Depending on when you were born, Billy Zane could be one of a few people. He might be Kate Winslet’s smarmy, controlling fiancé in Titanic or the man who terrorized Nicole Kidman, back when she could still move her face, in Dead Calm. To some he’s the guy who got dibs on Sherilyn Fenn’s virginity in David Lynch’s cult classic TV show Twin Peaks, to others he’s the titular Phantom, and perhaps he was most obviously cast as himself—Billy Zane, a cool dude—in Zoolander, a role he reprises in Zoolander 2.
But what I discovered over lunch in West Hollywood one sunny December afternoon is that Zane is actually a gentleman better suited to a night out at Ciro’s circa 1947—where he might have shared a booth with Jimmy Stewart or the stage with Benny Goodman—than any of the rakish characters he’s known for.
A thoughtful speaker, carefully considering each statement and editing as he goes, erasing and retyping the words in his head before they have a chance to reach his mouth, Zane has the kind of gentility that allows him to punctuate sentences with the occasional “Crickey” without a hint of irony. He appears to have ordained himself a sort of unofficial watchman, carefully guarding one of the last glowing embers of Hollywood’s Golden Age. He tends to it, gently fanning the dying flame, in the hopes that somehow the bygone decorum he mourns the loss of repeatedly during our time together will be resurrected. Fitting for a man who made his big screen debut as a fella who rolled deep as part of Biff’s crew in Back to the Future, a film about an outsider who has to reconcile the past, present and future.
Zane is a man who loves a sing-along, has big plans for the online comedy world and takes tremendous pride in being part of an industry that is “where we go to learn compassion.” He’s Cary Grant in a sea of James Deans and, yes, he really is a cool dude. And just wait until you hear his pitch for a Phantom sequel.
When you first came to Hollywood, what parts did you hope to play?
I was doing musical theater and Gene Kelly was my idol. That was just the perfect artist: triple threat, funny, dynamic, heroic, supremely talented and disciplined, an absurd specimen. Working at a period when I think Hollywood was at its finest hour, four or five years under the Arthur Freed unit at MGM.
From Back to the Future to Titanic to Zoolander, you’ve had quite a bit of experience being part of a phenomenon. What is that like?
There are many currencies in this life, right? So, if you’re going to hit critical mass, for what end? And I believe, if it’s set with the intention of service, fantastic. If it’s just quality and inherently good-natured, that’s a damn good second. If it’s just cash money, you might get it, but it’s rare. Some things are superior through a secondary view and retrospect, where the myth or the truth—it’s usually the myth—surfaces and can be held onto or emulated.
What are your currencies for success?
Service. Simply relief, be it comic or clean water.
Do you think you’re funny?
I break myself up all the time. [laughs] Do I think I’m funny? Yeah, I think I’m funny. I think it’s funnier that I came here to be funnier. You play a couple of screwballs on a boat you kind of get stuck doing that.
I don’t know that I could call your character in Dead Calm a “screwball.”
You know: nutbag, the lunatic, asshole. You play an asshole on a boat and that’s what you end up doing.
When you return to a property, especially after 15 years like Zoolander, there’s a certain amount of pressure. How was that handled on the set?
The pressure was high but you wouldn’t recognize it because of the effortless nature when you gather this kind of brain trust. Ben [Stiller] is supremely talented. He’s a great director and a great visual stylist, which is so important. What’s really brilliant about the script and about the timing, along with the talent, is, when you consider the first film, which was such a funny commentary on the times, it predates smart phones, the Selfie Generation, and the boom of personal technology which has turned the heat up and shined a light on the Me Generation. There are so many prime targets to be had in this film through that lens and through that sense of satire. It takes to task many of our hardly sacred cows.
How much improvisation went on during filming?
There’s always some prepared variations and then people inevitably throw in their own alt lines. On the day, in the sides, there are alternatives the writing team wants to make sure we get, but the artists assembled pull rabbits all day long. The key is: If they laugh it’s funny.
I rewatched the first movie preparing for this interview and realized you’re uncredited. How come?
I guess they say my name enough in there. To add it would just be adding insult to injury, or compliment to parody, or something along those lines. There’s a credit; it’s spoken about five times in the film.
How many days were you on set for Zoolander 2?
I was in Rome for months. On set? I can’t even remember. Five days? Six, seven days? But it was over the course of months. I was in and out. I would come back, stay for weeks in Rome.
That’s a nice gig. Why stay for that long? Just in case they needed you?
In case something came up and [Ben] was like, “I had a great idea!” The schedule was very tricky in terms of the climax. I can’t give anything away but it was about orchestrating a lot of schedules and shooting it in a manner that was very clever, let’s just put it that way. But the downtime? Crikey! The best times were practicing duets with Kristen Wiig that she wanted to perform at dinners. We’d throw dinner parties just to perform to 20 people. We’d book rooms, go practice songs on her ukulele, and work out harmonies. She has the most beautiful voice. We worked on the love duet from The Jerk. That was my contribution. I’d be like, “Come on! Let’s do, ‘Tonight You Belong to Me!’” Or we did some Ink Spots tunes that I turned her on to, and Elvis songs.
It seems like, deep in your heart, you’re a song-and-dance man. You’ve done Broadway, you were Captain von Trapp in The Sound of Music in Chicago, but you’re positioned as the psychopathic sex symbol.
Sometimes it better to be feared than loved.
Is theater your first love?
My parents were professional actors in Chicago, doing stage work, and I was exposed to incredible theater with them. Not only what they were in but what we went to. We’d go to London every year and see plays. For four years in the early 80s, they’d take us out of school for two weeks and we’d go see the best shows, then go home and be exposed to the finest American stage. But, all the while, I fancied being a filmmaker more than an actor. Being a teenager in the 80s, it was a practical time to be a young artiste because there was work to be had and I was grateful to start working fairly quickly.
Early on I figured out that differentiation was going to be a handy tool to separate the coarse from the fine. Go all in and play to your strengths. If the waiting room is filled with tortured young men who wanted to be James Dean, in the same uniform, I came in like Cary Grant après tennis, all happy in my tennis whites going (in a swashbuckling baritone), “Let’s make a movie. What’s the problem here?” And as a result was quite memorable and a pleasure. Why not be pleasant? If you’re going to work with someone for a month and a half, let them know you’re working with someone who’s articulate, film literate and, at least, nice to be around. As opposed to, “Can I get this guy out of his trailer?”
So many guys were trying to become the legend at the gate, which, if you’re good, fantastic! But you better get a chance to demonstrate that before you become “too complex” or “too much trouble.” My objective was to work and learn from the best, and the best were making films. There was no independent cinema really; there was a lot of studio films, family movies. Sharpening ones’ teeth on Spielberg and John Hughes was where it was at. Fortunately that persona was consistent with my sense of joie de vivre.
Then how did you end up with roles like the jerk in Titanic?
I brought that to the party. The facts are the facts and the scripts are the scripts. Don’t gild the lily. You come in with this left-field comedic timing on horrific events and you get the job. Everything is a comedy. That’s the secret.
Everything is a comedy? Dead Calm is a comedy?
As far as Hughie is concerned. [laughs] Yes, it’s a tragedy. I did insane research, went as deep and raw as possible, but you don’t play crazy. You play sane and let the crazy be the facts.
I want to talk to you about The Phantom if you’re comfortable.
I’m comfortable talking about all of it.
That movie was ahead of its time. If it had come out even five years later…
I think two things stood in its way: timing and wardrobe.
In India, it’s the number one character in the country! It’s still in the newspapers. People are pining for a sequel. I want to do a sequel! I want to play Kit, twenty years later, retired, on a fishing charter in Cuba, kind of pulling a Hemingway thing, and young Kit has taken up the family business, ‘cause it’s father-son…
Who would you want to direct?
I feel like you could Kickstarter that sequel.
Probably right. But it’s a question of getting Paramount behind it. I would bring Robert Evans back in a heartbeat. Be like, “Bob, come on. One more. Let’s do a Kickstarter. Everyone’s like, ‘Why aren’t you doing a sequel? Why aren’t you doing a sequel?’” I adore the character.
You’ve worked with so many incredible actors at the very start of their careers: Nicole Kidman [in Dead Calm], Kate Winslet [in Titanic], and Ryan Gosling [in The Believer]. Did you see a spark in those actors?
Absolutely. I mean Nicole was championed by George Miller and Phillip Noyce, and for good reason. They saw that she was going to be a great Australian export. She was very serious at 19. I was hanging out with the crew, having a blast. She was a very dedicated professional. We had a laugh but, for the most part, I think she constantly had to prove that she was not too young to be there, hold that role and be Sam Neill’s wife. I think she relaxed later in the game, once enough footage was in the can.
And she couldn’t get fired anymore?
When she couldn’t get fired. Then it was like, “Breathe. Relax.” Kate had already done some amazing work. We were like neighbors. The way they built the cast…what would you call it? Not really dressing rooms. We didn’t have trailers [on the Titanic set]. It was like a dorm. We weren’t living there but we’d work there for 12 hours a day. Kathy Bates was across the hall, [Jonathan] Hyde was over here, Leo was on my right, [Kate] was on my left. I was strangely between them, which I thought was kind of funny placement. And it was just pranks in the hallway. It was ridiculous.
What about directors? Who’s rubbed off on you that you’ve carried with you to every other job?
Jim Cameron, certainly; Philip Noyce, definitely; Sally Potter, who directed Orlando.
Would you like to be a writer-director? A director-producer? Director-star? What hyphenate do you want on your calling card?
I’ve written, I’ve directed, I’m jumping in with two feet to the digital media space, short form comedic and musical, producing quite a bit of content in that zone. That’s something I’m very turned on by. I always used to joke about loving and wanting to make trailers for films that don’t exist and I never knew a market for it. Now I finally have one! I love puns and quick short gags. Sketch comedy is a passion as well. Variety shows, I’ve always loved variety shows of the past. Dean Martin Hour, Playboy Penthouse show…That structure is conducive to the rate of my favorite kind of consumption: short form, funny, a talent turnstile.
So you, Kristen Wiig, ukuleles…