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Bill Paxton talks Texas Rising: 'I believe I was born to play Sam Houston'

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What did Texan and history buff Bill Paxton think when he was approached to play Lone Star State hero Sam Houston in History’s new miniseries, the Roland Joffé-directed Texas Rising (which premieres May 25, at 9pm EST)?

“Well, actually I was approached about playing Deaf Smith,” says the Titanic and Hatfields & McCoys actor—referring to the famous Texas Ranger, ultimately portrayed by Jeffrey Dean Morgan in the show. “This was a project that (producer) Leslie Greif had been talking about, even when we were doing Hatfields & McCoys. He really wanted to tell the story of the Texas Revolution

“A year and a half ago I went and had lunch with Leslie and Roland Joffé,” he continues. “My agenda was to promote me as Sam Houston. I said, ‘I love Deaf Smith, it’s a great role, a lot of the myth of the American cowboy really originates with Deaf Smith as the original Texas Ranger. But I relate to Sam Houston’s story much more, as a statesman and as a leader.’ I said, ‘On top of that, guys, I know his mother’s maiden name was Paxton, and I know that I’m related to him somehow.’ I didn’t find out [until later], but we’re actually second cousins four times removed. So, that was the thing. Anyway, we went back to the office, and we had a little more of a chat, and then Roland Joffé went down the elevator with me. I turned to him and I said, ‘I believe I was born to play Sam Houston.’ And he said, ‘I believe you were too.'”

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: What story are you telling in Texas Rising?

BILL PAXTON: It’s really the story of the Texas Revolution. Everyone remembes the Alamo, but that was really just the beginning of the story. It also coincides with the birth of the Texas Rangers, who were kind of the scouts of the Texas army. You’ve got a guy who’s the head of an army, Sam Houston, of less than a thousand men, that are not combat trained—they’re not professional soldiers. He’s facing the Death Star: Santa Anna and his 5,000 veteran professional soldiers. Houston’s constantly having to retreat and hope to find a weakness that will give him an adavantage. It’s a saga, for sure.

How did you prepare to play the part of Sam Houston?

I visited all the principal sites of Houston’s life. I started out at the end of his life in Huntsville, Tx., where he retired and died. Then I ended up going to the [site of the] Battle of San Jacinto. I got there early one morning with my son James, who’s also in the piece; he plays kind of a teenage hoodlum outlaw. I flew to Chattanooga, I picked up a car, and about an hour north of there is where the Tennesse and the Hiwassee River meet. There’s an island in the middle called Hiwassee Island. That’s where Houston ran away when he was seventeen and lived with the Cherokee. It’s part of a protected refuge, so I arranged for these park rangers to take me out there on a little barge and I spent the afternoon exploring. I just visually pictured him living there, 17, 18 years old, and proabably learning about sex and love from an Indian maiden [and] walking along the banks of the Tennessee river reading the Iliad. So, I got a sense of his life physically. I did the same thing when I did Hatfields & McCoys, went back and visited the main sites of that feud and where they lived.

You shot in Durango, Mexico, which I always associate with Sam Peckinpah. What was that like?

That was amazing. I’m the same. I had always heard about it. You know: Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid. Roland had made Fat Man and Little Boy there, about the building of the atomic bomb. I didn’t really know much about it. We looked it up on the Internet and there was a travel [warning], which made me a little bit tentative about being down there. I guess a few years ago, there had been a lot of cartel stuff going on. But it was all gone. I sometimes feel like we penalize this country, because they could certainly use our tourist dollars. I got down there and it was this beautiful, old, restored Spanish colonial town. Everything was really nice there, and the people were great. I was never intimidated at all the whole time I was there. I had a great film expreince down there. I would go back there as a director or an actor and film again.

We had a great cast. We were all together down there. There was me, and Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Ray Liotta, Brendan Fraser, and Olivier Martinez, and this gal Cynthia Addai-Robinson, who plays the Yellow Rose, and Crispin Glover and Jeremy Davies. Thomas Jane’s in it. It’s a big big cast.

It’s real old Mexico, deep in the interior, and these locations were amazing. It reminded me of what Texas must have looked like back in the day. It’s still a lot of wild country, and there was a feeling, the way we shot the movie—it had an old Hollywood vibe to me, the way we were shooting and the way so much of it was done in the camera. I think they’re doing some digital sweetening, but not much. 

Roland Joffe is British. Did you have to school him in the ways of the Wild West?

Oh, no, no. He came fully loaded for bear. Roland elevated every aspect of it. Many times during the production I would look around and just be completely blown away by the scope of the thing. I think it’s going to be maybe one of the biggest things ever done for television. Roland has a lot of characteristics that I found in my research about Sam Houston. He can be strong, but he uses a velvet glove. He’s a great artist but he’s also a real gentleman. Mostly we had Mexican extras down there. They wouldn’t always know when they were supposed to mime a scene while the dialog was going on. We were shooting a scene at the end of a long day, and I had to get up on this gallows, and talk with people, and [the extras] were talking, and it was distracting. I said between takes to Roland, “Will you tell these people to be quiet?” He goes, “I won’t tell them to do anything but I’ll ask them.” 

In a weird kind of way, I was playing Roland in some aspects. He really was the ultimate general. He had a huge army to wrangle down there. But, God, he handled it like a real master.