Q&A: Billy Zane on Horror Roles Past and Present
Whether it be as ruthless, manipulative villains or as handsome, smooth-talking protagonists, there’s few actors who bring as much natural charisma and dedication to their genre roles as Billy Zane. After capturing the attention of international audiences with his turn in DEAD CALM, Zane has proven himself to be a universal asset to multiple genre productions, whether it be a comic turn such as TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT or more esoteric and mysterious like TWIN PEAKS. As his reputation as a solid genre performer continues to grow, Zane spoke to FANGORIA about his past horror successes as well as what dark corners he just might explore further down his career trajectory…
FANGORIA: What was your experience like working on TWIN PEAKS? Did you regularly work with David Lynch and Mark Frost or was the series out of their hands at that point?
BILLY ZANE: They always had a hand in the show. I think David was working on TWIN PEAKS: FIRE WALK WITH ME at the time, but he was ever present. Frost was equally involved, and I feel grateful to have been invited into that club at its last stages. To be able to claim that I was an alumni felt like I won the lottery and slid in under the radar, and I felt included like a very grateful guest. It was awesome.
FANG: Were you familiar with David’s work as a director before joining the series? What was your relationship to the show at that point?
ZANE: My relationship to the show was that of an avid fan. They had me from the pilot, and I loved how cinematic and sublime it was. It was really evocative and it had the most refreshing soundtrack on television since MIAMI VICE turned our heads. The color and the timing, too; everything was so lush. It was like nothing else on television since it was like cinema. I’d been a huge David Lynch fan since ERASERHEAD and it was a pleasure to have worked with everyone.
FANG: The second season of TWIN PEAKS has had a well-documented history of trouble with the network during its production. Considering that aspect and the nature of the show’s surreal subject matter, did those troubles ever affect your experience working on the show?
ZANE: No, they kept those issues mostly off of the set. You know, sometimes you can overstay your welcome on television. I don’t know if TWIN PEAKS would have left as much as an indelible mark had it lingered and recycled too many themes and things. It would have diluted it too much. Sometimes you have to leave the audience wanting more.
So I can’t speak from a place of insight towards the trouble they were having, but you can see from the first season to the second season that there was slightly more of a focus on theatrics and comedy that was employed. I don’t know what kind of a show TWIN PEAKS would have become given the track that it was on, so I’m kind of glad on how it went out, in a way. I would have loved to stay on the show forever, but when something is that good, I don’t know how long it’s meant to last.
FANG: When preparing for the role of John Justice Wheeler, was your vision for the character ever different than how it was written?
ZANE: No, I recognized what the character was very early on. Leave it to David Lynch to wisely cast against type. At the time, I was known as the crazy guy at sea from DEAD CALM, so considering I was young and I delivered a performance like that, the industry likes to typecast a bit once they see you in a particular light. So in a show filled with crazy people, Lynch cast the crazy guy from the movie as the sanest, most wholesome dude, and I thought that was brilliant. I recognized that as an in-joke, in a way, and I completely adored it. We both understood that the character was like Gary Cooper and was squeaky clean. He was from a different vein than Agent Cooper, almost in a romantic Hollywood sense. I got the joke, and it worked [laughs]. What was written was executed as intended, pretty much from the get-go and gave the show some heart.
FANG: DEAD CALM was, of course, your breakthrough role as an actor. It’s still a very fascinating film, as it seems so personal and basic in nature, considering it adds a dramatic integrity to the horror of it all. Did you feel, as an actor, that you had anything to prove with that role?
ZANE: Absolutely. I had everything to prove and nothing to lose. It’s a dangerous combination for a 21-year-old actor. I remember once the film was in the can thinking, “If this plane from Australia goes down, I’ll at least have that [performance].” I was satisfied and able to demonstrate my abilities as an actor, you know? After working with those guys, I had made a mark and I was content with that, honestly.
FANG: One of the fascinating aspects of the production is that you were essentially the only American out of the cast, which is even more interesting considering you’re the antagonist of the film. Did you ever have the feeling that you were an “outsider,” and if so, did you apply that towards your performance?
ZANE: Oh, totally. They kept me away from the cast for two weeks and isolated me on an island as well. They sent me out with the Orpheus crew for about a week and just let us film our backstory and that mad descent into hell. I really give credit to that style of filmmaking where you let that time and preparation give the actors a real backstory and real relationships prior to getting on screen. It was pretty neat. They really didn’t want me to meet Nicole or Sam for quite a while until I soaked my brain, bronzed my skin and lost a bit of my good judgment [laughs].
FANG: You’ve directed in the past as well. Have you ever considered going behind the lens of a horror film?
ZANE: Possibly. Comedy is my bag, mostly, but I’m about to do a classic Hollywood western in the style of Otto Preminger. It’s going to feel like it was shot in 1954 under censorship, like, “There will be lipstick. There will be no blood.” So that’s a cinematically stylistic choice in terms of the genre, but I’d be more open to a Hitchcockian thriller moreover than just horror, I think. That’s more of my bag, honestly, but if it was a horror, it’d be a monster movie in the vein of THE CREATURE FROM THE BLACK LAGOON. I’m not big with maniac films, but I don’t mind a good haunting here or there.
FANG: Is there any horror role that you would want to portray that you haven’t had the opportunity to try out yet?
ZANE: I think a Dr. Jekyll dynamic would be kind of fun. A friend of mine is doing a HUNCHBACK OF NOTRE DAME film, and I totally understand why: he’s a dashing, handsome lead actor and he wants to cover his face with prosthetics and play against type, which a lot of handsome leading men don’t get to do. I often held that fantasy, but then I decided I’d rather want to play a Zorro-type. I actually coveted the role of THE PHANTOM long before I had a chance of even doing it, which is really wild. That’s destiny, and I felt like I did that through sheer will and the conscious desire, as well as exercise.
FANG: Do you have any other projects coming up at the moment?
ZANE: I just did a film called ZOMBIE KILLERS: ELEPHANT’S GRAVEYARD (pictured, above), which I think you’ll like, where I worked with the FX team behind THE WALKING DEAD and V. They’re going to start working on the sequel to it pretty soon. They took an environmental angle to the horror, much like the GODZILLA and MOTHRA films used to, except this one turns its focus to the downsides of fracking in parts of the east. It’s an interesting spin on the genre and I play this John Wayne-esque leader of a group of young people who need to learn how to use live rounds.
You can read Billy Zane’s exclusive comments on his experiences during TALES FROM THE CRYPT: DEMON KNIGHT in Fangoria #331, on sale now. You can also see Billy Zane in the Greek horror-fantasy EVIL IN THE TIME OF HEROES, which will be released via VOD on March 25th.