Bill Paxton has played a lot of real-life characters in his acting career, from Fred Haise in “Apollo 13” to Randall McCoy in History Channel’s 2012 miniseries “Hatfields & McCoys.”
He’s currently saddling up to play legendary politician and soldier Sam Houston in History’s latest miniseries, “Texas Rising,” alongside an all-star cast that includes Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Ray Liotta and Brendan Fraser.
The five-part series, which debuts Monday, was directed by Roland Joffe and chronicles the Texas Revolution and the rise of the Texas Rangers.
amNewYork spoke with Paxton.
What brought you back to History Channel?
I had a great experience on “Hatfields.” History wanted to re-up. Then when I heard Roland Joffe was coming in to direct. I was a huge Roland Joffe fan going back to “The Mission” and “The Killing Fields,” and when I met him, I knew he was a great artist, but he was also just an impeccable gentleman.
As a Texan, what does it mean to you to play Sam Houston?
I was born and weaned on Texas history growing up in Fort Worth and going to the Alamo when I was 10 with my brother and then my dad. And Sam Houston, his mother’s name was Paxton and I’m distantly related to him, and what a remarkable human he was … one of the greatest Americans that ever lived.
What inspires you about Sam Houston?
Sam Houston was a guy who was so principled. That doesn’t mean he was above it all, or anything like that. He was a real human being. But his experiences: living with the Indians, fighting in the War of 1812 at the Battle of Horseshoe Bend and almost getting critically wounded there and becoming the governor of Tennessee and then abdicating his throne because his marriage to the gal [Eliza Allen] went bad. But he would never say anything bad about her, he took that to his grave. No one really knows what split them up. He goes out and lives with the Indians. As the legend goes, he stayed drunk for a year. If he ran into white settlers, he would only speak Cherokee. Here’s a guy who had a great love of the “The Iliad” and “The Odyssey.” This was the Age of Enlightenment. You forget that most of these guys at the Alamo and the Texas Revolution, they were born in the 18th century, the Age of Enlightenment. Houston’s dad had been a veteran from the Revolutionary War. He’s so much bigger than life. He ended up being president of his own country for god sakes. So it’s great stuff to embrace.
This is some amazing cast.
I signed up first. When I did, there was no green light. But then Jeffrey Dean Morgan, an actor I absolutely adore. Ray Liotta, doing his first Western. When you see him in this, you’ll think I told Ray, “You’re going to be on horseback for the rest of your career.” Olivier Martinez, I thought he was a genius choice, and he was just incredible as General Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna. And then Brendan Fraser — I knew Brendan from when he was just getting started. He was great. And Jeremy Davies, who I did “Twister” with, and Christopher McDonald, who is always good. Crispin Glover, who I had never gotten to know, but I just love him. This cast just goes on and on and on. And everybody, I felt, really drilled their parts. I know I have to wait for someone else to critique my part, but I feel very confident about the piece. We saw the whole thing on Saturday. They did a big screening at a theater in L.A. and they did four intermissions so we see the whole thing. And I thought it played really well.
What is unique about how Roland shot this?
Roland decided to shoot in CinemaScope, and it’s going to be one of the first things ever made for television to be broadcast in CinemaScope. That creates almost twice as much frame that you have to art direct. And usually in these period films, they’ll pull the trigger once or twice to give you the idea that there’s a world out there, but everything is shot pretty close after that, but this thing is not cutting, so the audience sees the whole world. If we’re doing a scene, the whole scene might play. There might be five actors in the scene or more in one shot. I feel like it gives the audience a chance to really feel like they’re in that world. Most programs today are cut so fast, it just does a disservice to everything.
Your son James is also in the miniseries. How does it feel to be able to act with your son?
I couldn’t be more proud. My dad, his grandfather, who I was devoted to, who passed a couple years ago — when I was making “Hatfields” — at [age] 91, he decided at age 70 that he wanted to get into the business. It was kind of reverse nepotism. Sam Raimi adored him and put him in about six movies, including all three “Spider-Man” movies as the houseman of Willem Dafoe, the character of Bernard. But my son, a couple years ago — he used to go to school, but it didn’t really agree with him. He came back, he said, “I’d like to get into your business.” He was in a couple things with me. I directed him in “The Greatest Game Ever Played.” He played Stephen Dillane as a young boy at the opening of that movie. At 10, you’re not self-conscious; you become a teenager and you’re aware of everything. But then he said he wants to work in the business.
How were you able to help him out?
I got him on as an assistant prop guy on “Nightcrawler” and he loved that experience. Then he said he wanted to get in front of the camera, so he’s been studying with my acting coach Vincent Chase, who Mark Wahlberg named the lead character in “Entourage” after, and he’s been getting out and stuff. He went out and read for this, and he’s also in a movie I’ve got coming out called “Term Life” where he went and read for Peter Billingsley. It’s a movie with Vince Vaughn and Hailee Steinfeld and he plays a little scene where he meets Hailee at a motel. So he’s starting to get into it and I couldn’t be more proud. And I said to him, “You know, when you’re a working actor, and you get paid to do what you’re doing, it kind of makes it a real job for you.” And I said, “Look, if we were shoemakers 100 years ago, chances are you’d be a shoemaker too.” I always tell him, “This is how we make paper in this family,” to give him a practical philosophy about what we do, because you have to take yourself personally out of the equation, because you’re the project you’re selling. If they don’t like the product, that doesn’t mean they don’t like you. But the rejection is tough. But he’s in there, and I’m very proud of him. And it was great having him and his sister [Lydia] down there for the summer. Lydia, I put her to work in the wardrobe department for six weeks and Ray Liotta has his daughter down there, Carson, and they just had a great, great summer. She said, “Daddy, that was the greatest summer of my life.” I said, “Well, you’re going to have a few more.”
Between this, “Hatfields” and “Apollo 13,” are you a big history buff?
Oh yeah. I think every actor longs to be in period pieces where you can do the research because it’s such a completely art-directed world, from the sets to the costumes to the hair — the whole thing. And particularly the Western, getting to do Westerns on horseback and the whole thing — that’s every actor’s dream.
Are we going to see you direct again soon?
Scott, I’ve got a script that is pure dynamite and it’s based on a book by Joe Lansdale, a great Texas Southern writer. It’s called “The Bottoms” and I got Brent Hanley to adapt it. Right now we’re out to our leads to get the budget. It’s such a good script I could shoot it on sticks if the performances are strong. It will be from the writer and director of “Frailty.” But it’s hard out there for a pimp, man, because I’ve been trying to get somebody to read this. This part — the male lead is between 35 and 50, I’ve got to get a guy who has some foreign values so I can get my budget. I would have given my right arm to play this part. It’s got a kind of genesis in “To Kill a Mockingbird” and kind of “Silence of the Lambs.” It’s going to be incredible. But you have to play the long game in Hollywood. The thing I learned from James Cameron, who has been a good friend and the most loyal guy I met in Hollywood, he said, “Any enterprises of great merit, you have to be willing to lay siege to.” So I have a few projects I’ve been developing for years that I know will come to fruition. But I just have to be willing to be patient.
Where else can people see you in coming up?
I just finished a great project opposite Daniel Radcliffe. It’s a BBC film. He plays Sam Houser, the guy that started “Grand Theft Auto” and Rockstar Games, and I play this attorney Jack Thompson that took Sony, because they made PlayStation, and Rockstar Games, because they made “Grand Theft Auto,” into a huge civil suit back in 2005. It’s these two obsessed characters having a head-on collision. We just finished that down in Cape Town, South Africa. And then I got this thing I mentioned earlier, “Term Life.” I think it’s coming out in the fall. It’s a thriller with Vince Vaughn and Hailee Steinfeld.
Did you ever consider keeping those amazing Sam Houston sideburns?[Laughs] That’s my Neil Young look. God, I love them. I feel naked without them. I really should keep them. I hope to get a chance to go back to that look. I see why Neil enjoyed them.
On TV: “Texas Rising” premieres Monday at 9 p.m. on History Channel.