Bill Paxton has battled aliens, a Terminator, and tornadoes; he’s uncovered the Titanic with James Cameron; and even juggled multiple wives on the hit HBO polygamy series, Big Love. But it’s hard to pin down the versatile actor to any genre, given a filmography that spans Weird Science, Apollo 13, Nightcrawler, Edge of Tomorrow and even Marvel’s Agents of SHIELD. Paxton is returning to the History Channel on May 25 with Texas Rising. Directed by Roland Joffe, Texas Rising is an eight-episode exploration of Sam Houston and the birth of the Texas Rangers that was shot in Old Durango last year. Paxton, who called in from the South Africa set of the Grand Theft Auto-inspired movie, Game Changer talks about his own direct relationship to Sam Houston and explains what we can learn from history in this exclusive interview.
As a Texas native, what was it like to step into history with Texas Rising?
I left Texas when I was 18 and went out to Hollywood. I’d go back and visit Texas, but I was never somebody who made that a really big part of my identity. I was always very proud to be from Texas, and I had gone to school in England when I was 17 on a foreign exchange thing. And when you’re visiting England and you tell people you’re from Texas, they go, “Texas?” If you say you’re from Indiana or somewhere else it’s just not the same response as Texas. I always liked that, but I wasn’t somebody who wrapped myself in the Texas flag. It wasn’t something I bragged about. It’s so funny: I haven’t lived in Texas steadily in probably over 40 years and to suddenly get the part of Sam Houston… But the real kicker is that I’m related to the man on my father’s side. We share common grandparents six generations back. His mother’s name was Elizabeth Paxton. It makes Sam Houston a second cousin four generations removed.
Wow, that’s amazing. Did you know that going in?
I didn’t know the exact connection. I knew his mother’s name was Paxton and they were from the same part of Virginia Rockbridge County near Lexington, where a lot of my dad’s family is from. I had a great, great-grandfather who was a Confederate general there and is buried near Stonewall Jackson. I never verified the precise link, but I did for this. And I got to trace Houston’s journey. I started in Huntsville, Texas, where he ended up, and I visited the battleground of San Jacinto. I hadn’t visited that since I was a boy with my brother and my dad, and I went to Chattanooga, about an hour north there where the Tennessee and the Hiawatha River join up, there’s a little island called Hiawatha Island. It’s part of the wildlife refuge. It’s private land. I was taken out there on a little barge and spend the day on the island where Houston ran away when he was 17 and lived with the Indians for a couple of years and then I ended up in Merryville, Tennessee, near Knoxville, where he taught school for a year to pay off some debts when he was 19. And then eventually I got up to the Natural Bridge, where he liked to go and play as a kid. Right outside of Lexington I saw where he was born. It was a remarkable journey to rediscover a man that was my father’s biggest hero.
What do you like about Sam Houston?
Here’s a guy that’s born in the late 18th century, in 1793. He’s coming out of the Age of Enlightenment. His dad actually had a really good library at that time; he looked up to his dad and the military. His dad died at 14, but he imparted him a real taste for the classics and the military. And then he runs away and he’s living with Indian maidens. They’re walking around the Tennessee River, probably naked, while reading The Iliad. Just fascinating stuff. He really was a great student of human nature. You know the worst thing you can do in the Cherokee tribe was to lie to somebody or to cheat somebody. That was just unheard of. At the end of his life he said something to the effect of “No Indian ever went against his word to me, but my own people have all my life.” He was just a cool cat, a fucking cool guy. And this is a Playboy.com. He was a fucking sexy guy. He had three wives. He had an Indian wife. He lived out there with the Indians as a boy. He probably learned about sex from the Indians because they were very open about it. He was known to consort with all kinds of women. I read a great quote about him that someone said, “There were two classes of people that absolutely adored Sam Houston: women and artists.” He was a striking guy. He was 6’2”. He had an athletic build. He’d walk in the room and he obviously had animal magnetism, so he obviously had sex appeal.
What do you think people will be surprised to learn about the Texas Rangers from this miniseries?
How they got started. They really were scouts and they became Houston’s elite guard. They were his confidants, whereas Houston’s officers were mostly just fucking idiots. They just didn’t understand what they were up against. They were so impetuous about the honor, and we have to avenge the death of those men. It was like, “Yeah, you want to walk into a meat cleaver? You want to walk into a shredding machine?” Houston was more of a tactician and strategist. He had fought as a young man in war and been wounded. He was the protégé of one of the great military commanders, the victor of the Battle of New Orleans, Andrew Jackson.
People to this day know the slogan, “Don’t mess with Texas.” What do you feel they’ll learn about where that came from watching this show?
Well, most people don’t know that Texas was its own country. It’s the only state in the union that was its own country for almost ten years. And there was a revolution in Texas that was very similar to the American Revolution. It’s a cool part of history and we had an inspired director in Roland Joffe, who’s not only a great artist but a great gentleman. I felt like I was playing him in a lot of ways. I studied him and the way he comported himself. I wanted to get that essence of integrity and ethics. You know, we’ve lost our ethics in some ways and we need to be reminded through stories like this, of people really standing up for something. Most of the guys that died at the Alamo and who fought at the Battle of San Jacinto and Goliad, they weren’t Texans. Most of the settlers fled. Houston was appalled that these people wouldn’t stay and fight for their farms and their land. They were like, “Hell, no. Fuck that. I’m getting the fuck out of here.” The Rangers went down there and they drew a fucking line in the sand, but Houston knew that he had to get lucky and be able to pick the battleground and how the battle would be fought. And God he had a hard time, but these Texas Rangers, they stood by him.
What’s your memory of your first encounter with Playboy Magazine?
Oh, boy, that’s crystalized. Just crystalized. My father had a subscription to Playboy and he had a little library study off their master bedroom, and once in a while he’d leave one around, not that he really gave a damn. But I remember going in there and I stuck it under an old cabinet under some books so that I could come back and peruse it. I was probably about 10 or 11. I remember opening this thing up and I forget which playmate it was, but she had on this candy stripe nurse’s outfit and it just seared on my imagination. So, anyway, my dad read Playboy. He used to cut out the Charles Adams [cartoons]. He’d let me cut them out of The New Yorker, but he would cut them out of the Playboy for me. He was pretty liberal. By the time I was 12 he was taking me and my brother to see Midnight Cowboy.
What would you consider your pop culture blind spot?
Let’s pretend you’re on death row. What would your last meal be?
Oh, jeez. That’s so weird you would ask that because I’m here shooting a BBC movie, Game Changer, with Daniel Radcliffe, who plays Sam Houser, and I play Jack Thompson, a Miami attorney that took a civil suit against him over a case in Alabama, where a 19-year-old kid killed three cops and said he was jacked up from playing Grand Theft Auto. I shot the scene where I go and interview the kid today, and he’s still on death row. His name is Devin Moore, so that’s a little close to home. I don’t know if I have a way of answering that. I went to the Texas Prison Museum in Huntsville when I was visiting Sam Houston’s home and this one guy ate like three chicken dinners, five baked potatoes, a gallon of vanilla ice cream. I couldn’t believe all the shit he ate before he was put to death, because you wouldn’t think he’d have much of an appetite.
So what would I have? Let’s get to it. I’d probably have everything I should never eat. I’d probably have pork, baby back ribs, and pizza. I’m not a big foodie.
What was the first thing you bought with that first big check?
Oh, I never got a first big check. I was very incremental in the way I came up. My biggest indulgence has been fine art. I’ll tell you what I bought with the first big check: a Thomas Hart Benton drawing.
What pisses you off?
People that are rude, particularly drivers. Little things kind of peeve me. Like when you pull up to a stop sign at the same guy as the guy either on the right or the left or across from you and they give you that kind of, “Come on, come on” gesture. That really pisses me off. You know what I always do? I put my hand out like, “No, after you.” I can’t stand people that aren’t polite.
What do you consider your favorite mistake?
Going to Hollywood. That was my favorite mistake.