As HBO unveils the fifth and final season of "Big Love" Sunday night, Bill Paxton, 55, returns to the dramatic fray as Bill Henrickson, a freshly minted state senator and the patriarch of a polygamous family of sister wives played by Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin.
How are you?
Relieved. Relieved I got through the season in one piece. It's a very hard role to perform for six months every year. This season took it to another level. It's always been intense for Bill Henrickson. Talk about a put-upon character, he's almost Job-like, and it's a hard energy to sustain day in and day out when all around you there is some kind of chaos or crisis and on top of that trying to juggle three wives and keep them going and all the conflicts — this guy has no refuge.
How do you maintain that level of angst?
It wears you out. There was a time between this season and last season when I thought, "I just don't have the stamina to do this." I don't mean to sound like I'm complaining, but there's a point where your body just says, "Hey, I've had enough."
Didn't you sign on for six seasons? Why did they cancel it after five?
Yeah, I signed on for six, you bet. That's the $64,000 question. I would have been glad to come back for one more season, but we were able to bring it to a conclusion. I think it was probably the greatest thing I was ever involved with as an actor, besides a couple of film roles I've done. It's the first time I ever got to do an ongoing character. It was wonderful to get into the kind of complexity and depth you can get into with a long-form serial like this. I'd never done a long thing like this. I'm a sprinter like most movie actors are. We can do three or four months, five months at a run. This is like shooting five movies in a row every year.
Wasn't it even more intense than that?
It was much more intense. It was like a marathon. It's a very monastic existence for me as Bill Henrickson, because I live in the country and I was a good hour and change away from the studio [in Santa Clarita]. So when I would work for 12, 14 hours a day and then have to learn five or six pages of dialogue. So I was holed up at the Valencia Hyatt.... I just realized that over the five years, I spent over a year of my life in that hotel, just trying to learn the lines. My son's a budding rapper, and he'd say, "Dad, you've got to be able to spit it." After a while, I felt like Harrison Ford at the beginning of "Raiders of the Lost Ark" when that boulder's rolling down.
What can you tell us about the new season?
This guy is a state senator-elect and now he's told the whole state that he's a polygamist. Are they really going to deal with the fallout of that? And my answer to that is a resounding, oh, yes, we are. This is a guy who's a survivor. He was thrown out of a truck by his father in Salt Lake City at the age of 14 and forced to live on the street any way he could, so this is a kid that has seen a very tough part of life. The thing he can't abide is the fact that his family is being persecuted because of his decisions and actions. I've grown to have admiration for him. I see a much more exalted, virtuous person than myself. He's got that old Gary Cooper code of the West — a man's got to do what a man's got to do. What emerged in this season more than ever is he is a righteous man, but he's in a very unrighteous world.
The tragedy of last week — the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords — has people talking about how intensely off the rails politics have gone in recent years. Does this season deal with any of that?
I put myself in the public arena now, so I'm going to be dealing with all kinds of reactions that are negative. Bill Henrickson believes in civil discourse; that at the end of the day, respect is what we owe. And that seems to have gone out of the window in the past few years. I know a little bit of modern history, particularly [ John F.] Kennedy's trials and tribulations, because I've been working on [producing] a big project with Tom Hanks. We're working on a long-form miniseries about the Kennedy assassination for the 50th anniversary, for HBO. It's Nov. 22, 2013. Many things that were similar were going on in the country then for the young president in terms of division. I can't understand why people can't realize that we're lucky to have a young, articulate 21st-century president who represents that this is a young, enterprising country with a future. It just boggles me, all the hate-mongering.
Going back to the JFK assassination, you were actually in the crowd in Fort Worth.