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The morning after the Hirshhorn’s September screening of Love Is the Devil, the acid-etched new portrait of painter Francis Bacon, the film’s star, Derek Jacobi, sits in the Old Worldish lounge of the Hotel Lombardy. Jacobi wears a dark blue shirt with its collar buttoned at the neck; his short gray bangs barely brush his forehead. He discusses the role in the crisp, emphatic speech of a classical actor. It’s easy to see why Jacobi was not the first choice of director John Maybury.

“When we met,” the actor recalls, “one of the questions John asked was, ‘How many ways can you say “fuck”?’ Which immediately made me love him.”

Jacobi says “fuck” and a great deal more in Devil, in which he portrays Bacon as a sadistic friend and masochistic lover. While Bacon’s public callousness drove boyfriend George Dyer to suicide, in private the artist craved to be whipped and burned.

“My impression of Francis was that, if we had met, we would not have got along,” says Jacobi with impeccable reserve. “He wasn’t, for me, an attractive man. What was fascinating about playing him was that he was so far from me, from my center. A cruel bastard like that was exciting; it was fun. Actors shouldn’t make moral judgments about the characters they play. But looking back on it, I didn’t approve of what he did to George.”

Jacobi has acted in films since the mid-’60s, but he’s far better known as a stage performer. Although he’s appeared on screen more often recently, it’s mostly been in the Shakespearian adaptations by his friend Kenneth Branagh. Maybury was initially reluctant to approach him, Jacobi laments, “because he was intimidated by my classicism, my Shakespearian reputation as a posh actor. Which is a bit sad, really, because it means that whatever reputation I’ve got, got in the way. It put me out of work. I don’t consider myself a posh actor, or a particularly classical actor. I’m a jobbing actor; I go where the work is. It just so happens that I’ve done a lot of classics. I’ve enjoyed doing that, but there’s been no game plan. It’s just worked out that way.”

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Anything but classical, Devil is the first feature from a filmmaker who made his name directing rock videos. “That was one of the turn-ons,” says Jacobi. “Because it’s not what I was usually offered. When I first met John, we hit if off. I adored him; I trusted him. And admired him. His body of work was pretty impressive. He showed me the films he’d made, and he’s won lots of awards.

“And,” he adds, “it was lovely to be surrounded by all these young cinéastes.”

In Britain, Bacon is widely considered the nation’s greatest 20th-century painter. Still, the actor didn’t know the painter’s work or life in depth. “I found out as much about Francis as I could,” he says. “I was helped by the fact that there were two fairly exhaustive biographies [and] a lot of television footage on him. So I had opportunities to watch him in action, and to copy his body language and his sound, reproducing his voice. I also talked to people who knew him, because he had died fairly recently. So a lot of his contemporaries and his drinking cronies are still alive—most of them are in the film, too.

“I think it was a very good move on the director’s part to put them all in the film,” Jacobi adds. “It put them on our side from the start.”

One of the most difficult days, the actor recalls, “was when I first met them on set—dressed as Francis, and hopefully walking as Francis, and being Francis—and surrounded by 15 of his closest chums. They were wonderful. They accepted me, and they helped me, and they gave me great confidence. There was a particular lady who started crying, and said, ‘Francis, Francis.’ She was absolutely dead drunk at the time.” He laughs. “But it did help. It helped enormously.”

Considering the way the film’s Bacon treats his cohorts, it’s hard to imagine that the painter had 15 close chums. “Perhaps I was a bit liberal with the term ‘close,’” Jacobi concedes. “He had a lot of acquaintances.”

Devil is set mostly in the ’60s, and it’s possible that Bacon acquired more friends later because he mellowed as he aged. Jacobi, however, has seen an Australian TV interview that suggests otherwise. “Francis is clearly 10 sheets to the wind, and he gets more and more bitchy as the interview goes on. It’s very funny. He had a very quick wit, a very cruel wit, and it really comes out in this particular interview. I think he got even more acid as he went on.

“I’m amazed that he lived so long,” the actor marvels. “He lived to 83. He lived a very convivial life. [His friends] were all a bit masochistic. Francis was the center of attention. They allowed him to be the center of attention. And he was very generous to them—financially.”

Although Maybury won over Bacon’s drinking buddies, he was less successful with the official keepers of the painter’s legacy. “John had big trouble with the estate, the Marlborough Gallery, and the British Arts Council,” Jacobi says. “You must remember that Francis is an icon in England. He’s legendary. He’s very much an establishment figure; he’s very much owned by the establishment. He’s also a source of financing to the establishment. He’s a hot property.

“I don’t think they wanted an exposé of him. They were worried that [the film] would be slanderous and salacious and tacky. But Maybury said, ‘The only way I could slander Francis Bacon would be by implying that he was married and had a couple of kids.’”

Eventually, representatives of Bacon’s estate “saw some of the footage that had been shot, and they quite liked that. And then when it was all put together, they sponsored a preview. And now the Arts Council is even on the poster. So they’re really on the side of the film now.”

By that time, however, Bacon’s protectors had inadvertently but significantly shaped the movie’s images. They refused to allow the depiction of the painter’s work, which “ended up being a bonus,” Jacobi says, “because John, who is a painter himself, had kind of decided the way he wanted to shoot the film and this reinforced that decision. He decided to make the film its own Bacon painting,” using wide-angle lenses and distorted reflections to emulate the tortured shapes of the artist’s style.

Because Bacon was gay in a Britain that still sometimes enforced the laws that sent Oscar Wilde to prison, the art establishment might have been wary of him. Yet, “he was very successful, he was very revered,” says Jacobi. “They accepted his lifestyle. And this was way before the outing of gay people. He lived his life, and everybody knew everything about him. I suppose he had the mantle of success, so that he could do what he wanted.”

When he first came to prominence, Jacobi notes, Bacon’s lifestyle “was totally illegal. That’s why he enjoyed it so much. When it all became much more legal, he disapproved of that. He disapproved of the word ‘gay.’ He disapproved of gay marches and gay pride. He much preferred being the persecuted minority. It’s something to do with his masochism. He liked that feeling of underground, of danger, of being outside the law. To let it all come out, to walk down the street proclaiming it, that wasn’t exciting at all to him.”

Playing such a man has jostled Britain’s notions of Jacobi, and the 60-year-old is delighted that it has. “It’s lovely to do work that can surprise, that people haven’t seen and have no preconceptions about,” he says. “John Maybury rang me up and says, ‘How does it feel to be radical in your old age? How does it feel to be avant-garde in your old age?’ And in a sense he’s right. I suppose there is a perception of me as a classical actor laddie, and here am I having steamy, sexy scenes in this contemporary film. Which is great, great! Great for the image!”—Mark Jenkins