Kevin Bacon and Carrie Preston talk They/Them and using horror as a 'tool for change'
In the new horror movie They/Them (get it? — you're supposed to pronounce the "slash" in the title), Bacon and True Blood alum Carrie Preston play the husband-and-wife operators of a sadistic gay conversion camp. From body shaming to shock therapy, their methods are horrific, but it soon becomes apparent that something even more sinister is going on, as the bodies pile up.
For Bacon and Preston, the film offered an opportunity to work with — and learn from — a talented ensemble of young LGBTQ actors, including Theo Germaine (The Politician), Austine Crute (Booksmart), and Quei Tann (Dear White People), while doubling down on social commentary.
"Horror is a genre that has such a large audience," Bacon tells EW. "And I think it's taken us a long time to realize that horror can have positive messages about social injustices."
We spoke to Bacon and Preston about making They/Them, bringing the terrors of conversion therapy to life, and why they're hopeful about the next generation of storytellers.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What attracted you both to make They/Them?
CARRIE PRESTON: The script was really well-made. It was written by John Logan [Gladiator, The Aviator], who is an absolute genius. He managed to create this story of LGBTQ empowerment in a gay conversion camp. The concept alone was just incredible. Plus, I felt the characters really came to life on the page. When I got to my character, she terrified me, and I knew I wanted in on the project.
KEVIN BACON: John's movie had this great ability to talk about something as serious as a gay conversion camp, but packaged it in this setting of a retro horror movie, which I think helped make it fun and — forgive the pun — campy.
Speaking of, you famously starred in the original Friday the 13th. Did it feel a bit full-circle for you?
BACON: It's interesting because Friday the 13th is such a seminal movie for horror fans, but for me, it's not something that I necessarily keep at the top of my list for best performances or meaningful life experiences. I was a young actor, barely squeaking by in a crappy New York apartment, and got a gig. Thankfully, it turned into something big, but at the time I didn't see any importance in it. Whereas this movie, I found a level of importance right away because it was timely and had something to say.
During your time on set and working with the cast of LGBTQ actors, did you learn anything about the community?
PRESTON: We did a good amount of research before filming. I watched the documentary Pray Away, which was eye-opening because the people who started these conversion camps were doing such horrible things, but claimed they had no intention of hurting others.
BACON: You know, the older I get, the more I realize I have more to learn. It was great to work alongside this young cast who had very different life experiences from me, and even from each other. I definitely learned about behaviors that I previously never would have thought about, but am now realizing could be offensive. And I think many people my age are going through a similar experience with that. But I'm always trying to learn and grow, so it was good to sit back and listen.
When True Blood premiered in 2008, it quickly developed a huge LGBTQ following and became known as an allegory for the gay experience — from "coming out of the coffin," to the fight for civil rights. Carrie, when you started filming it, did you realize that it was going to attract such a massive queer audience?
PRESTON: We did, and we all knew we were being trusted with something like that. Alan Ball created a great series for general audiences, but it was also loaded with messaging for minority communities, especially the gay community. It was his goal to educate people who wouldn't normally be drawn to those stories because it was told through the lens of horror.
We shot the whole first season before it even aired, and we all hoped it would resonate, but, obviously, you never know. But then it aired, and that's when we saw the enormity of what we created, and that people were getting it.
How does it feel to see subtext become text in something like They/Them?
PRESTON: For starters, I think it's great that Hollywood has come this far and that we are finally seeing more diversity in film. When I was younger we were told to keep our private lives to ourselves.
BACON: They'd say, "Stay in the closet."
PRESTON: Exactly! Because otherwise, you won't get cast. Sadly, that was very true. But thankfully, we had trailblazers who helped get people out of that mindset. But to think that these young actors were cast for this movie because of who they are is really inspiring. It gives me a lot of hope about where we're headed as storytellers.
While They/Them is set at a conversion camp, it also feels true to how LGBTQ people get treated in daily life. Did you hear that from your cast mates or viewers?
BACON: Totally. I've talked to numerous people who have said this movie reminds them of how they've actually been treated, and I think it's important to see your own experience shown in movies because it lets you know you're not alone. But the hope is that, since it's framed within a horror movie, it's also accessible to people who aren't LGBTQ, and the big win would be for it to dissuade someone who might see conversion therapy as an actual option. I want them to realize how monstrous it is.
PRESTON: We were given tons of information before filming, and one of the statistics said that 10% of LGBTQ respondents reported they'd been subjected to conversion practices, and 87% of them said it happened before they were 18. So it's happening to minors, and that's truly horrifying.
Why do you think horror is such a good way to tell these stories?
BACON: You could make a drama, but a lot of people probably wouldn't want to watch a drama about gay conversion. You could make a comedy about it — or at least try to — but I don't know, that would be a pretty heavy lift. But horror is a genre that has such a large audience.
It's taken us a long time to realize that horror can have positive messages about social injustices. So much of the genre was built on morals and religious beliefs. My death in Friday the 13th was the classic horror trope: I had premarital sex and did drugs right before I died, so you knew my character was going to get it. I think it's really powerful that in recent years, we've started flipping that and are now seeing horror used as a tool for change.
Has there ever been a horror movie you auditioned for but ended up not getting? And is there a horror franchise you've always wanted to star in?
PRESTON: Oh, this is funny: I auditioned to play the alien in M. Night Shyamalan's Signs. They clearly didn't know what they were looking for because they ended up casting a seven-foot-tall male dancer, so the fact that they were auditioning us both for the part is crazy.
BACON: They were casting a wide net.
PRESTON: Very wide. I remember reading the script and it had things like: "The alien is hissing in a corner," so I'd have to go into the audition room and hiss and claw at things and run around. But clearly, I didn't get the part.
BACON: I'm a huge zombie fan, I absolutely love zombie movies. I really wanted to be in Zombieland or Zombieland 2, but it just didn't work out.
Did you ask to be in those?
BACON: Of course I did! I saw the first one and I loved it, so I wrote to the filmmakers and asked to be in the sequel. And they said no.