Bill Paxton

On JFK and HBO.

June 2007By Comments

Evan Smith: You were in Texas in March for the Texas Film Hall of Fame induction, in Austin, and the AFI Dallas International Film Festival. Do you come back a lot?

Bill Paxton: No, I really don’t. And I have to say I’m sorry I don’t, because I really enjoy it. I have no family left down there. They’re either dead or have moved on. And I left Fort Worth when I was 18 years old to come out to California to find my way in the movie business. I’ve come back for certain things, but I haven’t spent any length of time in Texas in more than 32 years.

ES: I read on the Dallas Observer’s blog that on this trip you visited the Sixth Floor Museum [at Dealey Plaza] for the first time.

BP: It brought so many memories back. It was always a story to tell people, that I’d seen John F. Kennedy that day [in Fort Worth]. But I didn’t really think about it in terms of the event. I was eight when it happened. My brother Bob was eleven. He was much more shaken by it; he’s always been the most sensitive of the kids. I remember him getting in my bed that night, he was so scared.

ES: Why’d you brave the crowds to see him?

BP: Because Bob was so excited that Kennedy was coming through town. We lived on Indian Creek Drive, bordering Shady Oaks Country Club. You could look across Shady Oaks from my window with a telescope—it was slightly elevated—and see Air Force One parked at Carswell Air Force Base. So Bob woke Dad up and said, “You promised you’d take me and Bill to see the president.” Dad looked out the window and saw that it was drizzling. He said that his first thought was “Oh, God, we’re going to line up in the rain.” He liked Kennedy, but it was the idea of wrangling the kids down there.

ES: Typical father attitude.

BP: Finally he said, “Okay, get your brother ready.” So we drove downtown. It took us, like, ten minutes, and we parked near the Hotel Texas. And we became part of the crowd that had gathered in the parking lot. I remember Kennedy walking across the street. He shook some hands and then went up on the podium. I’m not sure if it was [Senator Ralph] Yarborough or [Congressman] Jim Wright who said a few words, but then LBJ went up there and introduced the president. I remember my dad was taking turns putting us up on his shoulders. He was getting fatigued, and there were these two African American guys standing next to us. They said, “We’ll take those boys.” So I was sitting on a stranger’s shoulders, but I could see Kennedy. He was there in his suit; the rest of them on the podium had raincoats on. He was jocular, in good spirits.

ES: How did you hear that he had been shot?

BP: My dad took us to the Toddle House, and then he dropped us off at about ten a.m. We were going to St. Alice, which was a Catholic school. I remember going out on the playground at recess, and then a bell rang. We came back in—this was one of those old cinder-block, one-story grade schools, with a central hallway and classes on both sides—and we were told to put our heads on our desks. The radio was on, and the nuns were all crying. Then it was announced that he had died in Dallas. I couldn’t believe it. I’d seen him alive!

ES: I have to believe the Sixth Floor Museum was especially eerie for you.

BP: It was a strange pilgrimage. When I was walking around in there, I saw a picture of Kennedy in front of the Hotel Texas. I knew I would have been standing in front, to the left, and this picture was taken from the left side. You could see a lot of the crowd; I could actually see faces. The next day I got ahold of Gary Mack, the curator of the museum, and said, “Do you know I was in the crowd at the speech in Fort Worth?” And he said, “Yeah.” And I said, “Do you have other images?” He said, “There’s some news film stuff I could look at.” I went over there that afternoon, and he had copied these two pictures. In the first one I thought I saw my brother Bob, but it’s me. I’m above the crowd; your eye kind of goes right to me. In the other shot, taken from a different angle, you can also see me. I’ve got a big smile on my face.

ES: How amazing, all this time later, to discover that picture.

BP: Not just to discover the picture but to rediscover the whole event in a strange, personal way. It made me realize that no one’s ever made a movie just about what happened. There hasn’t been a movie that follows the characters and the way it all went down. A movie like JFK is beautifully made, but it’s about fringe characters. What angers me is that three out of four people believe it was a conspiracy, believe the government was somehow culpable. To me, the only culpability was that a lot of people were napping on the job that morning.

ES: Since you mentioned the movies, let me ask you about how you got out to Hollywood. The legend is that you went out there to work for Roger Corman.

BP: Actually, my very first job in Hollywood was for a man named Milan Herzog, who is still living. God, Milan must be one hundred by now. He was making what we call industrial films. My dad had met him and his wife when he was traveling with my mother in Spain, and they had corresponded a bit. I had been in school in England the year before; I’d graduated a trimester early from Arlington Heights High School and was able to go on a foreign-studies program. When I got back to Fort Worth after that trip, I quickly got restless and decided that, by the first of the year, I wanted to head out to California. Tom Huckabee [a friend he met in England] and I had bought this Ektasound movie equipment, and we were making super 8 films, so I wanted to go and see if I could pursue a career of some kind. And I asked my dad, “Who do you know in Hollywood?” He wrote to Milan, and he got a letter from him saying, “Tell your son to go back to school.” My dad wrote him a second time, and Milan said, “Well, I can give him ten days’ work as a production assistant for twenty-five dollars a day.” My dad gave me a plane ticket and told me, “Look, get out there. I’ve got to come out to California on business in a few weeks. I’ll drive your car out then. Go to the Beverly Hills Hotel when you get to L.A. See Smitty, one of the doormen at the hotel, and he’ll tell you where you can find a cheap place to stay.” And so I did that. I think it was January of 1974.

ES: Better than the mail room at William Morris.

BP: I worked for ten days on this thing called Gateway to Humanities—it was shot on a little soundstage on Pico Boulevard, down near Fairfax—and I met a guy who was working for Milan named Ken Smith. Ken had a good friend named Peter Jamison, who was getting ready to art-direct his first Roger Corman movie, Big Bad Mama.

ES: Angie Dickinson!

BP: And William Shatner and Sally Kirkland. Ken introduced me to Peter, and I told Peter that I had a background in art and furniture. My father was in the wood business, so I knew a lot about different periods of furniture and architecture and interiors. So I got a job. The only hitch was, I didn’t know Los Angeles. Trying to navigate a twenty-foot van full of set dressing all around L.A. when MGM is in Culver City and Universal is over the hill in the Valley and you’re going out to Pasadena to get set dressing—I just ran myself ragged with pickups and deliveries. After I got through that job, I was a veteran. Peter Jamison said, “I’m starting another job on Monday. I’m going to be co-art-directing a film with a friend of mine named Jack Fisk.” I was smart enough to think, “What am I going to do if I’m not working?” At least at work I’d meet people. So I said, “I’d love to sign up with you guys.”

ES: That was another crew job. How did you move over to acting?

BP: I got accepted to NYU, which was starting a program in which you could study with Stella Adler. I didn’t see the point in film school back in those days. I still don’t see the point, to tell you the truth. It seemed like a lot of the film students I would meet would talk esoterically about Godard and Hitchcock but really weren’t making films. But I wanted to study acting, and I thought the place to do that was New York. And I thought the greatest living acting teacher in the world was Stella Adler. She taught Marlon Brando, my favorite actor of all time. So I said, “That’s for me.” I moved to New York in ’76.

ES: And you’ve acted ever since. If you look back at your filmography, you’ve been in an amazing number of movies—you’ve worked consistently. And many of the movies on there have been big, beginning with Stripes. Honestly, I don’t remember you in Stripes.

BP: It’s funny. I never actually shot anything. I was hired as a day player. They were doing a mud wrestling scene, and I was supposed to make a bet that Bill Murray takes, or I was to take a bet he makes. I remember being on the set for four days in a row, but they never got to my bit. I didn’t realize in those days that there’s always stuff on the call sheet you’re never going to get to. Still, I got paid $750, which was a fortune in those days. And they were nice enough to give me a credit. If you’re not in the film, you’re not supposed to be credited, even if you were hired to be in it, but a lot of times the producers will include you anyway so you get residuals.

ES: If you go past Stripes, you hit a lot of significant movies that you actually were in: The Terminator, Commando, and Weird Science, which I know you’re very proud to have as a credit. That’s the one people remember.

BP: They also remember themselves. Most of the people who come up to me to talk about that movie were probably adolescents when they saw it. It’s a real fantasy film. You invent this perfect girl who you can do anything you want with, and you’re thirteen or fourteen years old? I mean, come on!

ES: The other thing people remember is your character, Chet. Everyone had a sadistic brother. You get to be that sadistic brother for all time.

BP: Yeah. In a way I joined the pantheon of villains you love to hate. Not supervillains but more of the irritating type of villains, like Neidermeyer [from Animal House].

ES: As for your later credits, I always think about One False Move, because whatever other movies you’d done, this was the one that caused people to say, “He’s an actor.”

BP: I made a transition that’s very hard for a lot of actors to make. I came up as a character actor. In One False Move I kind of emerged as a leading man, and that’s really what that was all about.

ES: It also was a great movie.

BP: It was a great movie. I came of age on that film. I realized that the only way you hit that next level in terms of a film persona is to let go and accept the fact that, for better or worse, you’re all you’ve got, but by the same token you’re interesting enough. The camera’s not as concerned with what you can do as who you are. I’ve played a lot of different roles, but they’re all, for the most part, in my range. It has to do with accepting yourself. Once you do that …

ES: It’s an interesting point, because if you think about some of the big movies you made later, you were playing yourself. In Apollo 13 you were playing yourself. In Twister you were playing yourself.

BP: It only seems like you’re playing yourself. Whenever a camera’s rolling and you’re aware of it, you’re shooting a scene. It’s artifice; it’s an illusion. Even if you’re being yourself, you’re pretending to be yourself.

ES: But coming across as credible is something.

BP: That’s true. It’s such a funny thing when people say, “Oh, he just plays himself.” You can say that about a lot of great actors, like Jack Nicholson, who’s one of my all-time favorites. But he does more than just play himself. One thing I’ve always loved about his work, and what I have tried to get into my own work, is this certain relish. You don’t want to just see someone playing the part or being believable. It’s got to be brought up a notch.

ES: I’d say you’re definitely bringing it up a notch in Big Love. Why did you decide to do a TV show?

BP: It was the farthest thing from my mind. I was in preproduction to direct my first studio film, The Greatest Game Ever Played, and I got a call from my agent, Brian Swardstrom. He said there was a pilot they were going to shoot for HBO and that Playtone was involved. That got my interest, because Playtone is Tom Hanks’s production company. Then Brian said it was about polygamy, and I was like, “Oh, God, what the hell is this?” My first thought was a Deliverance-type setup outside of the city limits in some compound. Brian said, “Just read it.” I read it, and as soon as I finished reading it, I was on the phone to him saying, “How can I do this?” Because it was obviously about so much more than just polygamy. It was a clever, original piece. I never had seen anything quite like it. I thought, “What a great role, this patriarchal guy with three wives.” I’ve never in my career gotten to mix it up with the dames as much as I had wanted to.

ES: Well, if you’re going to mix it up with the dames, it might as well be with three wives. Has HBO been the godsend that it seems to be? Everything it does is so much better than the rest of TV.

BP: I’d never wanted to do a network show. There were too many cooks in the kitchen. You had the creators, the network, standards and practices, the advertisers. And I’ve always hated commercial interruptions. HBO’s a whole different animal. The Sopranos has truly been a phenomenon. It has the fidelity of a feature film: the lighting, the art direction. Everything is fully realized. Two hours of The Sopranos put together are better than a lot of theatrical films that you see nowadays. So when this thing came along, I jumped at it, and it’s worked out great. We’ve finished filming our second season. The Sopranos finish on June 10, and we’re on the schedule the following week, on June 17. When I was traveling through Texas—Austin and Dallas—it was amazing how many people, particularly women, came up to me to say how crazy they are about the show.

ES: They all want to be your fourth wife.

BP: Exactly. They want to be a sister-wife. They want to get into it.

ES: How does your real wife feel about this? Whatever your situation may be at work, the fact is, you have a wife already.

BP: I’m trying to talk her into bringing a sister-wife into the scene here at home.

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