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Billy Zane Answers All Our Questions About Titanic

Photo-Illustration: Vulture; Photo by CBS via Getty Images

Like any actor playing a memorable villain, Billy Zane gets most of the best lines in Titanic. They might not read that way on paper, but the mid-Atlantic cadence of Caledon Hockley, the wealthy fiancé to one Ruth DeWitt Bukater (Kate Winslet), turns them into pompous gold: “You can be blasé about some things, Rose, but not about Titanic.” “Something Picasso? He won’t amount to a thing.” “God himself could not sink this ship.” “I put the diamond in the coat. And I put the coat on her!

When Zane agreed to chat about Titanic for the movie’s 25th anniversary, I worried he might be a little … over it. Who could blame an actor for wanting to move beyond the one credit everyone keeps returning to? Maybe I was influenced by how naturally he embodies Cal’s elitist ridiculousness. But when we got on the phone, Zane was lively, engaged, and generous — nothing like the sneering cad people love to hate. After our nearly hour-long conversation, he accompanied his Titanic co-star Frances Fisher to the Los Angeles premiere of Avatar 2: The Way of Water, also directed by their pal James Cameron.

Aside from the fact that you probably get asked every five years, if not more, to talk about Titanic, what does the movie mean to you? Is it a blessing and a curse to be part of it?
It’s never really been a curse. It’s always a blessing. It’s a great honor, to be honest. It’s a wonderful film and it holds up. I like its reinventions with new technology. I really enjoyed the 3-D release. I’ve never seen a 3-D movie that has so much dramatic screen time as opposed to action. I’m sure if they’re planning another rerelease, in 8K or whatever, it will be that much more thrilling.

Everyone always asks that corny question, “Did you know such-and-such movie would be so huge?” Obviously, the short answer is no. But I do wonder if, during the audition phase, you were aware of its scale, both in terms of the production and the expectations around it? 
During production, I had the feeling that we were making something significant. I think that was shared with some members of the cast and crew. Others, I think, were a little more stressed about the delivery, understandably so. I won’t say skeptical, but certainly preoccupied. We had the luxury to be able to marvel at the sheer undertaking.

The way it was talked about outside the set was, “Oh my God, it’s over budget and behind schedule. This could be a disaster.” Do you remember being aware of that?
Oh yeah, they called it Waterworld or Heaven’s Gate — anything that took a swing. But history will tell you that all you can hope for is low expectations. The worst you can hear is unanimous and vociferous support. If everyone thinks it’s going to be a hit, you’re pretty much doomed. So when you’re making something significant and you know you’re doing great work, all you can hope for are doubters and mudslingers along the way. It’s the natural law.

If everyone around you is telling you how impressive and gigantic something is going to be, it can almost never live up.
It’ll never live up to it, so please, please come at it. And then pushing the release from summer to Christmas, some thought, Oh, delays and overages — it’s not good enough, it’s not ready. But of course it was a Christmas movie and not a summer movie. It made so much more sense to come out at a time when families were together because it was a really shared experience. I think it played upon the melancholy that the holidays elicit for so many people.

Cal’s speech has that mid-Atlantic thing that was popular around the time the Titanic sailed — the not quite British, not quite American accent. Was that something you and Cameron talked about?
It was certainly something I had affected — a heightened version of, shall we say, a Hollywood dialect from the heyday, with elocution lessons and a reverence for the British stage. Hollywood actors in the early days of the talkies applied a mid-Atlantic, educated dialect. It seemed to be the correct tenor and sound for Cal.

Did you audition with that accent?
I did. Maybe it was a little looser, but that was the intention. And I think I consciously applied it anyway. I had always enjoyed playing with sound and tone. I grew up in Chicago, and midwestern is a particular accent. I made a conscious choice to have a neutral American tone rather than a midwestern accent. It seemed to work, right?

Yes, I think that accent, although it’s also been used heroically, contributes to the perception of Cal as the villain of the movie. I assume you had not read a full script when you were auditioning, so did you and James Cameron talk about him as the villain?
Yes. I can’t remember if I read the entire script before or after, to be honest. I think I had. Cal really does, in regards to the hubris, carry the theme of the times. We witness the slap in the face and the spit — the surprise, the unexpected. I really enjoyed that. We discussed how he was completely blindsided by the rise of the bohemian. There never would have been jealousy or suspicion. It just did not come into question that someone like Jack would have rivaled him on any level. It’s like, What? This guy? Really? What I also loved was using art, and Jack’s capacity for it. I love when he finds the drawing in the safe. You see a fleeting glimmer of, Goddamnit, it’s good. 

There’s that great line about how Picasso will never amount to anything. And the confidence with which he says it!
Classic. That’s what was so fun about the character. James and I would laugh with glee. We’d cut because we found him so funny, like tragicomic. That was the joy of the character in my mind. He didn’t give a thought that he wasn’t getting off that boat. [The sinking] was more of a nuisance, like, Whatever. He only gets a little serious when he overhears Andrews [played by Victor Garber], and even then, it’s only when he’s up to his chest in ice water that he goes, Yeah, this is getting bad. But certainly still confident that he will get off!

One amusing detail about Cal is how perfectly coiffed your hair remains as the chaos is mounting. Maybe there are a few strands out of place, but it’s pretty pristine. How much attention was being paid to the top of your head between takes?
As much as any detail, which was extraordinary. Only upon the rescue boat did we change it to a middle part that started to look like Sweeney Todd. That was all conscious. I was lobbying for him to actually not get wet at all. He wouldn’t step on anybody or anything, like a cat. He’d just avoid water. He’s very resourceful. And we thought, At some point, it’s gotta pay off. He’s got to get drenched. 

Was that self-preservation on your part? Were you just hoping to avoid having to run through knee-high water?
Oh, it certainly was practical. As we saw how cold those nights were, I was like, “I’ve got a good idea. What if, in the sinking-boat movie, my character doesn’t get wet?” Jim looked at me and laughed. “Nice try.” At that point, it was a very Cal suggestion.

Yes, very Cal of you. How arduous was the sequence where you’re chasing Jack and Rose downstairs with the gun while it’s flooding? You would have had to, I assume, dry off and change clothes between every take.
More or less. The interesting thing about wool is that it doesn’t look wet, so between takes I was able to kind of pat it down. There were certainly others that required a major reset, but that wasn’t one of them. And we only did a few takes. It felt completely safe. There were safety officers. It was something you wanted to get done because you were a couple stories down, being sunk into an ice-cold tank in real time.

I know you guys had a hot tub that people would dash off to and warm up between setups.
Yeah, which was certainly one of the funniest office watercoolers you’d ever see: everyone in formal dress bobbing in the hot tub eating craft service as if it was completely normal. That’s a fond memory.

Did you do etiquette lessons with the rest of the cast?
We all did. I recall some dance lessons at some point. It was nothing we ever used. It might have been movement, how to float across the room with someone on your arm. I remember very physical work. It wasn’t really about which spoon to use. It was about your carriage and whether the left arm would naturally be behind the back, how to extend your arm for a lady, how to lead her up and down stairs.

Jack learns his own silverware etiquette in the film, too. I’ve spoken to the food stylist who worked on Titanic. She said James Cameron ate up most of her budget by requesting real caviar for the scene. Do you remember eating that caviar?
Oh, yes, I do. That was one scene I was very glad we had to reshoot again and again. No complaints there. Oh, a dinner scene with 16 people? How many angles? Fantastic!

That scene must have taken days to shoot, right?
Mm-hmm. It was great.

What comes to mind when you think of your first interaction with a young Leo DiCaprio?
We were friends prior, and mutual admirers of each other’s work. We’d run into each other socially. He was quite a bit younger, but we found ourselves at similar parties and events. It was great news to hear that he had been cast and we would get to work together. It was very comforting in that respect.

So you must have been familiar with what had been dubbed the “Pussy Posse”?
[Pause] Um. Enlighten me.

Maybe not. Leo and his young friends — Tobey Maguire, David Blaine, whoever else was in his social circle in the late ’90s and early 2000s — were known as the Pussy Posse.
Okay. I doubt they called themselves that. I’m familiar with the clique, but I don’t recall the term. His friends visited quite often in Mexico [where the flashback portion of the movie was shot]. I was living in Soho from, like, ’99 to ’01, so I’d see the boys out.

Was Titanic the first time you met Kate Winslet?
It was. I was immediately charmed. She is gracious and funny and forthright — all the things you’ve seen in her work through the years. They were both lovely. I thought he was absolutely sweet as hell and destined for greatness. He was already on that path, and she the same. They were ten years younger, so they felt like little brothers and sisters. It was so funny to be foils on the set, but off-set my dressing room was perhaps strategically placed between the two of them, with Kathy Bates across the hall and Jonathan Hyde next door. It was like a dormitory. It was really fun and supportive.

Is it true that the scene where you flip the table was improvised so Kate would have an organic reaction in the moment?
It wasn’t in the moment. I’m trying to remember how we arrived there. I think it was simply, Why go around it? Go through it. That was perhaps my suggestion. For the sake of good copy, I’ll say yes, but it feels like one of the many conversations I had with Jim. He’s a great collaborator. He inspires and encourages contributions. The more interesting, the better. In this case, it’s a good place to get a sense of establishing possible boundaries and where they’re broken, and danger from this character. As posh and elite and maybe effete as he could be, this is also potentially a dangerous man. We wanted him to be explosive, and it seemed like a well-placed point to perhaps establish levels of threat.

So did Kate know you were going to flip the table?
Oh, I would never have done that just randomly. It would have been dangerous and inappropriate. There’s improv and then there’s chaos. As I recall, it was discussed. It was agreed upon, and the question was, How many dresses do we have? How many place settings? It was all about contingency. I remember the wardrobe department being very grateful. I think we did it about six times, and we only got a drop of orange juice on one dress. Somehow the thing always flew in the direction of the camera, and she was safe from harm, which is more important. I would never have just done something like that with glassware. It was not improv, per se, but it was arrived at on the day. It seemed to be an effective choice.

It seems like you have fond memories of James Cameron. People feel strongly about him one way or the other. Even people who love him recognize that he has his moments. Kate Winslet has said there were times she was frightened of him. How would you characterize your time with Cameron and what you observed of him on the set?
I found him brilliant and hysterical. He’s very smart and very funny, and we found a very kindred dynamic in being able to enjoy wordplay. He’s a wit. On top of the pressure, to be able to be funny along the way was something that I perhaps got an indication the crew was appreciative of. They were like, “Can you visit the set more often?” Whether I was the court jester in this curious kingdom, I don’t know, but I found him inspiring — first in the water, last out. And I appreciated his expectation of personal best and of challenge beyond your comfort zone from every department. I dug the militant quality of that. The chain of command and the objective and the organizing principle lend themselves to a military operation. That’s what film sets are — his perhaps more so than most, some say. I thrived on that.

That table scene was quite early in our journey, maybe the second day. I think he hired me because I made suggestions. That’s the reason I got cast. He did not want to babysit. That was the impression I got. Come to me, make it better, bring things. He doesn’t want to have to do everything, and that’s the greatest misconception of someone who has such a strong vision and personality. People get cowed into waiting to be told what to do. I gathered very early that’s the last thing that man wants.

What do people say about the movie to you now?
If they mention it, they usually mention it as their favorite film — sometimes how it was a catalyst for very important things in their lives, which I’ve come to appreciate more than anything. People want to share their stories. That’s what I love about it. A great movie is a trigger beyond entertainment. It’s a catalyst for what is more important to people, which is their life. It’s the movie they’re starring in — that’s in theater No. 1. They go, “That’s the movie where I saw my father cry for the first time in front of me” or “This is the movie I went to and proposed to my wife after.” People want to tell me those stories. I love it, I love it. Granted, that’s peppered with, “Oh my God, I hated you so much. You were such an asshole.” I say, “Thank you very much,” and we laugh about that.

You did your job.
Yeah, I guess so. It was the running joke for a decade, people just involuntarily spouting hysterical lines at me. I couldn’t even say it was a double-edged sword. It was all very charming and humorous. Some people tend to believe movies are real, but for the most part, people are rational. They love how much they hate me. I would respond with great laughter and joy.

After the movie came out, you said you took a couple of deck chairs from the set as souvenirs. Do you still have those?
I do.

Do you have anything else from the set?
I can neither confirm nor deny. Maybe! But these were just pieces that were flung and fractured in water. They were being retired. It wasn’t like I was pilfering the set. I was upcycling. What can I say? I was doing my environmental duty.

James Cameron would appreciate that as an environmentalist. 
I think he would. Just repurposing, Jim, honest!

Is there a Titanic memory you haven’t shared? Or a question you’ve wanted to be asked? 
I appreciate you putting in the time to actually consider that question, and now I’m caught flat-footed, racking my brain. What haven’t I mentioned or talked about? I’ve spoken about how it was a flash point to a whole other life as a painter. That happened on that set. That’s become an entirely parallel journey — ironic for someone who played a character who didn’t appreciate art.

What inspired that?
The downtime. We were in Mexico for seven months. I would drive up to L.A. on Sunday, crash in my bed, have dinner with friends, and then drive to Mexico the next day and go right to set. After a while, that got boring and I would just stay. There would be days when I wasn’t shooting, so I turned my garage into a studio and started painting. It was Abstract Expressionism. I did it just for the pleasure of doing it, and I would have cast members over for painting parties. Then I started hanging some of the pieces in my place, and only years after did a gallerist see them and put them in a show, which I didn’t expect. You can see the work at I just had some pieces at Art Basel. I owe a lot of this to Titanic. I still use the technique I applied then, which is improvisational and uses pieces that would otherwise have been discarded, like recycled paint and objects I found around Mexico. There was something about the location that unlocked it for me. That was really important.

I remember driving to San Diego to go see The English Patient, just to catch a movie, and remembering the Oscar buzz around that film: a period piece, beautifully acted and shot. We went, Okay, there’s the bar. Where are we? How are we doing? It was inspiring.

Who joined you for that?
I’m trying to remember. It was like four people. It might have been Victor, it might have been Frances. Here’s what’s ironic: Tonight I’m picking up Frances Fisher and we’re going to the Avatar premiere. She called me and said, “Hey, we went to the Oscars together. You want to go to the premiere together?” I said, “Sure, doll, I’m there.” We were just texting each other trying to figure out what the hell to wear. The invitation said “Avatar chic.” I said, “What the hell is that?”

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Billy Zane Answers Every Question We Have About Titanic