The deep terror of Billy Zane in Dead Calm

With Billy Zane about to return to our screens in Curfew, we look back at his breakthrough role in Phillip Noyce’s ocean-bound thriller...

Billy Zane is set to return to our TV screens as part of the star studded ensemble cast of Curfew, a Sky original production coming to Sky One this February. Caught between an oppressive government and dangers that manifest after dark, ordinary British people put everything on the line as they take part in the world’s deadliest street race in a bid to win their freedom and a normal life.

Those ordinary folk doing whatever it takes for freedom include Sean Bean, Miranda Richardson, Adrian Lester, Adam Brody, Michael Biehn and, of course, Billy Zane. Zane plays the fantastically-named Joker Jones, a man described as “a matador of the night” who’s an online sensation thanks to his self-filmed videos of death-defying acts on the road. In his modified camper van (complete with Tiki Bar), Jones and crewmates El Capitano and Cheese chase chaos during the race.

To celebrate Mr Zane’s return to our screens, we’re looking back at one of his finest performances in the 1989 psychological thriller, Dead Calm

“You sound so much like them Rae, it’s scary!” The point at which Zane’s Hughie Warriner’s paranoid psychosis reaches fever pitch, is also the point at which you realise that the guy playing him has some serious acting chops.

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Dead Calm was a pretty brave endeavour from the get go – a three-hander taking place at sea in which a married couple’s sailing trip is interrupted by a psychotic stranger. Any film that relies on a handful of actors and minimal locations requires some engaging storytelling and virtuoso performances to keep the audience invested. That’s not to say such a feat is impossible; we’ve seen some fine examples over the years like Sleuth – the original Olivier and Caine version of course – Moon and Gravity, to name but a few. But what made Dead Calm all the more brave, was that two thirds of its cast were relatively unknown at the time.

While Sam Neill as John Ingram was the established face among the trio, he also had the least to do, spending much of the film alone, with no one to play off. It’s testament to his ability that those solo scenes still keep the audience in the moment. A young Nicole Kidman played Neill’s wife, Rae Ingram, delivering the performance that would set her up for superstardom. But it’s Zane’s portrayal of Hughie Warriner that brings the movie together, making for an experience that’s both compelling and disturbing in equal measures.

Zane delivers a rollercoaster of emotions, all wrapped up in Hughie’s tanned, male-model-like persona. Introduced to both the Ingrams and the audience as the distraught lone survivor of a pleasure cruise on the Pacific, it’s clear from the outset that there’s a lot more to Hughie’s story than he’s letting on. And once John heads over to Hughie’s yacht to investigate, an intense and potentially deadly game of cat and mouse between Rae and Hughie begins.

Through the course of the film Hughie adapts and evolves, morphing from scared survivor to a charming, charismatic stranger who behaves as if he and Rae had simply encountered each other while on vacation. Make no mistake, Kidman’s Rae is also beautifully realised, reacting to Hughie’s ever-changing moods and personalities as amenably as possible.

But it’s Zane’s Hughie who’s driving the narrative, and keeping Rae walking that terrifying tightrope, never sure what he’s is thinking, or where his paranoid delusions might take him next. You can’t help but hold your breath during every encounter between Hughie and Rae, never sure if she’ll behave the way he wants or needs her to, and what the result will be if she doesn’t.

Zane leaves you in no doubt that Hughie is a man with serious mental and emotional problems; not just the obvious homicidal tendencies, but the way his reality shifts around him like quicksand. Seeing Hughie switch from a relaxed and charming beach bum, to full-on psychotic is genuinely scary, partly because of the utterly convincing way Zane portrays that switch, but also because of the unavoidable projection of what Rae must be feeling trapped on a boat with him.

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With such intense and convincing performances from both leads, along with tight, claustrophobic direction from Noyce, Dead Calm is a harrowing experience at times. And while the third act does descend into slightly formulaic psycho movie territory, the journey to that point is unforgettable.

Billy Zane has turned in an impressive portfolio of work since Dead Calm in 1989, but his portrayal of Hughie Warriner has to go down as one of his finest performances; and one can’t help but wonder whether Nicole Kidman would have become the star she is without Hughie as the foil to her Rae all those years ago.

We still don’t know too much about Zane’s character in Curfew, but if his performance is anywhere near as good as it was playing Hughie, that after dark street race is going to be one hell of a ride.