Interview: 'Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.' co-star Bill Paxton on the finale and feeling The Universe
I mean... He's Bill Paxton. It's not that Bill Paxton is constantly playing evil characters or anything, but if you bring in an actor with Paxton's pedigree -- Four Golden Globe nominations, an Emmy nod and the credibility that comes from "Aliens," "Near Dark," etc -- you're not bringing him in to play the boring straight-arrow authority figure. So it was almost a relief when Garrett turned sneering villain and then it was genuinely interesting when, in last week's episode, the frequently rushed "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." took the time to do a flashback-heavy episode explained both Garrett's Hydra-loving origins and the conditions that might also have turned Brett Dalton's Ward.
When last we saw Garrett, we had discovered his Deathlok-y past -- so many reveals for one character -- and he was being injected with the potentially miraculous GH-325. The serum led to him announcing he'd seen The Universe.
But what the heck does that mean?
Presumably we're going to find out in this week's "Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." finale.
Last week, I got on the phone with Paxton and we discussed what it means for an actor to play "seeing The Universe" and the pleasures of getting to play a secret-keeping character and then go full-baddie.
Wait. Sorry. As with nearly every actor who plays a nefarious character, Paxton doesn't think Garrett is a villain.
Will the season finale back him up?
Click through for the Q&A and watch the finale on Tuesday night on ABC.
HitFix: So when we last saw Garrett he had been injected with the glowy stuff and he was seeing The Universe. What can you tease about how much butt he is gonna be able to kick in the finale given what just happened to him?
Bill Paxton: Well he has been energized and enlightened and he’s more bent on destroying S.H.I.E.L.D. than ever. But he’s got even a further kind of endgame he’s starting to go for now because he’s had a glimpse a little farther down the road than most in the human experience have experienced.
HitFix: Well now when you see in the script that he’s having that experience and he’s seeing The Universe. Do you know how to play that immediately?
Bill Paxton: I remember when we were shooting and I just kinda thought, "You’ve got to kind of just throw yourself into this thing." And I said, “Do you mind keeping the camera rolling” -- Because it’s all digital now, we’re not really burning film -- "And just let me kind of find it and let me see where it leads me." I’ve kind of played it intuitively, it’s too hard to anticipate because you’re saying, "You’re seeing the universe. And what does that mean? I just think to me it’s more like if you had an experience and a real enlightenment. It’s really just a whole physical and emotional and mental emancipation. It’s almost just kind of like it’s almost too overwhelming to take in. It could be upsetting. You could laugh. You could cry. So I just kind of tried to kind of play a gamut of things and sometimes it’s just fun to see what’ll happen between action and cut. And I remember having kind of a moment -- I don’t know which take they used, I didn’t see the episode -- but I just remember just kind of having one take where I really got emotional and, God, I felt myself, you know, almost like I was, I don’t know. I was weeping I was so overcome by what I had seen.
HitFix: Well the take that they showed definitely made it look as if it was a positive experience. Like you say, some people could see the universe and it could be negative for them. It appeared that for this guy it was positive I would say.
Bill Paxton: Yeah. It’s kind of a true Eureka moment.
HitFix: Now this is a character who has had basically one kinda reveal after another this season. He’s evil, he’s The Clairvoyant, he’s Hydra, he’s Deathlok. When you signed on for the part in the first place how much did you actually know?
Bill Paxton: I knew he was Hydra. And I knew he’d come back, but I didn’t know what those real reasons were. And I liked the way they developed the story and so much that you really find out in the episode that just aired. You know, that he felt betrayed by the very agency that he had completely believed in and that it had kind of taken him over to the other side that appreciated, you know, what a guy like him had to offer. I don’t see him as a villain or evil or anything. I see him just as, you know, he has his conviction and he believes that Hydra is, should be the top agency, should control things. It’s the philosophical difference. I guess, you know, Hydra is more Darwinian than S.H.I.E.L.D.. S.H.I.E.L.D.’s more PC, let’s say. Hail Hydra.
HitFix: Last week’s episode I thought had a lot of very sort of sympathetic and juicy character moments. When were you told those sort of details about the character’s past and about sort of what led him down this path?
Bill Paxton: Well I remember talking to Jeff Bell and he was saying there was an episode coming where... Because, you know, they see you see, you know, Grant Ward really come over to his side, particularly through his actions when we assassinate the Saffron Burrows character and some other S.H.I.E.L.D. agents. And it’s kind of like, "How do you bring a guy back from that?" Well I guess the only way to do that is to really understand why he is the way he is and just how screwed up he is emotionally. And this backstory which helps me, like I just said, reveal Garrett and he has kind of a bone to pick with S.H.I.E.L.D. and then you just really see that Grant Ward has been manipulated from adolescence to react a certain way and that his emotions have been pushed down and challenged for weakness by his mentor and father figure. I thought that stuff was great. I really enjoyed working with the actor that played... I really enjoyed working with Brett Dalton as Ward and I liked the actor who played him as a younger adolescent.
HitFix: Now you said that you knew when you started that you were Hydra but I assume that none of the other actors knew, right?
Bill Paxton: No, I was taken into Jeph Loeb’s office and swore on a stack of Playboys, No, I practically had to swear on a Bible that I wouldn’t reveal it to anyone. And so it was kind of fun knowing that and then I think eventually the other actors were told. I think Clark [Gregg] was probably the first one to find out and he came over and he goes, “You bastard.” "God, I’m sorry. I couldn’t say anything." But, you know, they’re pretty tight. They play it pretty tight to the vest with the Marvel world in terms of all the secret machinations.
HitFix: Well was that fun for you and were you able to sort of use that in the character given that he's a secret-keeper himself?
Bill Paxton: Oh yeah, a lot of fun. The whole experience was fun. Knowing that I was a double agent and that I really, you know, my allegiance was ultimately to Hydra, it was great and I just kept waiting for the reveal and that’s one of my favorite moments when I finally am revealed to be Hydra. And I’m trying to explain something to Clark and he kind of catches that there’s some BS in there and he kind of calls me out. I just kind of shrug and just like "Yeah, well... You found out." And I have to tell you I felt kind of unchained and uncensored once I got to reveal Garrett as Hydra.
HitFix: Well that was gonna be my next question is what’s the next episode like when you find out that you’re a big villain. The episode where you can suddenly have some fun with being a bad guy.
Bill Paxton: Oh it’s almost like I feel like I’m the Joker in Batman. It’s very empowering and freeing and, you know, you can really have some fun.
HitFix: Well would you have had the same interest in doing this part if it hadn’t turned out that there was that twist to it?
Bill Paxton: No, I would not have had the same interest. Because I mean if you’re gonna get into this world, you want to come in and play a flamboyant character. I’ve done my share of straight guys and I’m done with them. You know, I just feel like in the last few years I’ve been kind of going back and I’m getting to do kind of character, supporting work and I’m just finding the characters to be much more dynamic and fun and just more indelible.
HitFix: Well okay, that sort of leads me into my next question: Did this arc sort of remind you of things that you’d missed about the week to week TV experience or did it remind you of why you’re maybe not in a rush to do another long series run?
Bill Paxton: Well, this was a great thing to come in and do the last third of the season with the guys. They were so cool the way they brought me into it and I like everybody. I love the actors and I love the creators. Everybody on the show was so accommodating and supportive of me and I had so much fun that I would look to do that again. To take on a whole series does not interest me. I mean I had a great experience doing the five seasons as the male lead in "Big Love." That was a great experience. I’m glad I have done it, but I just don’t feel like I have the stamina to try to do that again. it’s just an experience I’ve had, I enjoyed it. I like jumping around now. I’ve done four movies in the last year and all different parts and then doing the six episodes of "S.H.I.E.L.D.," which was so much fun. And I prefer moving around a little more at this point in my life.
HitFix: And just as a last question, are you going to be directing again anytime soon?
Bill Paxton: Yes, I’m in the process of directing a movie based on a Joe R. Lansdale book called "The Bottoms." It was adapted to the screen by Brent Hanley, who wrote "Frailty." There in business with a company named Memento. We’re out for co-financing and a lead actor right now.
"Marvel's Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D." wraps up its first season on Tuesday, May 13 on ABC.