Now starring as Captain von Trapp in Lyric Opera of Chicago’s ‘The Sound of Music,’ Billy Zane reflects on his ever-evolving career, fatherhood — and a few of his favorite things.
Billy Zane is sliding down a banister at full speed, eyebrows arched. Photographer Simon Perry and I suck in our breath as Zane barrels toward us, but just before the actor crashes into the base, he gracefully leaps onto the carpet below.
Our hearts are racing, but Zane doesn’t skip a beat — he sprints back to the top of the stairs, beckoning Perry, who’s photographing Zane for Splash’s cover, to follow him. He sits precariously on the railing, crosses his Fendi-clad feet, then leans into the camera, pointing his finger until it’s inches from the lens. “I like playing with perspective,” he says, without breaking his pose.
Zane, Perry and I are at Lyric Opera of Chicago, squeezing a rapid-fire photo shoot in between back-to-back rehearsals for Zane’s stint as Captain von Trapp in Lyric’s “The Sound of Music,” which premiered April 25 and runs through the end of May. The Chicago native has spent more than a month in the Windy City while prepping for the part — and though he’s thrilled to return to his “powerful, diverse and resonant” hometown, he’s hardly had a second to reminisce. “When I’m not onstage, I work. I keep my creative juices flowing,” he says. “No time for revisiting old ground.”
It’s a statement that applies just as easily to the actor’s three-decade career, which he’s worked hard to shape into an ever-evolving organism. Best known for his on-camera work — specifically, his star turns in hits like “The Phantom” and “Titanic” — Zane, 48, has brought his Clark Gable looks and playful smirk to more than 100 films and TV shows. But his talents extend far beyond the silver screen. As evidenced by a Broadway turn as Billy Flynn in “Chicago” in 2002 and his latest role at Lyric, he’s a singer and an accomplished stage actor. In his free time, he paints — his abstract expressionist work has been shown at Miami’s Art Basel and London’s Art Fair. While in town for “The Sound of Music,” he’s consulting for Chicago film-production house Cinespace Studios and creating marketing strategies for local distillery 312 Spirits. And Zane’s on-the-fly assistant art direction at our cover shoot isn’t a coincidence: He brings up that a few years back, he art directed a Bond-inspired GQ shoot of Jenny McCarthy.
Zane is, quite simply, an artist: abundantly creative, spontaneous, completely consumed by his ideas — and more than a little eccentric. He insists on selecting his own clothes from Saks Fifth Avenue for the Splash shoot, visibly pauses to turn sentences over in his mind before speaking them aloud and admits he’s very mindful of his image. He speaks with a slightly clipped accent, enunciating every word and evoking a Hollywood actor of the 1930s. In a sense, Zane’s public persona seems to be a performance art piece, designed to surprise and delight whatever audience he encounters.
That passion for performance arose early in Zane. Growing up in Chicago, he watched his parents take the stage in regional theater pieces and attended Wisconsin’s Harand Camp of the Theatre Arts, where he played Curly in a production of “Oklahoma!” But it wasn’t until graduating from Lincoln Park’s Francis W. Parker High School in 1984 that he decided to pursue acting professionally. “I realized I didn’t want to be a student for a while — I wanted to go pro,” he recalls, then jokes, “It was the ’80s. All the kids were doing it.”
Just weeks after moving to LA, Zane booked his first job, playing one of Biff Tannen’s cohorts in “Back to the Future.” In 1989, he landed his first starring role as a serial killer who tortures Nicole Kidman on the high seas in “Dead Calm.” From there, things snowballed: Zane went on to romance Sherilyn Fenn in several episodes of “Twin Peaks,” save New York City as a purple jumpsuit-clad superhero in 1996’s “The Phantom” and, most famously, attempt to foil a budding romance between Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in 1997’s “Titanic.”
To this day, “Titanic’s” Cal Hockley remains Zane’s most recognizable role, something he’s more than grateful for. “It’s part of our fabric,” he says. “[Fans] still chastise me for breaking Rose and Jack up — or missing Jack with a bullet.” For better or worse, the film set a tone that’s stuck with Zane over the course of his career — he’s often asked to play cartoonishly evil or unlikeable characters. It’s an image he’s both embraced (“Sometimes it’s more practical to be feared than loved,” he muses) and skewered, most memorably by playing a caricature of himself in 2001’s “Zoolander” as the titular character’s snooty pal. “I still get, ‘Shut it, Zane,’ or ‘Listen to your friend Billy Zane,’ ” Zane laughs. “I appreciate it all.”
But the multifaceted Zane has since proven that his range lies beyond playing the antagonist, thwarting typecasting — he turned down the role of Julia Roberts’ unhinged husband in “Sleeping With the Enemy” — without interrupting the steady stream of roles that come his way. When summing up his more recent career, Zane puts it simply: “A kitchen sink comes to mind.” He currently has no less than 10 projects on the horizon, including a lighthearted part in the upcoming Comedy Central series “Checked Out” that he says “is closest to my character and heart.”
“The Sound of Music” speaks similarly to Zane’s instincts. “The Captain’s transformation is very moving to witness, let alone play, every day,” he says. “The show is a reminder to audiences the world over of how simple transformation is.” That theme hits so close to home for Zane — the always-transforming artist — that he can hardly separate himself from his character. “Detaching enough to feel the truth but not get caught up in the emotion of the scene and music is genuinely tricky,” he says. “It’s always a shock to the system to remember to not lose yourself in a moment onstage, during the songs especially. [But] these are good problems in the end.”
In part, Zane took the role of the stoic-turned-soft patriarch because von Trapp’s onstage transformation mirrors his own: Three years ago, Zane became a father to Ava, and three months ago to baby Gia, both with his partner, model Candice Neil. While recently deliberating whether to leave his LA-based family to participate in “The Sound of Music,” “I’d come home and the movie would be projected on the wall, and Ava would be seeing it for the fifth time,” he says. “She’d be singing — a von Trapp child-in-training — and I thought, ‘If I don’t take this, I’ll always regret not performing for her.’ ”
Moving to Chicago, Zane says, wouldn’t have been possible without Neil’s support: “Candice is the most dedicated and generous mother and partner I could have ever wished for.” Though the two aren’t married, Zane says, “I refer to her as my wife, she calls me her husband. But there’ll be a ceremony as soon as the schedule lightens up for both of us.” And he marvels at the strength of their relationship. “Balance comes from pulling your weight when the bar is set high by your partner. When [she] makes it seem effortless, it’s a revelation … [It’s] magic.”
Always blurring the lines between his art and his life, Zane plans to pay homage to that magic on stage at Lyric, where Neil and his daughters will soon travel to see him perform. “I noticed this dynamic in the Captain and Maria: strong individuals who are made stronger by their trust, respect and reliance on each other,” he says. “Good examples set to music. That’s the gift of this piece — the take-home. Dignity, honor, loyalty, love. … And beer and pretzels. What else is there?”
We asked Zane to share some of the most meaningful tunes in his life.
The last song that made him cry:
‘Hushabye Mountain.’ The lullaby from ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.’ Before I left for Chicago, I sang it to my daughter. It makes me misty every time I hear it.
His favorite song to sing in the shower:
Some tenor madness. It switches off between Mario Lanza and David Bowie. Whatever bounces off marble. … I also sing in the car, alone.
The last time he heard the “Titanic” theme song, “My Heart Will Go On”:
At a restaurant. The maître-d was being cute.
His last von Trapp-style sing-along:
Usually, it erodes from a family dance party. We’re quite musical. We just turn on the tunes and bust out. It’ll go from Gershwin to Pharrell — somewhere between ‘Rhapsody in Blue’ and ‘Happy’ lies the Zane family hoedown.
Saks Fifth Avenue Men’s Collection: dress shirt, $298; sport coat, $1,198
Hudson: Byron white denim jeans, $165
Breuer: pocket square, $75
Fendi: hightop sneaker, $800
Photographer: Simon Perry
Grooming: Mercedes Parra
Shoot Coordinator: Katerina Bizios