Most recently, he helped create the great state of Texas in History's limited series "Texas Rising." As Sam Houston, leader of the Texas revolution (and a distant relation), Paxton led a star-studded exploration of the violent but eventually triumphant weeks after the fall of the Alamo. Paxton sat with The Envelope to discuss his most recent adventure.
I read somewhere that you are actually related to Sam Houston.
That is true. Growing up, my dad told us that we were somehow related because his mother's maiden name was Elizabeth Paxton. She was from Rockbridge County, Va., which is in the Lexington area, and that's where my dad's family is from. I didn't know specifically what the connection was until I was researching the part last year. And I came to find that we share common grandparents on my father's side six generations ago — which makes us second cousins four times removed.
Did you feel like suddenly …
It felt like destiny.
Full Coverage: Emmys 2015
What brought you to the project?
I was coming out of "Big Love," which had been an incredible show. It was the only steady job I've ever had as an adult. But then nobody knew really what to do with me.
They identified me in that role. I don't even think they thought of it as acting because I'm a very straight-looking guy, very old-fashioned. And then I got this offer to be opposite
How did you prepare for playing a man from the past?
I traced his life kind of backwards. I started in Huntsville, where he died, Huntsville, Texas, I ended up near Knoxville and Marysville [Tenn.], where he taught school for a year. But I mostly focused on, I've got to just get the essence of who this guy was. He had such a great sense of honor and a real sense of integrity. And he was able to keep his own council. Because he's a guy who's trying to keep his head while everyone around him is losing theirs.
His officers are betraying him, nobody believes him. They call him a coward. He knows that if he's going to face Santa Ana and his army, he needs to pick the moment. And he's going to get maybe one shot if he's lucky. His dad had served in the Revolutionary War. He lost his dad at 14. But his dad had a pretty good library, and that was really his dad's legacy to him. One of Houston's favorite books was "The Iliad" by Homer, which had kind of a romantic notion of being a soldier and a code of honor.
He was a very separate individual — except for the Jeffrey Dean Morgan character, Deaf Smith.
I found a beautiful line about Deaf Smith, who's kind of considered the original Texas Ranger. He was the captain. The Rangers started out as scouts, and they were kind of Houston's elite guard — the only people he could really confide in, particularly Deaf. But I found a beautiful thing in a book called "The Sword of San Jacinto." He was writing a letter after Deaf died to someone and he said, "He was my stay in darkest hour." And I thought, "What a beautiful way to describe something." I mean, these people could really express themselves.
You don't always get the sense that this is a classically educated …
I wish we could've taken it even further, but I just feel like that language, you know, it's just so beautiful the way they were able to convey a thought. And if you didn't have anything interesting to say, you didn't talk. Deaf Smith is the classic stoic. And Jeffrey Dean Morgan does a great job. We have kind of a bromance. To me, the real love story is between Sam and Deaf in this thing.