On a Saturday night in early March, 41-year-old Bill Paxton stood at the entrance to the Paramount Theatre in downtown Austin greeting VIP guests attending the premiere of Traveller, a film he coproduced and stars in. Playing the role of brand-new movie mogul, he looked for all the world like a wild-eyed mess, the tail of his Ralph Lauren suede shirt flapping, his eyes electric, his hair stylishly tousled.
The premiere, the feature event of the South by Southwest Film Festival (SXSW), was itself the stuff movies are made of. Before the lights dimmed, Paxton surveyed the capacity house from a side box, soaking up the accolades and the applause. “It doesn’t get any better than this,” he said before plopping into his seat and propping his boots on the railing, mimicking the classic James Dean publicity still for Giant. “Roll ’em, cowboy!” he shouted to the projectionist. The cheering resumed as Paxton’s image filled the screen, his arm hanging out the window of a pickup as he pulled up to a traffic light, a not-so-subtle homage to Clint Eastwood in the opening scene of Every Which Way but Loose.
The premiere and the attendant hoopla marked the return to Texas of a Fort Worth boy who, having made 44 films over a 22-year career, has finally graduated from B-movie cult status to eminently quotable character actor to leading man on every studio’s A list. He has played it hip, flip, and totally over the top as Chet, the menacing older brother in Weird Science (“Feeling queasy? How ’bout a nice greasy pork sandwich served in a dirty ashtray?”); as a crazed vampire in Near Dark (“I hate it when they ain’t been shaved”); and as Private Hudson, the paranoid soldier who doesn’t want to die in Aliens (“Game over, man”). He has also played it understated and dead-on serious, most notably as Dale “Hurricane” Dixon, the earnest, aw-shucks Arkansas police chief with a dark past in One False Move, the movie Paxton most frequently cites as his favorite. Parts in Boxing Helena, Streets of Fire, Mortuary, True Lies, and Predator 2 eventually led to the role of astronaut Fred Haise in Apollo 13 in 1995 and two juicy roles last year, as the male lead in Twister and as Shirley MacLaine’s younger lover in Evening Star, and he is in one of this summer’s big disaster flicks, Titanic. His pal Billy Bob Thornton, who co-wrote and appeared in One False Move and won an Oscar for best adapted screenplay for Sling Blade, was set to co-star with him in a movie called A Simple Plan until a squabble between producers at Paramount scuttled the project. “Now Billy Bob is writing a script about some guys who get arrested for sodomizing a turkey,” Paxton told me a few days after the premiere. “It’s a comedy set in West Texas, for me and Billy Bob and Dwight Yoakam.” He has become so ubiquitous as a co-star, he has been immortalized by the Bill Paxton Maneuver, a shortcut in a trivia game called the Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon, in which every motion picture star living or dead can somehow be linked to Kevin Bacon by no more than six associations.
Those performances pale, however, compared with the one he was pulling off—all flashing eyes, toothy smile, and engaging personality—as Bill Paxton, movie star and film producer promoting Traveller. He hadn’t come to Austin to bask in the limelight or hang out with directors like Richard Linklater, Robert Rodriguez, and Quentin Tarantino or actors like Uma Thurman, Woody Harrelson, and Ethan Hawke. For Paxton, SXSW was the court of last resort, a place where he could simultaneously create a buzz for his film and hustle its earthy slice-of-life soundtrack—where he could make the leap from actor to filmmaker. Following Austin, there would be whistle-stops at the USA Film Festival in Dallas and openings in at least thirteen other cities, leading up to what he called Election Day, April 18, the day Traveller would open in multiplexes across the nation.
One afternoon in the midst of SXSW, an ebullient Paxton bounded through the lobby of the Omni Hotel in a plain white T-shirt and blue jeans, grinning the grin, his charm level cranked up to eleven, buoyed by a positive review in Variety and a two-day break in Fort Worth to visit 93-year-old Clemonce Jones, the nursemaid who had raised him. Between banquet-room interviews lined up every thirty minutes, he spied rock and roll legend Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins sitting alone in a chair. Extending his hand to Perkins, Paxton said, “It’s a real pleasure to meet you, sir. Welcome to Austin, Texas.” Beaming as he walked away, he said, “Hey, I get to meet cool people too.”
Between smiles, handshakes, and autograph signings, Paxton explained why he was putting it all on the line for a movie that will neither set box office records nor win him awards. “Without doing this, the film will just wither on the vine,” he said. “With these kinds of movies, you’ve got to look at the reality of what you’re doing. You’ve got a movie that’s opening in seventy-five houses with limited funds for publicity. The only way to get people to see it is to make it a cause célèbre. The movie should be seen. I’ve got one of the great American cinematographers, Jack Green [ Unforgiven, The Bridges of Madison County, Twister ], making his directorial debut. And for me, I got to kind of insert myself in the role that Clint has had with [Green] for many years, where I’m the lead actor as well as the guy who’s putting it all together. So together, we got to collaborate. It was a perfect fit.”
For all of Traveller’ s artistic ambitions (“This is my first serious effort to make an American regionalist film”), its plot—about real-life Irish con artists, or travelers, running asphalt-sealing scams in the South—is Hollywood predictable with a jolt