Old-school Beverly Hills restaurant The Grill is the go-to establishment for A-list actors and showbiz executives looking to celebrate their most recent successes. And sure enough, when Bill Paxton slides into his booth for dinner just 10 days after the premiere of his buzzworthy HBO series Big Love, our waiter immediately offers a kind word...about a movie Paxton did in 1985. ''I just watched Weird Science again on TV last night,'' he says. ''You were so hysterical in that one.''
No, Paxton doesn't grab the guy by the throat and call him a ''buttwad'' as his bullying Science scene-stealer, Chet, would have. But the thought may have crossed his mind. ''When something becomes a cultural touchstone for people, you have to embrace it,'' Paxton says with a sigh. ''But to be constantly reminded of something you did 20 years ago, it can be a bit...daunting.'' Now, after his winning, edgy, and, yes, sexy work in Big Love in which Paxton plays a Utah business owner who has three wives Chet may finally start to fade into the background. At age 50, the veteran of more than 40 feature films has become a leading man at last.
It's a satisfying progression for a guy who started as a set dresser on '70s B movies and whose first above-the-line credit was as the director of the 1980 budget-free music video ''Fish Heads.'' As an actor, Paxton led off with a few bizarro supporting turns (Weird Science, Aliens), graduated to indie-fave leads (One False Move), and eventually costarred in some big-time blockbusters (Apollo 13, Twister). Through the '90s, however, he found himself constantly mistaken for Independence Day star Bill Pullman. Even more frustrating for the folksy but ambitious actor: a career that never allowed for any big love on screen. That all changed with his HBO alter ego, Bill Henrickson. ''Here was a role that I hadn't seen coming down the pike in the feature world,'' Paxton says. ''It was the ultimate romance, and I have always been denied those parts.''
Paxton, who has recently been splitting his time among acting, directing, and producing, has carved a niche as one of Hollywood's most dependable hyphenate workhorses. As a director, he has two films to his credit, and he's currently exec-producing and costarring in the Nebraska-set ensemble drama The Good Life. According to James Cameron, who's directed Paxton in The Terminator, Aliens, True Lies, Titanic, and the 2003 documentary Ghosts of the Abyss, ''there's nothing Jack Nicholson has done in his career that Bill Paxton couldn't have done along the way. And I think Hollywood is just sort of catching up with him.'' Likewise, Paxton has grown more confident in his own abilities. ''For years, I needed validation. Or thought I needed it,'' says the actor, who lives in Ojai, Calif., with his wife, Louise, their 12-year-old son, and their 8-year-old daughter. ''Now it's like, I don't need the approval. And I feel like I'm ready to do some of my best work because I'm not a slave to it anymore. When I met with the [Big Love] creators I didn't have that stink of desperation on myself. I'm coming into a strange, brave new world.''