Bill Henrickson, the serial polygamist played by Bill Paxton on HBO’s critically-lauded series Big Love—season three was just released on DVD—may seem like a flawed and unsympathetic character. But despite his unorthodox lifestyle, he perfectly embodies everything that Sarah Palin once praised as “the real America”: he lives in a small town, he believes in the value of a hard day’s work, and with seven children and three wives, he’s certainly an enthusiastic husband and father. He has deep religious convictions that he doesn’t think should be regulated by Washington, and he sure as hell doesn’t like big government, who he’s convinced (rightly, it turns out) is trying to oppress him. He believes in god and family, and given his curious decision last season to start his own religion, with himself as spiritual leader and prophet, he may actually think he is a god. You big city liberals can dismiss him and his growing family as a bunch of out-of-touch religious nuts and perverts, but Sarah Palin knows his heart. Bill Henrickson isn’t just a misunderstood American; he is America.
I called Paxton just as he’d wrapped shooting on the fourth season of Big Love—which premieres this Sunday, January 10th, at 9pm on HBO—and he was, by his own admission, physically and emotionally exhausted. “Art starts to imitate life after a while,” he told me. “My body doesn’t know the difference between real stress and artificially-induced stress.” As it turns out, hypertension isn’t the only thing that Paxton and his fictional doppelgänger have in common.
Eric Spitznagel: Is there a Stockholm Syndrome for character actors?
Bill Paxton: How do you mean?
You’ve devoted four years of your life to playing Bill Henrickson. If you spend enough time in somebody’s shoes, do you start to sympathize with them, even if they’re kind of douchey?
I totally admire the guy. I admire his beliefs and how much he feels he can take on. I’m somebody who kind of avoids responsibility as much as I can. But Bill is an entrepreneur and he has these amazing ambitions for himself and his family. He has a code, kind of an old western code, through his religion and his background. I’m attracted to patriarchal figures. And when I say patriarchal, I don’t mean misogynistic. He really is a male leader of his tribe. And I love how much he loves his wives and all of his children. He really does believe that it’s a man’s responsibility to procreate and bring more good Christian souls into the world.
Some would argue that the multiple wives automatically eliminates him from any husband-of-the-year awards.
(Laughs.) You’d be surprised. Women love this show, and I think they like Bill because it’s all disclosed. It’s all out in the open. Women are cool as long as they know what time it is. I remember when the show first came out, and people asked me, “What are you working on?” And I’d say, “I’m in this new HBO series where I play a polygamist.” They’d literally take a giant step away from me. Just the idea of it was cringe-inducing for them. But now, after the show’s been on HBO for a few years, the same gals who once looked at me like I’m crazy, they’ll walk up to me in airports and be like, “Hey, are you looking for a fourth?”
How many is too many wives? At what point is it like, whoa, slow down, Tex. Six is fine, but seven? That’s just greedy.
(Laughs.) It’s really hard to say. I think it depends on how much a man can take physically. The idea of having three gorgeous wives obviously serves a guy’s fantasies on a certain level. Who wouldn’t want that? But you have to remember, it comes with certain expectations sexually.
Multiple wives means a guy is constantly on the clock.
It’s like asking a kid, “Do you like candy?” At first they’ll be like, “Are you kidding me? I love candy.” But what happens if you take them into a candy store and say, “You can have as much candy as you like?” Ask that kid the next day if he still likes candy.
He’ll be too busy vomiting chocolate.
(Laughs.) Exactly. I think performance anxiety takes most of the fun out of polygamy. Because of modern medicine, it’s possible to get a little help from the blue pill. But at some point, everybody hits tilt.
Other than the physical downsides, can you defend polygamy?
For me personally?
In general. Is polygamy a justifiable lifestyle?
I’ve always thought that the show is a metaphor for untraditional couples and untraditional families. We live in a modern society, where the traditional man-woman union isn’t the only accepted norm anymore. There are guys living with guys, gals living with gals. I grew up in the 60s, and I knew guys who were raised in communes and their father were cohabiting with several gals. So I try not to be judgmental and keep an open mind.
Do you think Bill Henrickson should be allowed to marry as many young brides as he can coax to the altar?
I have no problem if somebody wants to live that lifestyle. We’ve become a nation that believes “My freedom is sacred, but I don’t know if I approve of your freedom.” Why should you care what somebody else’s freedom looks like? If it doesn’t affect you, if it doesn’t directly have an impact on your world, why should you even have an opinion about it? There’s too much hypocrisy in how we think about lifestyles different from our own. Winston Churchill once said something that really sums up what I believe. He said, “Judgment is a fine thing but keen insight is much rarer.” I think that’s really it. Too often, we shut ourselves off from things we don’t understand or don’t want to understand.
Some Mormons weren’t thrilled with how they were portrayed on Big Love last season.
You’re talking about the endowment-ceremony scene?
That’s the one. They thought the show shared too many of their religion’s most sacred secrets. Is that a fair criticism?
Not really, no. In the era we’re living now, there aren’t secrets anymore. You can see pretty much everything on YouTube. But I thought we handled it very well. I mean, it’s not like we were trying to poke anybody in the eye. It was just used as the backdrop of a drama. And people forget that any ritual or religious ceremony, if you look at it out of context, can seem a little weird.
That’s a good point. To the uninitiated, Catholic communion is bat-shit crazy.
(Laughs.) Absolutely it is.
Actually, even if you know the backstory…
…it’s still bizarre, right? I was raised Catholic, and when we take communion, the wafer is a symbol of the body and blood of Christ. Somebody could think, “What the hell? There’s a guy on the cross, he’s been tortured and killed and these people are symbolically eating his body?”
Isn’t that cannibalism?
(Laughs.) It is, yeah.
Every image I’ve ever seen of Christ on the cross, he’s always semi-nude with really cut abs. Is it just me, or is that a little homoerotic?
(Long pause, laughs.) Well, I’ll leave that to you. Yukio Mishima wrote an amazing book called Confessions of a Mask, and he talks about when he was a child and he saw this painting of Saint Sebastian in his grandfather’s house or somewhere—the one where Sebastian is almost naked and has all the arrows sticking in him?
So, all paintings of Saint Sebastian?
(Laughs.) Yeah, I guess that’s true. Anyway, he talks about how that painting kind of fed into his homoerotic nature. Of course, all religious imagery can be extrapolated in all kinds of ways. But our intention on Big Love has never been to make fun of anyone’s religion. On the contrary. I’ve discovered a lot of things from playing this character, in terms of his basic Mormon beliefs, that I can really relate to.
They have some hymns that I just love, like “Come, Come, Ye Saints.” It’s about remembering not to complain that your lot is hard. It should be hard. That gives you a chance to prove yourself in this life. Why do you want it to be easy? You should be thankful that it’s hard, so you can find out what you’re made of. I also dig the Mormon idea that there are revelations around us. That goes back to all kinds of different romantic beliefs I’ve had over the years, about my path in life and how I ended up being in this show, which led me directly to this moment, talking on the phone with you. It’s just, there are things that come across your path and if your beacon is on, you can extract from them. A doorway or a path will suddenly be illuminated to you because you’re aware that you’re looking for something. You know what I mean?
Not really, no. Don’t take this the wrong way, but you’re starting to sound like Bill Henrickson.
Am I? (Laughs.)
That’s probably inevitable. You spend enough time playing a guy who thinks he’s a prophet, some of his crazy is gonna rub off on you.
I really dig the spiritual aspects of this show. Growing up, I essentially had two religions. My mother was Roman-Catholic, and my dad professed to be a pagan, although I think he was loosely brought up as a Presbyterian in Kansas City. I remember when I was ten years old, every Sunday my mother would take me and my brothers and sister to church, and my father would be naked on a chase lounge in the back yard, reading the latest Ian Fleming novel. My father didn’t object to us going to church, but he did make it an ongoing conversation. He’d say things like, “Look at this beautiful tree. You want to be close to God? Look at nature. Stay here and just admire this tree. Don’t go into some church that looks like a bowling alley.”
Except for the whole hanging out naked in his back yard, I’d join your dad’s church.
My father was a very compassionate man and a great student of human nature, but he always drew his spirituality more from an animistic point of view. “Don’t step on that grasshopper, it might be George Washington.” (Laughs.) So I kinda got both perspectives from my parents. And I enjoy that struggle, that yearning for deeper answers. Any kind of spirituality is really a quest for enlightenment. And I think that’s a noble quest. I think there’s a nobility about Bill Henrickson that I admire. It’s something I aspire to, but I don’t think I’m necessarily there yet.
At the end of last season, Bill had a moment of revelation in the barn, which inspired him to form his own religion. What do you think he saw?
I think he saw the heart of darkness, and the heart of darkness scared him.
So he saw a very sweaty and obese Marlon Brando?
(Laughs.) Yeah, yeah, that’s exactly it. (Whispers.) The horror… the horror. (Laughs.) No, I think he realized that there is real darkness out there and it’s so easy for families to become unraveled and fall away. It takes vigilance to keep a family together and on a spiritual path. When we first shot that scene, my first thought was that it was a little too ambiguous. But I’ve thought about it and now I think it’s okay. Let people project what they want. As an actor, it’s hard to remember sometimes that you don’t have to spell everything out. Ambiguity is a good thing. Because when you’re sitting in the dark and looking at those faces on the screen, we all project our own hopes and wishes on those people. Let it be different for everybody.
Is Bill Henrickson one of those “real Americans” who voted for Sarah Palin and read Going Rogue?
(Long pause.) You know what? I think he’s definitely a Republican and an ultra-conservative, but he’s also… he’s a man of fairness. He’s open enough that he would make his decisions based not on loyalty to a particular political party, but on what he thought a person’s true worth was. I think he would find Palin a little too erratic.
But wouldn’t he recognize that Palin shares most of his values? She’s all for religious freedom and big families and keeping the government out of your business.
Yeah, but I think her intolerance would piss off Bill. He believes that we live in a free society and if my opinion differs from yours, there’s a forum and a decorum for how that debate should be conducted. I think Bill has no problem with other people’s religions or beliefs. What he has a problem with is that as a law-abiding and tax-paying citizen, as a good husband and father and a faithful man in terms of his beliefs, he doesn’t have the freedom to live his life the way he wants.
Wait, which Bill are we talking about again?
(Laughs.) Bill Henrickson. But I agree with him on a lot of this. What gives Bill his true wisdom, and why he wouldn’t support somebody as divisive as Sarah Palin, is that he’s been an outsider, he’s been an outcast. He was thrown out on the streets when he was fourteen and forced to do all kinds of things to survive. He can relate to the underdog. He knows what it’s like to be oppressed. So in a weird kinda way, as conservative as he is, he believes so strongly in personal freedom, and he’s such a staunch advocate for individual rights, I don’t think he’d have the stomach for somebody like Palin.
If given the chance, would Bill make Bristol Palin his fourth wife?
(Laughs.) I don’t know. Which one is Bristol again? She’s the daughter, right?
She’s the one who got pregnant at 17.
Oh yeah, yeah. I haven’t followed that too closely. I don’t know. Bill tried to take on Ana as a fourth wife and that didn’t work. I think he has as many wives as he can handle with just the three. That seems like a good number to me. The Beatles were just four guys, you know what I mean? There are four wheels on a car. Four is enough.
That’s kinda sad. Has Bill really given up on playing the field?
I don’t know. Maybe not. I would like to see him maybe reach beyond a certain gene pool in terms of his next wife.
He might consider adding some brown sugar to the mix?
Yes, sir! (Laughs.) No, no, I’m not saying anything. But he might be into anything. What was the deal with Ben Cartwright and Hop Sing? I don’t know. I think he’s kinda a Ben Cartwright for the 21st century. He’s building his own Ponderosa.
We saw an awful lot of your naked butt during the first season of Big Love, but very little during the last few seasons. What happened exactly?
(Laughs.) I never thought about that before, but you’re right, I did do a lot more nudity in that first season. I guess we really wanted the audience to know, beyond a doubt, that this guy wasn’t just married to these three women, he was having a physical relationship with all of them.
Did you catch an eyeful of your pasty white butt and think, “Oh Jesus, I either gotta get a tan or keep my pants on?”
(Laughs.) Probably, yeah. But in my defense, they put makeup on it. And they shot it with the right kind of lenses, with very flattering lighting, so I think it looks okay. I don’t know why we stopped. It is HBO, it is adult content. I’ve always thought there should be an equality to male and female nudity. The female form usually gets all the attention, but you hardly ever get to see a penis.
If anybody is gonna change that, it should be a TV show with the name Big Love.
I don’t know if I’m ready for full frontal yet. I think Bill has a little sex this season. I’m trying to remember. There’s been so many other things going on. (Long pause.) Am I naked at all this year? I honestly don’t remember.
Can you at least promise us a few more ass shots in season four? I want to help you get some ratings, Bill, but you gotta work with me.
(Laughs.) Just tell people to hang in there. Good things come to those who wait.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in VanityFair.com