His name may only ring a bell, but Bill Paxton's face is instantly recognizable thanks to his work in dozens of popular movies. From almost every James Cameron release to cult films like Weird Science and Near Dark, to blockbusters like Twister and the upcoming Mighty Joe Young, to smart but quiet thrillers like One False Move and Sam Raimi's new A Simple Plan (in which three men discover $4.4 million, attempt to conceal the find, and find their plan unraveling), Paxton is one of the busiest actors working today. The Onion recently spoke to Paxton about Cameron, Raimi's bid for the big time, the benefits of international stardom, and his victory dance.
The Onion: You only had about eight minutes of screen time in Titanic, but do people still recognize you from the movie?
Bill Paxton: Well, I think Titanic probably helped my name in international markets more than it did anything else. That equates directly, because with movies like A Simple Plan or Saving Private Ryan, the studio doesn't want to take all the risk, so they'll co-finance the films. [The companies] make advance sales to raise the money in foreign markets, so if your name, from being in big movies, helps them raise money, then suddenly, back in the States, you're getting the part in A Simple Plan because they know they can sell you internationally. Titanic was fantastic that way. So were Twister and True Lies.
O: Is that all that was behind your role in A Simple Plan?
BP: Remember, not only does the director have to pick you, but the studio has to pick you. [Director] John Boorman cast Billy Bob [Thornton] and me, then the movie got shelved. A year later, [Boorman's] schedule wouldn't allow him to jump into this thing, and Billy's availability was just this one window. So Paramount said, "We're going to make it now, or we're not going to make it this year, either." So Sam Raimi got involved and we all jumped in. We all did this movie for not a lot of money. That's what gives it a real shot for the studio; they can stay true to the dark bleakness of this tragedy, because they don't have a big investment here.
O: Were you familiar with Sam Raimi's past movies going into A Simple Plan?
BP: I was. Jim Cameron was the one who turned me on to Sam Raimi. I got a call one day—I've told this story, but it's a good one—a real typical Jim Cameron conversation. "Hey, Bill, have you seen Evil Dead 2 yet?" "No, what's Evil Dead 2?" "I'll pick you up in 15 minutes." Click. We drove out to East L.A., to some 99-cent house, five o'clock in the afternoon. We sit down and he goes, "Watch this." And at the end, he goes, "This guy's a hell of a filmmaker. It's not every day that you see a movie that starts a new genre: the horror cartoon." The Three Stooges meets Night Of The Living Dead. [Cameron] was a great admirer of Sam's, so after that, I was really aware of his work. I came very close to being cast as Darkman. You know, you never talk about the movies you never got, but that was one I really wanted bad. I made the mistake of telling an actor friend of mine about the role: Liam Neeson. And he ended up getting the part! Goddamn that bastard! [Laughs.] I couldn't talk to him for six months; it just shattered me. I remember getting a call from Sam [about A Simple Plan]. I had one of those great auditions, a great interview. I got a call from Sam saying, "I don't know what's going to happen with the studio, but you're my pick." Me and my wife spent this whole weekend going, "This is it!" We have vicariously shared the ups and downs of a Hollywood career. We have a dance that we do, and we do the dance when we know the deal has been set. We sort of grab each other's arms and jump up and down in a circle.
O: A Simple Plan is very different from a movie like Mighty Joe Young or Twister.
BP: They're all exhilarating in their own way, but yeah, A Simple Plan is more of an acting trip. Sam's work in this movie is so subtle. He did a great job, but he sort of gave us the heavy lifting to do, which was exciting.
O: A lot of people have pointed out that A Simple Plan is Raimi's way of saying, "Look, I don't just make movies running through the woods with cameras mounted on boards."
BP: You know, a good filmmaker is someone who can look at a piece and go, "This camera's really going to be a character. I want people to feel like they're being punched." [In movies like] Raging Bull, all that camerawork was part of the story. Camerawork as choreography. But [A Simple Plan] was almost like a play. There are, like, seven characters in this movie, and you want to keep the camera like you're shooting these tableaux. So Sam is smart enough to know that, and in that way, I think he's a lot like Hitchcock. Hitchcock was a master, but I think we have a fairly young filmmaker who has the earmarks of having that sort of career. I think the material has held Sam back. I don't think The Quick And The Dead has as good a script as A Simple Plan.
O: It looked neat, though.
BP: It looked great! He's the guy Jim Cameron wants to be like.
O: How is it that you've managed to find yourself in so many James Cameron movies?
BP: We're just good friends, and he's been incredibly loyal to me. I guess I always fantasized about hooking up with a director and doing a series of films with him. You think of the great actor/director teams, like Scorsese and DeNiro...
O: Bruce Campbell and Sam Raimi.
BP: I think Bruce hates me for getting to do A Simple Plan. [Laughs.]
O: How is it that it seems half the cast of Aliens [Paxton, Lance Henrikson, and Jenette Goldstein] ended up in Near Dark? It's probably a really obvious connection.
BP: Very obvious! The director was...
O: Kathryn Bigelow.
BP: Who later...?
O: Married James Cameron?
O: It's hard to keep track these days.
BP: Me and Lance Henrikson and Jenette Goldstein all tried out for that movie separately. I told Lance about it. I read this thing and, like A Simple Plan, they both have these great set-pieces in them. In A Simple Plan, there's that scene at Lou and Nancy's. Scott Smith, when he wrote the book, came up with that scene first, and then went back and wrote the beginning to make the events lead to this moment. Well, with Near Dark, when I read the bar scene, I said, "Wow, this is like a piece de resistance horror-movie scene." It's almost like 10 minutes of pure Gothic bliss. And I called Lance Henrikson—we had become pretty close—and said, "I read this script, and it's like a cowboy vampire movie; you gotta check it out." He told me when he heard the message on his machine... "God, I thought you had freaked out, man. A cowboy vampire movie?" Then he read the script and he calls me immediately and says, "You know what? We could do something crazy with this." And he was fantastic. He really got a charge from that movie. We really egged each other on. But getting back to your question, Kathryn called Jim Cameron and said, "I'd like to use all three of these actors. If you're offended, I won't do it." And Jim said, "Hell, do they want to do it? Yeah? Then go right ahead." Jim came down and actually worked one night. [My character is] hitchhiking and these two girls in a pick-up truck pick me up. But this one car passes me first before the girls stop, and it's Jim Cameron giving me the finger! No one knows. You've got a scoop here.