After a brief hiatus from television following last year's bittersweet finale of HBO's Big Love, actor Bill Paxton, 57, returns to prime time in Hatfields & McCoys, the History Channel's first scripted miniseries, about the most infamous family feud in American history.
Paxton plays Randall McCoy, a Kentucky-bred Civil War veteran who becomes embroiled in a dispute with a former comrade and neighbor, Devil Anse Hatfield (Kevin Costner), which escalates into a bloody and tumultuous civil war of its own.
Or, to put it another way, there's a lot of sex, violence, and booze. And also Tom Berenger, who plays Hatfield's crazy uncle.
We spoke to Paxton about his role in Hatfields & McCoys (and that beard!), his Big Love wives, working with director James Cameron, and the likelihood of a Twister 2.
—Justine Goodman, web editor at Details
DETAILS: Were you familiar with the story of the Hatfields and McCoys before you read this script?
Bill Paxton: Oh yeah, it was part of the lexicon of growing up in Texas in the sixties. But I didn't really know the details before.
DETAILS: How do you think the story will resonate with a contemporary audience?
Bill Paxton: Well, the themes are timeless and universal—the idea of the cycle of violence perpetuated by the hatred between these families and these two patriarchal figures through this feud. Familial drama is always the strongest drama.DETAILS: Are you drawn to the historical in general?
Bill Paxton: I'm really drawn to it, especially the 19th century. If I had enough penicillin and I could get into a time capsule, I'd definitely head back there. I've always loved period pieces, I think because of the costume nature of it, the hair, the wigs, the beards...
DETAILS: Speaking of beards, did it take a long time to grow that one?
Bill Paxton: Oh yeah, how long did I have that beard? From July to December.
DETAILS: Was it difficult to maintain in real life, between shooting?
Bill Paxton: It got more and more hard to maintain. I started picking at it. That can become a bit obsessive.
DETAILS: I'm told they get really itchy.
Bill Paxton: Oh my God, incredibly itchy. People were waiting for birds to come out of it.
DETAILS: You've been known to pull pranks on set. Any notable incidents on the Hatfields set?
Bill Paxton: I did have fun when I was doing some of the drunken scenes. The thing is, there's no time to play the kind of pranks we used to play on films. The schedule is so intense, and you don't feel like you can just do a stupid spit-take. But I had a lot of fun lighting myself on fire in this thing. In one scene, Randall McCoy is in his cabin, throwing a bunch of memorabilia into the fire, and he catches his arm on fire, stumbles back, and hits the kerosene lamp, and then the whole place starts to burn. I did a lot of that myself.
DETAILS: Was it scary?
Bill Paxton: You know, it was kind of scary. I drank some wine beforehand so I was feeling a bit braver than I normally would. My heroes are guys like Buster Keaton, who would have thought nothing of doing a full burn, but I'm getting a little long in the tooth to take the kind of punches I used to take in films.
DETAILS: What do you do to stay fit and youthful?
Bill Paxton: In our game, it's your vanity that keeps you in shape. I've got a little gym set up, and I ride a single-speed bike up the hills behind my house. Lately I've been kind of a slacker. Usually it's a film role that makes me start getting in shape. Between roles, I try to do a little maintenance, but I'm not a workout fanatic at all. If I wrote a book, it'd be called The Lazy Man's Way to Fitness. I take a pill to make my biceps bigger, but I have yet to go under the knife for any alterations.
DETAILS: You've worked with Avatar director James Cameron on a number of films, from Aliens to Titanic. How did you meet?
Bill Paxton: Jim plucked me from obscurity. I'd had a couple of good runs—I got my first critical notice in Weird Science—a role that I'll never live down, no matter how many movies I do. We met in 1980. He was art directing a B horror film, and I was hired for his night crew. We got to know each other on that set, and Jim took note that I had ambitions as a filmmaker and wasn't just a guy painting sets. He started to open up to me and tell me of his ambitions as a writer and director, and we've been close friends ever since. It's been remarkable for me to know a man of his caliber. God, he's taken me to the bottom of the sea to gaze upon the fabled Titanic, we've been up in the atmosphere, we've been all over the place. I've done some great films with him. We were just in London together for the 3-D premiere of Titanic, and he was regaling me with this historic dive he'd just made in the Mariana Trench. He considers me one of his dear friends, and I've always been honored by that fact. I'm very supportive and protective of Jim.
DETAILS: Which Cameron movie was the most fun to make (bearing in mind that the only correct answer here is True Lies).
Bill Paxton: True Lies was great. Aliens turned out great. I had to trust Jim on that. At the time, I thought, "The audience is just going to want to see my character killed at the soonest possible moment." But when it came time to do True Lies, I think I had more fun than Aliens. Certainly, having a part in Titanic didn't hurt anything. But, yes, True Lies was the most fun.
DETAILS: Which role do fans always want to talk about?
Bill Paxton: Well, Tombstone is a movie that is considered a beloved film. All the ones you've mentioned are good. Big Love was cool because it kind of put it all together. I think it made people reconsider my whole body of work in some ways. It connected a lot of dots. I've been very lucky. I've played a lot of Everymen, and I feel like I've been embraced by audiences and they've taken me to their bosoms and their living rooms, and I'm very grateful for that. I've had a career that is kind of under the radar, but it sure is varied, and I've been so blessed to be able to get paid to do something I love to do.
DETAILS: You mentioned Big Love a moment ago. Be honest: Which of the three wives was secretly your favorite?
Bill Paxton: Well, are you talking to [my character] Bill Henrickson or Bill Paxton?
Bill Paxton: They should have all gotten many Emmys. I had a great relationship with all of them. I think having multiple wives is like having multiple children: You gotta love them all the same.
DETAILS: Sure, but in different ways...
Bill Paxton: Absolutely. Everybody's different, and your relationship is different with every person you know intimately. I love those gals. Starting a show like that, doing an unorthodox thing, it's really out of the box. It bonded us together and they were great dance partners. I guess from a contemporary point of view, Jeanne [Tripplehorn] and I were both regionalists. She's from Oklahoma, and I'm from Texas. We had a lot of common ground there. But I had lived in New York a long time and could really relate to this gal from Connecticut, Chloe Sevigny. And then you had this effervescent Memphis gal, Ginnifer Goodwin, and I could also relate to her. We really stood together, we were very supportive of one another, and it was a pleasure to work with those gals.
DETAILS: What did you think about the way the series ended?
Bill Paxton: I'm a little ambivalent about the ending. It has symmetry to it, and I can certainly understand it from an intellectual and a story point of view, but I was kind of hoping you could still picture the Henricksons out there, loving, praying, and fighting. I didn't feel like it necessarily needed such an abrupt and definite end—that finality. This was a very strong vision that [Big Love creators] Mark Olsen and Will Scheffer had. I was just an adjutant, a soldier in that army, and they were good to me and I loved the character.
DETAILS: As a fellow Mormon, do you think Bill Henrickson would support Mitt Romney for president?
Bill Paxton: Are you kidding? He'd be all for it. He'd be out there campaigning for Mitt Romney. People may make fun of the Mormons in terms of some of their rituals, their temples, and the garments they wear, but it's no weirder for me. I was raised Catholic. What was great about Big Love is that we didn't play those characters with judgment or to satirize them. It put a human face on a religion that a lot of people thought of as a cult, and of course, Mormons are not polygamists. Personally, I support Barack Obama. I think he represents a lot of good in this country and sees that it's a diverse nation with many ideas, cultures, races, and religions. I love the idea of his youth.
DETAILS: This question comes from one of our Facebook fans. If Helen Hunt were on board, would you do a Twister 2?
Bill Paxton: [Laughs] That's not the reason it's not being made. I'm sure Helen would come back to the party. But I think we'd have to pass the torch. I've thought about this many times. I would love to direct a sequel to Twister and I would approach Helen with the idea that we'd be the parents of a 16-year-old daughter, a wild seed like Helen, who's dating a college kid who's in one of my meteorology classes, and it would be their story. But I'm all for it, I'm ready to strap on the Dodge Ram and chase the F-5.
DETAILS: Does that mean you plan to spend more time behind the camera?
Bill Paxton: What's been nice is that I've been able to direct from a very idealistic place. I've never had to make my living as a director, which gave me a chance to choose material I feel passionate about. The directing allows me to not have to grab any acting role that comes along. I can pick and choose a little bit.
DETAILS: That's not a bad place to be.
Bill Paxton: It's a great place to be. I'm no longer so career-oriented. Let's face it: I'm in my mid-fifties. For a long time, you have to play Hollywood like a chessman. It's really the things you turn down that make your career as much as the things you say yes to. You really have to be careful, and there's so much consternation that goes into making decisions about what to do and what not to do. I feel a little bit freed up of that. I'm coming into a time, where I have a freedom creatively to do things and surprise myself—like Randall McCoy. He was a tragic figure, and I was able to feel a lot of emotion coming through me, through that character.