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Drawing from the parent role

For 'Death Sentence,' Kevin Bacon keyed into his real life as a parent, but Kelly Preston couldn't think about her kids being in harm's way.

August 31, 2007|Susan King | Times Staff Writer

In the action-thriller "Death Sentence," which opens today, Kevin Bacon and Kelly Preston play the parents of a high-school student who is murdered in a brutal gang shooting. Both performers are parents of teenagers but made different choices about using that fact in their work.

Bacon, who is married to actress Kyra Sedgwick and is the father of 18-year-old Travis and 15-year-old Sosie, used his family as his emotional inspiration. Preston, the wife of John Travolta and mother of 15-year-old Jett and 7-year-old Ella, chose to keep thoughts of her own family far away from the set.

"I use my family all the time," says Bacon. "You have this well that you need to fill up, and when you go to work and they turn on the camera, you start dipping into the well -- and nothing fills it up quicker than the feelings about your children."

Preston says she just couldn't handle thinking about her son and daughter in harm's way. "I have felt depths of many emotions," she says. "I lost my dad, who I was close to, a couple of years ago, but that's a different place than losing a child. I just put myself in the moment of right now. It's hard to explain, but [it's like], 'This family [in the film] is my family now and I am in this moment and how would I react?' "

"Death Sentence" revolves around a mild-mannered executive, Nick Hume (Bacon), who turns into a bloodthirsty vigilante after his son is murdered.

When he gets revenge on the gangbanger who killed his son, however, he has to contend with the gang's leader (Garrett Hedlund), who happens to be the hood's older brother.

The film is based on Brian Garfield's novel "Death Sentence," sequel to "Death Wish," the latter of which in 1974 was adapted into a box-office hit starring Charles Bronson as a New Yorker who takes the law into his own hands after his daughter is raped and his wife murdered.

"I went back and watched the original, and it's very specifically different," Bacon says. "Charles Bronson doesn't even go after the killers; he goes after anybody. At that time, New York and large urban centers were really looked at as the downfall of society. That they were the Sodom and Gomorrah. 'Death Wish' played into exactly that kind of thing."

"We took the premise, but we took it in a slightly more contemporary direction," says director James Wan, who previously helmed the 2004 blockbuster horror flick "Saw." "We do live in a very different time now, so I tried to bring more of today's sensibility to the film but yet kind of retain pretty much primal human instincts."

Violence aside, Preston says, "Death Sentence" really delves into the moral dilemmas facing a family that goes through a devastating loss. "You have a character who basically loses his moral compass and makes a decision and thus begins the downward spiral. To me that is such a true-to-life theme. I think the film really causes you to think about the different themes of violence begetting violence and that it doesn't solve anything."

Wan jokingly refers to "Death Sentence" as "a tear-jerker with guns." "It's really about two different families from different sides of the tracks coming together," Wan explains. "These two separate worlds collide with each other. It shows to both sides that violence gets you nowhere, but at the same time retains what people love about these genre films."

After doing more "cerebral" films like "The Woodsman," "Mystic River" and "Where the Truth Lies," Bacon was itching to do something physical. Still, he knew that lead roles in these action films are generally populated with one-dimensional characters. So he admits he was pleasantly surprised by how much emotional depth there was in Ian Mackenzie Jeffers' script.

"It had a lot I could sink my teeth in as an actor," he says. "Nick makes a terrible choice, and it gets worse and worse and spirals out of control.

"When you see him at the end of the film, he has paid a horrible price. He has that kind of complexity I found personally interesting."

Bacon found Wan surprisingly sensitive for someone who has made such gory films.

"He's incredibly confident," says Bacon. "I am at that point in my life and career where I want to feel like a collaborator. I don't want to feel like just the hired guy. When I go into a film . . . I don't want to create an 'us'-and-'them' situation. I want to help as much as I can. In this situation, James felt very much like a collaborator."

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susan.king@latimes.com

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