One of Hollywood’s favourite bad boys, American actor, producer and painter, Billy Zane rose to fame through his roles in iconic films, such as Titanic and Back to the Future. The star recently visited Egypt to attend the 41st annual Cairo International Film Festival. While in Cairo, he got acquainted with his fan base in Egypt especially through events like eniGma’s Private Cocktail Party, held in his honour in the beautiful premises of the real estate company, Marakez. With his warm and vibrant personality, Zane’s fans were exposed to a character that is diametrically the opposite of the villains he often plays on screen. eniGma’s Mohamed Hesham caught up with the Hollywood star and had a lovely conversation about Zane’s Egyptian experience, his outlook on life and his wide array of interests.
How has your visit to Egypt been?
It’s been a brief stay, filled with great meetings and events. I’ve stayed at the lovely Four Seasons hotel and had a chance to visit the Great Pyramids of Giza with a fantastic tour guide. I am grateful to make my point of entry here with my dear friend and business partner, Ahmed Shabana, who’s an Egyptian national and American citizen. He started a company, called Global Venture Summit, which I later joined as a partner. It brings Silicon Valley investment funds to emerging markets around the world to help promote innovation. I love that gesture. To be a guest of honour at the Cairo International Film Festival, the oldest in the region, and the fact that I’m being honoured by such an esteemed institution is thrilling, as well as to also have the opportunity to explore bringing the summit here to Egypt was great. Shabana also introduced me to eniGma and to Yasmine Shihata, who is clearly a great ambassador with an acute understanding of the culture. I can honestly say eniGma is clearly well positioned as a force within popular culture.
Speaking of eniGma, tell me about your thoughts on the Marakez party and being the guest of honour?
Talking to all those folks at the eniGma party was just terrific; they’re beautiful and really very sweet. It was such a well-cast party, as I like to say. There was a great combination of people, who were really very dear. I was just very interested to have conversations with them. It was an amazing event, and it was beautifully set and so tastefully done, in this little oasis that is Marakez.
As an actor and producer, do you find it important to explore and venture into other fields? We know you’re also into painting.
It’s a natural progression for me, personally. As an artist, I try to find the thread of empathy and understanding behind a lot of my characters, even the darkest of roles. I like pattern recognition. I realised that all the attributes I put into character study are also applicable in business. That, It’s a natural progression for me, personally. As an artist, I try to find the thread of empathy and understanding behind a lot of my characters, even the darkest of roles. I like pattern recognition. I realised that all the attributes I put into character study are also applicable in business. That, coupled with the access that celebrity affords to decision makers, heads of state and captains of industry, was very practical. It became a very handy tool, with access to solutions and deep science. Intelligence, science and technology interest me, as does storytelling and filmmaking, and the same goes for my painting. Being able to pivot a beautiful accident when you spill paint on canvas is an expression. I’m an abstract expressionist; it’s much more physical, improvisational work for me.
Do you consider painting serious work, or is just a hobby for you?
It’s more than a hobby. I was just honoured in Greece, which was very touching. I’ve had exhibitions in Miami, Los Angeles, London and Budapest. I try not to create art as a career, which keeps it pure and authentic, but the results are still managed in a way that’s more serious than a hobby. They’re selling, and that’s nice.
Would you ever consider retiring from acting and focusing solely on painting, and the other ventures on the side?
I do like the lifestyle of an accomplished painter (laughs). I look at Picasso and D’Anty, painting between lunch, siesta, love-making and swims in the Mediterranean, and I’m like, ‘That looks nice!’ When I look at the lifestyle of a working actor at four am in the morning in Canada, memorising forensic monologues, I have to admit it’d be nice to become a painter fulltime… But, I feel that acting and filmmaking keep me connected to other artists. I’m always learning. And it pushes me. It’s yet one more variable that can spirit and guide my good intentions.
“The deeper the villain’s journey is, the better the whole story plays out”
Did playing a lot of villains on screen come as a surprise to you – an unexpected career path?
Absolutely! It was ironic and funny. It was like a good bad joke. I thought, okay, that’s a curious challenge, and then I found I had to get some better understanding as to what leads people to be that way. So, I love the process of going deep, and really trying to understand these characters. They’re all products of trauma, in some way. It’s so interesting to try and find ways to communicate with the forces behind someone behaving the way they do… You don’t want to mine sympathy, but rather understanding, which gives the characters dimension; and it actually makes the hero’s journey better. The deeper the villain’s journey is, the better the whole story plays out. I found that this became a big part of my job. As much as I love playing white hat heroes, I like playing The Phantom-like characters, who are still a bit like John Wayne. I like the comedy of it.
The Phantom has become an astounding cult classic with a growing fan base long after its release, while Titanic and Back to the Future were hits right off the bat. Did you have a feeling that these films were going to be special while filming them? Do you have solid memories from these sets?
It’s like your iPhoto library, when you pick a frame and you click on it, then it opens up. You can fly through all of it, but when you click on the frame as a memory, it’s indelible; it’s in HD and I remember it clearly. I’m getting very used to the absurdity of the job. On the Titanic set, it was cold, you would be sitting there wet. It was a movie about a sinking ship, so there was no complaining; it’s what we had signed up for. So, you just keep your mouth shut and do the job. But, under the tuxedo, I was wearing a very thin wet suit, because winter Northern Pacific sea water was being flooded into the sets. It didn’t take much acting to pretend that it was cold and you wanted to get out of the water. So, in between sequences, there were these huge hot tubs made for actors and extras to go jump into and sit and wait. Now, I just remember sitting in a hot tub in my tux with director James Cameron, and someone walking by with a tin foiled hoagie dough or a sandwich. You’re in a hot tub eating a hot dog in a tuxedo, and you’re not thinking it is weird, because you’re on the fifth month of filming (laughs). That is the beauty of this job; it’s where the absolutely extraordinary and absurd become commonplace.
What about Back to the Future and The Phantom? Are there any memories that stand out from these two sets?
Back to the Future was basically me and the ‘Biff’s Gang’ hanging out in the Universal Studios back lot. That was my first film, and I was like a kid in a candy store. We got to run around, play with the tourists that were passing by, and go get on the rides… It was a true playground for a teenager. That was a great, inspiring and whimsical experience. With The Phantom, on the other hand, I was so honoured and happy to have gotten that role, because I really understood it. This was a super-humane character, not just superhuman; he had no powers and he loved his job – a well-adjusted and happy jungle lord, who was on a vengeance quest. He had animal friends and a girlfriend, lived in a cave, and things were cool. It is actually my favourite role.
Would you star in an Egyptian movie?
Yeah, that would be great! Send something my way, that’s a good reason to come back.