History’s 10-hour, five-night television event series Texas Rising details the Texas Revolution and the rise of the legendary Texas Rangers, in the fight for an independent Texas. In 1836, west of the Mississippi was considered the Wild West and the Texas frontier was a place where cultures would collide in the fight for territory, and it’s where General Sam Houston (Bill Paxton) stood against the fierce Mexican General Santa Anna (Olivier Martinez).
During this exclusive interview with Collider, co-stars Bill Paxton, Jeffrey Dean Morgan (who plays Houston’s right-hand man, Erastus “Deaf” Smith) and Olivier Martinez talked about what attracted them to this project, the men that they portray, working with director Roland Joffé, what a great and impressive experience this project was, and what they most enjoyed about being a part of telling this story.
Collider: What was it that attracted you to this project?
BILL PAXTON: I’m the only actor to have come from Hatfields & McCoys, and I had great success with that. I really liked (producer) Leslie Greif, who had put that together, and he had been working on this for awhile. And then, he said, “Roland Joffé is probably going to be the director.” When I heard that they were considering him as the director, that made me very excited. I’m a big fan of his, and he had this whole thing figured out. Roland really knew all our characters, and knew where they fit into this world that he was created. I felt like I got great direction from him. He’s somebody you can just relax with because you know you’re in capable hands.
JEFFREY DEAN MORGAN: It’s a Western. For me, it was, “Let’s go play cowboys!” Also, Leslie Greif is a hell of a pitchman. You sit down with him for five minutes and you’re like, “I’ll do it!” He’s the ultimate pitchman. But, it was on the page.
OLIVIER MARTINEZ: Roland Joffé was a big part of it, for me. As an actor, the part can only be right with the right cast and the right director. I only knew that Roland was directing this movie with Bill, and that was enough for me.
MORGAN: I agreed to do it before Roland Joffé was on board, so when I found out he was involved, I was like, “High five!” It was the perfect deal. It really fell into place with a really great cast.
What did you most enjoy about working with Roland Joffé?
PAXTON: He’s a consummate director of the old school. He’s really an artist and a gentleman. He not only did an amazing piece of choreography with the shooting of this, but everybody thinks wide screen is easy to shoot, and it’s not. He’s a master at it. In that way, I felt like I was working with what it must have been like to work with an English gentleman. While everyone is freaking out, Roland gets very calm.
MARTINEZ: The first day I arrived on set, which was a few weeks after my fellow actors, I called Leslie and said, “The first thing I want to do is to sit with Roland and talk to him because we didn’t have the time to talk too much. There are a few things I have to ask him.” So, I arrived and I had my notes. Roland said, “Close your eyes and listen to what I’m going to say. My name is Santa Anna . . .” He spoke for 20 minutes, and then there was silence. I opened my eyes and he said, “What were your questions?” And I said, “I have no questions.”
MORGAN: He did that with all of us.
PAXTON: Each one of us went through a trance-like exercise. He centered each one of us.
MARTINEZ: He’s a master, and that’s what masters do.
How was the overall experience of shooting this?
MARTINEZ: Just the experience on the set, as an actor, was one of my greatest experiences, ever.
PAXTON: From the first day we showed up, the sets were so impressive. It was really something else. Roland was the right director, and he knew how to utilize all of us. It was a unique experience, absolutely.
What can you say about the men that you’re playing?
MORGAN: I play Erastus “Deaf” Smith, who may be the first Texas Ranger. He was a good friend of Sam Houston and his confidante, or right-hand man. He was also deaf. He went pseudo-deaf as a young man. He could hear something. He considered himself a Mexican. He lived in Mexico, or what was Texas, his whole life, which was a Mexican state, but he was born in New York. There wasn’t a lot of information. He died of consumption, which is important to the story. He loved his country, he loved Texas, and he loved Sam Houston. He was going to die for Sam Houston, if he had to. I thought that was a great story to play. There’s so much stuff going on, but I love the relationship I had with Bill’s character, and how these two men could respect and love each other the way that they did. That was really fun to play. Unlike some of the characters, you get to see beyond the battlefield with my character. You get to see him at home. That’s why I loved this character so much. He had this relationship with his wife that I thought was really tender.
MARTINEZ: One of the things about this story is that every character has his dimensions. Each character is rich and has his backstory. We had the time to explore our characters. I had to do some research because this wasn’t a subject that I was very familiar with. Bill comes from Texas and he grew up with this story.
MORGAN: And he’s related to Sam Houston.
MARTINEZ: Santa Anna is a historical character, so I had to do a lot of research. I knew that I could trust Roland, who knew more about this, and I knew that I could follow what he wanted.
PAXTON: Santa Anna started out as a war hero. They tried to take Mexico back, a few years after they granted them independence. He just threw their constitution out and made himself a dictator, becoming the thing that he had fought against, with Colonial rule. He considered himself the Napoleon of the West. I think he didn’t just have eyes on straightening out Texas.
MORGAN: He was conquering and moving North.
MARTINEZ: He was a soldier before he was a politician. He said he would always be a soldier because it was the only honorable job to do. He was elected 11 times, but he never ruled the country.
PAXTON: For Santa Anna, they needed an actor who had bravado and panache and charm, and [Olivier] had all three of those. I was excited. I knew both of these guys, as actors, and to me, they’re actors who you’ll really believe in these roles. They’re always trying to stunt cast these things, but they got the right actors for this. I got involved because of my history with Hatfields & McCoys, but to play Sam Houston, who’s in my bloodline and a Texan, and who was such an interesting man that was self-educated from his dad’s library, was so cool. These were smart men. Even if they weren’t book smart, they were smart guys. They could quote Shakespeare and the Bible. There was far more culture with these people than there is now.
MARTINEZ: It was before reality TV.
PAXTON: Out of this came the myth of the cowboy, and that’s a good role.
MORGAN: And there was no bravado about it.
What was the relationship between Sam Houston and Santa Anna like?
MORGAN: The chess match that you get to see between Sam Houston and Santa Anna, they were both brilliant military minds. They both studied all of the great battles that had happened in the world. Seeing this kind of chess match happen, from my point of view, was pretty fascinating to watch.
MARTINEZ: Santa Anna was very brave, but Houston was much more smart and rational. It’s not enough to charge. You have to know when to charge.
PAXTON: The Alamo cost him a lot of guys, but then he realized that he couldn’t move the whole army very quickly. He tried to capture the Texas cabinet, but by going ahead of his troops, he put himself in a vulnerable position. What was interesting was that, on the day of the battle, the Americans waited until 4:30 in the afternoon, which is tradition with the siesta. They got caught with their pants down, and the battle was over in 20 minutes. Houston let Santa Anna set up his tent right next to his, so that they could talk because they had a lot of things to talk about. You could be in a bloody conflict, but at the end of the day, after one captures the other, you’re interested in what the other one’s story is. We had to dig a little deeper. You have to challenge the writing a little bit. These things become historical fiction, a little bit. It’s gotta be hanging on some kind of truth.
After having so much fun on this, how do you move on to the next job?
MORGAN: That’s a good question.
PAXTON: This is it for us!
Texas Rising is a 10-hour, five-night event series that airs on History on May 25th and 26th, and June 1st, 8th and 15th.