Is Billy Zane back? The 49-year-old actor is most famous for losing his chick to Leo in Titanic and a supremely odd, scene-stealing cameo in Ben Stiller's paragon of aughts comedy, Zoolander. Then, despite an extremely healthy filmography that now adds up to something like 140 credited roles, Billy disappeared. From the mainstream, at the very least. But now the stars are aligned for a comeback. The movie that still garners him the most recognition despite finally got a sequel—and he finally got more screentime. He's also in The Shield creator Shawn Ryan's buzzing new Amazon series Mad Dogs. So is cool dude Billy Zane stepping back into the spotlight? Listen to him tell it for yourself:
Zoolander is a big movie in my generation. What was your reaction when you were approached about doing the sequel?
I was thrilled. I knew when [Ben Stiller] called it was real. I was like, great. We are on. When he said it was going to be in Rome, I thought that would be pretty phenomenal. I love the fact that he waited that long. It just became so much more relevant, those characters and where they are pitched is kind of right in the reverence of the age. It’s so lampoonable and roastable, right now.
How did your role in the original come about? You’re only in like five minutes, but you steal the movie.
Thank you. That’s sweet. It was unplanned, really. I was living in New York at the time. Ben and I kept running into each other at Fashion Week during the shows. We had admired each other’s work prior and had a laugh. Then he started populating that movie with whoever was in the city and around the space. He called and said, “Look, I would really like you at this fashion show.” I said, “Great. Let’s do it.” Then when we got there he was like, “I have this face off with Owen’s character, Hansel, and he has this big group of people, and I thought that, maybe, would you back me up?” I said, “Yeah. I’ll be there in a heartbeat.” We didn’t know what we were going to say so we just improved it. That hokeyness, listen to your friend, what he’s saying, he’s cool—I made that up completely. That was just on the spot. I don’t know. It’s almost embarrassingly funny. Then it became whatever, adored by some fans who seemed to love to say it to me. All the time.
It seems like since then you’ve kind of taken a step back from the public eye and mainstream films. Looking at your filmography, though, you still kept busy. Was that by design?
There are many factors. Parenthood, you know? Life takes turns. I’ve always mixed it up. I always peppered mainstream with limited, fringe, experimental independents. There are some turkeys along the way because you can never control the caliber or quality of a piece. All you can hope for is that you keep working and I guess maintain some relevance. I’m grateful for a film like this to keep pushing that and affirming that. What’s been exciting is exploring new platforms as well, like Amazon Prime right now. I don’t know if you saw Mad Dogs.
I was going to ask you about that next.
I would rush to do something like that absolutely again, on the bleeding edge of new platform delivery and so-called television. You’ve got great writing in this very exciting house that’s spending a lot of money on talent and quality that is the future.
What was it like working with Shawn Ryan on Mad Dogs?
He’s amazing. A fellow Illinois boy. We connected on Midwestern upbringing and sensibilities. But he’s a very smart and thoughtful man and I really like the analytics and the analysis [he brought to] that character and the overall arc of that story.
Do you see yourself involved in more TV, especially on Amazon and Netflix?
I like that binge concept. I’ve enjoyed absorbing content that way. The answer is yes, absolutely, but now I'm doing a slightly more traditional format in a new extension platform in an ABC show called Guilt. I start shooting for five months and it’s an extensive arc that can go for years for a platform that ABC is rebranding called Freeform [formerly ABC Family]. It’s loosely based on the Amanda Knox case. Loosely. It’s very interesting though.
What’s your role going to be?
A character that’s an American based in London who is very colorful and unconventional, newly disbarred for weird and wacky behavior. But he gets the job done.
Sounds fun. Going back in your career a little bit, I personally think The Phantom is one of the most underrated movies ever.
I knew you were going to say that because I’ve been having this conversation a lot lately. People from your generation were the target audience, young kids who were not really catered to in the realm of adventure. I grew up with adventure movies. They were a bit more classic, but I absolutely loved them. I loved that character for that reason. He’s a happy hero. The tone of that film was like Indiana Jones. It called back to a genre that I think there’s a deficit for. I look forward to developing a lot more material out there in that space. I’d love to do a sequel 20 years later.
That’d be amazing.
Well, it’s a father and son business. Twenty years later you’ll be trying to hand over the mantle, but maybe having to still squeeze into that purple suit again to help the kid. It would be funny as hell.
I’m curious about what goes through your mind when you think about The Phantom and the current track the superhero genre is on. And tone.
I’m a big fan of differentiation. I get it. I’m really proud that my offering to the genre was something that the genre was built on and not co-opted by the postmodern. I’m thrilled that I got to play someone who is super humane, not superhuman. It always gives the benefit of the doubt. He’s never killed, disarmed, and if people died it was at their own hand. There is never a gray area there. I loved that. There’s room for everything, but I think we are a product of our references, certainly our media. Young generations aren’t given examples of how to shape the spirit and dignity of a young man in today’s world or in tomorrow’s world for that matter. We need these archetypes that reflect a fairly simple but workable model of being earnest and cool and wholesome. I don’t know.
What do you get recognized most for these days?
I either get The Phantom, Titanic—certainly Zoolander. Demon Knight, people love. Depends on the person. Whatever it is, they have a real love for it. And I get the Mummy, which I absolutely have nothing to do with. I’m not the Mummy. It’s a wonderful actor named Arnold [Vosloo]. I need a, “I’m not the Mummy” t-shirt.
Do you ever get people screaming the "diamond in the coat" line from Titanic at you?
[Yells.] "I put the diamond in the coat!"
What do you think about your co-star Leo’s chances for the Oscar this year?
Oh god. He’s got to win. It’s about goddamn time. Yeah. Ugh. He’s so good and works so hard. Such a nice fellow, clearly. Having it been withheld for so long just because I think people can’t handle so much talent and beauty and good fortune and the dating history, they just go, “No. I’m not going to give you an Oscar as well.” It’s a shame. It’s a bloody shame. He’s deserved it for so long. I’m really happy for him. I can’t wait to see him accept it. He’s got to. I texted him the minute he got the Globe: “Congrats for Christ’s sake.”