Bill Paxton never really doubted that Aliens would be a hit. But while filming the movie in London, he had some misgivings about his character, Private First Class Hudson. “Being the hysteric of the group,” he says of the hypertense Hudson, “I was always yelling and screaming. I was worried the audience would think, ‘Oh God, when is this guy going to get killed?'”
Paxton shouldn’t have worried. In a film filled with strong, likeable characters, Hudson emerges as one of the audience favourites. Paxton says he still gets fan mail from around the world. “And most of the time, they say they really like Hudson,” he reveals. “They really identify with him.”
Thinking about it now, Paxton has no problem explaining why. “He was the most relatable to audiences because he was deathly afraid, as most of us would be,” surmises Paxton. “I mean, for every Ripley [Sigourney Weaver] or Hicks [Michael Biehn], there are a million Hudsons.”
The personable, 32 year old actor sits in the crowded patio of a trendy Venice, California café, talking about his work and about his Colonial Marine alter ego. Although Paxton believes it’s more important for an actor “Just to know how your character reacts to the other people around him,” he followed director James Cameron’s advice and developed a background history for Hudson. “I figured he was a guy who had been raised by his mother for some reason,” Paxton says. “He wanted to be a pilot, but really cut it, IQ-wise or test-wise. He’s not good under a test situation. So, he ended up joining the Marines, but he wanted to be in it just for a while. But he’s not a coward, because in the final big fire fight that he goes down in, he challenges his own fear, really comes to grip with his own fear.”
The road that led Paxton to the Aliens set in the huge soundstages at Pinewood Studios began in Texas, where he grew up. By age 17, he and his friends were using a Super 8 sound camera to make their own films. “We made our own sets and did all that stuff, making it up as we went along. I had a pretty good sense of film from my Dad,” says Paxton. “He’s in the lumber business, but he’s an art collector and an architect by hobby. He gave me a real sense of visuals.”
A year later, Paxton moved to Los Angeles, where he continued his amateur filmmaking while working odd jobs. When funds grew short, Paxton began looking for better paying work. It was then that another friend introduced Paxton to James Cameron. At the time, Cameron was working for Roger Corman as a production designer, and about to start work on a film called Galaxy of Terror. “Jim just hired me on the spot,” says Paxton, “I ended up working on his night crew in the art department.”
In an old lumberyard that had been converted into studios, Paxton worked with Cameron turning Winnebago parts and industrial dishwashing racks into spaceship interiors. For a science-fiction film, Paxton points out, you can’t just go down the street and rent some furniture. “It’s really up to your imagination, and Cameron never ceased to amaze me. We took everyday objects and changed them. We called it ‘Kludging’ [pronounced ‘cloodjing’].”
From Cameron’s “Kludge Crew,” Paxton went on to work as a set director on several other films. Although he enjoyed the work, he began to feel this wasn’t what he wanted to do with his life. Deciding to learn more about directing, he applied to the major film schools in Southern California. They turned him down. “Because I had terrible SAT scores,” recalls Paxton, still angry at what happened. “I’m like Hudson – I hate tests. It’s a really lousy way to judge a person’s ability. Here I had made my own films and had actually won some awards at festivals, and worked for the Corman’s, and all this stuff, and I was willing to pay the tuition, and they wouldn’t let me in – because of my SAT scores.”
So, Paxton turned to another area of filmmaking he had always enjoyed – acting. “I used to be in these films I made, and I liked that,” he says. “I liked seeing myself in a different costumes and doing different actions. It’s a chance to be something you’re not.” He moved to New York and for two-and-a-half years studied acting. His first acting jobs were in television and some small roles in two low-budget horror films (Night Warning and Mortuary). At the same time, he continued his behind-the-camera work on short films, directing a short called Fish Heads, a sort of music video for the offbeat comedy song by Barnes & Barnes (one Barnes is Lost in Space veteran Bill Mumy). After it aired on Saturday Night Live, Paxton received a friendly call from his old boss, Jim Cameron.
“He told me that he was working on a project,” says Paxton, “Terminator. Well, I didn’t see Jim for about a year after that, be we kept up by proxy. In the meantime, I had gotten my first A film, The Lords of Discipline. This is where I first met Michael Biehn and William Hope [Gorman in Aliens.]” Cameron saw a screening of The Lords of Discipline, and when he needed a last minute replacement for an actor on Terminator, he thought of his old Kludge crew member. Paxton received another phone call from the director, and soon found himself doing two days work as the punk leader of the gang that accosts Arnold Schwarzenegger at the film’s beginning.
Paxton and The Terminator: “For whatsoever reasons,” said Terminator editor Mark Goldblatt, “the casting [for the punks] didn’t quite work, and there wasn’t really money in the budget for reshoots. I don’t think that insurance covers bad acting … Jim decided he needed to simply go back and re-cast and do it over again. And Jim cast his friends.” Among these friends was Paxton, who took a small role as a blue-haired, tyre-track-painted punk who is thrown aside by Schwarzenegger at Griffith Park in the film’s opening scenes.
A short time later, Paxton again crossed paths with Cameron. “I saw him on my way to London, to see my fiancé. He’s handing something off to a courier who’s getting ready to get on the same plane, and I said, ‘Jim, what are you up to?’ And he said, ‘Well, I’m writing the sequel to Alien.‘ And I said, ‘Hey, man, you better write me a part!’ You know, I just kidded him.”
The following summer, while once again in London, Paxton learned they were casting at Pinewood Studios for Aliens. Paxton went in and read for the part of Hudson. He returned to his London flat, thinking he had done well, but – “I didn’t get a call back. I didn’t hear anything, so I went on with my vacation and didn’t worry about it.” Not until Paxton had returned to the United States and began looking for other work did the call finally come from London. Cameron wanted him to play Hudson. “I just about flipped out,” recalls Paxton. “I couldn’t believe my good fortune.”
Paxton says he was excited not only for the chance to work with Cameron and producer Gale Anne Hurd again, but also because the script was so good. There were in particular two elements of the story that appealed to him. One was the tender, mother-daughter relationship between Ripley and Newt. The other was the “Grunts in Space” aspect.
Asked if Aliens is just “Rambo in Space,” as some critics have charged, Paxton responds with a laugh. “Well, what is Rambo?” he asks. “That was Vietnam in outer space! Or Vietnam through Alice in Wonderland. I mean, Jim [Cameron] wrote some of the action sequences in Rambo, but I don’t know. Aliens compared to Vietnamese people? I don’t really see the comparison. I see Aliens as a military saga. We were this kind of classic John Ford, Howard Hawks, or Sam Fuller World War II platoon.”
The on-screen camaraderie of that platoon in Aliens was, according to Paxton, matched by the camaraderie of the actors and crew off-screen. In particular, Paxton’s regard for Hurd and Cameron is unbounding. He sounds convincing when he says about Cameron: “I would crawl through glass for that guy.” Paxton also has nothing but praise for his fellow actors. “It was a great ensemble. We all got to know each other really well, and we all really supported one another.” As an example of this, he points to Lance Henriksen as the android, Bishop. Though Henriksen had also been in Terminator, he and Paxton didn’t actually meet until Aliens. “We hit it off immediately,” says Paxton. “He was very helpful and always trying different ideas.” For instance, there’s the scene with Bishop, Hudson, and the knife.
As Cameron wrote it, Bishop alone plays the little game where he stabs a knife between the fingers of his hand outstretched on the mess table. “But,” recalls Paxton, “Lance said, ‘Why doesn’t Hudson come into it, get suckered into it, ask for it?’ What’s nice is that moment defines my whole character, in terms of it’s like a microcosm of what I will do thought the whole film – get flipped out.”
Those kinds of moments, emphasizing the characters and their interrelationships, constitute one important reason for Aliens‘ success. But, of course, equally important were the non-stop action and the special effects. And where those elements are involved in making a film, a certain amount of peril can exist. “The most dangerous set,” Paxton says, “was the Dropship. We had accidents in there.”
The ceiling of the ship proved to be a constant menace. Separated from the breakaway walls of the set, and suspended from the catwalks by chains, it hung so low that the cast members were constantly bashing their heads on it. Paxton recalls in particular the time they were shooting the ride form the mother ship down to the planet Acheron. “They kept shaking the set, and I had this line, ‘Hey, we’re on the express elevator to hell, going down!’ At that moment, the whole roof collapsed on us.”
On that occasion, the worst to happen to anyone was a sprained back. A little later, director Cameron wasn’t so lucky. “We had these kind of rollercoaster bars that come down and strap us in there,” Paxton recalls. “Jim was sitting where Sigourney was going to be sitting in about an hour. They were blocking out part of the action when the bar just slipped straight down and hit Jim right on the head, cutting him. He was bleeding and had to have some stitches.”
For the actors, the worst moment probably occurred when they were almost overcome by noxious fumes. “We were doing the sequence,” says Paxton, “where Drake has just been hit and his flamethrower shoots an arc of butane right into the ship and it’s total anarchy. Well, part of the set caught on fire, and it was this plastic stuff. Now, sometimes, we would improvise. There would be certain dialogue that we would have to say, and then the cameras would still be rolling and they would want us to keep playing the moment. So, I heard Jenette [Goldstein, who plays Vasquez] next to me go, ‘I can’t breathe!’ and I thought, ‘Wow, she’s really going into the whole smoke thinking. That’s good!’ But the very next second, I took a breath and was like something had just —whoosh!— taken my breath away. We didn’t pass out or anything, but they pulled us out of there and gave us oxygen. They let us go to lunch, and when we came back, it was supposed to be all fixed. On the very next take, the same exact ting happened. This time I really did need a little oxygen. I was hacking hard.”
Sitting now in the Southern California sunshine, Paxton can laugh about the mishaps on those London soundstages. After all, since the debut of Aliens, he has been enjoying something of a banner year. For one thing, he just married his fiancé, Louise. And then there is Martini Ranch, the “modern dance rock” group he formed with two friends. “I write lyrics, sing and mastermind the videos,” he says. Their first album comes out this year.