It’s one thing to have a romantic moment interrupted, but it’s quite another to have it interrupted by a triple murder.
That’s exactly what happens in Sunday’s series premiere of USA’s Eyewitness. The show follows teen boys Lukas and Philip (played by James Paxton and Tyler Young) as they deal with not only having witnessed a murder and survived, but also being unable to go to the police because one of them doesn’t want to come out as gay.
“[Lukas] doesn’t even acknowledge that being gay is a possibility. It’s his first time kissing and being intimate with a boy at all. It scares him a lot,” Paxton says. “He doesn’t realize that secrets of this magnitude can have some dangerous repercussions that affect everybody else in town.”
EW chatted with Paxton, who recently appeared with his father Bill Paxton in the miniseries Texas Rising, ahead of Sunday’s debut of Eyewitness:
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: How is witnessing this crime affecting Lukas? Is he feeling guilt, or is this something he’s trying not to think about it at all?
JAMES PAXTON: There’s a crazy parallel in Lukas’ psyche. The one time he lets his guard down and gives in to this primal feeling that he has of attraction to this other boy, a half hour later, they witness three people getting murdered. It’s like Adam and Eve biting the apple and sinning and then being punished for it and being thrown into this tumultuous nightmare. He’s wrestling with, in his own mind, the consequences of his own sin.
What is it about Philip that attracts Lukas?
Lukas was born and raised in a small town. He works on a farm with his dad, [so] Motocross is his ticket out of town, and that’s why he focuses on it. He doesn’t know that being gay is not this cross to bear. Philip comes from the city, and he has a more cultured perspective and is more open and comfortable. He keeps trying to convince Lukas, you don’t need to feel this way about yourself. I think what attracts him, besides the fact that Lukas thinks he’s drop-dead gorgeous, is that he kind of represents other possibilities.
They sound quite different. Are Lukas and Philip able to find any common ground beyond this initial attraction?
They’re forced to get to know each other. They only really have each other to deal with the aftermath of these murders, and so they actually become very deeply connected, because they share such a similar struggle. And that attraction stays true the whole way through. They get to know each other more and more as the story goes along.
When we first meet Lukas, he’s quite violent toward Philip. How did you feel about that?
I wanted the audience to hate Lukas for a little while. When something scares you so deeply that you’re so vulnerable, the first reaction is to be physical and push back or be violent. It’s just an outward projection. It’s not the right way to deal with things, and I’m not advocating that. I just felt like it was a natural thing that Lukas would do. He’s not emotionally tough like Philip, but physically stronger, just through his world and training. He tries to exert his dominance over him, to pipe him down. That’s why I made a choice to play him that way.
Does Lukas redeem himself eventually?
By around Episode 6, Lukas breaks your heart, and it’s all forgiven. He really makes it up to Philip in a big way. He sacrifices something huge of his own for [him]. That’s all I’m going to say.
After working with your dad on Texas Rising, how was it not having him there?
Well, we didn’t really get to work together on Texas Rising. He was in [it], but our storylines didn’t coincide at all. He wouldn’t show up on set when I was shooting [because] he was like, “That’s your thing. You don’t need my added pressure.” He was really cool. I was there shooting a behind-the-scenes video for a making-of, so I was around him on set a lot. I was just picking up all I could from him, because he was such a leader on set. He keeps that morale with the crew and cast. I just shot a guest star role on his show, Training Day, that he’s shooting right now. The executive producers approached him about bringing me into the show, because there’s a cool parallel and in this episode we just did [where] my character reminds his character of what he used to be like as a boy. They went, “This is perfect to play it. You’re really family.” I jumped at the possibility, because I’ve always wanted to work with him, and we don’t get to work together and share scenes. I did a scene with him yesterday, and it was one of the proudest moments I’ve had.
Do you guys talk about doing film vs. television? Does he give you advice about that?
Yeah. But it’s different, because there’s been a whole shift. It’s kind of the golden age of TV now, where you have well-respected feature film actors taking roles on shows. Back when he was coming up, TV wasn’t as well respected as feature films were. His agents asked him if he wants to go out for TV or film. And he said, “Film.” And they said, “You’re going to be out of work for a long time. But I think in the long run, if you can track that, it would be better for your career.” So he said, “Okay. Cool.” He struggled through that and came up as a feature actor. But now, in the last 10 years, [he] has done some amazing TV jobs, like Big Love. I’ve just been so excited if it’s been a good story. I don’t care what format it comes in—a feature or a show or a miniseries. I just want to be a part of it. Now the playing field is so cool. There are so many more opportunities for actors, because there’s so much great TV and film.
How did he react when you landed this role?
I think he had this big sigh of relief because he never discouraged me from the business, but kind of warned me and said, “You know, you might want to reconsider. It’s a hard, hard life and a hard business to crack.” He always knew I could do it. But he couldn’t believe it at first. He was so over the moon. It was such a great feeling, I almost cried. I hate to get emotional, but it was almost my way of telling him, “I could do this. You don’t have to worry about me. I can do this on my own.”
Eyewitness premieres Sunday, Oct. 16 at 10 p.m. ET on USA.