Billy Zane Opens Up About ‘Titanic,’ ‘Zoolander,’ and the Lost Decade
The actor shares favorite moments from Titanic with Marlow Stern—including whether Kate and Leo got steamy onset—plus Michael J. Fox’s Back to the Future pranks, his Zoolander experience, and why things went south for him in the 2000s.
Not even orange mocha frappuccinos could cut the tension.
Derek Zoolander (Ben Stiller), five-time reigning male model of the year, has had it up to here with his New Age-y arch nemesis, Hansel (Owen Wilson), so he decides to confront the rising star at a New York City nightclub. After a few ridiculous barbs, Zoolander flexes his ego, challenging Hansel to a “walk-off.” While Hansel boasts a sizable hipster entourage, the only man in Zoolander’s corner is Billy Zane, who warns him against a runway battle. “Listen to your friend Billy Zane, he’s a cool dude!” urges Hansel.
By the time Zoolander premiered, in 2001, Zane had amassed an impressive film résumé. After making his film debut in Back to the Future, he starred in Dead Calm, opposite a young Nicole Kidman; David Lynch’s cult classic TV show, Twin Peaks; the time-traveling drama Orlando, with Tilda Swinton; the rowdy Western Tombstone; and last, but certainly not least, as Rose’s (Kate Winslet) rakish fiancé, Cal Hockley, in James Cameron’s film epic Titanic. After that, things went a bit south for him.
In honor of the release of Titanic 3D on April 4, Zane opened up to The Daily Beast about his favorite Titanic memories, shooting Back to the Future, his cameo as himself in Zoolander, and more.
Do you know how you were cast in Titanic?
Cameron clearly had gone against the grain of Hollywood by casting Kate Winslet, who was the new Brit girl; Leonardo, who was getting great reviews on his films, but they were indies; and I had made this big Paramount movie [The Phantom] that was oddly marketed and didn’t do great in theaters. But [me and Cameron] just hit it off.
What was your reaction to seeing Titanic 3-D all these years later?
I have to say, I was really surprised. I thought it was logical that when they were doing [3-D] conversions, they’d get to this one eventually. I went in with—I wouldn’t say low expectations because I knew Jim was spending a better part of a year with it and has high standards and incredible chutzpah—but what I found was I was actually more engaged in the performances than the spectacle. It had a weird effect on me. I found myself more engrossed.
Any favorite stories from making Titanic?
One night toward the climax—it was 4:30 a.m.—and the ship is dipping into the very chilly Pacific waters, and 2,000 people are scrambling toward the stern, [Cameron] yells, “Cut!” Climbs onto the deck from the crane basket swinging him around with the sky cam, goes up to an extra, who’s this old lady, and says, “You’re not just running. You need to go down to the sea deck because your daughter told you she forgot something very dear, her wedding ring, and she’s going down there and you gave her five minutes, and she’s taken 10, and you regret making that choice.” He’s giving backstory to a background artist, which elevated the moment for her and spread like wildfire to the other extras.
Leo and Kate were both young and attractive, and playing star-crossed lovers in the film. Did you witness any sparks onset between them?
No! They were like brother and sister, watching each other’s backs. Our dressing rooms were like a dorm room, and I was between them. Leo had a girlfriend who was visiting often and his crew there playing videogames, being a kid. And Kate I think was in a relationship. We were all very close, though.
Are you always the butt of jokes whenever you set foot on a boat?
That’s happened since Dead Calm! I couldn’t charter a boat to save my life. I’d be in St. Bart’s and say, “Let’s go for a day sail!” And I’d step onboard, and [the crew] would say, “Hell, no!”
How do you feel when Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On” comes on? Do you chuckle or grimace?
It’s always funny when it comes on because when you’re at a public place and have people who might notice you, everyone shares the joke. I was in Harrods last week and they have live performances there, and there was a singer who performed “My Heart Will Go On.” There were a few balconies that overlooked this main escalator with mannequins in the latest designs leaning over, and as I was going down, people had a giggle and I was trying to compel one of the mannequins to jump. “Jump, Rose!” [Laughs] But it’s not annoying, it’s endearing.
I’m also a huge fan of Zoolander and your cameo in it.
Thank you! I swear I get more love for five minutes of playing myself in that than 30 years of character work! [Laughs] I was living in New York at the time, and I’d see Ben out and about quite a bit, and he called and asked if I’d do a cameo. When I was there, it suddenly evolved and all that came out of improv. I love that I was the only one in Derek’s corner. But we did so many different versions of that scene. “Stuff it, Zane!” “Put a cork in it, Zane!” “Save it, Zane!” The fact that he kept saying my name …“Billy Zane’s a cool dude!” He just kept hitting it and I was very embarrassed on the day but have come to be so grateful because I’m constantly met with strangers who claim, “Billy Zane is a cool dude.” I just hope to live up to it. Or I hear, “Save it, Zane!” It’s certainly better than, “You’re the asshole from Titanic!” I’m like, “Come on! I wasn’t the iceberg! I didn’t kill 2,000 people!”
Are you going to pop in for a cameo in the Zoolander sequel?
We’ve called over there. “Come on, man, I’ve got your back! I’m in your corner, man!” [Laughs]
Let’s go back a little bit. How were you cast as part of Biff’s goon squad in Back to the Future?
That was my first gig. I had the rare and beautiful pleasure of being in town only two weeks before landing that film, which set the tone for at least the first half of my career. [Laughs] I had auditioned for Biff, and everyone they liked as a runner-up became [his goon squad].
And you got all that manure dumped on you.
That was curious! Welcome to Hollywood! [Laughs] What was amazing about that was I had a crash course in Hollywood, being on the back lot of Universal for about six months. It was the best playground on the planet. Michael J. Fox was very funny. He would play dead on a New York street, lie dead in the middle of the road, where the trams would come by, and they would have to stop and we’d come running out of the buildings and try to pilfer everyone for their Polaroid cameras and watches, like a highway robbery. Or we’d go up to the Psycho house at dusk with Maglites and shine them into the windows. We were kids and having a hoot!
And you were also on Twin Peaks as John Justice Wheeler, which is one of my favorite shows.
Oh, thank you, man! You’re really hitting on all the high points. If a career could be filled with working with the David Lynches, the Philip Noyces, and the Jim Camerons of the world, that would be lovely! Unfortunately, you tend to pepper it with the best intentions but you deal with a lot of ham-fisted hacks. But you tend to learn from the worst as much as the best. Twin Peaks was awesome. It was an incredible gift playing that role and supposedly getting to deflower Audrey Horne [played by Sherilyn Fenn] on your private jet while saving an endangered species. I was like, “Did I win the lottery?”
What was it like working with Val Kilmer on Tombstone? He looked like he was dying but I love that performance.
And he might have been, for all I know! [Laughs] But he is wonderfully inventive and I’m such a huge fan of his. That was just a testament to [screenwriter] Kevin Jarre, who should’ve had a mention at the Oscars. That was a strange oversight—the man who wrote Glory, Tombstone, and directed two weeks of [Tombstone] before being ripped from his own film. There’s a reunion in Dallas coming up in May with many of the cast members that I was invited to.
The Phantom was obviously a huge starring role for you in a superhero film, but it didn’t do that well. But I also read that that’s what got you noticed by James Cameron for Titanic.
That film was ahead of its time, in a weird way. If it came out any later, in the glut of superhero-dom, it would’ve been squeezed into the same sociopathic, postmodern, all-too-slick, forgettable fare that’s out there. What fans seem to like about that movie is it has a very sweet, heroic heart. And it was Catherine Zeta-Jones’s first American film. I have a knack for cracking the girls of the Commonwealth! [Laughs]
What was it like working with a young Ryan Gosling on The Believer? That was really his breakthrough role.
I saw his innate talent. You emulate your heroes, and I think his generation wanted to be De Niro. But he was already formulating his own identity and playing against the Disney thing he had going on before that. Watching Leo and Ryan at a point in their careers where they were really about to explode—the common denominator was great talent in kind men.
You experienced a good run with Titanic, the great Zoolander cameo, and The Believer. Why did the roles seem to dry up after that?
One word: alimony. I was married at 21 for eight years with no children to a lovely girl [Lisa Collins], and we’re still friends, but L.A. law had gouged my assets and required exorbitant ransom for the better part of five years, and I chose ultimate freedom, and was happy to do anything to pay off a ridiculous monthly alimony. Dude, it was heinous for a young man, and this was happening right in the middle of Titanic. From that point on, if you see a nose dip, I was basically doing anything that paid to pay that off so it didn’t get extended, because then there’s a penalty.
Did you have to turn down some nice roles that paid less because of this financial quagmire?
Sure. I didn’t want to abandon my indie-cult status, which I think was fairly firm at that time—I had a loyal audience in the lunatic fringe. [Laughs] Much to the dismay of my agent at the time, I was choosing some curious art-house films. But, amongst the clunker paydays, that satisfied my needs. Right after Titanic, and before The Phantom, we made this silent film called I Woke Up Early the Day I Died. That’s a remarkable movie that should be rereleased, because of The Artist. It’s quite camp and very funny. But those kinds of choices may have confounded my minders a bit!
I know this isn’t the best information delivery system, but according to your IMDBPro page, you have about nine films in postproduction.
Most of these I had worked a day or two days. That’s the state of modern independent cinema. They get an actor on the schedule at their budgets where they try to condense roles. The ones I’m most proud of are Electrick Children, which got a great response at Berlin and SXSW, and The Mule with Sharon Stone, where I play her brother and some are saying outshines her work in Casino.
You’ve accumulated so much cultural capital in all these outstanding past projects. Are you a bit frustrated that Hollywood isn’t being as kind to you these days?
It’s an interesting thing. “Always the bridesmaid,” as they say for the ladies? It’s always nice to be on the verge. If [Titanic 3-D] is a unique or curious reminder of that body of work, then wonderful. I’m someone who believes in pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. It’s been interesting for me, and at times difficult. But I’ve never been in a better space. I’ve got a months-old daughter, my first child, and I’m madly in love with her mommy. That rocks the house. And we’re casting a Western that I’m starring and directing in, called Son of a Gun, that’s a classic Western and homage to John Ford.