Few careers in Hollywood have had the variety of Bill Paxton's. Not many thespians these days can switch from wild character actor to serious leading man on a dime like the Fort Worth native can, who also can add acclaimed director (Frailty, The Greatest Game Ever Played) to their résumé. This weekend, the premier of History Channel's Texas Rising sees Paxton in leading man form, this time as legendary Texas governor Sam Houston. While he was anxious to reunite with The Hatfields and McCoys producers Leslie Greif and Darrell Fetty, there was another reason he knew he had to have the part. As Paxton recounts, "I said, 'Leslie, I was born to play Sam Houston. Not only am I from Texas — I'm actually related to the man.'" We caught up with the 60-year-old filmmaker to get his thoughts on playing a relative, shooting in Mexico, and the evolution of Chet from Weird Science.
How are you related to Sam Houston?
We share common grandparents on my father's side six generations back. His mother was a Paxton, and it makes me and Sam Houston second cousins, four times removed.
What research did you do for the part?
I had a few books on him in my library that I reread, the great biography The Raven by Marquis James, which won the Pulitzer in 1929. I kind of traced his life — I went to all of the physical places in his life backwards. I started out by visiting Huntsville, Texas, where he retired, had his homestead, and died. Mac Woodward, the mayor of Huntsville and the director of the Sam Houston Museum, opened up the vault and let me hold a lot of his personal items, like a small volume of Shakespearean comedies he kept in his saddlebag. And then my son and I went down to the monument site of the Battle of San Jacinto, just east of Houston. We were the first ones there and got the whole place to ourselves. I was in New York about a week later, and from there I flew to Chattanooga, picked up a car, and drove up to the confluence of the Tennessee and Hiwassee rivers. Some of the guys with the Tennessee Wildlife Refuge took me out on a barge to Hiwassee Island. It’s protected land — a triangular island about a mile in diameter — and that’s where Sam Houston lived from the time he was 17 to 19, with the Cherokee Indians. He was adopted by a Cherokee chief there, who gave him the name "The Raven.”
Houston seems like he'd be a great role to play, in that he's a legendary hero but also a real guy with demons, known for his womanizing and heavy drinking.
I think he was a depressive in some ways. He was the heir apparent, on the fast track to the White House at the age of 35, when he was about to be re-elected as governor of Tennessee, and a few months before he had married an 18-year-old named Eliza Allen, who was from a prominent family. But something happened — he never spoke of it; he took the real story to his grave. Something happened and he sent her back to live with her family, and he basically abdicated his throne. He gave up his governorship, resigned, and went back to Arkansas to be with the Cherokee tribe he had lived with on Hiwasee Island. And the story goes, he stayed drunk for a year, and even if he ran into white settlers, he would only speak Cherokee. So yes, he liked to drink, but that was a pretty intense time of his life. Texas gave him a chance for redemption and a new start.
He was a true American hero and really should be more of a national figure than a Texas figure. He was mostly known as the victorious general who led the Texas army at the Battle of San Jacinto. He had so many careers — he was a congressman, an attorney, a war hero, a senator for 13 years, a governor of two states, and the president of his own country, [having been] elected twice with the Texas Republic for ten years. He also had a great sense of humor and was very well educated. There were two types of classes that adored Sam Houston: women and artists. So he was a very dashing figure. Very gallant, a lot of charm, and apparently the type of guy who would walk in the room and everyone would turn around to look at him.
You've played some historical western figures before, notably Morgan Earp and Randall McCoy. How's this part stack up?
Nothing comes even close to this. This is for all the marbles, man. This, for me, is personal on a lot of levels. From a career point of view, coming back to join up with Leslie and Darrell to try and create a hit like we did with Hatfield and McCoys, with Kevin Costner and that great cast. So that was something. I asked myself, "Could you make lightning strike twice?"
What was it like shooting in Mexico?
Shooting in Durango, Mexico, where John Wayne and Sam Peckinpah made so many films — it really felt like old Hollywood down there. The Mexican crew and the art department and the production designer, they had to fabricate this world in 1836. Everything had to be made. These people are great artisans and great craftsmen and I was blown away. It's all fully realized if you watch it, nothing's been spared.
Must've been pretty hot, shooting down there in the summer.
It would've been worse if we'd been in Texas or Arizona or New Mexico. I don't think we'd be able to succeed as well as we did. We got very lucky — I didn't know this, but in the central part of Mexico, the summer is their rainy season. So we had these thunderheads go up in the daytime and it would rain and cool things off at night. To tell you the truth, the two things I worried most about were the heat and the horses.
Simon, the used-car salesman from True Lies, should've gotten his own movie. Which of your characters would you like to do a spin-off or sequel with?
Ha! Man, I think Simon should have his own movie and TV series and everything else. I've got a few characters I've played like that that should have their own thing. For me, as soon as I'm finished with the job, I'm riding on to the next town. You can't rest on your laurels in this business unless you want to be retired. You've got to stay relevant and keep finding new ways to reinvent yourself. I've had some great characters recently — the guy that I played in 2 Guns, that was a great character. The part of the Master Sergeant Farrell that I played in Age of Tomorrow, that was a great character. I've got a great one coming up opposite Vince Vaughn in a movie called Term Life. You keep trying to find characters that you can make into something cool. I just did a very cool BBC movie, Game Changer, opposite Daniel Radcliffe. He plays Sam Houser, the guy who started the Grand Theft Auto video game series, and I play Jack Thompson, the Miami lawyer who took him to court in a civil suit trying to sue Sony and Rockstar Games. It's a little late to go back and do some of those early characters, but I had a lot of fun with Hudson in Aliens. There are a lot of characters I've had a lot of fun with.
You're the only actor who's been killed by both an Alien and a Predator. There's got to be some kind of award for that.
Yeah, and a Terminator, so I got the trifecta there, buddy.
You played a sniper in Navy Seals, a film that Seals say is very accurate. Did you do a lot of training with snipers for the part?
I got to work with a great guy who's an ex–Seal. He was a sniper on the team. He gave me a book that he said was kind of like his Bible when he was going through sniper school: Marine Sniper by gunnery sergeant Carlos Hathcock. It was one of the best books I ever read.
Are you going to be directing again any time soon?
I'm trying to direct a movie based on a book by Joe Lansdale called The Bottoms. Brent Hanley adapted the screenplay for Frailty. So we've all teamed up again, and we're looking for our actor right now and hoping to shoot that in the fall. Because, to tell you the truth, I really prefer to direct than to do anything else. I'll keep acting as long as they hire me, but I'd sure rather be directing.
And finally, was Chet from Weird Science based on anybody you knew?
He was more of an amalgamation of different characters and different experiences. There was a great series when I was growing up called Gomer Pyle with Jim Nabors, and the guy who played his platoon sergeant, Archie Carter — I based Chet a little bit on him. And I based him a little bit on "Neidermeyer" in Animal House. The sadistic nature of the character was really from my memories of going to two different camps that I went to for three years apiece. This was all during the '60s, and those camps had all sorts of sadistic rites of passage. [laughs] I brought a lot of that to the audition, and John Hughes just loved it. One of the expressions I used, like "How about a nice, greasy pork sandwich served on a dirty ashtray" — those were things that my father, who was a traveling salesman, would say. He was full of all kinds of expressions that he would pick up on the road. He was from the Midwest, and I think that stuff that I threw in at the audition, my old man's sayings — that was the stuff that got John Hughes excited, because he grew up hearing those old expressions in Chicago.