing Kevin’s voice and I kept seeing Kevin as Owen Whistler,” Logan tells PinkNews. “Kevin has that wonderful ability to go from very sincere and very charming to threatening, and that’s the trick of the movie; that Owen Whistler when you meet him seems so reasonable. He’s using woke language, he seems like not such a bad guy, and then gradually gets more and more sinister.”

The idea for a horror film about conversion therapy had been percolating in Logan’s mind for some time, but it was only when the COVID-19 pandemic forced him into isolation that he sat down to write it.

“I decided to write exactly that movie, the movie I wish I had seen when I was 14,” he says. He wanted to create a slasher film that would include LGBTQ+ characters in a positive, meaningful way because they’re so often left out entirely – or they’re killed off early on for cheap thrills.

“When I was growing up, particularly for the first generation of slasher movies, queer characters were mostly non-existent, and if they did exist they were jokes or they were victims,” Logan says. “In a way that was very hurtful. I so wanted to see myself represented in a positive light, in a heroic light.”

The goal from the start was that They/Them would be as diverse as possible.

“I wanted characters who are trans and non-binary, and lesbian and queer – and every conceivable portion of that community because I wanted it to be a [complete] representation,” he says. “I wanted everyone to be able to see themselves in one character or another, or all the characters collectively in some way.” 

They/Them celebrates the diversity and uniqueness of queer people

When writing the film, Logan was intensely aware of the challenges LGBTQ+ people are facing in real life, from legislative attacks to violence on the streets. He wanted to show queer people being themselves unabashedly, even when faced with injustice – and with a raging serial killer.

“As queer people, we’re constantly put in boxes, or people try to define us in certain ways – that’s certainly my experience,” Logan explains.

The cast of They/Them.
The cast of They/Them. (Josh Stringer/Blumhouse)

“This movie is about celebrating these people for their uniqueness and for the exuberance of their uniqueness. There’s a great deal of joy – there’s romantic joy, there’s carnal joy, there’s musical joy, so you understand I hope that the characters have a heart and a passion to them that should be nourished and encouraged and celebrated, as all queer people should be celebrated.” 

I hope they sing to the heavens about how proud they are to be themselves.

He adds: “A movie that says, ‘You are effing perfect just the way you are’, and celebrates diversity as a source of strength and pride, I think is a timely message.”

He hopes LGBTQ+ young people come away from They/Them feeling that they can be out, loud and proud.

“I hope they do what I couldn’t do when I was young, because I never saw a movie like this,” Logan says. “I hope they sing to the heavens about how proud they are to be themselves.” 

They/Them is released on Peacock on Friday (5 August).

More: conversion therapy, they/them

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