Patricia Sheridan's Breakfast With . . . Billy Zane

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Actor Billy Zane is best known for his role as Kate Winslet's self-centered fiance, Caledon Hockley, in James Cameron's "Titanic," which was recently re-released in theaters in 3-D. His movie career began in 1985 when he got a part in "Back to the Future." The 46-year-old's roots are in the theater; both of his parents were stage actors. He appeared on Broadway in "Chicago." He is divorced and has a young daughter. He appears in "Hannah's Law," an original movie on the Hallmark Movie Channel, on Saturday at 9 p.m.

I imagine it must be fun being in costume, particularly for Westerns.

Certainly. It lends itself to the sort of immersed nature of the job, you know? It certainly helps.

You have great leading man looks, yet I have heard you refer to yourself as a character actor.

It's curious. I think maybe the industry saw me first that way (as a character actor). I did a film called "Dead Calm," a wonderful character, a supporting role. He was quite a dynamic character, and since then I've been offered fairly challenging, uncommon, villainous roles, which I guess is the fate of the character actor as it were. I've enjoyed that lot. You know, I subvert it every chance I get.

So do you see your looks as an asset to your career?

I don't really think about it, but yes. I think as a culture, beauty rates, strangely, among the highest currencies. Always has since ancient times. I think looks in general, certainly in cinema, it's practical. When a face is 40 feet tall or now, what, 60 feet in 3-D in some theaters, it's handy to have a mug that's easy on the eyes.

Did you get a lot of flak for shaving your head?

No, but a lot of gratitude from balding men. I was one of the white boy pioneers in the late '80s early '90s. I was in England doing a film "Orlando" that required a very long wig. It was an easier, more comfortable fit to have a buzz cut. A friend of mine had his clippers. That was a look that was fairly common in England at the time. Beyond skinheads you didn't see many white boys with a buzz. When I started sporting it, I got a little bit of flak for it. But, you know, I would augment it and wear wigs if it was necessary. Most of the time people liked the look.

Have your ambitions changed from when you first started in show business?

Oddly, no, just how I pursued them. I had been raised by semi-professional actors in Chicago. It was a very theatrical family. We were doing quite a bit of theater. My sister is an actress and a singer. I wanted to be a filmmaker from a very young age. I thought there were enough actors in the family. But it was in the DNA, and it was practical. So I came out here initially to go to film school and took a year off, but of course I had a theatrical agent and was auditioning for movies when I was a teen in Chicago.

When I came out here it seemed like a logical way to learn about the industry, as an actor as far as picking up on the inner radius of the focal point of concentration around the camera. You don't do that around the mail room or laying cable per se. I took a 20-year detour before getting back to my initial aspirations - directing, producing.

I suppose your parents were very supportive because they were actors.

Indeed, they loved it. It was an easy sell. I took the year off before going to school, and I said, "Support me as if it was my freshman year, and I will focus solely upon getting a job as an actor." They were game. They said, "OK, fine. This will keep you in studying and learning the craft and doing what you need to do to get it going." Two weeks later, I got a job in "Back to the Future," which was amazing. That was an incredible education, a six-month process. So I paid them back for two months and never looked back. [laughing]

So you never did give up going to film school. Instead you learned on the job.

Absolutely. You know you work with some of the best in the industry, men and women from America and Europe and Africa and Asia -just the best the world could offer. And the worst. Often you tend to learn more from the worst, strangely enough. Certainly what not to do. But I have been very fortunate with having many professors.

Did you feel the trajectory of your career changed or was impacted after "Titanic"?

Of course. Curiously, it was such a dynamic calling card where the sphere of influence is so broad. I was with an Indian producer. It looks like I'll be doing a film in India in July, which I'm very excited by - a massive market and I do like the Bollywood movies. "Titanic" is a really interesting film, and it was number one there [India]. It was number one in China, but the first time around I was amazed how far into the most remote regions of Africa it had found traction. It was probably off some bootleg copy [laughing].

It became a very practical means to an end. It is just a question of how you leverage it, you know? Within the career it helped, but in one's personal interests - whether it be clean water mandates or whatever it is - it became a practical point of entree as well.

Has your personal life ever affected you while you were in a film or the roles you would take?

Of course. I mean I can't see those things as mutually exclusive. You know, a lengthy and costly, let's say settlement on alimony. You make terrible or practical decisions [laughing]. I made those as a very young man, but under California law [even with] no children, you know, it's almost like a degree of extortion by some of the lawyers here. So in order to cover that nut, one ends up doing a number of different jobs .... That could have been interpreted as unfortunate career sabotage. Listen, I'm just thrilled to keep working. That is one thing I've learned over time. I'm grateful to have had such a long career and built such a vast audience and all the new platforms and all the new delivery systems. ... I feel very grateful.

Now that you're a dad, it must be fun to think of your daughter eventually seeing your work.

It will definitely keep her busy. [laughing] It is an extraordinary gift and a strange stab at immortality that I think everyone is fascinated by and I think that is why everyone chases it.


Patricia Sheridan: or 412-263-2613. First Published June 2, 2012 4:00 AM


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