Billy Zane Talks Jackson Pollock, Found Art, & Not Being An Anguished Artist

What do you do on your downtime? Thrifting? Catching up on the latest box-set must-see? Well, if you are a bona fide Hollywood star like Billy Zane, you take this downtime and use it to create, well, art. For over 15 years, Zane has painted during filming breaks in wherever and whatever part of the world he finds himself.
It is only in recent years that he started to exhibit his work, and lucky for us Londoners, Zane's first international exhibition is opening today at the Rook and Raven Gallery in London's West End. We caught up with the star to talk about his artwork, and why he just doesn't fit the "anguished artist" bill.
What: Billy Zane: Seize The Day Bed
Where: Rook & Raven Gallery, 7 Rathbone Place, London, W1T 1HN; 020 7323 0805
When: October 11 to November 7
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Photo: Courtesy of Rook & Raven Gallery.
How did you get into painting and art in the first place?
"I was exposed to art as a youth in Chicago. Growing up in the city, there are wonderful galleries and museums. The Art Institute has a notorious collection and it certainly left an impression. I always loved drawing as a young man, and had entered the painting game when I was about 18, but never consistently or seriously. Then, in 1997, when I was on location in Mexico shooting Titanic, we spent seven months with a lot of downtime but limited daylight, so I had to create a wholesome activity [laughs] that capitalised the amount of found art objects, the wonderful distressed materials that appealed to my eye. Earlier in the journey I had watched a film about Jackson Pollock and seeing how he worked, the physicality of his application appealed to me. I recognised some of the movement, dancers like Fosse and Jim Morrison; just this kind of tribal, masculine but strangely gender-bending universal movement. When this was followed by an application of paint, just to dance and paint in a strange sort of way; it interested me and I sort of experimented with using rhythm and movement and the very physical act of painting. It's a... shorthand to a form of creative process. I was pleased with what I had made and became quite addicted to amassing a large body of work; I never had any intention of showing it, but I just had to create. Over the years I've just continued to do so, until my sister brought a gallerist to the house in 2010 and... I was pleased to find I had a show at a gallery in Los Angeles and it was received quite well."
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Photo: Courtesy of Rook & Raven Gallery.
You mention action painting as an influence, and perhaps how you describe your art. Can you elaborate on what action painting means?
"I didn't coin it. It's a technique that was attributed to me and many others who paint on the ground and dance around a canvas [laughs]. There's quite a bit of contradiction and juxtaposition in the work which I've always loved, right down to the name of the show. While being very physical, I find painting incredibly relaxing and meditative. It looks violent, but it comes from love. It makes me quite happy. I'm not an anguished artist working it all out. I come from joy. The act gives me such pleasure, but again it is very textured and quite masculine but the [colour] palette could be seen as quite feminine."

Could you tell me the other artists living or dead that you are inspired by?
"Some of my influences…de Kooning, Kline, all the 'Ks and 'Cs [laughs] Krasner, let's see…Calder! In terms of contemporary painters, Mark Sullivan is very interesting."

What is the concept for this exhibition? Is this a culmination of your work so far?
"There are a few paintings from 2010, but most of them are new."

Is there an overarching theme for these paintings?
"No, I've invited third-party curation. I'm not a conceptual artist. Cinema informs so much of my life as I spend so much of my time in it, and I rather enjoy painting on location — and sometimes on set — for you have this incredible amount of downtime but also this access to fabulous materials and influences. I pilfer the art department [laughs] and borrow bits and pieces. I use the garden centre as my art store. If I'm on an island... I'll use a marine supply store. There are only so many colours of boat paint available. If I can't find canvas, I'll use a sail or an umbrella awning and each piece tends to be informed by the DNA of a location. I enjoy the improvisation as a methodology."

You mentioned you paint on location as and when you can. Has there been a particular film location that's provided the most inspiration?
"I painted about 20 canvases when I was in Africa, doing a sequel to a film called Sniper. We were in South Africa and I was surprised to find there was a woman down the hill who was stretching canvases and was a great artist. I initially bought one or two canvases as I just thought I was just going to dabble. One of them is other there [points to canvas]. I was incredibly prolific there and I don't know why. The 20 pictures I shipped back in a crate that I made outside Jo'burg airport; I ended up making frames for the pictures out of that crate they were delivered in."

Can I ask you about Seize The Day Bed? When I received the information about the exhibition I didn't know what to make of it.
"Did you laugh?"

I did!

"That was the intention [laughs]. I love word play as much as painting...I'd made some T-shirts that were a mash-up of names like, Boy George Washington, Juliette Lewis and Clark, Siegfried and Roy Scheider. I would just amass this list of silly names and make T-shirts out of them. I painted this backdrop and adhered twelve of these T-shirts…I think Dramaturd was one and Bored of Education was another [laughs]. I stuck them onto this massive piece and it was kind of punk rock and kind of cool. One of them was "Seize the Day Bed." It was an insight into my character and preferences and the concept of urgent relaxation which is what it suggests. This juxtaposition of…physical painting as a form of personal meditation. This very masculine application coming from a very gentle, loving place. Seize the day bed sums it up in my mind."
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Photo: Courtesy of Rook & Raven Gallery.
Can I ask why you decided to bring your work to the U.K. to the Rook & Raven gallery?
BZ: "I was invited."

Has London or the U.K. played a part in your artistic world?
BZ: "Oh certainly, since I was a child. It is the jewel in the crown of the art world certainly. My earliest exposure to the arts was in theatre. I would come with my family for two weeks every year in September for intensive matinee and evening performances of some of the best productions. I would go back to Chicago and see, this was in the early '80s, and see the… Steppenwolf company. Malkovich on stage and Joan Allen. I was torn between, "I want to go to RADA," [laughs] and then, "No! The American schools, clearly!" Both great influences for a young actor. When I wasn't in the theatre I was in the galleries."

Do you have a favourite gallery in London? Apart from this one of course.
BZ: "Apart from this one of course [laughs] The Rook & Raven why no! Tate Modern is very exciting. I wish I could make it to the Saatchi tonight but I'm in Manchester in the morning, to do the BBC at the crack of dawn. I'm a big fan of the Portrait gallery. What's the one on Trafalgar?"

The National?
BZ: "The National holds a particular…in wartime especially. The fact that during the Blitz, the threat of invasion, Churchill insisted the national treasures never leave the island. He stored them in Wales in caverns. Then the fact they introduced concerts to the public for the first time…Chopin for scaffolders. It broke the class barrier around the arts, from necessity strangely, that I think is important."
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Photo: Courtesy of Rook & Raven Gallery.
If you weren't going to Manchester today, what would you normally do in London?
BZ: "It changes on what exhibitions are up, what shows are playing. I use Timeout as a bible to see what's on. My local friends have more insight into private gatherings."

In the future, will art or acting be the focus for you. Or will they still go hand in hand?
BZ: "They will go hand in hand. Certainly, I would prefer the lifestyle of a successful painter [laughs]. It's for more preferable than an actor on locations not of his choosing. I'd like curate the next show that I do called Art Department that features the artists on film…cinema will keep informing my works to some degree and manner but I really would like to put the focus upon the unsung heroes, the craftsmen, of the sets. I've worked with so many fabulous scenic painters and designers and they all have their own personal projects. I would like to feature maybe six examples of their work on film, next to their personal work. They are so skilled. I've worked with Peter Greenaway's people and the talented folks who worked on Titanic, Bond films, and Harry Potter."