TERRY GROSS, host:
This is Fresh Air. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, Bill Paxton, is the star of the HBO series, "Big Love." He plays Bill Henrickson, a polygamous man trying to keep up with three wives, eight children, three homes, and his small chain of home improvement stores. Henrickson grew up on a compound of people who practice polygamy and believe they're the true followers of Joseph Smith, the founder of the Mormon faith. Although he broke away from the compound, he still practices polygamy, but he's trying to keep a low profile and live in a suburb of Salt Lake City.
In season three, which started a couple of weeks ago, some of the neighbors have discovered he's polygamous and that one of his wives is a daughter of the leader of the polygamist compound, the man who considers himself to be the living prophet and is facing trial for having sexual relations with underaged girls who live on the compound.
In the first episode of this season, the Henrickson family was debating whether they should go to their neighborhood block party and risk confrontations with neighbors opposed to their lifestyle. In this scene, the wives have been arguing about what to do; then Bill intercedes.
(Soundbite of TV show "Big Love")
Mr. BILL PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) That's enough. We're not fighting about this. We've all become too casual - the conversation and coming and going from the houses, borrowing cars - it's a wake-up call to become more vigilant. We'll just sit out this block party and be done with it.
Ms. GINNIFER GOODWIN: (As Margene Heffman) But I want to go. We can't just become prisoners because of this.
Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Honey, this is just a tough time.
Ms. GOODWIN: (As Margene Heffman) What about the children?
Ms. AMANDA SEYFRIED: (As Sarah Henrickson) What, do you want them to be stared at like freaks who'd be better off if they were placed in foster homes? I mean, our way of life is under attack. Don't you watch the news?
Ms. GOODWIN: (As Margene Heffman) But that's got nothing to do with us, and as soon as they get to know us, they'll know that's not us. And we had such a good time last year.
Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Margie, last year's not this year.
Ms. GOODWIN: (As Margene Heffman) Well, I don't care if they think that Nicky is a polygamist or we're all polygamists. The kids have been looking forward to it.
Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) Honey, just drop it, OK? Come on, let's eat.
GROSS: Bill Paxton, welcome back to Fresh Air. Now, I have a confession...
Mr. PAXTON: Thanks for having me.
GROSS: I have a confession I have to make. When "Big Love" first started, I tuned into the first episode and I thought, this is silly, a show about polygamy, and I stopped watching it. Then in season two, I started watching it and I thought, this is a great show about the family, problems in the family, about religion, and it's problems in the family magnified by three because there's three families that your character has and three homes. And then I went back to season one and watched all of that, and now I'm watching season three, so I've become a really big fan of the show.
I'm wondering what your first impressions were when you read whatever you were given to read to see if you wanted to be in it.
Mr. PAXTON: Well, I got a call from my agent, and he mentioned that there was a pilot and it had to do with the subject of polygamy. And my initial reaction was, you know, I've played a lot of rural characters, and I consider myself kind of a regionalist in many ways, particularly in films like "Frailty" and "A Simple Plan."
But I guess my preconceived image that came to my mind was something way outside beyond the city limits on some hard-scrabble piece of land with, you know, surrounded by barbed wire and, you know, some kind of religious kind of zealotry going on, some intense patriarchal situation where the women were kind of barefooted and there are a lot of chickens walking around.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PAXTON: And I thought, oh, man, because I - I guess for me, I - like everyone, you know, there's kind of an image of polygamy as kind of an oppressive culture in modern times. And I - and then my agent says, well, just read it. And before I got to the last page, it was - I was on the phone to my agent, how can we make this work? It was so much more than I - than my, you know, preconception of it.
GROSS: What's your understanding of why your character, Bill Henrickson, believes in multiple marriage?
Mr. PAXTON: Oh, well, that's very easy. You see, my character believes in an elevated system that goes beyond this mortal realm. He is a godly man who believes in the principle of plural marriage, the idea that it is his purpose in life to have as big a family, to bring into this world, into this mortal world as many souls as possible for - and it's all for the afterlife. And then, in his belief system, this life is just a shadow of the eternal life that we're all striving for. So it's kind of a funny thing because he's really created a situation for himself. He's taken on a difficult and not a comfortable life, but it's for the purpose of a higher purpose.
GROSS: Yeah, and because the family, he believes, will all be together and better serve God in the afterlife if they're large...
Mr. PAXTON: That's right.
GROSS: If there's more children and more wives. At the same time, your character does have a healthy sexual appetite and three wives to help him satisfy it, although sometimes that's really too much because he's so tired and exhausted.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: But how much do you think is his plural marriage about a spiritual reason to have multiple partners?
Mr. PAXTON: Well, I think it has a lot to do with it. I think, though, certainly, he is a man. He is a man of the flesh, and like any man, he has perhaps proclivities or desires that compromise his ideal, but still the ideal is there. You got to understand, these people live with a purpose. They have this purpose that it is a higher calling, and you got to also understand, it's not the easiest life. It's almost not a consummation devoutly to be wished for to have all these wives and to have everything that goes with that.
GROSS: Well, he has, like, three suburban homes to keep up.
Mr. PAXTON: Yes.
GROSS: Three houses with appliances that have to be purchased, and so many kids...
Mr. PAXTON: And the physical demands, they've got him using Viagra, and the emotional demands. I sometimes think he, in his mind, when he's in an idle moment, he pictures himself maybe on a lake fishing by himself. And he's just looking for that kind of serenity. But again, he has chosen a life that is a tough life. But also, there are the temptations that any man has, and it's obviously an easy thing to take advantage of and perhaps abuse. And he is a sexual guy, that's for sure.I think he's a real bumble...
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PAXTON: Let's face it, he's a bumblebee.
GROSS: So what does it take for you to be - to get into your character's mind, somebody who believes in plural marriage, who believes that Mormons kind of abandoned the true faith, which includes polygamy when they made polygamy illegal?
Mr. PAXTON: Yes. That was - been the 1890s or 18 - either 1890 or 1893 when Utah was granted statehood. Yeah, the - polygamy, the idea of polygamy was abolished. That's a theme that runs through the plot in this season. There's kind of a whole "Maltese Falcon" plot where everyone's trying to find this letter that was written back at that time that really would kind of legitimize polygamy in terms of the idea that the church maybe never really truly intended to give up celestial or plural marriage.
Personally, I don't - you know, I don't play my characters with any judgment. I don't think it's possible to play any character with judgment. You know, I rarely talk objectively about "Big Love" or the character I play because, you know, I'm hired to be a subjective character, and that's really where most of my thinking goes, into the part. So I don't have - there's not a conflict in my heart about playing this guy.
GROSS: Well, you found what's really decent about him. I mean, he's - in a lot of ways, he's just a really good, hard-working, decent family man who...
Mr. PAXTON: He certainly is.
GROSS: The majority of us would think was very delusional about plural marriage and what the afterlife and what eternity actually is. But he's, you know, underneath it all, he's a really decent man.
Mr. PAXTON: And I also believe his beliefs are as valid as anyone else's beliefs in terms of his spirituality. But he is, I think, he is trying to be a decent man.
GROSS: Right. And sometimes failing, like all of us.
Mr. PAXTON: Exactly. Oh, yeah.
GROSS: Now, in between season two and season three of "Big Love," there was a lot of news coming from the world of polygamy. There was the Warren Jeffs trial...
Mr. PAXTON: Oh, yeah.
GROSS: And this was the prophet of the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints who was tried and sentenced for marrying underaged girls. He had been on the FBI's 10 Most Wanted list, and now he's serving, I think, 10 years to life in prison. And last year a group of FLDS, Fundamentalist Latter Day Saints in Texas were raided by Texas authorities, and the children were taken away from their underage mothers.
Mr. PAXTON: Four hundred and sixty-five children, yes, that's right.
GROSS: And that's had a direct effect on the story lines this season. Those stories are being echoed in fictionalized versions of them.
Mr. PAXTON: Well, it's strange. I sometimes think that the creators of the show must have a crystal ball in their office because on both of these stories, we were kind of ahead of the curve. We had already shot stories that kind of reflected these in our shows before these events actually happened. So it's kind of art imitating life, life imitating art. It's a peculiar coincidence, I must say.
It's interesting, though. Had "Big Love" not been out there and in the public mind, I wonder, I feel like we've kind of been able to help kind of give a human face and maybe create a little more compassion to these people who had their children taken away last year. I think when we see these people and we see them in these prairie dresses and we see them in these kind of period hairstyles, they look like they're living in another era, I think it's hard for modern Americans to kind of - to look at them with much sympathy or empathy, even, or compassion, and in a way, I think the show has put a human face on these people, and I think vice versa.
So I think it's been a bit symbiotic. I think it certainly hasn't hurt the show in terms of publicity, and perhaps it hasn't hurt their situation either, in terms of understanding, I should say.
GROSS: My guest is Bill Paxton. He stars in the HBO series, "Big Love." His movies include "One False Move," "A Simple Plan," "Twister" and "Apollo 13." We'll talk more after a break. This is Fresh Air.
(Soundbite of music)
GROSS: My guest is Bill Paxton, and he stars in "Big Love," the HBO series about a polygamous family. And he plays the part of Bill Henrickson, who has three wives.
Mr. PAXTON: Working on a fourth.
GROSS: Working on a fourth, exactly.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. PAXTON: Perhaps a fourth, if the Viagra holds out.
(Soundbite of laughter)
GROSS: So this season, your character is trying to start a Mormon-friendly casino across state lines. He needs to get across state lines for certain business reasons.
Mr. PAXTON: Yes.
GROSS: He wants to partner with an Indian tribe since the Indian tribes run casinos on their reservations.
Mr. PAXTON: American Indian, yes.
GROSS: So, I want to play another scene. In this scene, you're negotiating with the Native American partner you're hoping to have, who's played by Robert Beltran. And he's skeptical that you're going to be a good business partner, and he's also kind of put off by the whole, you know, plural marriage idea.
Mr. PAXTON: And also the history of the religion, yeah, absolutely.
GROSS: So you're trying to convince him that you both have a lot in common. So here's the scene with my guest Bill Paxton and Robert Beltran from "Big Love."
(Soundbite of TV show "Big Love")
Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson) We have too much in common to let this fall apart.
Mr. ROBERT BELTRAN: (As Jerry Flute) What do you think we have in common, Bill?
Mr. PAXTON: (As Bill Henrickson): Your people were forced onto reservations. In a way, my people were too. We're both trying to improve the lot of those we love and maintain a sacred life in the midst of a culture that's forgotten what's holy. It's an unlikely partnership, yours and mine. We both have a shared history together that needs mending. Let's mend and prosper at the same time. Look, I'm not Vegas. I'm not glitzy. I'm just a regular guy trying to support my family.
GROSS: That was a scene from "Big Love" with my guest Bill Paxton and Robert Beltran. I think that's a very interesting scene because it says so much about how the character of Bill Henrickson sees himself and also what a smooth talker he is.
Mr. PAXTON: He's also - Bill is a risk taker, you've got to remember that.
GROSS: Right, that's right.
Mr. PAXTON: He's, you know, whereas - see, Barbara's gotten - she's accepted the life of plural marriage, I think, and she certainly is a believer in it, but she doesn't want to stick her tentacle out and get it chopped off. My partner Don, my business partner, he's a very conservative polygamist who wants to kind of keep, you know, kind of live a very quiet life. Bill is pushing the envelope. He's trying to get out into society with this stuff, but he's also doing it, again, for the purpose of, you know, trying to create a security, a financial security for his family and a safety net.
He's worried that Henrickson Home Plus, because it has a very public face and he's part of the face of that company with his name on it, it could go at any time. You know, we see how the Henricksons are constantly under threat of exposure. He goes to Jerry, this American Indian. He says, hey, we're a lot alike, like you just played in the scene, and there's a lot of truth in that. He's a good talker, but he's a good salesman. And that's a part of the character I love playing. I come from a long line of salesmen.
GROSS: Oh, really?
Mr. PAXTON: My dad was a drummer. He worked for his father. My dad started selling hardwood flooring for his dad when he was 16 years old in the Midwest out of Kansas City. I grew up in Fort Worth because there was a branch of the Frank Paxton Lumber Company there that my dad worked for his whole life, and I really like the idea of - I feel like I was the son of three who was kind of raised to go into the family business. There are hardwood wholesalers in the Midwest. So there's a part of me that is finally getting to kind of carry out a role that I was really kind of groomed for as a boy. So Bill Henrickson of Henrickson Home Plus.
GROSS: Home Plus is a home improvement store, kind of a Big Box store that you founded...
Mr. PAXTON: Yeah, like Home Depot, absolutely.
GROSS: So are there principles of selling that you learned from your family that you are now applying as Bill Henrickson on "Big Love?"
Mr. PAXTON: I think yes. Absolutely. Well, look, I've been an actor most of my life, my adult life, and you certainly have to know how to sell yourself to get on in this profession. So I think it's just stuff I learned. But it's not a phony thing. It's - you know, my dad sold a good product. These hardwoods were used to make everything from musical instruments to beautiful furniture and every use in between.
So you know, he had an integrity about the product he was selling, and he was just good at it. He was a people person, and I certainly picked that up from him. He genuinely likes to meet people and go out. He's a social animal, and certainly, I think these are the key traits that I just have from growing up. And you know, he's the man from whom all others I kind of judged myself and others from. I'm very close to my father, and I think I even spoke about him in my last interview with you.
GROSS: You did, actually.
Mr. PAXTON: And he's just one of those guys who is - and I'm very much like that, and I think that is really the key thing that has helped me in my portrayal on "Big Love."
GROSS: What's the typical shooting day or shooting week like for you on "Big Love"? When do you get the script? How much rehearsal do you get before you actually shoot?
Mr. PAXTON: My typical day on "Big Love" is Monday mornings I get there - oh, I usually have about a 6 or 6:30 a.m. call, which means I leave my house about 5 or 5:30. Takes me about an hour to drive, and sometimes that's the last I see of my house until Friday night around midnight or one o'clock in the morning on Saturday.
I live a kind of monastic existence. I usually stay at a hotel. We shoot out in a little town called Santa Clarita, that's where our stages are, and then we'll go out on the road to locations around there. But gosh, from Monday on, I work a lot on the show. I'm in every day. I rarely have a day off. We shoot about 12 days per episode.
GROSS: Wow, that's a lot.
Mr. PAXTON: So every night I have five or six pages I have to learn. And so for me, I don't know if my memory is starting to fail me, but I have to really get it down cold the night before.
GROSS: That's a lot to memorize, several pages every night. How do you do it? What's your technique for remembering lines?
Mr. PAXTON: Well, my technique is kind of like the errant school boy who has to stay after school and write "I will not talk in class" on the blackboard. I write it over and over again. I find, you know, I understand the character I'm playing, but this dialogue is very well-written. It's very crisp. I feel like they've elevated the language in some ways. Bill prides himself on being articulate, so you want to get these things down.
I feel like the writing is so good, and again, the better I have it down, the more I can really let it go and really roll with it. You've got to remember, a lot of the actors who are coming in in the supporting roles, they might work two or three days an episode. These are fresh horses who are coming in, and they're ready to hit the racetrack, and you want to - it's not a competition, but you want to be able to really get these scenes smokin'.
GROSS: So when you're writing lines over and over to get them embedded in your memory, are you handwriting it or writing it on computer?
Mr. PAXTON: Oh, handwriting it. It would take me forever hunting and pecking there.
GROSS: So, one last question. Do you actually watch "Big Love" Sunday nights when it comes on?
Mr. PAXTON: I do. I don't watch it ahead of time. I also - I'm also kind of one of these guys who - you know, we see little snippets when we go in to do our ADR or what's know as Additional Dialogue Replacement or dubbing, but it's always on a horrible projection system, and I try not to really look at it. I like to wait until it's polished up and see a complete thing. Also, there's something fun about watching it knowing that it's going out across the airwaves at the same time, and there's a catharsis that I've always enjoyed about that.
And I guess that is because I grew up watching "Bonanza" every Sunday night with the rest of the country, or watching Ed Sullivan. I still am kind of a boomer that kind of relates to TV that way. I don't use a TiVo. I don't record, pre-record things. Yeah, I think it's kind of fun.
So I'm looking forward to the third episode this weekend, and I know it's going to be a good one. Ellen Burstyn's coming back into the fold as Jeanne Tripplehorn's mother, and there's going to be a lot of fireworks.
GROSS: Bill Paxton, a pleasure to talk with you again. Thank you so much.
Mr. PAXTON: Thank you, Terry. My pleasure.
GROSS: Bill Paxton stars in the HBO series, "Big Love." The third episode of season three will be shown this Sunday. I'm Terry Gross, and this is Fresh Air.
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