Billy Zane spoke to Solzy at the Movies about Titanic, what he looks for in a screenplay, and so much more while attending Wizard World Chicago.
While we didn’t discuss it on Friday afternoon, Zane guest starred in DC’s Legends of Tomorrow as P.T. Barnum. The episode aired weeks before the release of The Greatest Showman in 2017. While the series is the most bonkers show of the Arrowverse, they were more truthful to Barnum as a person. In the meantime, you can catch Zane in Amazons’ The Boys. He is currently attached to star as actor Marlon Brando in Waltzing with Brando.
How often does a role like Cal Hockley come your way?
Billy Zane: Never. A role like Cal, which implies a movie like Titanic—never. Once in a lifetime, I imagine, for anyone. I hope again—how about put it that way in terms of scope and scale.
You made your film debut Back to the Future if I recall correctly. How honored are you to be a part of that franchise?
Billy Zane: So thrilled. Part one and two. I wish we squeezed into three and the peculiar timeline but that would have warranted it perhaps with offspring. However, we knew that was a special film when we were making it and then as it just seemed to just grow in impact through the years. You realize what a significant part of the fabric of the American experience that is and was. For me personally to have entered the industry with that particular project was like a baptism by fire. It was fabulous.
What do you generally look for in a screenplay?
Billy Zane: The why. Fundamentally, why is this film being made? There’s a lot of what and how but I defer to the Greeks and the ancients in terms of the function of the narrative. What does it serve? Does it propel the human experience and advance culture in some way—be it cautionary tale or road map? If you can’t find it, which is more often than not but entertainment value. More and more, I realize it’s the movies are where we learn how to be. It’s where we go to learn how to be. The power of the modern mythology is more significant than light entertainment. Yet as a tradesman within it, sometimes you’ve got to pay the bills but I wish all were crafted with an eye on their true impact they have on us all. Ideally, I look for deeper currents and often find it. Then inevitably, whether it’s in the script or not, depending on the caliber of the people involved, you can raise that bar ever so by using it as a blueprint and make it smarter, funny, or wiser. Cinema is about beautiful accidents and it’s not always sewn up from the gate. It’s art by committee. Through that collective experience with hopefully good intention, talent, and luck, you conjure something significant and meaningful.
Being that you are a Chicago native, do you have a favorite Chicago movie?
Billy Zane: Oh, so many. I think The Blues Brothers, which was—I think—the last great American musical. The Package was always fun. I thought Andy [Davis] did a great job because he understood it like a local in terms of the locations. Ordinary People always resonates in terms of they capture the North Shore well. Ferris, you can never go wrong. I’m giving you more than one answer clearly but there’s so many good ones.
Billy Zane: The one that probably had the most profound effect on me was Thief. Tangerine Dream underscoring Michael Mann’s discerning eye. It’s a great film. James Caan, Tuesday Weld, Dennis Farina. James Belushi’s first feature, I think. Great movie if you haven’t seen it.