History’s miniseries Hatfields & McCoys, starring Kevin Costner and Bill Paxton as the patriarchs at the center of America’s most famous family feud, hits Blu-ray and DVD on July 31 — with 16 Emmy nominations in tow. “That thing just keeps on going,” says Paxton, who earned his first nod. “And now they’ve got Kevin and I competing with these other great actors for the male lead in a miniseries or made-for-TV movie. I texted him, ‘The feud is back on.’ He texted back, ‘Stop it! Stop it!’ I would always get him laughing, and he’d always go, ‘Stop it! Stop it!’”
Paxton credits Costner for convincing him to take the part. “I had a little reservation because I was asked to play another patriarchal figure who was very religiously convicted, and I felt like I had been doing that on Big Love, and I remember calling Kevin. I was on vacation visiting my son, who was working at Martha’s Vineyard, and he was on the road somewhere, and we talked for 20 minutes. Now, I feel like I know him like a brother. But I never really spent more than 10 minutes with him before this. He goes, ‘Oh man, it’s old testament. We’re gonna be gettin’ to wear beards. It’s Civil War stuff.’ That really appealed to me. My great great grandfather on my paternal side died in Chancellorsville as a general under Stonewall Jackson. So it was a chance to go back and explore that part of my heritage,” Paxton says.
Though Paxton spent a couple of days in Eastern Kentucky and West Virginia soaking up the accent and sights where the real feud took place, the miniseries was actually shot in Romania. “Transylvania was certainly an exotic location to be shooting Hatfields & McCoys in,” Paxton says, reenacting the Romanian film commands. “It’s tough to be away from home, but one great thing about location is it usually does bond the cast and the crew.” They stayed in a ski resort, where the big exteriors were shot. “A funny thing about it was Kevin was completely off book. And every time he’d run into an actor in the hallway or at the bar or something, he’d just go into a scene they were in together. And god, he’d put this person on the spot,” Paxton says, chuckling again. “I knew a few actors who started, like, if they saw him coming, they’d duck out of sight.”
Costner didn’t make Paxton nervous, but the horses did. “The horses were quite spirited. They were all studs, which was kind of unusual. American cowboys mostly don’t ride studs because by their very nature, they can be ornery and feisty and everything else. So I would gird myself up like a gladiator before I got on one of those horses. Under my outfit, I might have knee pads, elbow pads, a back brace. My ankles would be wrapped. I was prepared to go off the horse, and if I did go off, I wanted to be able to stand up again,” he says. “I had some very close calls, and early on, I had myself doubled in the wide shots because I thought, I’m not gonna make it through a 73-day shoot if I get hurt.”
The black powder weapons also made things interesting on set. “I had one of the weapons go off in my face, but it was kinda my own fault,” Paxton says. “I had to hit this guy with my rifle butt, and then pull my pistol out of my waistband and as I’m pulling it out, I’m cocking it back and then firing it in to this guy on the ground. But as I was pulling the pistol up past my face to get the long barrel out of my waistband, my thumb slipped and the weapon discharged, not pointed at my face but near my face. At one pont, the extra on the ground, this Romanian stunt guy, said, ‘Hey, you mind not pointing that at my head when you shoot me even though it’s a blank.’ I was like, ‘Oh god, sorry.’”
With an international cast and crew, there were always laughs. “I remember doing the scene with the little girl, who’s playing my daughter Roseanna, when I give her the button, and then all the sudden out of this girl’s mouth came, ‘It’s purty. Why you buy this for me?’ I looked up at the makeup guy, Mario [Michisanti], and I said I suddenly felt like I was doing a scene from The Exorcist. When the young priest’s mother’s dying, and he keeps seeing her in the subway and different places, and she’s going, ‘Dimmy, why you do this to me? Dimmy.’ That became a running joke. Mario got an Emmy nomination, too. I got a text from him, and I said, ‘”Why you do this to me, Dimmy?’”
After playing a good guy (or as good a guy as you can get in that feud), Paxton — who hopes to head back behind-the-camera to direct a big screen reboot of the ’70s David Carradine TV series Kung Fu next year — is changing it up. He plays a villain in next year’s post-apocalyptic Ice Age sci-fi drama The Colony with Laurence Fishburne and Kevin Zegers. And he’s currently shooting the film 2 Guns with Mark Wahlberg and Denzel Washington. “I’m getting to play one of the baddies in that, and it’s the most fun I’ve had in a long time. My character may or may not work for the CIA, and his job is to track down this large amount of money that’s been stolen from a savings and loan on the border of Texas and Mexico. It may be drug money or CIA money. He shows up in the aftermath to question different people, and he has a very unique interrogation style,” Paxton says. “I’m putting a little Tennessee Williams into it…. I got a little burned out playing the straight guy. I came up as a character actor. People remember me from True Lies, Aliens, and Weird Science, things like that. This is a chance to get back in to some of that stuff. It’s the luck of the draw to get a role that you can really have some fun with and that calls for a little theatricality. I guess Bryan Cranston can’t do every great supporting role. He’s a great actor. I’m glad he was too busy to take this one on.”