Bill Paxton's long, strange journey to Hollywood respectability (the man played Chet in “Weird Science,” lest we forget) hasn't exactly taken the edge off his feisty Texan attitude.
Sequestered deep in the labyrinthine bowels of the Arizona Biltmore Resort & Spa in Phoenix, Paxton is sounding a bit more like a fight promoter than a film director.
“I'll put this picture up against anything that comes out this year in terms of filmmaking,” the 50-year-old actor/director says, proudly touting his latest effort, the bombastically titled golf epic “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
Based on the best-selling book by producer/writer Mark Frost (“Twin Peaks”), Paxton's movie depicts the legendary 1913 U.S. Open showdown between American amateur Francis Ouimet (Shia LaBeouf) and feared British champion Harry Vardon (Stephen Dillane). It was, according to some, the match that first endeared golf to the American masses.
But to Paxton, Ouimet isn't a golfer — he's a “cowboy” walking into a “gunfight with Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp.” And Vardon is “the Terminator,” or maybe “a Jedi who's lost his honor.” The last thing Paxton wanted to do, he says, was make a golf movie for golfers.
“I was drawn to this project because of its universal themes,” he says. “You know, the innocence of youth, class struggle, overcoming adversity, all these things that make a great human interest story.”
Paxton might know a thing or two about overcoming adversity. Stardom — or even solvency — did not come quickly or easily for the one-time soft-porn set dresser. Paxton was already pushing 30 when he scored a bit role in James Cameron's “The Terminator” (1984), playing a Los Angeles street punk who mumbles a few obscenities before suffering bloody death at the hands of Arnold Schwarzenegger's rampaging cyborg.
The performance, while brief, did mark the start of a long and fruitful collaboration with Cameron, who used Paxton again, this time in a more pivotal supporting role as the jittery Pvt. Hudson in “Aliens” (1986).
Paxton stole virtually every scene that Cameron handed him, and meatier roles finally started coming his way, in the vampire actioner “Near Dark” (1987), the Patrick Swayze revenge saga “Next of Kin” (1989) and the sci-fi dust-up “Predator 2.”
But it was Paxton's canny, deceptive lead performance as Chief Dale Dixon in Carl Franklin's “One False Move” (1992) that would most inform his identity as a dramatic actor: The flawed, careworn everyman, chapped with temptation and regret. That's the Paxton that endures, even after a profitable period of ensemble work the late '90s (“Apollo 13,” “Twister,” “U-571”).
Five years ago, Paxton fulfilled a lifelong dream, making his directorial debut on “Frailty” (2001), a commanding, horrifically bleak thriller about a delusional single father (Paxton) who enlists his two young sons on a fervid religious killing spree. The movie performed to average box office, but it did mark Paxton as a man with a gift. Three years later, Disney offered him the director's chair for “The Greatest Game Ever Played.”
“These two movies are obviously worlds apart,” says Frost, the “Twin Peaks” co-creator whose own résumé is just as varied. “But what (“Frailty”) told me was that he understood the language of filmmaking, or telling a story visually. So I had a lot of confidence in Bill. We responded to the story on the same level.”
For Paxton — who declined to appear in the film (“Too many troops in the field,” he says) — that response had little to do with “Bagger Vance”-style mysticism or esoteric golf history, but classic heroic and cinematic story elements. In a turbo-charged 10-second orgy of self-comparison, the director cites “Shane,” “Excalibur,” “Star Wars,” “Saving Private Ryan,” “The Color of Money” and “Tombstone” as his creative hashmarks.
“This to me is pure cinema,” says the wily veteran who spent 10 years clawing at Hollywood's back door before getting his big break. “This movie is my tribute to my love affair with movies.”
Three decades of Bill Paxton
1974: Paxton graduates from Arlington Heights High School in Fort Worth, Texas.
1975: Under the pseudonym “Peter LaTrek,” Paxton works as a set dresser on the micro-budget sexploitation flick “Beach Blanket Bango.”
1979: Paxton moves to New York to study acting under famed drama coach Stella Adler.
1982: Paxton's award-winning short film “Fish Heads” airs on “Saturday Night Live.”
1983: With musical partner Andrew Todd Rosenthal, Paxton forms new wave band Martini Ranch.
1984: Ich bin ein video babe. Paxton learns German to play a radio operator in Pat Benatar's “Shadows of the Night” video.
1985: Paxton plays abusive older brother Chet in “Weird Science,” is unleashed on mass audience.
1988: With Rosenthal, Paxton reforms Martini Ranch and cuts an album titled “Holy Cow.” James Cameron directs a music video for the hit single “Reach.”
1992: Paxton becomes critical darling following lead performance in noir crime saga “One False Move.” Many hit movies follow.
2004: Following release of directorial debut “Frailty,” Paxton achieves greatest acting triumph to date: “Club Dread.”