Billy Zane on searching for superstar 'contradictions' (and the right wig) to play Marlon Brando
For over 30 years, Billy Zane admits he’s heard “rumblings and suggestions” that he should play Hollywood legend Marlon Brando. And after three decades of simmering the idea in his creative subconscious, the 52-year-old Titanic star will finally blaze a trail in Hollywood as the first producer-actor to bring the Godfather Oscar-winner’s life to the big screen upon the completion of his upcoming biopic Waltzing with Brando.
Adapted from the 2011 memoir of the same name by L.A. architect and Brando companion Bernard Judge, the film charts a creatively turbulent yet personally ambitious period of the actor’s life from 1969 to 1974, when Judge traveled with Brando — then a client of his — to a scarcely populated atoll in Tahiti to build an environmentally sustainable resort-style retreat. In bringing the project to life, Zane also navigated into uncharted territory, telling EW he’s working to highlight a side of Brando rarely seen in the public eye.
“He may be the biggest star in the world — or so they said — or the most famous man…. but he was on the s— list and he was on the outs, and maybe [his] retreat was licking his wounds,” Zane says of Brando’s career in the 1960s, which was marred by a string of commercial and critical flops before mounting a resurgence with The Godfather and Last Tango in Paris. “The man was a recluse who moved to an island, yet is up all night on shortwave radio [and] can’t sleep alone. He had many children. It’s like, what led to that? He’s full of contradictions. That was touching to me.”
Read on for EW’s full conversation with Zane, who discusses translating key elements of Brando’s life — including selecting the proper wig and a prosthetic nose piece to complete the transformation — into a movie.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How did the idea to play and produce a film about Marlon Brando come to you?
BILLY ZANE: Not by my own device! I’ve heard rumblings and suggestions since Dead Calm, and the idea of doing a biopic about him was something that was always entertaining, but something I certainly didn’t want to touch at that time. Although I did enjoy the idea of his younger career and his transition from a Broadway actor to a movie star and how he had influence both forums so significantly.
As I got older and changed as an actor…. I started to gravitate [toward] his later work in that period between Godfather and Last Tango in Paris and what was happening in his life personally and the kinds of films that he was making, which were more consistent with his personal politics and world view…. While I celebrated his mandate — his undeniable dedication to throw weight behind civil rights movements and indigenous rights — I wasn’t aware of his passion for environmental rights, which was so prescient and so timely, as we’re [now] facing irreversible threat — if not extinction — through climate change.
Why this specific time period in his life?
In the last two years, I realized I was around the same age that he was at that point he was in Tahiti, and I discovered he was building the compound…. there’s a wonderful swimming pool in the middle of L.A. opposite the L.A. County Museum; it’s an apartment complex built post-war. There are two Olympic-sized pools of salt water, and you can join the club and take a dip…. I was swimming there and there was a gentleman…. on the phone and I heard him say, “Well, wait a minute, he’s right here!” He goes, “I’m talking to Bill Fishman!” who was a dear friend and a collaborator on a project [of mine] called Posse, which he was going to direct but ended up stepping down and letting Mario Van Peebles do it. [I talked to Bill and] he said, “Yeah, I’m doing a Brando project.” I said, “That’s so random! I’m presently actively developing one around this period.” I hadn’t picked a lane yet, but I was actively reading and looking into it. He said, “I have the rights to the book Waltzing with Brando by Bernie Judge. I’ve developed the script and I’ve been in touch with Bernie.” And I said, “Bill I’d like to focus particularly on the years of the late ’60s and early ’70s in Tahiti,” and he goes, “Well, that’s when this takes place! Between 1969 and 1974!”
I wasn’t surprised by the kismet of that moment; we just decided to go in together. It just seemed so logical. What I love about Bill is that he understood what he wanted to make…. I’m not interested in making a tabloid, sensationalist checklist of all the speed bumps in [Marlon’s] life, the highs and lows because I don’t like the structure of biopics. You can never cover a life objectively when you’re just trying to hit all the marks; it feels false and saccharine, and ultimately I don’t end up liking the subject at the end of a biopic…. I wanted to celebrate the man for being a forward-thinker, perhaps surrounded by broods who didn’t really understand it or get it. I don’t want to simply victimize him. From that point you lift the rug a little and go, ok, he’s vulnerable and fallible and contradictory and all the things that make multi-faceted human beings, but at its core I’m interested in teaching people about him in a way that they’re not familiar while still mining the drama.
I love the fact that it’s about Bernie. It’s about their friendship…. much like the structure of My Week with Marilyn, which I think is one of the better portrayals of Marilyn Monroe. It’s a right-angle approach; it’s not a direct line. We learn through interactions and observations….
The book’s description says that it exposes Marlon Brando the man, not the actor. What is the true nature of Marlon as a man and not the public persona that interested you as an actor?
There’s an opportunity here to explore the possible human. [In] Waltzing with Brando, you have this noble pursuit, this insurmountable path of one who is not in great favor in Hollywood. He may be the biggest star in the world — or so they said — or the most famous man…. but he was on the s— list and he was on the outs, and maybe [his] retreat was licking his wounds. The public face of flipping off Hollywood is one thing, but once there, I’m sure, yes, it was nice not to be recognized and nice to just be left alone and that might be the public voice of it, but the minute Bernie turned up, they became fast friends and its clear Bernie recognizes him. I’m sure they tried to be equals as much as possible, but the present reminder of his grandiose status I’m sure fed something in him that couldn’t completely disengage from what was then a pretty familiar currency in space.
The man was a recluse who moved to an island, yet is up all night on shortwave radio [and] can’t sleep alone. He had many children. It’s like, what led to that? He’s full of contradictions. That was touching to me.
You’re talking a lot about the mental headspace of Marlon, but what are you doing to physically prepare for the part?
This was fortunately before he really ballooned, so I don’t have to go there! I’m a 53-year-old man in February, which is kind of the zone that he was: late forties to early fifties. Sunshine is a good friend of gravity, so I think a little tan and some good wigging will just about cover it.
Wig selection is a huge part of this project, I’m sure.
Sure, man! He had very specific hair. So, designing that middle-aged Brando-in-Last–Tango kind of wispy, ’70s, receding, gray-blonde hair… I don’t have that! There are great wigmakers here and in Italy chomping at the bit to go there. I used to wear a Caesar ‘do. I was one of the early adopters of that cut back in the day…. that aesthetic certainly was a Roman-Brando cut. I’ll be designing that look. There will probably be a slight prosthetic attachment on the bridge of my nose just to get [his] bump exactly right. I’ve got one, but it’s slightly different.
I’m obsessed with RuPaul’s Drag Race, so anything about wigs and makeup fascinates me!
I love playing with them! I like applying them myself. There’s something about sitting in front of the makeup mirror and doing your makeup that way… I like applying my own wig and some of the makeup but the prosthetic nose — or bridge, I should say — I’ll leave to somebody else…. I totally dig it. When I’d do Broadway or the West End, you inevitably do your own makeup. I like that transformation [that happens] by a professional, but getting your hands dirty in that space is kind of fun, too.
To my knowledge, there hasn’t been a full-fledged Marlon Brando biopic to date. Does it intimidate you knowing you’re first into the territory?
No. [Laughs] Fearless! I’m more concerned about logistics and raging water levels and how we’re going to get vintage John Deere equipment over there with how quick it rusts. That’s what he would be concerned by. There’s no room for that. You don’t set down this path with doubt, and it’s been lovely because I’ve heard it all my career and been very gracious and it’s been pleasant. I’ve always thought that it would be nice to do one day.
You’re shooting in Tahiti?
Fiji has similar topography and setting. I’ve been there in the past. It’s beautiful islands. They have a very advantageous tax incentive, as does Tahiti. Right now we’re looking at Fiji and L.A.
There was a news story last year where Richard Pryor’s widow indicated that Richard slept with Marlon. Is Brando’s sexuality something you’ll explore here?
I’m pretty sure he was a lover who didn’t discriminate. Through the point of view or perspective of Bernie, that was something that wasn’t as relevant or prescient. It didn’t come up. But again this may be one of the discoveries we have. If something is revealed that we feel serves the overall narrative, I’m absolutely in favor of going there and being as accurate as possible. It certainly won’t be tempered. His whole M.O. was tolerance, love, and exploration…. The nice thing is that Bernie’s still alive, this wonderful fellow…. I don’t know if he was necessarily focusing on any of those things, but that’s not to say his memory didn’t have encounters. Let’s just say it didn’t fit into the book he was writing, but I’m looking forward to spending a lot more time interviewing him and perhaps getting observations and anecdotes that were not in the book and putting them in the movie, so it’s very possible…. Were there other lovers or was his alleged bisexuality something that was really prescient? What was the ration of his appetite? The man had lots of kids and certainly lots of lovers and wives, so…
You’re open to working it in if it fits?
Heck yeah. You want to touch on the totality of influences; That being, I imagine, certainly a big one!