Love Letter to Texas

Texas Rising, starring Bill Paxton, premieres on Memorial Day

It’s been more than a year since we last spoke with film and television actor Bill Paxton. The interview with the Fort Worth native led to a feature called Texas Rising for the May 2014 issue. At that time, Paxton was preparing for what he says today is one of the most exciting things he’s ever done.

On Memorial Day, the long-awaited Texas Rising, a 10-hour event series will premiere on the History Channel. Episodes will air May 25 and 26, and June 1, 8 and 15. General Sam Houston, the rag-tag Texas Rangers, and the legendary “Yellow Rose of Texas,” lead the story of the Lone Star State’s fight for independence.

Paxton, who has starred in more than 50 films, including Twister, Titanic, True Lies and Apollo 13, in addition to award-winning television projects such as History’s Hatfields & McCoys, plays the starring role of Sam Houston in Texas Rising.

Two-time Oscar-nominated director Roland Joffé, best known for The Killing Fields and The Mission, directs the all-star cast including: Paxton, Brendan Fraser, Ray Liotta, Jeffrey Dean Morgan, Olivier Martinez, Thomas Jane, Christopher McDonald, Jeremy Davies, Chad Michael Murray, Max Thieriot, Robert Knepper, Rhys Coiro, Crispin Glover, Jeff Fahey, Rob Morrow, Cynthia Addai-Robinson, Trevor Donovan and Kris Kristofferson. Bill’s son, James Paxton, is set in a couple of scenes as an outlaw kid. 

Texas Rising is produced by A+E Studios, ITV Studios America and Thinkfactory Media for HISTORY. Leslie Greif (Hatfields & McCoys) serves as executive producer. Dirk Hoogstra and Julian P. Hobbs serve as executives in charge of production for HISTORY.

The program’s title song, “Take Me to Texas,” is performed by George Strait and written by Brandy Clark. The soundtrack includes Kristofferson’s remake of the Tom Petty classic “Won’t Back Down” and new tracks from Jose Feliciano. 

The series begins just after the fall of the Alamo and ends with the inauguration of Texas president, Sam Houston.

Paxton graciously answered questions and talked in general about the filming of Texas Rising in a lengthy and interesting interview. This is an abbreviated version. 

Q. Bill, thank you for this second interview. Can you describe what it was like filming in Durango, Mexico?

A. I really didn’t know what to expect in Mexico. I flew to Durango with my son, James, on May 15. There was a travel advisory, which turned out to be completely erroneous. When we got to the hotel about 9 o’clock that night, I was checking the doors and windows in my room. For the next five-and-a-half months that I spent there, I had one of the greatest film and cultural experiences in my life. I was worried about being able to stand up to the heat of the summer. As it turns out, Durango has a kind of microcosmic climate. It rains a lot and cools things off. We would not have been able to pull this off had we been in Texas. We shot predominantly in the daylight, so most of the picture is in natural light. About a week into the show, I was on horseback in front of a line of men, telling them what would happen if we got any deserters. I had to go up and down the line on a horse for several hours. It was hot. Suddenly, I couldn’t formulate a sentence. I thought I was having a stroke. They took me in the tent and put me on Sam Houston’s bed. I thought: Oh, my God, am I going to be able to do this? It never happened again.

It was like going back to old Hollywood. Here was Durango, Mexico, where John Wayne had shot many films, like the Sons of Katie Elder. This was where Sam Peckinpah made Billy the Kid.

So for me, it was really intriguing because I always thought I missed Hollywood by a few decades. This crew, the art department, and the wardrobe department were wonderful. Everything had to be from 1836. All the costumes and the uniforms were handmade.

When I showed up on my first day of filming at the top of a huge canyon, there was the Texas army camp of 1836. It was just magnificent. We had a scene where a lone rider rides in to tell us the tragic news that the Alamo is falling, and I got goosebumps in the scene. I am standing as Sam Houston on the edge of my tent looking across as this rider comes in, and I thought: Wow, this is probably what it felt like to get that news.

From that first week on, for the next five-and-a-half months, every set we showed up on was amazing. Another thing is these scenes were so massive, we shot widescreen, and they’re going to premiere the piece widescreen. It will be the first in television history. 

Q. Did you have any concerns about the production itself? 

A. One of my big hesitations about the production was the script. The document itself was over 400 pages. I’m thinking as I read it: Wait a minute. This says the charge of the Battle of San Jacinto, hundreds of men, cavalry, charging across the field toward Santa Anna’s camp. You jump into something like this, and you’re reading these beautiful big action scenes, but you’re wondering: Are they really going to pull this off—the props, the horses, the extras, the costumes? Well, let me tell you, boy, they brought this. They brought the Texas Revolution to life. This piece opens as the Alamo has just fallen. Santa Anna and his officers are riding into the garrison. And oh my God, that’s just an opening scene. This set is huge with the bodies, the wreckage, the fire strewn around. It takes off from there. Then, you meet Sam Houston. There I am with the Texas army and several hundred extras in canvas tents up on a big bluff.

I have to get to the man who really was the maestro of all of this, and that was the British director, Roland Joffé. He is one of the greatest filmmakers I’d ever worked with—one of the greatest artists and directors, but also a consummate gentleman. We were all eating out of his hand. Ultimately, I felt like he had Sam Houston’s integrity. 

Q. We learned in our last interview that you aren’t exactly an expert horseman and had a problem with a stallion when you were filming Hatfields & McCoys. How did you make that work in this film?

A. I had a little reservation about the horsemanship involved, that’s for sure. Houston went through three horses in the Battle of San Jacinto in about 20 minutes. They put us into a cowboy boot camp when we got there, and we were riding every morning. We had Mexican and American wranglers who were terrific. The horses were magnificent. I was hoping I wouldn’t be riding a stallion, but I’m playing Sam Houston, so I’m back on a stallion. Whereas most of the actors got to get used to one mount, I must have had eight different horses in the course of several months. I remember about two-thirds of the way into shooting, we were doing the Battle of San Jacinto. And I was leading this cavalry charge. Jeff Fahey is on horseback next to me. They had three different swords we would use: a rubber sword if we were actually fighting somebody, an aluminum sword that we could also use with some of the stunt guys. And then, there were the real swords—big, long swords. So I’m going to be in front of about 40 horses and several hundred men behind us. I said to Jeff: Are we really going to do this? He said: Well, it sure looks like it. God, I hear “Action!” from the megaphone, and we take off. We have our sabers pointed out. I used my left hand because Houston had limited mobility in his right arm. After it was over, I told Jeff that only the laundry men knew how scared I was.

Q. How did you get the part as Sam Houston?

A. Roland Joffé and I met months before, and he talked about the project. I said I’d give anything to play Sam Houston. I was born to play Sam Houston. He told me he’d be glad for me to play that part. At that point, Leslie Grief, the producer, was scrambling to put a cast together to get him the green light to go into production. So we really didn’t know if we were going into production until the end of March.

Q. Let’s backtrack to before Mexico and how you studied to play the role.

A. I went down to Huntsville. The mayor of Huntsville, Mac Woodward, is also the director of the Sam Houston Museum there. He and his wife were so hospitable to me and my son, James. They took us to the museum. Houston is buried nearby, but it also is where he had his final home. I got to go in the museum’s vault. I held a copy of the four Shakespearean plays, the little booklet that Houston kept in his saddlebag. I got to try the crutch—the one he used after he was wounded at the Battle of San Jacinto.

I started at the end of his life at the Steamboat House, where he died. From there, I had to go to New York to promote Texas Rising, where they trot the actors out and talk about upcoming shows for next year.

On the way back, I flew to Chattanooga, Tenn., and drove to the Hiwassee River. A guy meets me in a gas station in a big truck, takes me down to the river to a barge to Hiwassee Island. We’re walking on the land where Sam Houston had run away to live with the Cherokee Indians when he was about 18 years old. I’m trying to picture him there. Then I go to Maryville, Tenn. General Sam Houston was the son of Major Sam Houston and Elizabeth Paxton. I’m second cousin to Sam Houston, three times removed. I knew we were related but found out how we were related on this trip. When Major Houston died, Sam Houston’s mother moved the family to Maryville to farm and run a little store.

From Maryville, I went to Lexington, where Houston was born, so I was kind of reversing the trip he had made as a boy with his family. In Lexington, I looked up my cousins. That’s where I concluded the trip on researching Houston. I also read three biographies. But nothing prepared me for the physical challenges of the role—the horsemanship and sword fighting, and all of that.

I still can’t believe I played Sam Houston. He really is the spine of this piece. This is a guy that was besieged by all sides. Not only was he fighting an insurmountable foe, Santa Anna, with 5,000 combat veteran professional soldiers versus his not even 1,000 men, who were not even regular army. He’s trying to drill these men so that maybe he can get one battle out of them, which he was able to do. He realized that the only way he’s got any shot at all is if he picks the battlefield, the time and the place. He’s waiting to see if this Mexican general is going to make a mistake. Santa Anna did make a mistake when he decided to go with a partial army. The battle only lasted about 18 minutes and is one of the most important battles in American history in terms of its consequence and how it paved the way for Texas and for the United States to grow all the way to the Pacific. Houston knew once they routed the enemy, they couldn’t control the men. The battle was brief, but the killing went on into the night because there was so much pent-up rage because of the Alamo. It’s quite a story, but I have to tell you again that Roland Joffé was the general, with so many actors and crew members. If I was with another actor, there’d be five layers of background action going on. Most of the things they do nowadays, they add digital stuff in the background. It’s just not as organic as this looks. We had a brilliant cinematographer, Arthur Reinhart, who I also had worked for in Romania. He shot Hatfields & McCoys. It was great to team up with him and his camera operator, Casper.

I have to credit Leslie Greif, who put this whole thing together with a lot of other great people. It was his dogged determination and never-say-die attitude that not only got the circus down to Durango but kept the circus going the whole time. We were fighting a lot of elements down there.

This was one of the most exciting things I’ve ever done. It wasn’t just making this incredible epic in Mexico, but also that it was a period piece. It’s a Western war movie. Everything was on such a big scale. And then to be playing this man who was an epic human being on so many levels. This was a man who had true insight into human nature and human weakness. Houston said at the end of his life that no red man ever went against his word to him, but his own people had done so all his life. He had two sides: the side where he liked to hang out with the Texas Rangers, who really were Houston’s scouts and his elite guards. On the other side, he loved to have someone read Shakespeare to him.

Q. Is there anything else you’d like our readers to know about Texas Rising?

A. At the end of the day, this is historical fiction. They’ve got me in a love triangle with the Yellow Rose of Texas and Santa Anna. But at the same time, it’s all rooted in actual events. I’m hoping that the integrity of the man I portray as Sam Houston comes through in the piece.

When we think of the John Wayne Alamo, it almost feels like the Anglos versus the Mexicans. Historically speaking, a lot of the Tejanos were Mexicans. When Santa Anna threw out the Mexican constitution and declared himself dictator, there was an uprising where he slaughtered a lot of Mexican people.

Houston was not fighting for Texas to become part of the United States. He was fighting for Texas to be Texas. This wasn’t Anglos fighting Mexicans. There are a lot of Hispanics and Texans fighting side-by-side in this piece. I hope this comes across.

I’d like to say a little bit about the actors.

The role of Deaf Smith, who is considered to be the first Texas Ranger, is played by Jeffrey Dean Morgan. “He does a good job as Deaf,” Paxton says. “He lost about 30 pounds to play the part. Through the whole piece, he’s dying of consumption.”

Olivier Martinez plays President Gen. Santa Anna, the tyrant dictator of Mexico. “He was magnificent,” Paxton says. “He has the strut of a peacock and a real machismo attitude about war.”

Cynthia Addai-Robinson portrays Emily West, the Yellow Rose of Texas. She does a terrific job, even though the character is an amalgamation and mostly fictional. She really brings a great light and depth and drama to the piece. She’s the lady that has the eye of both generals.

Ray Liotta is set as Lorca, a character that’s a product of fiction. An Alamo survivor, he symbolizes the soul of the Texas spirit during the war. He’s the guy who has lost everything, including his family, and he just lives to fight and kill. His is a redemption story. To Roland Joffé, he symbolizes what happens to men in war, where he loses his humanity.

Brendan Fraser depicts Billy Anderson, a Texas Ranger with Comanche Indian ties. He’s the product of an Indian mother and a white father, and he has an interesting story through the course of the piece. He’s one of the original Texas Rangers.

Jeff Fahey and I go way back. We did a movie together several years ago. He’s a great actor and great guy. He plays Thomas Rusk, the Texas Secretary of War.

And, Kris Kristofferson does a great job of portraying President Andrew Jackson. 

I haven’t seen it cut together, but I hear they are very excited about it. It became so much bigger than the script and went from eight hours to 10.

Sam Houston came to Texas to resurrect himself. To me, it’s a redemption story of a man who had everything, including a fast-track to the White House, and lost everything. He’s not a Texan. He’s a Virginian-Tennessean, and he’s willing to die for a cause that he’s leading. Sam Houston is by far the most fascinating man I have ever studied. Obviously, he is an extremely beloved Texas figure, but really, he should be a beloved national figure. I’m very proud to be playing this role.