The unsinkable franchise: Billy Zane on the legacy and return of 'Titanic'

By Steve Persall

Times Movie Critic

Billy Zane doesn't seem like a bad guy at all, after playing one of the worst in movie history: Cal Hockley, the thorn between young lovers Jack and Rose in James Cameron's Titanic, now docked in theaters in 3-D.

Cal was the original 1-percenter, years before the other 99 percent occupied anything. Enormously wealthy with a misanthropic streak to match, Cal's nature was summed up by his callous reply to predictions that half of the ill-fated ship's passengers were doomed: "Not the better half."

Feel free to boo, hiss and be surprised by Zane, in these telephone interview excerpts:

Did you imagine 15 years ago that in 2012 you'd be still doing publicity for Titanic?

I have to say in some degree, yes. I knew certainly it would come up at the 100th anniversary (of the ship's sinking). You're always anticipating new formats in media. I imagine when it's available on an implant we'll be doing this again (laughs). But I didn't expect to see it as a theatrical re-release.

So much negative buzz circled Titanic during production, that it was too expensive and could ruin Paramount and Fox. Did you hear any of that on the set?

Sure, some of it trickled in but it was a blessing. All you can ask for is people clamoring for your doom, because you're destined to triumph. The last thing you want is people touting expectations of the biggest film of all time. That's the kiss of death, isn't it? We were emboldened by the assumptions (of failure). The fact that we heard them was comforting, in a strange way. The contrary would have been worrisome.

What is it like, being known for playing such a despised villain?

The strange thing is: I've been getting reactions from people ... seeing Cal as a slightly sympathetic character now. They suddenly found a different perspective this time around. Maybe they're just getting a little older and wiser.

That's surprising in the Occupy Wall Street era. Cal is the ultimate 1-percenter.

The wealthy are an easy target but what you see (in Cal) is someone who was poorly programmed. You see the limitation of the 1-percent curriculum, narrow in its focus and not giving credit to the power of bohemia.

Everyone knows what Titanic did for Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet. What difference did it make in your career?

All kinds. I found it to be an amazing means to an end. It's an incredible calling card, to be perfectly honest. I suddenly found myself invited to seats at the table with masters of industry, sovereign leaders, at the U.N. pushing energy policies. ... It was an invitation to engage, and fortunately I had initiatives that I was aligned with, assisting the common good. That was a great and handy tool.

It's impolite to discuss money, but did you have a back-end deal (for a piece of Titanic's $1.8 billion grosses)?

Yeah, we had a bonus structure built in, different benchmarks. When it made a certain amount we all got a kicker. Maybe whoever negotiated wasn't expecting to pay those bills (laughs). … It just kept going and going, and probably surprised the business affairs departments of both studios.

Ever ask Cameron if there's room for you in another blockbuster?

He's not stupid. I don't think he needs my soliciting. He knows me, knows my work, we like each other. If there's something he feels is right, we'll rock it.

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8365.

The unsinkable franchise: Billy Zane on the legacy and return of 'Titanic' 04/04/12 [Last modified: Wednesday, April 4, 2012 4:30am]

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