Luke Wilson on playing Ren McCormack in Footloose at Pitlochry: 'He goes up against obstacles and burns them out'

Actor Luke Wilson is stepping into Kevin Bacon’s dancing shoes as outsider Ren in a new production of Footloose at Pitlochry Festival Theatre. ‘If Ren was an element he would be fire,” he tells Mark Fisher

Footloose is remembered as the heart-throb musical that was not Dirty Dancing. It was the one that cemented the reputation of a 26-year-old Kevin Bacon, with his white T-shirt, tight jeans and $1,500 spiky haircut. “The energy raised during the finger-snapping dance numbers is infectious,” said one reviewer.

Bacon played Ren McCormack, the city kid who moves from Chicago to sleepy Bomont and is aghast to find the town council has outlawed dancing. The ban came in after the local minister’s son died in a drink-drive accident following a wild night out. Thanks to his charisma – and cool moves – Ren gets the bylaw overturned and the town on its feet again. Cue big chorus number.

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With the insistent theme tune by Kenny Loggins and a soundtrack including Let’s Hear It For The Boy by Deniece Williams and Holding Out For A Hero by Bonnie Tyler, Footloose has 1980s written all over it.

Luke Wilson PIC: Fraser BandLuke Wilson PIC: Fraser Band
Luke Wilson PIC: Fraser Band

But, says director Douglas Rintoul, as he prepares to stage the musical at Pitlochry Festival Theatre, you would be underestimating the show if you were to write it off as some kind of nostalgic throwback. “Because it’s now 40 years old and the music is so iconic, we think it’s all a bit glitzy and 80s, but it’s not,” he says. “When I looked at the Bomont community – which they capture brilliantly in the film – I was keen to restore what it is. It is an uplifting narrative about overcoming loss and grief.”

Filling the shoes of Kevin Bacon is Luke Wilson who, after earning his stripes at the RSC and the National Theatre, is thrilled to be taking on such a central role. “It’s exciting and challenging,” says the actor. “There is a technical stretch in terms of athleticism, stamina and reconnecting with the musical form. I’ve done plays recently and they’re a different sport.”

He adds: “Good shows do two things: you can have a serious conversation and present it as a comedy or you can have deep, dark themes about humanity and present it in the form of musical theatre. Music can express a part of human emotion that is better expressed through song.”

The production, which later transfers to the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich where Rintoul is artistic director, features a cast of actor-musicians, many of whom also star this season in Beautiful: The Carole King Musical. Away from the West End, such ensemble-driven musicals on the intimate scale offered by Pitlochry Festival Theatre can have a direct, human quality all of their own.

“At the heart of Footloose are very domestic relationships,” says Rintoul, whose previous productions in Scotland include David Greig’s Europe at Dundee Rep. “When you strip away the scale, it focuses a lens on that narrative. At Pitlochry, the size of the stage and the relationship with the audience makes it so explosive when you translate those big musicals into the smaller space.”

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Arriving from the big city, Ren McCormack is a classic outsider, the stranger whose appearance is a catalyst for change. “I’m always attracted to stories of otherness,” says Rintoul. “It’s about what happens when this person brings a different lens to that community. I was surprised at how resonant it feels: culture wars, suppression of youth voice, banning books… it feels incredibly apposite in terms of what’s going on today.”

Wilson, who is too young to have experienced the 1980s for himself, is fascinated by the way popular music emerged from the underground and went mainstream. He agrees with Rintoul that it gives his character an extra edge.

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“I had a 1980s aesthetic in my mind but when I went to research it, I found out so many interesting things that were happening at the time in terms of the internet, fashion and socially in the United States,” he says. “For my Ren, there’s a specific club in Chicago in the 1980s where he would have partied, which was Medusa, so I’ve been thinking about the music at that time. In the 1980s, house was massive and it was born around the Chicago area for outsiders and misfits. You had homosexuals, black people and people who were social outsiders who came together and formed this genre and it was for those people in the clubs. My version of Ren would have been in that environment, informed by music and the people who were part of that scene.”

Wilson’s approach emphasises the contrast between the streetwise boy from Chicago and a town that, visually at least, is stuck in the 1970s or even the 60s. “It is an incredibly conservative community,” says Rintoul. “What we’re doing is taking it back to the film which, obviously, has those big dance sequences, but it doesn’t have a glitzy aesthetic. It is much more nuanced.”

Of course, to have the right impact, he needed a charismatic actor to take on the lead role. “Luke quite naturally has the exuberance and energy of Ren, and then a facility for vulnerability,” says Rintoul. “Ren is a complicated character because he is dynamic and witty, but holding an incredible sense of loss and is then presented with an enormous amount of obstacles. Luke naturally has those skills, can move very brilliantly and has an amazing voice.”

Sitting next to him, Wilson is flattered by the compliment and pays it back to the character himself. “If Ren was an element he would be fire,” he says. “He goes up against obstacles and he burns them out. I have an affinity with that.”

Footloose, Pitlochry Festival Theatre, 31 May until 26 September