Lead actor, the un-usual suspects

Bill Paxton has appeared in more than 40 films, including “Titanic,” “Apollo 13″ and “Twister.” So it’s odd to hear the 50-year-old actor and director (“The Greatest Game Ever Played”) describe himself as a “late bloomer.”

He’s referring to his first true romantic lead, as Utah polygamist Bill Henrickson in HBO’s “Big Love.” Paxton’s movies have made his chiseled, yet boyish, face a familiar one. But “Big Love,” his first TV series, has exposed him to a new kind of audience scrutiny.

“One gal came up to me and said I had the cutest butt on TV,” Paxton laughs. “Oh, gosh, I’m having a lot of fun with it.”

Paxton passionately defends the premise of “Big Love,” describing polygamy as a lens through which the show examines marriage and family.

“The show is not about a guy marrying three women,” says Paxton. “It’s about four adults who enter into a marriage contract and form a family — a superfamily. It’s funny to think of a show about polygamy representing classic family values in a very American, traditional way.”

Paxton says he’s intrigued by Henrickson’s contradictions (“He’s the polygamist who really wanted to be a monogamist”) and his rebound from the “dark paths” of his youth.

“I love the idea of someone who’s overcompensating for something from the past,” he says. “It almost creates a Corleone saga, and I’m the Michael character who’s slowly pulled back in.”

Paxton is also drawn to Henrickson’s “spiritual quest” to live his version of an upstanding life.

“He’s very decent. … He embodies characteristics I admire and would aspire to. He’s starting to deal with the past, which he shut out for so long. You have to know where you came from to understand where you’re going,” Paxton explains.

As for the challenge of keeping three leading ladies (Jeanne Tripplehorn, Chloe Sevigny and Ginnifer Goodwin) happy, Paxton is (wisely) diplomatic.

“Art imitates life,” he says. “Here are three great actresses, and they have to share a leading man. I want to make sure I acknowledge all of their contributions.”

With “Big Love” picked up for a second season, Paxton is mellow about a possible long run.

“This was the part of a lifetime handed to me on a plate,” he says in his easygoing Texas drawl. “I’ve chased this career for 30 years, and now I’m going to let it chase me.”

SOUND BITES

Favorite moment of the past season:

“I have a great moment (in the ‘Easter’ episode) with Jeanne when she’s gardening, and they have a long look. I have a great scene with Chloe in a food court when he comes to terms with her debt that I’m very proud of.”

Shows he watches regularly:

“‘The Sopranos.’ I never miss it.”

Actor or actress on TV who doesn’t get enough credit:

“Grace Zabriskie (Paxton’s mother on “Big Love”). My God, that woman! Here’s your Emmy. … I feel like I’m talking to my own mother when I’m doing scenes with her.”

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