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From Tornado Hunter to Con Artist

Traveller
I Think, Therefore I Scam: Bill Paxton sells hot tar and hot air to unwary customers in "Traveller."

Bill Paxton talks about movies big and small

By Richard von Busack

Bill Paxton's 22-year-long acting career consists of an ideal mixture of low-budget experimental/independent movies and blockbusters. He's had parallel careers, really. On the one hand, Paxton was a student at New York University (studying under the famous acting teacher Stella Adler), performed in an L.A. art band (Martini Ranch) and directed experimental films.

Paxton has appeared in offbeat and independent films (An Early Frost, the first TV movie about AIDS, Pass the Ammo, The Dark Backward, The Last Supper and Boxing Helena). All this before finally being taken seriously as an actor in 1991's One False Move, written by and co-starring Billy Bob Thornton, who went on to national fame for Sling Blade.

The other branch of Paxton's career started with Roger Corman. Paxton made his debut in Jonathan Demme's Crazy Mama (1975) and appeared in action films by Katherine Bigelow (Near Dark) and James Cameron (Terminator, Aliens and True Lies) before graduating to major-studio hits such as Apollo 13 and Twister.

Paxton's particular mix of interests is visible during his local visit. On the road promoting Traveller, the low-budget picture he has just starred in and produced, Paxton talks with equal enthusiasm his participation in one of the most expensive movies made to date: the upcoming Titanic, directed by Cameron. Titanic's pushed-back release date and broken budget have attracted some derision in Hollywood. Paxton dislikes this advance gossip and feels that Cameron deserves credit as an artist.

Even if you argue that the tornado, and not Paxton, was the star of Twister, you'd have to acknowledge that Paxton's many varied roles--Western vampire, USMC of the year 2300, tornado hunter, New Age shrink in The Evening Star--display an actorly plasticity, a willingness to be a bad guy and even to court being "unsympathetic." The fact that there's no such thing as a Bill Paxton part is an advantage to Paxton's steady growth as both an actor and as a movie star.

Paxton has the gravity of a movie star; he gives the impression, as they used to say, of royalty, that he knows there's going to be a chair there when he sits down. But he's friendly and unpretentious.

Paxton kicks off his cowboy boots and collapses in a chair, his feet up, at ease after a hard nationwide tour for Traveller. The film is a picaresque tale of a successful con artist working North Carolina and how he falls for a single mom. Paxton's only anxiety seems to be in keeping an ear open for the arrival of his wife and child, who are both due to arrive presently.

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Richard von Busack's review of Traveller,
plus a cheat-sheet for the two Bills.

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Paxton: I believe if you have a product, you have to stand behind it. That's why I'm going out for Traveller. I've been touring for four weeks, to every major city and market, to drive-home radio shows and to school newspapers, trying to get the word out. People are giving me a soap box for Traveller. At this point, it's pretty much gone over. Siskel and Ebert gave it a thumbs up, and the New York Times liked it.

Metro: You'd been trying to make Traveller for years.

Paxton: Four years.

Metro: Was it the success of Twister that made it possible?

Paxton: Twister! Some movies you can't deny. A real worldwide cinematic tour de force experience, that was, based on the awesome spectacle of nature. A tornado movie was long overdue; they're hadn't been one since The Wizard of Oz. Something anthropomorphic about 'em.

Metro: You're from Fort Worth, Texas, aren't you? Did you ever see a tornado?

Paxton: I never saw a funnel cloud, but I saw some fierce thunder storms, where the sky would turn that green, gangrenous color right before they strike.

Metro: I never saw one either back in Oklahoma, but we had some terrible storms--the ones where you could actually feel the pressure dropping. It looked like someone was drawing a curtain across the horizon toward you. Anyway, about Traveller ...

Paxton: Yeah--four years since my wife found the script. It was right after One False Move, one of the great roles. The thing with Hollywood is that once you get to a certain point, you can take the reins and make the movie yourself. I've wanted to do something character-driven. I went into Twister with my eyes open. I was glad to make it, glad to be one of the ingredients in [Twister director] Jan De Bont's wild stew. But I wanted to get to this point of having a great iconic role to play.

Metro: But look at your résumé, you've had a career of taking experimental work.

Paxton: I didn't have to prove I could act. And I had a cast here I could trust. If you have the right people around you, the ideas and the images spill out. I like the way Traveller evolves as a little movie; I like the way the leads meet in the bar where my character is trying to pull a scam on the bartender; it's not a cute-meet. I liked the script of Traveller because I was really fascinated here with the way the scams are perpetrated, how they're predicated on the victims' own greed. I like the con artist who is kind of enjoying going on the road with this kid.

Metro: And you cast Mark "Marky Mark" Wahlberg.

Paxton: That took five minutes to cast. He wanted in; I wanted him, I videotaped him. I asked him who his favorite actor was; he said James Cagney, so that got him the part.

Traveller is a great story, and I worked on making sure it had a great musical score like The Last Picture Show and GoodFellas. Music was important for the feel of the movie, because movies aren't just a visual but a sound medium as well. As far as the look, I wanted it to look like the Warner Bros. movies for the '70s, like Fat City. That's exactly where my roots are as a movie watcher. My dad took me to see all of those movies. He'd tell me and my brother, "Bob, Bill, get your coats." And he'd drive us out to see Midnight Cowboy or 8 1/2.

Metro: They weren't playing Midnight Cowboy and 8 1/2 in Fort Worth, were they?

Paxton: No, we'd have to drive to Dallas. But like, I'm saying these were the movies that gave me my roots as a movie watcher.

Metro: Had you though of directing Traveller yourself?

Paxton: It would have been too much, though being a lead actor and producing a film is a natural evolution to directing. I was so happy to get Jack Green to direct it. As an actor directing a feature film, I was in the same position Clint Eastwood was. Green's Clint's photographer; he shot The Unforgiven and The Bridges of Madison County. Meryl Streep always requests Jack Green. I realized if we were going to complete with the big boys, we'd have to compete on the technical level. If you don't have the sight and sound right in your movie, don't even come to the party.

Metro: I was reading that your real heroes are total filmmaker, people like Buster Keaton, who acted, starred, directed and made their own wind storms.

Paxton: Yes. Did you know Keaton was discovered by Fatty Arbuckle? A movie I'd love to make is the story of Keaton and Fatty Arbuckle and how he was driven out of the movies. Arbuckle hired Keaton for his first film. [Arbuckle, a popular comedian of the 1910s and 1920s, was disgraced after the death of a girl attending a party; though acquitted by juries three times, Arbuckle was still blacklisted and had to work under the name "Will B. Goode."] Keaton and Arbuckle were the real forerunners of modern cinema. Who could I get to play Fatty? I know who I want for Buster, anyway: Gary Sinise.

Raise the Titanic

Metro: So, are you sworn to secrecy about Titanic?

Paxton: I'll be happy to talk about it. James Cameron is one of the master filmmakers of modern cinema. He's made five or six classics [Aliens, The Abyss, True Lies, The Terminator, Terminator 2: Judgment Day]. Right now, the press is really talking shots at him. They're so smart and so cynical.

Titanic is a modern-day story with a parallel back to the disaster of the ship hitting the iceberg. There were 2,200 people aboard and only 750 survivors. It was a disaster that still lives in the hearts and the minds of people. I'm in the movie, but I'm really a supporting played on the mix. The modern story is about Brock Lovett, a treasure hunter, who is looking for a jeweled necklace on board the sunken ship.

The link between the two stories is that there's a modern-day survivor of the disaster, a 101-year-old woman not listed on the passenger manifest; she's played by Gloria Stuart, who was in the original The Invisible Man. Stuart's character is the same character Kate Winslett plays in the flashback sequences.

We really get to see this big ship's anatomy, the camera going from deck to deck of this living, big ship. So it really is the death of a titan. The story a character-driven love story, but of course it has the action sequences of the big ship sinking below the surface never to be seen again. Really one of the most audacious spectacles ever. Let the nay-sayers have their say. The same people who making all of the jokes about it now will be applauding later on.

Metro: You're also going to be starring in a remake of the 1949 Mighty Joe Young.

Paxton: I've seen the tests on the gorilla. The gorilla is great; wait until you see the gorilla. It's definitely an effects-driven story.

Metro: Are they going to have that beautiful scene in which the giant gorilla holds the woman playing a piano in the palm of his hand?

Paxton: No, they thought it would be cruelty to animals to have him performing in a nightclub. He's not going to be throwing live lions around, either.

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