Bill Paxton, 59, is starring as Sam Houston in the upcoming History Channel miniseries Texas Rising, which premiers on Memorial Day. Paxton, whose Western filmography includes the role of Morgan Earp in Tombstone and Frank James in Frank and Jesse, talked with editor Bob Welch about what he calls the role of a lifetime. 

You’ve played all kinds of roles. so what is it about the Texas Rising script that intrigued you?

As a film actor, you’re trying to find good projects and be associated with good filmmakers. For me, when I choose a piece of material I ask, Does the piece speak to me? And who’s the filmmaker? That’s key because film is really a director’s medium. A good director can elevate a bad script, but a bad director can only hurt a good script. This was an amazing project that brought me back together with Leslie Greif, who was the producer of the Hatfields & McCoys, and I had a great experience with him and Kevin Costner on that. When Leslie told me he was hiring Roland Joffé to direct this epic, I went, Oh my gosh. This is the great British director who directed The Killing Fields and The Mission, two great movies. When I met Roland, I was duly impressed, not only with his resume but with him as an artist and gentleman. From the time I met him to being on the set for a 128-day shoot, he never lost his cool under fire and was amazing at staging incredible battle scenes. This was shot widescreen and will be debuted widescreen on the History Channel, which will be a network first. Texas Rising is so big and it was shot so big.

Do you think people today understand the whole story of the texas revolution beyond the alamo?

People hear the term republic, but people don’t realize these Texans made their own country. I stood at a marker on the Louisiana side of the Sabine River earlier last year and back in the late 1830s and early 1840s that was the international boundary where the continental United States ended and the Republic of Texas began. Texas was also what solidified this whole country. When Texas won its independence, it was a big landmass, bigger than the actual present state of Texas, and it created a gateway to the Pacific. Houston wanted to see Texas annexed, and eventually it was. 

Where was it filmed?

We spent almost six months in Durango, Mexico, shooting this. John Wayne had a huge ranch down there where he shot The Sons of Katy Elder and Sam Peckinpah shot Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and The Wild Bunch. So it felt like Old Hollywood. The Mexican craftsmen and crews there were phenomenal because they can still fabricate anything. The world of 1836, from the set to the props to the costuming, was made for the show and it’s incredible in its detail and scope. In Hollywood, these arts have not been passed down. We’ve got so into the digital world that the people who used to be able to make all this stuff are going the way of the buffalo. That’s another thing that makes this amazing. When you see five layers of background action in this movie, it’s not digital, it’s all there. So that’s going to give it a real authentic flavor.

As a native Texan, what kind of background did you bring to the role of Sam Houston?

My father told me from the time I was a boy what an interesting man Sam Houston had been and what an interesting life he had led. When I was a teenager, he gave me a copy of a biography written on Houston called The Raven by Marquis James; it won the Pulitzer Prize in 1929. He told me we might be related to Sam Houston. Houston’s mother was Elizabeth Paxton and she was from Rock Ridge County, Va., where Sam was born. That’s where a lot of my dad’s family was from. I found out that we are second cousins three times removed. His mother would have been a great aunt of mine. Add to the fact that I’m a first generation Texan, born and raised in Fort Worth, and steeped in Texas history growing up, it’s the role of a lifetime. 

Was it challenging to play such an iconic, historic figure?

I felt an affinity toward him and could relate to him on a lot of levels. I researched the role by reading several biographies, but I did my own pilgrimage, too. I started where his life ended in Huntsville, Texas. I went to the museum there and the director and his wife were nice enough to show me around and I got to hold things of his life—a locket of his hair and the volume of Shakespearean plays he carried in his saddlebag. When I handled the crutch they made for him in San Jacinto, I realized he was in fact 6’2” because it was a little high for me. Then I went to Hiwassee Island, where Houston spent some of his youth with the Cherokee Indians. I roamed around and it gave me a lot to think about. Houston’s father was a major who died when he was 14. He had a library of military books and classics; Houston was a great scholar of Homer. When he went to live with the Cherokees, he had a copy of the Iliad with him at all times. 

When he was 19 he had some debts, so he opened a schoolhouse to repay them. Then the War of 1812 breaks out, he signs up as a private. His brothers said he could have gone in as an officer, but he said, “Don’t worry, you’ll hear of my exploits.” Certainly they did when he gets shot to hell at Horseshoe Bend. So having all these things in the background he had a keener insight to human nature. He was not one to suffer fools gladly, he was someone who kept his own counsel and he felt to me as someone who had a little deeper understanding. I think he had a good sense of humor, a good sense of irony and a good sense of human foibles. So I try to layer all that in. 

 You’ve got to remember that Texas Rising is historical fiction. They’ve taken a lot of liberties. For me, you tell the story like it happened and it’s plenty interesting. In Titanic, maybe there were some star-crossed lovers on that ship, but Jim Cameron used a fictional couple to illuminate a historical event. That’s what’s been done here. I tried to stick to the facts as best I could from my own research and tried to give an honest, simple portrayal. He was so much bigger than life and so much smarter than I am, I could only give it my best shot.

Meet more of the cast of Texas Rising. 

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