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Once you’ve heard Bill Paxton scream, “Game over, man!” you can never unhear it. And that’s a good thing. He got to play big on camera throughout the ’80s, but hamming it up isn’t all he’s capable of as evidenced by a string of great dramatic roles in the ’90s including One False Move, A Simple Plan and Apollo 13. Years later he surprised people again with his directorial debut, Frailty, which made our list of one of the best horror films of its decade. He followed that film up with The Greatest Game Ever Played, a movie that clearly means a lot to Paxton despite its failure to find a wide audience.
From 2006 to 2011 he played Bill Henrickson on HBO’s Big Love. He received considerable acclaim for his performance, but he once again found himself having to prove himself capable of range beyond that character once the show came to an end. It’s easy to get typecast, but to combat being put into a box, Paxton has taken on an eclectic set of supporting roles over the past few years, including this week’s Million Dollar Arm. With this Disney release, Agents of Shield, Edge of Tomorrow, and Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler, which I’ve heard nothing but excellent things about, 2014 is a good year for Bill Paxton.
The actor spoke with us about his performance as USC pitching coach Tom House, as well as the highs and lows of the film business, the paradoxical nature of acting and more.
Paxton: Let’s do the interview by the window. It’ll be more romantic.
[Laughs] I’m sorry I didn’t bring flowers.
[Laughs] Oh, damn you! I’m just going to spend this interview on the phone [picks up the phone on the table].
[Laughs] Well, thanks for the time. And congratulations on the film.
I haven’t seen it! A lot of people say they really were moved by it and it just works on a lot of levels. There’s nothing like a good human interest story.
Especially in the summer.
It’s anytime. We’re humans! We’re inexhaustibly fascinated with one another and people’s stories. My father always read obituaries to me out loud, not because he was maudlin or morbid, but because they were mini biographies. “Listen to what this guy did! Look what he said. Look how he started out.”
It’s great. I got to direct a human interest sports drama; to this day, one of my proudest achievements in my career and a source of undying pride. I read this thing…It kinda came to me at the last second. I must have been the last person on the cast, because I knew that Jon [Hamm] and most of the leads were cast. And Alan [Arkin]…
It’s nice to see you two together in a film again.
It’s so great. We’ve known each other since he made me read Siddhartha on the set of Indian Summer years ago. We used to play tennis together. He’s a wonderful guy. We hadn’t seen each other in years.
But when I was reading the script, I’ll tell you the moment it got me that made me go, “I gotta do this movie.” Have you talked to Pitobash yet?
Are you going to talk to him?
I’m not sure.
I hope you get to. Anyway, I didn’t know who he was before I met him. He’s a wonderful guy. My nickname for him is The Cobra. He’s OK around men, but put a woman in front of him and the cobra could strike! [Laughs] He’s going to get a lot of notoriety. He plays kind of their coach or their advisor, actually their interpreter. But he wants to be a coach. When I got to the scene on the field at the end where Jon Hamm’s character says, “Hey, you are the coach. Go out there and talk to him.” I read that speech and I was like, “Awww…” That got me. I thought, “You know what? I want to do this picture.”
Are human interest stories hard to come across?
They are character driven stories because they are human stories. I don’t care how much hardware you throw at an audience. If they are not emotionally invested in the thing, it’s zero. I can name a slew of films, but I have no ax to grind. I understand the commerce of Hollywood probably better than anyone.
I actually read Billy Bob Thornton say the other day he doesn’t think he’ll direct again because nobody wants to make the character driven stories he’s interested in.
Well, I hope that’s not the case. We all go through times of exhausted frustration to the point where we want to throw in the towel. Somehow, you gotta persevere. You gotta remember how you got started in this business in the first place. You get older and you just say, “Will I always have to be hustling?” You know what the answer is? A resounding yes.
I think it’s pretty easy to get jaded here in the city, too.
It’s easy to get jaded. It’s easy to get lazy. It’s easy to get too self-centric, like, “Why me? What about my needs?” It has nothing to do with that. But you see, you are the thing you are selling whether you are a director or an actor in this business. It’s very tough. The town doesn’t realize that its greatest resource is its people. You just gotta persevere. You gotta keep going. There will always be character films, and they are important to people.
Again, talking about all the hardware, it’s got to be organic. All the CGI stuff still looks a little fake to me, I have to say, unless the master illusionist mixes the low tech with the high tech behind the scene. Jim Cameron taught me that. So you’ve got to have the emotional commitment.
One of your character-driven films I just discovered is One False Move. That’s a really great movie, but I read online that it almost went direct to DVD. Is that true?
Yeah. It didn’t have much of a theatrical run. But that movie did me a lot of good as an actor. I think I grew tremendously in that part. It was the first time I realized that I was enough. I didn’t have to always be showing every choice I made. I knew the character. I knew the world. I’m a suburbanite from birth. When I was in junior high my dad moved us all out in the country because they re-zoned the area where we were living, and he was really incensed because he paid a premium for a lot and built kind of him and my mom’s dream house. So, suddenly I went from a big suburbanite in junior high to The Last Picture Show. I was at a high school where they graduated 35 students a year.
I imagine you meet a lot of characters like Hurricane there.
Yeah. It was very much a world I could relate to. I love the idea of everyone has a dream of something else and somewhere else. The scene that people always remember in that movie besides the horrific opening, which really just sets the damn hook…
Is it the scene where Hurricane overhears the L.A. cops making fun of him?
Yep. Isn’t that a funny thing? Because you’ve either been on the receiving or the giving end of that in your life at some time. There’s nothing worse than betraying a confidence or having a confidence betrayed. There’s just something about that that just gets you in your core. That’s the scene people remember.
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It goes back to what you are saying, too, where you don’t have to throw tricks into a performance. You just have to listen, just react.
That’s really what I learned in that. [Director] Carl Franklin had been an actor, which was invaluable to me at that time in my life to have a guy like this direct me. The other thing is sometimes the difference between shooting the close-up before lunch and after lunch. I don’t eat much lunch on set if I’ve got scenes that I really…it kills you. There’s nothing worse than breaking a scene, going to lunch, and coming back. It’s like it’s gone. You are trying to capture something between action and cut. It’s lightning in a bottle, something that happens between action and cut that you didn’t know where it was going to take you if you can lose yourself in it enough.
But I remember Carl Franklin saying, “I don’t care if you are just thinking of your laundry list. Just bear witness to this and it will be strong enough.” It goes back to…oh, I guess it was an old film lesson where you cut to the enigmatic face and you cut to a baby and say, “Oh, look how happy this guy is.” You cut to a funeral, cut back to the same face. We forget that we, as audience members, are projecting our own emotions on the characters. Sometimes you can work too hard. That’s another thing. If you cry, you deny the audience the chance to cry, so it’s sometimes better to bear.
Film acting is paradoxical. You try to go in and create a conviction of character. Then you really can’t go wrong.
[Alan Arkin sticks his face into the room]
Paxton: Oh, my gosh! There he is!
Arkin: Paxi! Buddy! Do you mind if I call you Paxi?
Paxton: You can call me anything.
Arkin: Have you see the movie yet? Your role was good.
Paxton: I haven’t seen it.
Arkin: You are very good in it.
Paxton: Come on in, pal. Are you joining us?
Arkin: No, no. You’re busy…
Paxton: I was telling him how we met. I said, “Yeah, he made me reread Siddhartha so we could discuss it.”
Arkin: I made you? I didn’t make you! [Laughs]
Paxton: [Laughs] No, I’m kidding. He actually said, “This book was significant to my life.” And I said, “I read it years ago.” And he said, “You ought to give it another look.” So I read it and we talked about it. It was a great book. I’m thinking that some of that might have been based now on Krishnamurti.
Paxton: He had a similar kind of awakening the way he was raised to be the new world leader and then he abandoned it all…
Arkin: Well, a lot of people…I mean that’s what Buddha did.
Paxton: Well, that’s true. Anyway, we played tennis. We kinda struggled with this director…
Arkin: That was a long time ago when I was still alive!
[Arkin exits the room]
Paxton: That guy’s a class act.
[Laughs] I’m going to keep that in the interview, by the way.
Oh, anything you want. That’s a spontaneous moment.
We spoke briefly at Comic-Con last year. You said early on in your career you had a tendency to go over the top–
[Starts shaking his head]
[Laughs] In a good way, I’d say.
Whew! Thank you. You humbled me!
[Laughs] What was the turning point for you where you felt the days of overacting were behind you?
Like I said, it’s paradoxical. You go back and forth. A lot of times you have to show up and put something out there. It might be right, it might be wrong. Really, knowing this as a director from my own experience directing actors, it’s a question of kind of modulation — tuning the performance into the right frequency and helping the actor find it or do less. On this thing, I met Tom House… like I said, I was cast kind of late. I didn’t have a lot of time to prepare. They set it up so I could go spend a day with House. It was terrific. It was really so not what I was thinking, because I’m not the most athletic guy that ever lived. My father took me to more plays and movies than sporting events.
Tom is so nurturing and so soft-spoken and kind of a little bit of that Jedi master Yoda kind of thing where it’s…I don’t want to say Yoda, because you’d think this guy had pointed ears and talking [talks in Yoda-like voice] with a weird voice. But it’s more like sometimes he’d say all this wise stuff, but then he’d speak in riddles, too, and you’re like, “What the hell did he mean by that?”
I remember at the end of the day I saw him working with all these late teen, early 20’s, mostly, pitchers. He says he’s mostly having to unlearn their bad habits and break them down. He’s trying to teach them maximum productivity, but also sustainability. Most of these guys, by the time they get to him, even after high school, they are done. Their arms are shot. At the end of the day I said, “Gee, gosh. I wish I could spend more time with you.” And he said, “Don’t worry. You just be you and you’ll be a perfect me.” I was like, “What does that mean?” [Laughs]
I told the director, Craig, about this kind of remarkable man and he was so kinda out there and so un-stereotypical of a baseball pitching coach, or whatever that is, whatever that archetype is. And he said, “Well, let’s play him that way.” I said, “I don’t think I can mimic him, but I’d like to try to get this essence of him.”
So I would do a take and he’d say, “Do less.” Then we’d do another take, “Even less.” I said, “If I do anything less I’m going to be nothing.” And Craig went, “Exactly.” It’s like trust the force and all that. You know, getting to that Star Wars metaphor, there is something about trusting the force. You’ve done the work. You’ve thought about it. And now just let it all go and just let it just happen. It’s so hard to let go. You have to know the part. You have to have done that work. And, a lot of times, there’s that insecurity that you haven’t done enough work. I haven’t played a lot of real life people. I’ve also made The Greatest Game Ever Played which was about real people. I had a responsibility as a director. But you just want to try to capture an essence.
I’m glad you mentioned Star Wars. Looking at Two Guns, this, or maybe Edge of Tomorrow, they’re supporting roles where you just come in and, in 15 minutes or so, give the movie some spark, kind of like a side character in Star Wars. Are those the type of roles you’re responding to right now?
Absolutely, although I’m getting ready to go back up to the top of call sheet on an eight-hour miniseries called Texas Rising that’s being directed by Roland Joffe. It’s the same producer, Leslie Greif, and the same writers from Hatfields & McCoys, and it’s for the same network. That’s a tall ass order. I’m just doing research for that now. That starts in about a month’s time.
I guess after I did Big Love, the biggest thing that came my way was opposite Kevin Costner in Hatfields & McCoys. I don’t think people knew what to do with me after Big Love.
Why is that?
I think it was because the role almost seemed like, “Well, that’s just Bill being Bill.” That’s another paradox. There’s no such thing as you being you in front of a camera. That’s why this is so much easier to do [an interview] like this. We can really relate and talk. If there’s a camera on me on top of that, then I also feel like there’s that added thing. Then I’m kinda acting for you a bit.
You know, Big Love was a great character, great company of actors, great writing and great directing. But nobody knew what to do with me. It was almost like I made Mitt Romney look exciting or something. I have nothing against Mitt Romney. He’s an interesting guy, hardworking guy. But it just didn’t relay to, “Oh, God. Wouldn’t he be great as one of the villains in Two Guns?” I was kinda doing a few independent films and I was really trying to get back. I’m getting back into directing. That’s my ultimate goal. I love acting, but I love actors more than I love being an actor.
Million Dollar Arm opens in theaters May 16th.