Bill Paxton interview: 2 Guns, Aliens, and auditioning in character

Ahead of his scene-stealing role in 2 Guns, Bill Paxton talks about auditioning, Edge Of Tomorrow, and playing Hudson in Aliens...

Bill Paxton is a legend. Here at Den Of Geek, he needs little introduction, as his work with James Cameron alone has been enough to secure his reputation as a cinema icon – from the small role as a punk in The Terminator, to the hysterical Hudson in Aliens, as well as a sleazy Simon In True Lies and a rather more grounded Brock in Titanic, there’s nothing he hasn’t excelled at.

While Paxton’s mortality rate in movies is high enough to give Sean Bean a run for his money – he has the dubious honour of dying by Terminator, Predator and Alien, although there’s some debate about whether his character dies during the T-800 scuffle – the beauty of his career is that he’s managed to avoid typecasting while maintaining long term friendships and collaborations over several decades.

He befriended James Cameron at the age of 25, not long after The Lords Of Discipline in 1983 saw him appear with both Michael Biehn and Rick Rossovich, who all went on to The Terminator and Navy Seals together. Paxton acted with Sam Raimi in Indian Summer, with Raimi then casting him in the superb A Simple Plan. Helen Hunt starred with him in 80s action delight Next Of Kin (words can’t describe the beauty of Liam Neeson, Patrick Swayze, Adam Baldwin and Paxton all being in the same film) as well as being his co-star in Twister. Paxton and Biehn both appeared in Aliens and Tombstone, which also starred Powers Boothe, who Paxton would go on to cast in his own directorial debut, Frailty – the list goes on.

We caught up with him for a chat about his villainous turn in action comedy 2 Guns, which also stars Denzel Washington, Mark Wahlberg (who, again, he’d already worked with), Fred Ward, James Marsden, Edward James Olmos and the ever underappreciated Robert John Burke, making for one hell of a strong line-up.

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Despite not having seen 2 Guns when the interview took place, and with a slightly bad connection to begin with, Bill Paxton was incredibly gracious and very chatty, allowing a little extra time at the end to discuss Hudson, while enthusing about his role as Earl in 2 Guns, including an intriguing reference to a ‘cock speech’ which can’t help but spike interest in the movie.

He even answered a question I had about his moustache, without me even asking – it might sound odd, but he’s got quite the track record with facial hair, and even named his beard for Hatfields And McCoys.

It was strange to hear him make reference to coming back to the big screen, as he’s been in so many of my favourite, regularly watched films it feels like he’s never been away, but with 2 Guns and the alien blasting All You Need Is Kill on the horizon, Bill Paxton’s cinematic return should be quite something.

So without further ado…

So could you tell me first of all how you got involved with 2 Guns?

I just got a call from my agent that there was a script called 2 Guns, that Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington were gonna do, and then they sent it to me and they were interested. And this part of Earl, when I read the script, I couldn’t believe my good fortune, and then I sat down for a lunch that was kind of a formality with Baltasar Kormakur [the director] that I was very anxious about really nailing it, making sure that I was gonna get the part, so I actually showed up to the lunch in character!

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[Laughing] Nice!

I knew exactly what this guy was gonna look like in terms of the western suit, the bolo tie. I went to a barber, I hadn’t cut my hair so had it done very clean on the sides. I started growing out a moustache for the part, and this was about two weeks before I knew I was going to have the lunch, and I knew that he didn’t know me. I mean, he might’ve known who I was, but he had never met me.

Mark Wahlberg and him had done a movie that he remade in America, called Contraband, it was a movie that Baltasar starred in in Reykjavic, Iceland and they remade it as Contraband. So I know Mark had put in a good word for me – Mark Wahlberg and I go way back, we made a film together that I produced years ago called Traveller (1997) a little independent. But I knew this guy didn’t know me from Adam, and it felt like it was kind of an eleventh hour casting. And I think Bryan Cranston wasn’t available – he’s been getting all these plum supporting roles in movies, and I love Bryan but god dang it, he’s been hogging the whole plate!

So I think it was one of those deals, so I went in and wanted to make sure I nailed the part to meet him at a lunch in a restaurant in Beverly Hills, and when he walked in, I was sitting there, already completely in character! 

And you didn’t scare him too much?

I didn’t scare him, I gave him… what was nice about it was that he didn’t know who I was, so I could have a complete mystique with him, so in a way I was using the southern part of my background, but also I was kind of speaking the way I thought this guy would speak, so I almost felt like when he walked out of that meeting he probably thought, ‘God, that guy is the guy!’ I didn’t say I dressed up for the meeting, I just showed up like that and he thought, ‘This guy could walk right into the movie!’

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We got on like a house on fire. I think secretly he loved my character the best, and I certainly had a character that was very entertaining to the crew, because he has kind of a devil-may-care attitude about his work, but he’s very theatrical, but he’s very… meticulous and very thorough. He’s also a guy that’ll torture a man to death just to get some information, he has no one he’s answering to, he’s completely unobstructed, but he has a kind of a flowery way of putting things and likes hearing his own voice in a room.

I modelled him a little bit after Tennessee Williams later in his life. I pulled down some YouTube videos and thought that there was a certain relish in the language that he used and the part was written like the guy was from Texas, but he didn’t speak like he was from Texas, he spoke more poetically like a Tennessee Williams. And Williams affected this Louisiana accent because it’s so mellifluous, and it just makes words dance in your mouth, they just melt on the tongue, so I had a lot of fun with that.

But I was sweating it out the whole time [laughs] as I couldn’t believe my good fortune, I hadn’t had a plum role this juicy in quite some time, and then while we were down there you’re constantly getting re-writes to the damn thing, as it’s just the nature of the beast on most big movies, they’re constantly tweaking and re-writing, and a lot of times ideas that you have with the director, they’ll send it back to the screenwriter and then it’ll come back and it’s completely not what you were thinking. Or there’s something that’s really good, but that baby’s gone out with the bathwater!

I have a great speech and I call it ‘the cock speech.’ [this makes me laugh rather hard] It’s a classic, it’s very quotable and they were trying to re-write that because they thought ‘Oh this is going to be too much’ I said “Oh God! No! Please!” I pleaded my case to Baltasar, and he said, “Let’s go for it” and I’m happy to say it’s in there. But then you go to do your dubbing much later, because you know there’s always lines that had a helicopter over them, or somehow didn’t get recorded right, you have to dub a lot when you’ve filmed outside, and I saw my opening scene had been pared way down. I was just like “Oh shit!” and then I realised even the big scene with Denzel – they weren’t sure if it was gonna stay in the movie or not  – and then I started thinking, ‘Oh God, this is torturous!’

To get a great role, to get a good juicy role, to nail it and then suddenly they’re neutering it in the editing room, but I’m happy to say that Earl came shining through, and although I haven’t seen the finished product [adopts the Louisiana accent much to my joy] I can assure you it’s gonna be memorable! 

Fantastic, I’m glad that you managed to fight for it!

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Oh, it’s so nerve wracking! But you know I’m coming in to what seems like a fruitful time for me as a film actor, going back to doing the supporting characters that got me noticed in the first place, and they’re usually the most memorable, and I assure you, you’ll remember Earl when you walk out of the movie!

And had you read the graphic novel of 2 Guns as preparation?

No, I saw the graphic novel while I was shooting the movie, but when I read the script I could tell it had a lot of basis from a Don Siegel movie in the 1970s called Charley Varrick. Walter Matthau starred in it and he robs a bank, but his to his misfortune it turns out to be Mafia money, so he’s got the authorities and the Mafia after him, and the Mafia hire some independent contractor played by a great actor, Joe Don Baker.

When I read the script, I thought, ‘I know this and remember it’. I didn’t go back and watch Charley Varrick again, because I didn’t watch Joe Don Baker’s performance to influence me. But I always loved him, he was always incredible – he did a great thing in England years ago, that put Martin Campbell on the map, opposite Joanne Whalley Kilmer and Bob Peck, who was a great English actor who died too young, and it was called Edge Of Darkness.

Martin Campbell remade it as a Mel Gibson film a few years ago, but the original was a mini-series done for BBC that Jim Cameron turned me onto when I was in England with him shooting Aliens, and I loved Joe Don Baker in that, he’s great. But the graphic novel was certainly influenced by Charley Varrick, and so was our movie.

You mentioned the resurgence of supporting roles, and it was great to see you, albeit in a small part, appearing in Haywire, and you’ve got All You Need Is Kill [now retitled Edge Of Tomorrow] coming out too…

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I did that because I wanted to work with Soderbergh. There wasn’t a lot for me to do with that, but these are much better parts, I’ve kind of [had] in the last two years since I finished my contract with HBO on Big Love, which I loved, but after five years of a series, you’re ready to wrap it up. I’ve been crawling back into the movie business, and I got a great break about a year and a half ago opposite Kevin Costner in Hatfields And McCoys, and that seemed to generate interest in me as an actor in films again, and then 2 Guns should generate some more interest.

Then I got very lucky last year, right on the day I was finishing 2 Guns. I get a call from Doug Liman and Erwin Stoff, who are directing and producing this big Tom Cruise movie [All You Need Is Kill/Edge Of Tomorrow]. I got hired to do a great supporting role with Tom, and we shot that all last fall and winter at Leavesden Studios in Watford. It’s gonna be a big movie for next June.

Yes indeed, I’m looking forward to that a lot, especially as Doug Liman’s such a great director.

A great director and a great, great human being, really supportive of his actors and very cool under fire. It’s a big, big investment for Warner Brothers, but he handled it so well and I know it’s gonna be a classic.

I hope so… [at this point we were nearly out of time]

Hey I’ve got a parting shot – I’m finally putting out a graphic novel. I started to put it out digitally last year, but it’s now being published by Arcana, it’s called Seven Holes For Air and I produced it and put the writer and artist [together], and oversaw the whole production of it, and I’m going down next week – we’re going to debut it at the San Diego Comic-Con, but that’s a project I think you’d really like, that I’m hoping eventually to get turned into a movie.

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[I’m told that time’s up, but ask if it’s ok to ask him one more question, to which he replies “Yeah give me one last question!”] 

I know that you’ve probably been asked every question under the sun about it, but I’m a huge Aliens fan and love Hudson so wondered if you could maybe tell me one of your best memories about getting to play him?

Well, I tell you at the time I was so excited to get the call from Jim Cameron, who I was a good friend of, but a lot of times your friends are the last people to hire you, but not Jim. I had auditioned for him when I was visiting my girlfriend – who’s been my wife for 25 years now – Louise, in London. I went out to Pinewood studios, it was around the 4th July, it was around this time several years ago, and I auditioned and thought I did okay, but I didn’t think I got it.

Then I went back to the States and I had Weird Science coming out, and Scott Rudin, the famous producer, was the head of casting at 20th Century Fox then, and so my name was on a list of about 12 actors. And Jim and Scott were doing an overseas call, they were going through the list and who the studio would support, and my name came up and Jim said, “Well I know Bill, would the studio be okay with him?” and [Scott said] “Well he’s getting some very good notices for a John Hughes comedy called Weird Science,” and so Jim said, “Well gosh I’d love to cast Bill,” and Scott at Fox said “Well, we’ll back that.”

I got a call from Jim, it must have been about ten o’clock at night there, and it was early afternoon for me, and I got the call and Jim said, “I want you to join us on Aliens.” And I couldn’t believe my good fortune! But making the movie was kind of daunting for me, because it was a character that had an energy that was hard to sustain, but it’s become a classic, God, my son told me you can go on the internet and somebody’s cut all my lines from the movie together in a montage! [laughs]

That doesn’t surprise me! Bill Paxton thank you very much!

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2 Guns is released in the UK on the 16th August.

Also see:

The Ultimate Michael Biehn interview

Linda Hamilton interview

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