'2 Guns': Bill Paxton explains how he became one of summer's best scene-stealers

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Image Credit: Patti Perret

As we say in our review of 2 Guns, don’t let the film’s August release date fool you into thinking it’s not one of summer’s funnest rides. Denzel Washington and Mark Wahlberg star as an undercover DEA agent and naval intelligence officer, respectively, who’ve infiltrated a narcotics syndicate with the goal of bringing down drug kingpin Papi Greco (Edward James Olmos). The catch: Neither of them knows the other guy isn’t a real criminal until they receive orders to steal $3 million of Papi’s cash from a Savings & Loan but find $40 million more in the vault than they should. They have to work together, for real, to figure out who double-crossed them and how to save their asses from, among others, Earl (Bill Paxton), the bolo-tie-wearing, Russian-roulette-loving badass the CIA has tasked with tracking down its missing money. Here, Paxton talks about building the character, meeting Wahlberg in the ’90s, and his next films with Tom Cruise and Jon Hamm.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Leaving this movie, I was like, I don’t know who was having more fun — Mark Wahlberg or Bill Paxton. Tell me what was on the page and what you brought to Earl. I know you watched Tennessee Williams interviews on YouTube for the eloquent drawl.
Bill Paxton: It was described that he was from Texas, but the dialogue just didn’t reflect a Texas accent. It sounded more like Louisiana, a more mellifluous kind of an accent. I didn’t go all the way with the Tennessee. I would have liked to have. But they wanted to keep it threatening. I watched these old clips of him, particularly one where he talks about Hart Crane. I’ve always loved Tennessee Williams, and it made me realize he kind of reinvented himself. He changed his name from Tom Lanier Williams to Tennessee Williams, and he moved to New Orleans when he was 21. I think that was where he was able to be who he is, a gay man. I think because he was such a wordsmith, that accent just sounded like honey dripping off his tongue.

What else inspired you?
I remember the movie that [2 Guns] was pretty much lifted from, Charley Varrick, which Walter Matthau starred in and Don Siegel directed. There was a character played by Joe Don Baker who was hired by the mafia to track down Walter Matthau. Joe Don Baker’s been one of my favorite actors ever since he played Buford Pusser in Walking Tall, another classic from the ’70s.

Were you involved in creating Earl’s signature look?
Yeah. They described that he had a Western look about him. [Director Baltasar Kormákur] didn’t know me, so when I got the offer, it was kinda based on a formality, which would be a meeting with him. I didn’t want to show up as Bill, ’cause I thought it might be like, “I need somebody harder than this.” So I went to a barber shop, and I had this mustache going, and then I went to a couple of Western shops and got some suits. So I met him at a restaurant in Beverly Hills. I got there early. I had the hat, the bolo tie, the whole deal when he walked in and saw me. I got cast late in the process. I think I only had a couple of weeks before I had to start filming. And, of course, the big scene I have opposite Denzel Washington is the very first day of filming. So that was a bit disconcerting.

How did you prepare for that scene?
I knew the piece was a heightened piece. The film’s almost like an action-cartoon in many ways. It glorifies those kind of movies from the ’70s, The Getaway and things like that. I knew the scene needed to be lifted and have some fun with it, and I could see that Denzel was having a lot of fun with it as well. So we just played around pretty much. Denzel likes to keep it spontaneous by trying ad-libs, because that’s what you want: You shoot these scenes hundreds of times, multiple takes, multiple angles, and you want to try to capture something between “action” and “cut” that is really a spontaneous moment in a completely artificial environment. When I put the gun in his crotch, I say, “Where’s my money?” and he says, “It’s not down there.” That was all stuff he was riffing on…. When you’re doing scenes where you’re playing Russian roulette, you’re putting the gun in a threatening position at the other actor. I never goof around with weapons on the set. I’ve seen some really bad things happen over the years, and I’ve seen some really stupid things happen. Particularly with Denzel, who was also very adamant initially, until there was some trust, that he wanted that weapon checked and rechecked. It was checked by the prop man, and then he checked it, and then I made sure Denzel saw that when we weren’t shooting, I wasn’t sitting there holding the gun. A gun is like a toy for adults, people like to play with guns. That’s when people get hurt. They’re not toys. But I’ll get more into that in my book that’s coming out, it’s called Guns, Guns, Guns. [Smiles]

When you and I talked about Hatfields & McCoys after you earned an Emmy nomination, you told me how Kevin Costner would run into actors around the ski resort you were all staying in while filming that miniseries in Romania and launch into a scene they were in together because he was already off-book.
He scared all the actors. They’d be very careful coming out of their rooms.

Any stories like that with this film?
It was pretty much long days and everybody kinda fell back to their hotel rooms at night. So there wasn’t really a lot of off-set antics on this one. But I’ve known Mark for many years. I produced a film in the late ’90s that we costarred in with Julianna Margulies called Traveller. It’s a great little movie for your constituency. They’ll enjoy it. It was Mark’s fourth film, after he’d done Renaissance Man, The Basketball Diaries, and Fear. I had seen him in those films and knew he was gonna be a great star, and I said to the producer, “It’d be great if we could get Mark Wahlberg.” So Mark came in to meet me. He didn’t really want to read. I think he just wanted to come in and meet. I said, “That’s all right. I’ve already seen him in movies, I know he can act.” So I said to him, “Let’s just sit down and have a chat.” And I said, “Who’s your favorite actor?” And the first thing out of his mouth was, “James Cagney.” Which I thought was unusual for a guy of his generation. But he told me how he had a lot of memories of his dad, who I think was a teamster. He would come home and watch movies in the morning after maybe working all night, and Mark would watch these films with him. Cagney was a favorite of his dad’s. I was influenced by my dad. He took me to a lot of movies. I was just with Mark. We went up on Tuesday to have a charity screening for his Mark Wahlberg Youth Foundation. We were gonna go to a hotel near the event just to change and shower. And he said, “Ah, shoot, we’re runnin’ a little late. I was hopin’ to stop by my mom’s.” I said, “Well, why don’t we just go by your mom’s? We can just change there.” And he goes, “Is that okay?” I go, “Yeah, come on.” So we went by and saw his mom, Alma. I’ve known his family for many, many years. But Mark is a very loyal guy, and we’ve wanted to work together again, so I think when my name came up for this, he was just ready to say, “Oh yeah, get Paxton.”

And you just wrapped Million Dollar Arm?
I just finished that last Friday. That’s a vehicle for Jon Hamm. The guys that produced it produced Miracle, Invincible, and The Rookie. It’s a true story. Hamm plays a sports agent who went to India and started a reality show, which was a competition show to see if they could find some athletes who could be recruited and brought over here for a major league pitching tryout. So I play the coach Tom House, who’s a real coach, and a great guy, and a great teacher. Alan Arkin plays the old scout. Lake Bell is the love interest. And then there’s two actors, Suraj [Sharma] from Life of Pi, and Madhur [Mittal], who played Salim, the brother who dies tragically in Slumdog Millionaire.

You’re hoping to direct an adaptation of the graphic novel Seven Holes for Air and are awaiting Legendary East’s final go-ahead to helm a big screen reboot of the ’70s David Carradine TV series Kung Fu. But there’s long been talk of a Twister sequel. Is that still a thought floating around your head?
[Laughs] It’s been flying around my head a long time. People are like, “Oh yeah, he wants to get back on that money train.” But I always thought we left a lot on the table with the first one. I just thought there was more of a Jaws version of that movie, more classic Spielberg in that regard, where there’s a little more at stake and a little more tragic consequences. These twisters come through and they just devastate and create so much tragedy and catastrophe. If they ever did one, I’d probably be passing the torch to a daughter who’s 16 and she’s off storm chasing. But I went on a very interesting trip about five years ago, with Scott Thomson who played Preacher in Twister, an old friend of mine. We flew to St. Louis and rented a car and went down into the Ozarks of Missouri and we tracked the trail of the biggest tornado that ever hit this country that they know of, called the Tri-State of 1925. It was called the Tri-State because it cut through three states: It started in Missouri, crossed the Mississippi River, tore a path of destruction and death through southern Illinois, and then it went over the Wabash River and killed a bunch of people in Indiana. It was on the ground 3.5 hours. Almost 700 fatalities. Really gnarly stuff. We’re talking gothic horror here. That’s the sequel I’d like to see. But it’s tied up and everything else.

Next summer, we’ll definitely see you in Edge of Tomorrow, opposite Tom Cruise (who stars as a futuristic soldier caught in a time loop and fighting the same losing battle against alien invaders).
They put out an early trailer at Comic-Con, just to get people talking about it and let them know it’s coming. But to me, it doesn’t scratch the surface. That movie’s gonna be crazy wild. [Director] Doug Liman’s sensibility and Tom Cruise. This is a guy who comes prepared for work. He’s a great ringleader. He acknowledges everybody in the cast and crew. He’s a very power-of-positive-thinking kind of guy. God, he really pumped me up. He’d go, “I saw some dailies last night. You’re killing it, Paxton! You’re killing it!” I never go to dailies. “I’d say, ‘Tom, gosh, man, I’m gonna get a big head here.’ But we had a great time, and the movie is super original, and it has a great humor to it. They’ve changed the title from All You Need is Kill, which we were all partial to, but I guess from a marketing point of view, it’s a PG-13 movie. And, you know, Shakespeare said it, “A rose by any other name would smell as sweet.”


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