The last time I saw Bill Paxton, his life looked pretty great. It was at the 2016 Cannes Film Festival, and his newest movie, Mean Dreams, had just premiered. Paxton was relaxing on the beach, his feet literally in the sand. Private planes kept flying overhead, and every time one did, he'd joke, "That's my jet."
The day before, I'd moderated a Q&A for Mean Dreams where none of the audience members had had a chance to watch the film, including Paxton. (The film comes out next month, on March 17.) So the task of describing just how good Paxton was — playing a small-town sheriff who hunts down his teenage daughter and her boyfriend after they've run off with a bag of cash — was left to the director and me. Paxton's not the hero. His dad is a drunken creep, the kind where you're happy every time he gets hurt. But the real Paxton is a natural charmer, and the audience was content to hear him talk for a full hour about a movie they'd never seen.
Paxton stretched out next to the waves to talk about how a kid from Fort Worth had made it to France. He still had that Southern drawl, as warm as the sunshine. No matter where he was acting — or on what planet — he always sounded like a kid from the Texas panhandle. "It's flat and you can see far," he said. "I think a lot of big dreams come from that kind of a landscape."
Most Texans shed their accent when they get to Hollywood, but Paxton's rumble was a reminder that he hadn't counted on becoming an actor. When he moved to California at 18, his expertise was wood. Back home, Paxton's father John ran a wholesale hardwood yard. As a boy, young Bill knew a lot about furniture and flooring and décor. He loved movies, too, but after he and his dad would go to "adult films — not adult films, but movies for adults," John would want to talk about the sets. Bill learned how to pay attention to the details. When Paxton and his friends made their own Super 8 movies, he was the weirdo insisting on good production values. "I was like, 'It's gotta be lit, we gotta choose the background," laughed Paxton. So when he finished high school and moved to LA in 1974, he got a job in the art department of Roger Corman's girl-gang heist thriller Big Bad Mama. "I didn't know anybody in LA," Paxton told me. All he did was build sets. "I didn't have a day off in two and a half months."
That first gig wound up changing Paxton's life, slowly. Big Bad Mama's art director, Peter Jamison, liked this hardworking, sandy-haired kid and immediately hired him for his next film. There, Paxton met production designer Jack Fisk, who'd just gotten married to a young actress named Sissy Spacek. Fisk and Spacek had just made a movie together, Terrence Malick's Badlands, and Paxton bought a ticket. "I was completely blown away by it," said Paxton. "Now I meet Sissy again and I'm thinking, Oh my gosh, I can't believe this is the gal!"
The teenager loved his new life in Los Angeles. That summer, when Jack and Sissy saved up enough money for a European honeymoon, Paxton house-sat their place in Topanga Canyon. A couple years later, Sissy scored the lead in the horror classic Carrie and became really famous. One day, Paxton walked by a kiosk and spotted the murderer Gary Gilmore on the cover of Newsweek; the very next week, it was his friend. When Spacek hosted Saturday Light Live, Paxton was there. He and Spacek got into an elevator and all these arms pushed in, clawing for an autograph. "The doors closed and I remember saying to Sissy, 'God, what's it like to be famous?'"
Paxton moved to Manhattan to study drama at NYU under the famous coach Stella Adler. He wasn't trying to be a star, and it would take almost 10 years for him to score an acting role big enough for his character to get a name (and 12 years for anyone in the audience to pay attention to his). He and Spacek didn't get to act together until 2010, when she did five episodes of his show Big Love. When the part got her an Emmy nomination, he was thrilled.
"I remember back in the day, when I was driving around in a prop truck, I used to say to her, 'Gosh, I hope I can meet a girl like you, Sissy,'" recalled Paxton. "She'd say, 'Oh you will, you will.'" Finally, in 1983, he did. Paxton spotted a girl named Louise Newbury on a London bus and instantly fell in love. Four years later, he convinced her to move to the States. They were married for 30 years.
During those three decades, Paxton became a movie star in his own right, with big roles in some of the biggest hits of the 20th century: Titanic, Aliens, Twister. "I think every film actor should work on the crew," sad Paxton. "It gives you a different appreciation." His career had worked out better than he'd let himself dream, though on the beach that day, he confessed that he hadn't fulfilled his second-level goal of becoming a respected director like the actors he admired: Robert Redford, Clint Eastwood, Warren Beatty, Buster Keaton.
"My idols were guys who did both," said Paxton. In 2001, he directed his first film, Frailty, which he liked because it was a gothic thriller like Eastwood's directorial debut, Play Misty for Me. "A lot of parallels there," he said. Frailty got solid reviews, as did his second film, The Greatest Game Ever Played. Yet, while Paxton kept pitching scripts he wanted to make, he never got the clout to control his own fate. "I've been thwarted in my pursuits," he sighed.
"You spend your career as a film actor trying to fit into other people's movies," Paxton admitted. If he couldn't carve out his own career, he at least wanted to build on the work he'd already done. He lobbied to direct a Twister sequel, even going on a road trip with his co-star Scott Johnson from St. Louis through the Ozarks to Missouri, retracing the path of the Tri-State Tornado, which killed 695 people on a Wednesday afternoon in 1925. They met seniors who'd survived it as girls, and heard forgotten stories he wanted to preserve. "This one woman went back to where her house was and everything was completely destroyed," said Paxton. "Except her grandmother was sitting in middle of the rubble in a rocking chair, and she didn't have a head."
When Paxton was in fourth grade, a tornado blew out the windows of his school. "It leaves a mark on you," he said. And in his movies, he got to leave his own mark. Look close in Twister when Helen Hunt visits her aunt's house and you'll even see Paxton's work as a decorator: He convinced Jan de Bont to get a print made of John Steuart Curry's painting of abolitionist John Brown preaching in front of a storm. "I think you see it in one shot," said Paxton with a grin. "I never told anybody about that, but I am still set dressing. Except I made the ultimate sacrifice as a set dresser: I became part of the set."
And with that, Paxton stood up and stretched. The sun was getting too hot, and the planes were getting louder. "It's been really lovely on this beach." He beamed, looking up. "That's my helicopter. I think I'm going to have to fly away."