Cannes 2016: Bill Paxton on Mean Dreams

An exclusive chat with the man who once killed it in Twister.

Paxton as Big Love’s Bill Henrickson

Bill Paxton is a really interesting guy. I approached this interview like I do most. A few questions in my head, but I’d mostly just see where the conversation went. What I didn’t expect was for Paxton not only to delve into the extremely personal story of his first marriage and subsequent divorce with The OC actress Kelly Rowan, nor did I expect such enthusiasm over the actor’s love of Canada.

The actor is known for his roles in classics such as Titanic, Aliens, Apollo 13, and Twister. He also gave a series of incredible performances on HBO’s Big Love. To top that all off, Bill Paxton remains the only actor to have been killed off by Predator, The Terminator, and a Xenomorph.

Paxton comes to Cannes with the Canadian film Mean Dreams. The Badlands style thriller follows young teens Casey and Jonas on the run. After stealing a bag of cash and a gun from Casey’s father Wayne (Paxton), the two must fight for their survival and eventual love.

Wayne (Paxton) confronts his daughter Casey (Sophie Nélisse)

Your character Wayne initially appears to be a loving family man. This is quickly revealed to be untrue.

There’s a Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to the character, because he’s a chronic alcoholic. He’s always contrite when he’s sober. He probably has a lot of blackouts. He’s also probably a product of an abusive childhood himself. You want to chew up some scenery occasionally. I came up as a character actor; my heroes were guys like Jack Nicholson. They relished in the roles they were doing.

The character unfolds very quickly.

He seems okay in the first two scenes. In the second scene where I first meet Jonas I’m kind of cool, but I say, “I bet your mother has a nice meal waiting for you.” Then you see his mother. She’s completely checked out. She hasn’t cooked dinner for that family in five years. Then, when he comes out of the garage and Jonas surprises him there… oh boy. It’s kind of a classic of sorts in a way. What drew me to it was not the part of Wayne. I got so caught up and emotionally invested in the young kids, in Casey and Jonas, and their plight to try to find a moment or a place in the sun. The idea that he wants to protect her and take her away from this thing…the first time I fell in love…I fell in love when I was nineteen and she was seventeen. She lived in a beautiful house, they were rich, her parents were like Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. They were chronic alcoholics and it would get bad at night. Very quickly after we started dating I got a glimpse of that world and she would call me and say, “Can you come get me?” We didn’t have anywhere to go so we’d just go off and go on the golf course at night or something like that. We had a very strong physical relationship, which was kind of the first for both of us. I became this protector; I wanted to protect her, that’s a very strong thing. I guess I really related to Jonas’ plight to get Casey away from this abusive father. He sees the money and he sees this gun and realizes that he’s going to run away with her. I wanted to run away with Kelly. In fact, we’d talked about running away a couple of times back then. Weirdly enough, her mother broke us up and five years later we met up in New York and I realized that I still had feelings for her. We did run away and get married, but again her mother was too tough, she was like my character Wayne. I felt like I was playing my first mother-in-law in the movie. Which I’ve never said, that’s the first time I’ve said that.

It’s interesting how you say that…

I was playing a woman. I went over to her house one day. Kelly called me up and you could hear her mother yelling at her in the background. That was when I went over there and we eloped. We were going to get married; it was going to be a big marriage. I drove over to pick her up. I walked into her house and there was her mother. She was in the library, I said, “I’m not going to let you hurt her again.” She got up and she hit me so hard in the face. No, I said, “Why are you doing this to your daughter?” She got up and hit me so hard in the face that I said, “I’m never letting you hurt her again.” I grabbed Kelly and said, “We’re out of here”. We took off and we eloped. We drove to California when she was twenty-one and I was twenty-four. The mother couldn’t stop it, but she figured out a way to ruin the relationship. I guess that was what did it for me. I saw a chance to play a very monstrous character. I liked the look of the guy, that kind of retro look with the buckle, the boots, and the jacket.

Is it unusual for you to identify with a character other than your own?

It’s usually my character I’m identifying with. There was actually something I asked them. The ending was adjusted because I was pretty demonstrative about it. There was an ending to the piece that was a little more Bonnie and Clyde. Not that they die or anything, but they end up holding up a guy. It was just the wrong route. You want to think that they have some kind of a chance together. It was a collaboration, but I felt so strongly that I started lobbying for something that I wasn’t even in. The final ending was the right choice.

You seemed to be incredibly moved at the premiere. What does the film mean to you?

I think that because it got into the Director’s Fortnight, and to see the reception, it means that this film will have a life. This film is going to be seen. It’s going to end up on some top ten lists, not just in Canada. A movie like this could very easily just end up on video. It’s very hard to discover a film; they have to give away so much in the trailers. I remember the greatest movie experiences I’ve had are when I’ve walked in not knowing anything about a film. I think that’s what happened here. People don’t really know what it is. I hate the term ‘coming of age story’, to me that’s just like…oof, it’s like family drama. The film is unusual. It’s kind of a slow burning first hour and then boom, it’s a life and death struggle. I was able to lend a helping hand and I’m proud of that. It’s now got a chance for a real life. I’m sure it will be at TIFF, it’s got to go there. It worked out great that I could be here. I’ve just been through a very tough thing physically. I had about eight weeks of chronic pain down my arm from a pinched nerve in my neck. I had to have spinal surgery five weeks ago. So to be able to be here…I’ve still got some problems, but I’m very happy. I’m getting ready to start Training Day for CBS. I shot the pilot while I was going through this, which was really tough. The day after we wrapped I went into surgery.

This is the second Canadian film you have done in the past couple years, the other being The Colony in 2013. What draws you to work in the Canadian film industry?

I love the Canadian crews, they’re real film animals. It seems like they’re impervious to the weather, even though I know they’re not. They got a lot a lot of stamina and a good sense of humor. I came up on the crew and I’m really big on acknowledging them; it helps me create an intimacy when I know the crew guys’ name and we’re talking back and forth. I’ll tell the DP, “If you have an idea, please bring it to me.” A lot of people think they shouldn’t talk to the actors, that that’s the director’s job, but I draw ideas from all around me. I like working in Canada. I had a slogan I tried to sell to the tourist board and I wanted to direct the ad for it. It would be different celebrity actors and different artists, recognizable people. They would be in different situations, one would be at the Calgary Stampede, one would be at a Jazz club in Toronto, one would be at some pool thing going on in Montreal. We’d have all the major towns and cities across the country. Each one you’d be seeing what [the actor] was checking out and then they’d turn to the camera and go, “Canada, it’s cooler.”

That’s kind of incredible. What happened with that?

I got ahold of somebody at the tourist board and I tried to pitch it to them. They were obviously not the right person and they said they’d get back to me but they never did. Canada dot dot dot, it’s cooler. Somebody will use it someday, but you heard it here first. I love Canada. I love the people. It’s an amazing country, it really is. I’ve always had amazing experiences up there. My son has just gotten the biggest break of his acting career so far. He got cast in a ten-hour miniseries for USA network that they’re shooting in Ontario, it’s called Eyewitness. Based on a Norwegian series. He’s got one of the co-leads in that and Catherine Hardwicke is directing the first two hours of it. He’s there all summer. He just had his first Toronto experience. He said, “Dad I can’t believe this place, the food is amazing.” I said, “Yeah, it’s a great great city.” I had a tremendous experience in Canada directing The Greatest Game Ever Played in Montreal. That was quite an immersive experience, working with the French-Canadian crew. They had a poster from Kill Bill on the grip truck. We had a thing because initially the crew thought, “Oh we’re shooting a golf movie, how cool can that be?” It was very cool.

Do you want to direct more?

That’s all I want to do. I have a couple of passion projects that I know are classics waiting to be made. They would be embraced forever. I’ve been thwarted trying to get the money to do these things. I’m the filmmaker, but to have to be the guy who goes out to get the money to build the town, it’s difficult. I signed on to a series, that’s going to be a long voyage perhaps. I’d like to just direct at this point in my life. Both films I’ve made, I’m very proud to say, will both stand the test of time pretty well.

It looks like that’s all the time we have. It’s been a pleasure.

It’s been a pleasure talking to you. I realized, I don’t know if I made the connection about what I told you [about my marriage] since I read the script. You’ve got an exclusive baby. Cheers.

Mean Dreams will be distributed in Canada by Elevation Pictures. It is still seeking U.S. distribution.