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Interview: Bill Paxton - No more days of 'Hey, aren't you Chet?'

By Jonathan Litt
Staff Reporter

In just a short span of time, Bill Paxton has transformed from a moderately successful supporting actor to one of Hollywood's leading men. For many years, he was considered a cult favorite in some circles for his roles as big brother Chet in Weird Science and as Private Hudson in Aliens. In 1994, his career took off with his hilarious role in the summer hit True Lies, and the next year brought Apollo 13. Last summer, his career skyrocketed when he starred in the mammoth blockbuster Twister, which grossed over $700 million worldwide. The trend is sure to continue with this summer's epic film Titanic, in which he plays an important character.

As much as he is an accomplished actor, Paxton is no stranger to the art of filmmaking. As a teenager he made short films with his friends, and in 1973, at the age of 18, he moved to Hollywood to find a career in the movie industry. He recently took a big step forward by producing his first major motion picture, Traveller.

Inspired by such classics as Peter Bogdanovich's Paper Moon and David Mamet's House of Games, Traveller tells the story of an Irish con man (Paxton) and his protege (Mark Wahlberg), members of a nomadic group of grifters and con artists called "travellers."

"I've always loved movies about con men. I think con men are as American as apple pie," says Paxton. And travellers really exist in this country, as well. "They say it's easier to infiltrate the mafia than this particular group of people. There are three factions of them, and there are several families: the Irish travellers, the English travellers, and the Scottish travellers."

Paxton's character, an Irish traveller named Bokky, finds himself at a crossroads in his life. "The character is really a Gothic character. He's carrying around the baggage of a dead wife and a child that died in childbirth. He meets this woman he rips off, and she has a daughter, and he falls for her. He realizes this might be his chance for redemption - to start again."

Bokky meets up with a young traveller named Pat (Wahlberg) and an older traveller named Double D (James Gammon). Together they pull off a host of small-time scams, but the action takes off when, in the spirit of all great con-men movies, they decide to pull off "the big one," a scam to end all scams. The pace builds up to a shocking climax when their plan goes awry.

Paxton describes how he managed to find himself producing a movie, something he has wanted to do for a long time. "I knew critically they were going to paint a bull's eye on me when Twister came out. So I thought, what's the best thing I can do right now for myself and my friends? It was to go make this movie. And because of Twister, I was in a position to get five million dollars backing to go and make Traveller."

"To take it a step further, I was on the set of Twister, and I was getting to know this cinematographer, Jack Green, and he's the guy who shoots all of Clint Eastwood's movies. I thought I had died and gone to heaven because Clint has been a huge role model of mine, as an actor, a director, and a producer. So I said to Jack (I knew he was dying to direct a movie), I got a little script, Jack. Would you mind reading it?' So he read it and said This is great,' and I said, I'll tell you what. If you shoot it, then you can direct it as your debut film.'"

With a script, a director, and a budget in hand, Paxton's next job as producer was to cast all of the roles. He ended up finding great chemistry with "Marky" Mark Wahlberg and E.R.'s Juliana Margulies for the two other main characters. (Wahlberg had impressed him with strong performances in "The Basketball Diaries" and "Fear".) He also cast his long-time acting coach Vincent Chase for one of the more memorable roles, the Gypsy boss who is involved in the elaborate final con of the film.

Paxton is especially proud of the high production values of Traveller, despite the low budget. "When you start out as a filmmaker, you do parodies, because you can't really compete on a studio level. That's part of the reason I wanted to produce this film - by having Jack Green, I knew that I would visually have a studio look. Then I took it a step further - we got into post production, and I wanted the sound quality to be as good as a studio film."

Paxton pulls out a copy of the Traveller soundtrack to show it off. It contains 18 songs by 13 artists, all of the songs re-recorded especially for the movie. One of the more memorable ones from the film is Randy Travis' cover of "King of the Road," which plays during the opening sequence. "I wanted the feeling of driving across the country and the south with all the honky-tonks and roadhouses and motels and trucks. This soundtrack is like a homecooked meal."

So what does Paxton see for himself in the future? "I've had a great career up until now, and I'm trying to kind of take the reigns. Unfortunately, I've seen so many actors who reach a certain prominence, and then they do a couple of films that don't get accepted by the public or are critically panned and the next thing you know, they're out the door. It's really sad, and you kind of have to project yourself; you've got to guide your own career. In the old days the studios guided your career. Now it's all up to you. Guys like Tom Hanks and Tom Cruise are superstars not only because they are incredibly gifted performers, but because they're also really great strategists. It's really a question of playing the game right and finding the next great project."

Paxton should have no trouble finding further success both in front of and behind the camera. Traveller opened to great reviews last week and was the highest grossing limited-release picture in the country. It starts its run in Boston today at the Nickelodeon and Harvard Square.