ABOVE: JAMES PAXTON. PHOTO COURTESY OF JOSIE PEREZ/JUST OMAR.
James Paxton’s first professional acting role came to him by chance; while visiting his father, Bill, on the set on Spy Kids 3, director Robert Rodriguez had an idea. “He said, ‘I think it’d be awesome if your character had a son in this scene, can you ask him if he’s into it?’ And my dad was like ‘Sure! I’m sure he’d be down,'” the Ojai, California native explains. It wasn’t, however, love at first sight. In spite of his early exposure to the industry, it wasn’t until he studied film in college—shifting his focus from journalism—that Paxton caught the bug. He moved to L.A., got an agent, and began training with Vincent Chase (the acting coach after whom Adrian Grenier’s Entourage character was named). “As a little kid you have no inhibitions. In front of a camera you’re just like, ‘Oh, yeah, I got this,'” he tells us. “I knew I had to go back and study if I was going to do this [professionally]—you still earn your stripes out here, no matter who you’re related to.”
Currently, the younger Paxton stars in Eyewitness, USA’s adaptation of the Norwegian thriller series Øyetvine. The show, which premiered last week, features Paxton as Lukas Waldenbeck, a small town, teenage motocross athlete who witnesses a murder during a secret hookup with his friend Philip (Tyler Young). As tensions increase, Paxton gives a raw and often unsettling performance, boldly confronting the psychological and sexual drama of Lukas’s character in the fallout of the murder. Facing the wrath of his conservative father, and with his high school popularity at risk, we see the question of Lukas’ sexuality and safety spiral out of his control. Paxton emphasizes the more tender elements of Lukas’ character: “At the core of it, it’s this really interesting, complex love story between the two boys.”
When we speak to Paxton over the phone, the thrill of Eyewitness‘s debut is still fresh, if not a little jarring. “I’m feeling something I’ve never felt before, and that’s always strange. You, know, when you feel a feeling that’s like, ‘This is so alien.’ But it’s a good feeling.”
FRANK CHLUMSKY: Eyewitness just premiered and it’s your first major starring role. How does it feel?
JAMES PAXTON: It’s feels incredible. It’s funny, Tyler [Young], my costar, just sent me a text this morning of some fan art that people are already making. Somebody made a comic strip of the two of us. It’s an unreal feeling. It’s really, really humbling and exciting. For the most part there’s been a very positive reaction. … And you have Julianne Nicholson giving an incredible, central performance. So yeah, it’s pretty amazing.
CHLUMSKY: How did the role come to you?
PAXTON: I would say I have a really great agent. [laughs] It was a busy week that week; I remember I had auditioned for about six different things, and—I’m not just saying this because I got it—that was the best thing that I had read. Sometimes I’ll skim through something for a pilot or a script if I don’t have a lot of time before having to go in and read for it. This one I read page to page and then reread, because I felt like I missed some stuff that was there. Then once I saw Catherine Hardwicke’s name attached as the director, I just had to get in there as soon as possible. I was actually sick the morning that I went in to audition. I was dry heaving right before; it wasn’t just because of nerves. I somehow contained it for those 10, 15 minutes I was in the room. I was just lucky that they called me back. I’ve never had this happen to me, but Catherine, right then and there after I finished reading, said, “You know, I don’t really like to beat around the bush. I’m only in town for a few days. Can you come to my place in Venice tomorrow and read with the other actor we’ve cast?” I was like, “Yeah, absolutely!” She was like, “You guys will be really intimate; you’ll be kissing each other and stuff.” And I was like, “Yeah, okay, awesome! That’s quite immersive for an audition, but if you say ‘jump’ Catherine, I’ll do it. Let’s go.”
CHLUMSKY: Did that chemistry with you and Tyler come naturally, or was it something that you both had to work at? Obviously you had to be very physically and emotionally involved.
PAXTON: It actually came quite naturally. You’d think that it would have taken longer for that because, with the subject matter, you have to become so vulnerable in front of another actor and you guys need to trust each other. Tyler was so open and willing to work hard with every actor that he read with, so he gave everyone the best shot at it. He was cast almost immediately after reading it. The show creator just went, “That’s the guy.” It was a bit more of a struggle for them to find Lukas; it took them three months in total. Tyler… I felt bad for the poor guy. I was the last guy to read for it, so I felt like they were running a train over him, because he had to do a lot of these emotional scenes.
CHLUMSKY: Have you gotten to see the original Norwegian thriller that it’s based off of, Øyetvine?
PAXTON: Tyler and I watched the first episode actually after we had finished the first two episodes. I was excited to see it, but I didn’t really want that to influence what we were going to do with it, because our version is very much a reimagining. That original is such a hit over there, and there was so much gold for them to mine with this version. But our’s goes almost five episodes longer and it goes in a different direction towards the end.
CHLUMSKY: At the beginning, Lukas comes off as really cruel and even violent towards Philip. Were you worried at all that the audience might not connect with him, or might feel a lot of ill will towards him? How did you go about rendering that complexity as the story went on?
PAXTON: I made a choice to play Lukas as a kid who is so fearful and confused that he kind of defaults into this primal, outward projection of anger and violence towards Philip. I felt like—and I’m not advocating the way he dealt with it—that’s sometimes an instinctual thing—when an animal feels cornered, he’s just going to attack. So I played it like that, and I knew that I wanted the audience to have a hard time understanding him like he has a hard time understanding himself. I felt like it was a very realistic way to take it.
CHLUMSKY: Lukas is also an aspiring motocross star, and I thought the choice of the sport was kind of interesting. I guess if he were like, the closeted, high school football star it might have been too much of an American cliché. Do you think that motocross specifically was important to the story and to Lukas’ identity?
PAXTON: Yeah, I do. It’s like a cousin of NASCAR. It’s in this world of sports that’s still very macho and doesn’t endorse same-sex couples and gay sexual orientation. I did research it; I wanted to see if there were any riders in the motocross world that were struggling with that that would be posting, maybe anonymously, on forums and stuff. I did find some stuff, and I was like, “Woah.” They were talking about how they would never come out because they’d lose their sponsorships. I think there’s still a long ways to go there. It’s a tough climate to be in.
CHLUMSKY: To take a broader look at this role, Lukas’s storyline mirrors the experience of so many gay teens. Do you find the responsibility of telling this story and being a voice on television for this community daunting, or are you up for that challenge?
PAXTON: Oh, I’m up for that challenge. It’s actually quite invigorating to be able to be a part of a project that’s not only good writing in and of itself outside of the LGBT aspect, but it also says so much for the community as well. I just set out to find good storytelling, but I was so pleasantly surprised that what came along with that was now this newfound responsibility to be a voice for it. It’s quite an honor and it’s quite amazing. I think everybody wants to make a difference in some way. I’m very pleased that I can put the two together and take that position, absolutely.
CHLUMSKY: You come from an acting family, but you kind of grew up a little out of the way from Hollywood in Ojai. Was your dad hesitant when you decided that you wanted to enter into this business?
PAXTON: Yeah, a little bit. He never said flat out, “Don’t do this.” He was always supportive. But he knows himself what a rough road and what a stop-and-start kind of thing it is. He has this saying, “I die a death of a thousand paper cuts between jobs.” It’s not a steady thing. He would tell people to just reconsider if they were going to get into this business—really, really make sure that they’re committed. He definitely had this huge rush of relief when he heard that I had booked this part. He always knew that I could do it, but now for him to see it in practice and me now as a professional actor, I think he’s like, “Woah. Thank God.” [laughs]
CHLUMSKY: I’ve also read that you’re in a band. Could you tell us a little bit about the music that you play?
PAXTON: I just write the lyrics and do all of the vocals. My buddy produces all of the music; I’ve known him since preschool. It has alternative hip-hop elements, but it’s a bit harder to define. We jokingly call it “food music” because we have no idea what to call it exactly. I can rap; that’s what I was originally really good at. I started putting words together, making rhymes and being witty with the wordplay. I can play a little bit of guitar, and that’s something I’m going to dedicate more time to doing.
CHLUMSKY: Is it something that you’d like to be pursuing professionally alongside acting?
PAXTON: It is something I’d like to pursue. I’ve performed a few times; I was a roadie selling merchandise for a rapper on tour a couple years ago. I opened a couple of shows with him, like when people were still just filtering in and there was nobody, I was rapping up on stage. [People were like,] “Who’s this little white boy rapping up there?” Then they just see me go to the merch booth—”Oh, that’s just their lil’ homie getting up on stage for a second.”
CHLUMSKY: You already have two new projects lined up: An American in Texas and Boogeyman Pop.
PAXTON: Yeah! And I was going to say, I played the lead singer in An American in Texas of a punk rock band in 1990.
CHLUMSKY: So you’ve already crossed over!
PAXTON: Yeah, I played a real punk show that they filmed in the scene. Punk music is perfect for me because I’m not, like, a master at any instrument. I have a hard time even calling myself a musician, but I still have to be involved in music in some capacity in my life. So a punk group is perfect because literally the lead singer doesn’t play anything—he just sings and screams and jumps around; his body is his instrument. And I’m especially excited about Boogeyman Pop. I teamed up with the most talented, undiscovered, up-and-coming young writer/director in L.A., Brad Elmore. It’s this movie that we made guerrilla style for $80,000, Chris Weitz executive produced it, put his own money into it. I’ve wrapped, but now the movie is finally getting finished and should have a career at festivals. It’s also a punk rock film, but that’s just an element—my character’s into punk rock; he’s not a singer. It’s like Nightmare on Elm Street meets Stand By Me meets Dazed and Confused.