After five seasons on HBO’s Big Love, Bill Paxton was reluctant to play another religious family patriarch. But it’s hard to turn down the chance to grow a beard and work with Kevin Costner, so he took the role of Randall McCoy in the History Channel miniseries Hatfields & McCoys. The six-hour series (premiering May 28) shows how the God-fearing leader of the McCoy clan helped spark a bloody border war between his family and the family of his former Civil War buddy “Devil Anse” Hatfield (Costner). Paxton talked to Vulture about the famous feud, his allergies, and his beard, “The Growler.”
How are you doing?
I’m suffering like a bastard from this oak pollen out here.
Really bad allergies?
Whew! Man. Kicking my ass here; I feel like I’m talking through a wall.
Where are you?
I’m up in Cali, in California.
Well, hopefully you’ll make it through this without too much sneezing. How much did you know about the Hatfields and the McCoys before starting this project?
I didn’t know all the particulars, but I certainly — I think the boomers are the last generation to be kind of steeped in the folklore of that story. I remember there were cartoons — any kind of stereotype of a hillbilly, usually there was some reference to it. I remember stuff like Jerry Jeff Walker’s song “Luchenbach Texas,” you know, “I’m gonna go back to Luchenbach, Texas with Waylin and Willy and the boys/ This successful life we’re living’s got us fighting like the Hatfields and McCoys.” I remember Mark Twain in Huckleberry Finn has a whole chapter that was definitely inspired by the feud. I didn’t know enough, and I read scripts and then I [thought], Well, God, I wanna find out for myself. The unfortunate thing is Randall McCoy did not leave any kind of written record of himself. He couldn’t write a letter or anything. He could quote Robert Burns, but he couldn’t really write his own name.
So, when you were handed the script, were you worried there might be inaccuracies? Maybe there weren’t enough records?
I mean, depending on which family you talked to, you’d probably get a lot of different accounts of what happened. I knew that it was accurate in that it was dramatizing the major events of the feud. And in a way, because it spans, like, a 25-year period or whatever, it’s kind of like a greatest hits. I knew that a lot of it started with the theft of this pig. But it started out like that and it escalated, and this circle of violence perpetuated more and more misery. It was handed down to the next generation. They were kind of a shiftless generation — they didn’t have any land to inherit, there was no more land to give out. And these children had been brought up with a bias against this other family who seemed to have more of everything. And you’re mixing alcohol and guns. For me, it’s just kind of like a Biblical story or like a classic Greek tragedy. I’m very fascinated with that period after the Civil War. There’s something just kind of gothic and haunted and so wishful about this story and these people.
Did Kevin Costner being onboard give you confidence in the mini-series since he is a history buff and has done period dramas?
When I called Kevin, because he was the producer, we kind of knew each other in passing, I always thought he had a good work ethic, and I thought, Here this is his first big foray into television, it’s in his wheel-house … this guy’s gonna make sure that they do this right. And then we talked about the idea of having to go to Romania to shoot, and he was saying it’s kind of a hell of a statement that we have to leave our families and go halfway around the world to make this thing, but that’s the economics of the day that we live in. And in a way, I think going to Romania might have added a certain flavor that we might not have been able to get if we shot it where it really took place.
Because it’s still kind of undeveloped, it’s still kind of the old country. I mean, you see people going down the road in ox-driven carts with a bunch of wood piled up.
How about your beard. Was that real?
I grew a beard, yeah. Oh man, I called it “The Growler.” I let it go all the way down my neck and everything else. It wasn’t the most attractive beard, but, yeah, it was good for the part. I went for the yellow teeth [too] and the whole thing. I really thought, The more I can look like a beaver in this, the better.