More to ‘Big Love’: Q&A with star Bill Paxton
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It’s not easy being married to three women. Just ask Bill Paxton. The veteran film actor (“Aliens,” “Twister,” “A Simple Plan”) has spent four seasons as polygamist patriarch Bill Henrickson on HBO’s critically acclaimed series “Big Love,” and this Sunday his character takes on his biggest risk ever by running for office. We caught up with the Golden Globe-nominated star last month. Here’s what the actor had to say about his alter ego’s political aspirations, his history with Sissy Spacek and what it’s really like working with all those leading ladies. You mentioned in an interview that the density of last season tuckered you out. Now that you’re near the end of shooting this season, do you feel the same way?
It really is an exhausting point, I tell you. At this point in the season I’m really thinking about checking into some kind of facility. A mental institution. It’s just so crazy … ‘West Wing’ used to boast that they had like six or seven plot points in each episode. But we’ve taken them out at the knees. We’ve got at least nine or 10 going on. It’s like I said, at this point in the season, my head’s about to explode, I just can’t contain all of the information.
And you’re doing nine episodes this season instead of last season’s 10.
They’re like nine little feature films. I feel like the guy who used to be on ‘Ed Sullivan,’ who was just spinning the plates to the Rimsky-Korsakov ‘Saber Dance.’ God, it’s crazy. We’ve opened up the Indian casino this year, and I don’t know how much they’re giving away, but this season takes me to Washington, D.C., and at one point I end up down in Mexico.
The news has come out that Bill is running for state Senate.
Yeah, … and Sissy Spacek’s a big star this year. It’s been a lot of fun working with her. I knew her years ago, so it was kind of full circle that I ended up getting to work with her. I used to work for her husband, Jack Fisk, the art director. I was his set dresser back in the day, and we worked on a lot of features together. But with Sissy, I’ve never acted with her, so it’s kind of a dream come true.
Do you feel like it’s a testament to the show that it’s been able to attract such rich talent?
Absolutely. You know, I got involved with the show because it was original. I never really planned on doing a television series. I mean, you have to go where the work is, but I was a feature guy, you know? And I never went out for pilots or anything. And when this came along I couldn’t resist it. It was such an amazing part. And the cast they were talking about assembling for it — really, all of us are from movies. The four of us [principals] all come from films, and all of the supporting cast are all film actors. People like Harry Dean Stanton and Bruce Dern.
What can you tell me about Bill’s journey this season?
God, what a journey. What an odyssey. I was always hoping [the show] would become a saga, which I think it’s becoming. The family fortune is growing, but there are obviously problems that are coming along with that. He feels that he’s had a calling because the last season he came to the realization that it’s not enough to have a belief and follow a belief: You have to take your actions with your beliefs. And so this year … there’s this guy running for the state Senate — he’s kind of, to put it simply, a fascist, and he’s using all of these conservative platitudes, that he wants to bulldoze the compound. And I realize somebody’s got to stop this guy, and then it becomes part of a grander scheme, if I can run for this office. I end up going to the wives and say, “I think I have a calling to run against this guy,” and they’re like, “Are you nuts?”
And meanwhile, there’s so many things going on. This guy J.J., who I found out has been married to Nicki — he’s come back down, and he’s stirring up a lot of trouble at the compound. Alby is as crazy as ever. There’s all sorts of problems at the casino that I didn’t know about. When I start running against this guy, he starts pulling out all his dirty tricks. It’s almost like something out of a Three Stooges episode, where they’re doing the plumbing in the house and there’s one thing that starts leaking and they fix that, and two more things start leaking, and that causes five more things to start leaking.
Will Bill ever be content with what he has? He’s got so many plates up in the air.
Yeah, I’m hoping so. I’m hoping that he finds his place, but it’s quite an uphill battle for old Bill. But I think he’s starting to learn how to manage some crises. He’s becoming a seasoned character, just like I’m becoming a seasoned character playing this guy. He’s rising to the occasion. He’s an amazing guy. He’s got the patience of Job and the stamina of Hercules.
Do you feel like the fans of the show and audiences in general have gotten over the polygamy stigma that this is just a creepy show about a guy and three wives?
Oh, yeah, I think that’s been surpassed. It’sone of those shows where, when you hear the idea, that people misinterpret what it sounds like. … I think it’s one of those things where people feel that, oh, it’s about a guy with three wives? What’s this, some male fantasy thing? It’s so not that, you know?
So Bill Henrickson is not the luckiest guy in the world?
It’s a male nightmare is what it is. You put a kid in the candy store and you say to the kid, eat as much candy as you want. Go on, eat as much candy as you want. And then you ask the kid the next day, “Hey you want some candy?” And the kid’s going to look at you like he never wants to see another piece of candy in his life.
But this doesn’t extend to the actresses that you work with.
What’s really incredible about this show are these three leading ladies. You know, working with Jeanne Tripplehorn and Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin — that’s been a real highlight of this experience for me. They are three actresses at the top of their game, and they’re all great dramatic actresses, but they’re great comediennes too.
Do you feel that you’ve become like a family over the four years that you’ve worked together?
We’ve become very close, as colleagues and as friends, and it’s a strange surrogate family. And that’s been great because it’s a really hard show to do, the hours are grueling, and there’s always some crisis in the scene that we’re dealing with, and everybody pulls together. God, we’ve really put in some hours out here. I don’t even get home during the week. I just stay at a hotel a few blocks from the stage, because I just couldn’t drive anywhere by the time I walk out of here after 15 hours. … This show is a jealous mistress, and God, it just wears me out, but I feel a real sense of pride and accomplishment to be involved.
Do you feel pressured to up your game, coming off an Emmy-nominated season?
No, it doesn’t add pressure at all. I think about the movies I’ve done, the shows I’ve done on “Big Love,” I’m not thinking about awards. But at the same time I have to say the Golden Globes came out and supported our first two seasons, and that was huge. And then with the Emmys finally getting on board this year — that was huge. It was great for the show. It does give a legitimacy to people out there. It’s not one that I need personally, but I’m glad for the sake of the show and for the network.
Do you feel like the Emmy nomination helped to get people who might not have watched interested?
Well, it certainly has been helpful. … The show has just captivated people’s imaginations from every walk of life and every culture of the planet. I did a junket last year in Miami — all the Latin affiliates — and they were saying there’s a family orientation [to the series]. It’s a plural marriage, a polygamous family, [but] still, it really resonated with the Latin audiences.
Right. Because even though it’s polygamous, the real focus of this show is about family.
That’s exactly what it is, and the creatives have come up with this really clever way of skewing it through this polygamy that just makes it all so bizarre and fresh and fun. And you relate to these people. They are people that are good people. They just have an unorthodox lifestyle, like so many people do now.
How do you think this season compares with the last one?
Oh, I think this is going to top last season. Some shows lose momentum, but this show just seems like this rocket is staying on a straight path. It doesn’t seem to slow up, and I’m amazed each time we get the scripts that they seem to top the last one. … It’s not another forensics show, or a procedural, or hospital drama. There’s just nothing like this show. They found a really clever way to examine the contemporary mores of society, but these are all timeless themes, you know? Sex, family, religion.
Would you say this has been your most satisfying acting experience thus far?
It just comes at you so hard and so fast, by the time I get halfway through the season, I wish I had a little more time to prepare. But as far as the quality of the work at the end of the day, it’s up there with all the great experiences I’ve had on the better films. This is probably going to end up being a very defining role for me. ... I’ve been the guy who never got to mix it up with the leading ladies that much. And in this thing I got the trifecta.
— Allyssa Lee
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