Bill Paxton has been killed by Aliens, a Terminator and a Predator ("That's not technically correct," the actor tells me. "I was only maimed by the Terminator. I only had what I call a traumatic encounter with the Terminator.")
He's appeared in music videos (Pat Benatar's "Shadows of the Night") and in uniform ("Resistance," "Stripes").
He's been in blockbuster films including "Titanic," "Twister" and "Apollo 13" and flops such as "Thunderbirds" and "Club Dread." He's directed, too ("Frailty," "The Greatest Game Ever Played").
And, for five seasons, he's portrayed the polygamist Bill Henrickson on HBO's "Big Love" — a gig that's winding down to a March 20 series finale. That's just 19 days after Paxton accepts the 2011 Texas Medal of Arts award.
With both events looming, "I feel like I'm kind of at a que sera, sera moment in my life," Paxton says. " ‘Big Love' was the only steady gig I've had in 35 years. To me, it was like a five-year movie — one big, long movie that we just had to keep shooting. And shooting. And shooting. So, in a way I'm relieved. It was ... a great part, and I'm really proud of the work, but I'm definitely ready to move on. To what, I don't know." Que sera, sera.
A Fort Worth native, the actor spent his childhood hanging around his parents' dream home on the 11th fairway of the Shady Oaks Country Club, taking guitar lessons from legendary Texas musician and fellow Holy Family parishioner Stephen Bruton — "(He)and T-Bone Burnett worked at a place over on Rosedale, and we used to go over there on a Saturday," Paxton recalls — and regularly being exposed to the arts by a father (John, a lumber company executive) who treasured them.
"(He) took me to plays and movies since I can remember ... He just loved art," Paxton says. "He'd come out, and he loved to deconstruct them and talk about the lighting or what the author was trying to say in the play or the clothes the actors were wearing."
He also sent his children off to far-flung summer camps he'd locate in the back pages of Sports Illustrated. "He didn't want me to be too, too local," Paxton explains. "He was a man of the world. He'd lived in New York City — he'd been stationed there during the war, and he lived there for five years after the war. He'd grown up in Kansas City. He'd lived in Chicago. He traveled to Europe regularly, came out to the coast a lot, knew people of every walk of life. So, yeah, he kept trying to expose us to things. You can't make a child do anything, but you can expose them to things and let them see what strikes a chord."
When Paxton was 13, his family moved to Aledo, a small town west of Fort Worth.
"That was like going from a regular high school back to ‘The Last Picture Show,' " he recalls. "It was a strong Baptist community and everybody was all about football and, you know, this was 1968, '69, and all I wanted to do was ride my Honda 90 and listen to Jimi Hendrix and grow my hair long."
Paxton attended Aledo High School during his freshman and sophomore years but, as soon as he could drive, switched to Arlington Heights High back in Fort Worth. It was there that he met Rosemary Burton, a drama teacher he credits as a huge influence and inspiration.
In Paxton's senior year, his father became aware of an opportunity to send his son to study for a semester in London. His dad paid for half the trip, but wanted Paxton to show the initiative to pay for the rest. So he got a job driving a bakery van — he was "the guy that runs out when the Whataburger runs out of buns in the middle of the night."
Upon returning from abroad, Paxton was surprised and amused to discover that a lot of his friends had become what he calls "Super Texans."
"It was like they went through an identity crisis after high school. We were all pretty much suburban kids listening to rock 'n' roll when I left, and when I came back," he pauses to laugh, "everybody was wearing a cowboy hat, you know, and chewing tobacco and I was, like, what the hell?"
In 1974, 18-year-old Paxton and his friends began making Super 8 movies — he and a pal pooled their money to buy a Super 8 Kodak Ektasound system — and his father got him a two-week, $25-a-day job as a production assistant in Hollywood with an acquaintance who made industrial films for Encyclopedia Britannica. That was the start of a career that, so far, has led to induction into the Texas Film Hall of Fame and the upcoming Texas Medal of Arts award.
"I'm not a Super Texan; I'm not someone who wraps myself in the Texas flag," Paxton explains. "But I feel like being from Texas has informed me in a lot of ways ... God, just growing up in that landscape. It's a land of big vision, you know? You can see for miles. And that big sky."
He calls himself more of a craftsman than an artist, and describes himself as a "regionalist." "I feel like some of the most important and most profound art of our culture, the American culture, has come from regionalists," he says. "I feel that movies like ‘A Simple Plan' and ‘Frailty,' these are movies that are certainly what you'd call regionalist films. I feel like they're some of the best things that I've been involved with in my career." (He'll screen "Frailty" on Monday night at 9:40 at the Alamo South; for more info, visit originalalamo.com.)
Paxton seems genuinely humble about his upcoming award. "It's quite an honor," he says. "To be claimed by one's own state is great. I don't really think about accolades too much; to me it's all about the work. But to get this recognition and the company I'm in there ... yeah, I'm very proud and I'm looking forward to it."
And then he adds, in the spirit of que sera, sera: "I haven't written a speech or anything, but I guess something will come to me at the time."