Bill Paxton stars as legendary leader Sam Houston in an epic new miniseries about the Texas Revolution and the rise of the Texas Rangers.
Bill Paxton could not believe, simply could not believe, what he was about to do. And what dozens of other men were about to do alongside him.
The Texas-born actor-filmmaker was riding tall as the legendary Sam Houston for a key scene of Texas Rising, the 8-hour epic miniseries set to premiere Memorial Day, May 25, on the History channel. At that moment, Paxton was poised to lead costars and extras representing Houston’s ragtag army of Texians — the Anglo settlers seeking independence from Mexican rule — against the vastly superior forces led by Gen. Antonio López de Santa Anna. A spectacular re- creation of the epochal Battle of San Jacinto, a grudge match waged mere weeks after Santa Anna’s slaughter of Texian forces at the Alamo, was about to begin.
And Paxton felt nothing short of amazed.
“We’re doing cavalry charges with sabers drawn, aluminum sabers,” Paxton recalls afterward. “Only the laundrymen knew how scared I was on some of those. Because when you’re in front of 40 horses and you’re riding a stallion, you’re thinking, Oh boy, if something goes wrong here, they’re going to need an address where to send the remains.” It was full on, buddy.
“There I was with Jeff Fahey — he’s playing [Gen.] Thomas Rusk — and we were getting ready to do this charge. I’ve known Jeff for years, going way back, and I said to him, ‘Are we really going to do this?’ He said, ‘Yeah, we sure are.’ Holy shit! It was a challenge!”
Fortunately, much like the men who fought bravely and emerged victorious on that fateful afternoon of April 21, 1836, Paxton and company were under the command of a seasoned general: Oscar-nominated director Roland Joffé (The Mission, The Killing Fields), the British-born filmmaker tasked with overseeing the multitudes involved with months of on-location filming in Durango, Mexico.
“When you have a great captain of a ship, or you have a great director of a film, you’re always ready to give it your all,” Paxton says. “And I thought of Roland as somebody you’d follow into battle and you’d give your all for. I actually felt like I was playing Roland Joffé while I was playing Sam Houston. He has a great integrity; he has a lot of Houstonian qualities. I just thought, OK, this guy is the general. He is playing the general here. I should follow his lead.”
On the day of battle, Joffé also impressed with his talent for multilinguistic multitasking. “We had Olivier Martinez, who is a French actor of Spanish descent, doing a great job in the role of Santa Anna. There were times when I’d be doing a scene and Roland would be speaking to me in English. Then he’d turn and speak Spanish to some of the crew guys. And then he would turn back and start speaking French to Olivier. You’re talking about a guy who’s got a great mind. He’s a great diplomat.”
Count Joffé as just the most recent addition to a lengthy list of celebrated directors with whom Paxton has collaborated during his decades-long career. It’s a list that also includes such notables as James Cameron (Aliens, Titanic), Kathryn Bigelow (Near Dark), Ron Howard (Apollo 13), Sam Raimi (A Simple Plan), and Steven Soderbergh (Haywire).
And let’s not forget Kevin Reynolds, who directed Paxton and Kevin Costner as the leads in Hatfields & McCoys, the Emmy-winning miniseries that broke ratings records during its 2012 premiere on History and earned Paxton his own Emmy nomination for his portrayal of Randolph McCoy. UnlikeTombstone (in which Paxton played Morgan Earp opposite Kurt Russell’s Wyatt Earp) and Frank and Jesse (in which he was Frank James to Rob Lowe’s Jesse James), Hatfields & McCoys wasn’t, strictly speaking, a western. But it did call for him to spend some time in the saddle. And, truth to tell, Paxton wasn’t always comfortable there.
“I have to admit, I was a little intimidated at first while working with the horses [in Texas Rising] because of my experiences on Hatfields & McCoys. We shot that one in Romania, and the horses there were not — well, let’s say they don’t have much of a cowboy culture over there.”
In stark contrast, Texas Rising turned out to be a much smoother ride for Paxton, even during scenes that called for him to proceed at full gallop.
Cowboys & Indians: How do you prepare yourself to play a larger-than-life figure like Sam Houston?
Bill Paxton: The first thing I went back to was The Raven by Marquis James. I first read that book years ago, when my father gave it to me. He said, “This is one of the greatest biographies of a person’s life I’ve ever read. And by the way, you might be related to the man.”
C&I: Are you?
Paxton: As it turns out, Houston’s mother’s maiden name was Paxton, and she was from Rockbridge County, Virginia. So I’m actually in the same family line. She would have been a great-aunt of mine, which makes Houston — well, they told me we’re second cousins, three times removed.
C&I: Does this mean that you were quite literally born to play this role?
Paxton: [Laughs.] I think I was in many ways. It’s so funny for me, being a guy who grew up in Fort Worth and, obviously, was steeped in Texas history, which you learn growing up in grade school. I even remember building my own Alamo model when I was a kid. Of course, as it turns out, Houston wasn’t really that involved with the Alamo. But he was involved with drafting the Texas Declaration of Independence, to prove to the Mexican government that [the Texian defenders of the Alamo mission] were a legitimate army, so the rules of warfare would have to apply: If they were to surrender, then they would be taken prisoner and released. But Santa Anna didn’t want to recognize the Texians as a legitimate army. He wanted to just execute them as pirates, which is what he did. Of course, that didn’t do him much good in the end.
C&I: What did you find most fascinating, or surprising, when you were looking into the life of Sam Houston?
Paxton: First of all, he’s really a product of the 18th century, which is going back a ways. He was the son of a man who was a major during the Revolutionary War. He loved his dad — and he loved his dad’s library. As a boy, he learns to read and he loves reading accounts of the Trojan War. I went back and re-read those, and realized how, for a boy, they might seem to romanticize the idea of proving yourself in battle.
Later, after his dad died when he was 13, his mother moved the family out to Tennessee to get some more farmland, and they ran a local store. But Sam couldn’t stand being on the farm, so he ran away and lived with the Cherokee Indians. Again, I knew this part of the story from The Raven. But as I read more about it, it became significant to me that, here he is, an idealistic youth of 17, and he wanders into the wilderness to live with the Cherokee. He’s adopted by Oolooteka, who was the Cherokee chief, and they’re living on Hiwassee Island, which I visited, by the way. It’s kind of a triangular-shaped island in the confluence of the Tennessee and the Hiwassee rivers just above Chattanooga.
When Sam lived out there, he lived in a Utopian society. Remember: This was the Age of Enlightenment. As the 19th century dawned, a lot of religions started to grow in America. And a lot of Utopian societies were tried, places like New Harmony, Indiana. Guys like Thoreau and Emerson were writing. So Houston came up in a very unique time. Having that experience with the Indians, living in a true Utopian society where everyone shared everything — where the highest crime was to lie, or cheat someone — this had a great influence on him.
Later on, he opened up a local schoolhouse. And that schoolhouse is still there, in Maryville, right near Knoxville. He taught school there for two terms. When I visited there, I found this great quote from Houston, referring to his time as a teacher: “While teaching in this one-room schoolhouse, I experienced a higher feeling of dignity and self-satisfaction than from any office or honor which I have held since.”
C&I: After that, Houston fought in the War of 1812 — in which he was seriously wounded and nearly died — and went on to experience many public and private triumphs and tragedies. How much of his story is covered in “Texas Rising”?
Paxton: It’s really just 18 months of his life. See, he’s gone to Texas to really start over; he’s looking for some kind of resurrection or redemption. He’s 43 years old. He had the fast track to the White House, as the governor of Tennessee and the protégé of Andrew Jackson. But he abdicates this throne when something happens to his young bride. He sends her back home, and he literally abandons his whole life. He’s a super-romanticist in a way, and a man of such intense integrity. He could not tolerate people he knew were cheating. He could not tolerate any kind of chicanery or any kind of embezzlement or anything like that. He’s bigger-than-life. He’s a giant among men.
C&I: So he goes to Texas to reinvent himself?
Paxton: Exactly. And now he’s got this army that’s not an army, and he knows he’s taking on a formidable foe. There’s Santa Anna with 5,000 veteran professional soldiers. [Houton’s] trying to retreat and drill these guys he’s leading, yet all the people around him are calling him a coward. Here’s a guy who’s literally besieged on all sides, and that’s when we meet him, in this particular time of his life. Because of his background, he’s able to keep his own counsel and realize, at the end of the day, he’s going to make the decision for his life and his men’s lives. He’s not going to just go and try to attack Santa Anna out in the open out of some kind of emotional need for the people to have some revenge. The way he plays it, he knows that he’s got to pick the battle — when and where they’re going to fight. And, boy, he holds out.
C&I: Some historians have theorized that Houston was a manic-depressive, or at least struggled to cope with bouts of very serious depression. Did you find anything in your research to support that?
Paxton: Absolutely. It’s no secret that he imbibed heavily at times, and I think his depression was probably part of the reason for that. He took things very personally. Like that whole thing he went through with John C. Calhoun, who was the secretary of war. Houston wanted to stay in the military [after the War of 1812], even though it just about cost him his life. He recovered and he went up to Washington and took a delegation of Cherokee Indians with him. And he dressed in Indian robes when he went in to see the secretary of war. At the end of the meeting, Calhoun said, “Would you mind waiting just a second?” He held Houston back, and the Indians went out of the room. They closed the door and Calhoun said, “How dare you disgrace this office coming in dressed like that?” Houston was like, “What the hell are you talking about?”
Yeah, he had a lot of things that he took very personally. And I do think he probably had some depression. It runs in my family line, that’s for sure. He would go through these blue periods, but then he would pull himself together.
C&I: What do you think you have in common with Sam Houston?
Paxton: I’ve always related to characters who get put in leadership positions, or who gravitate to leadership positions. In the movies, I’ve played other military roles. You remember, Houston had been in the military and then he got out of it. He became a lawyer, then he went into Congress, and then he became governor. [Later] he ended up in the Indian territories, and he was doing work with them. But then he’s put back in charge of an army. He falls back into the military just by fate. And he rises to the occasion because he had a natural leadership ability. And that’s something I have. I’ve directed three movies. I know what it’s like to command troops in the field in that regard.
C&I: Some filmmakers have likened shooting a movie on location to leading an occupying army.
Paxton: I agree. I’ve always seen directing motion pictures as analogous to a military operation. As they march on their stomachs, all the stuff you’ve got to have to keep an army moving is very similar to what we do when we’re trying to fight the budget, the schedule, and the weather, and commanding a lot of crew and actors out in the field. That part I totally related to.
C&I: What other qualities do you share?
Paxton: I think Houston was a romantic; I think I’m a romantic [too]. Certainly as a depressive, I can relate to that part of him as well. That could have been from high blood pressure or a lot of things. That’s certainly something that’s run in my family line, something I deal with.
I find that I need to be fixed on a task. I need to be doing something. I need to be working on a project. [Being] between projects, that’s been the toughest part [about being] an actor or a filmmaker — trying to keep yourself going between jobs. When I have too much time, I become a little introspective, and that doesn’t do me or anybody else any good. And that’s when I go to my dark place. I think most of us have that inside us; that’s why we need work to sustain us, and purpose.
C&I: There likely would be no “Texas Rising” had it not been for the phenomenal success of “Hatfields & McCoys.” You could say that miniseries is a tough act for History to follow. But this new production has more of an epic sweep, right?
Paxton: It’s actually a How the West Was Won kind of thing. Sam Houston’s the spine of the piece, but there are several other story lines. Not just subplots, but other story lines. You’ve got the Indian side of things, the settlers who are moving in — that story is told through the character played by Thomas Jane. And you’ve got the birth, and really the inception, of the Texas Rangers as a part of this. There’s a big part of the story that’s about the Rangers, and we get to know some of them, particularly [Erastus] “Deaf ” Smith, who is played wonderfully by Jeffrey Dean Morgan.
We really have an incredible cast. And the scale of the thing is huge. I felt like I was in Old Hollywood making this movie because it’s all in the camera. There might be some digital sweetening that they’re going to do, or some set extension. But for the most part, these sets were right there. The army camps of the Texas army, they’re all there. Santa Anna’s camps and cannons and all of his men — it’s all there. [Director Roland Joffé] would stage things so there’d be, like, five layers of background action going on in the back of a shot. It was all done in the camera. So if you flubbed a line, God, they had to get everybody back to square one. He shot it widescreen. They let him shoot anamorphic, which will be the first time, I’m sure, that a television network has premiered a movie that they made in widescreen.
Obviously, History is swinging for the fences with this. All of us are. We’re trying to equal or top the success of Hatfields & McCoys, which is a tall order, that’s for sure. [Laughs.] But like I say, sometimes you have to swing for the fences, baby. You’ve got to.
From the May/June 2015 issue.
Photography by W. Ben Glass