Billy Burke counts New Orleans as one of his favorite cities
American actor Billy Burke has carved out a compelling career for himself. From starring opposite Diane Lane in “Untraceable,” to playing the role of Gary Matheson in the second season of “24,” to co-starring with Nicolas Cage as a diabolical cult leader in “Drive Angry 3D,” the busy actor has racked up impressive credits that span both the television and film worlds. But it’s his recent recurring role in the box office mega-hit series “Twilight,” “The Twilight Saga: New Moon” and “The Twilight Saga: Eclipse,” based on Stephenie Meyer’s best-selling vampire romance novels, that’s got him in a extremely bright spotlight all around the world. On November 19, the highly anticipated fourth installment of the Twilight series, “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1,” will jolt theaters everywhere, with Burke reprising his role as Charlie Swan, the Chief of Police of Forks, Wash., and a divorced yet devoted dad to Bella Swan, actress Kristen Stewart’s wildly popular character.
As a newly heavy hitter for film production, Louisiana played host to part of both upcoming Twilight Saga sequels, “Breaking Dawn – Part 1” and “Breaking Dawn – Part 2” (set for release in 2012), which were filmed simultaneously in Baton Rouge. During his time here, Burke got the chance to know New Orleans on a deeper level and deems it one of his all-time favorite cities. New Orleans Living spoke with Burke by phone in Hollywood about things like film, his passion for music and his time in New Orleans, and can understand why the dry-witted native of Bellingham, Wash., has been perfectly cast in the varied and interesting roles he plays.
Hi Billy! “The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 1” will be released this month, which was shot in Louisiana.
Hey Christine, yeah, we did. It wasn’t my first time I shot a movie there. We shot “Drive Angry” in Shreveport. And I’m sure it won’t be my last, because there is so much production going on down there and it’s such a welcoming place for films to shoot. We already shot the second part of “Breaking Dawn” in Baton Rouge and that’ll be out next year. Other parts were done in Vancouver.
Did you get to spend any quality time in New Orleans while working in Louisiana?
Yes, I had my wife and my 3-year-old daughter with me, and a friend of mine was working on another movie down in New Orleans, and we stayed with him and had one of the best weeks we’ve had in recent memory. It was a beautiful time of the year and we were in a nice house in a great part of town, and I got to see a side of New Orleans I never really got to see before. I’ve been to New Orleans several times, but mostly just in the Quarter, and never really saw all the other stuff that the city has. It’s really one of my favorite cities. My wife is from England and she says that a lot of New Orleans doesn’t even feel like you are in America. It feels like a much more rich, European-type city.
Even cities in close proximity to New Orleans, like Baton Rouge, have a completely different vibe than the one New Orleans gives off.
Oh, wildly different! Like I mentioned, we shot “Drive Angry” in Shreveport, which is worlds away from New Orleans.
For sure! When you were in New Orleans, did you check out any music?
Yeah, I did. I can’t name any specifics, but I always make it a point to stop in and see music if I hear it playing, so we did that several times on several occasions. We were actually there during Jazz Fest and didn’t get a lot of chances to go see all the stuff that we would have loved to have seen, because our daughter was 2 at the time, and as you can imagine, that takes a lot of time and attention, so we didn’t have time to do that. But we did a lot of stuff with her that wasn’t really music related.
You must have enjoyed the food while you were here…
Oh man! I wish I could remember the name of this restaurant, it was so divine. I’m going to text someone and find out the name of that restaurant right now. It was just outside the Quarter, and oh, man! From appetizer to dessert, I had some stuff that I hadn’t ever had in my mouth before, it was so great. I’m going to get the name of it for you. …
Cool. So how did you become the chosen one to play Bella’s father in the “Twilight” movies?
(Laughs). Well, the story goes something like this: Catherine Hardwicke, the director of the first movie, had seen a little quirky independent film called “Dill Scallion” that I did years ago, a fake documentary about the rise and fall of this country singer. I played this crazy country singer, and it had this underground following. She asked my agent to have me come in, and I actually had no clue what “Twilight” even was. I had no idea what the books were about, obviously, I had never heard of it. So I went in and I read the Charlie Swan role and the Carlisle Cullen role, Peter Facinelli’s role, the father of the vampires. And I was so drawn to Charlie’s role, I just wanted to concentrate on it. After we were done, Catherine said, ‘Go Google “Twilight.”’ So I went home and Googled it and saw that there was this vast, enormous world of fanship out there. Couple of days later, we got a call that Catherine was interested in me for the role. And we never looked back. She said, “You want to do this?” and I said, “Absolutely!” (Laughs). So it sort of came about in the normal way, but there was something magical about it from the get-go.
When did you realize “Twilight” would be a world-wide phenomenon?
During the first movie. I had never worked on a film where people would actually come from miles around to actually try to get a peek at what was going on. There were fans around the set constantly, which was a little unusual, so I began to realize that no matter what, this thing would probably have some legs, because it’s got a built in audience. Some of my fellow actors say they had no idea, but I kind of had a feeling that it would do something. I mean, you can’t ever imagine the kind of success this thing had. After the first movie came out, for the next movies, the set security was like nothing I had ever seen before; it was just insane. You never have to put up huge blockades of felt all around the perimeter of the set to prevent photographers and people from looking in. You go set to set and the actors are shrouded in umbrellas. It’s just nuts. But all the fans that I have ever encountered, in my personal experience, just have embraced it so warmly. They just want a picture and a hug, and I’m happy to give it to them, you know? I can’t speak for some of the other actors, but for me it’s just been nothing but love.
I see that you have a load of Twitter fans…
Yeah, that helped a lot with the sales of my record, actually. I was a bit reluctant to go on Twitter at first but someone convinced me it might be a good marketing tool, and so I did and a couple of weeks later I had all these followers. I had no idea where they came from. So I figured, “Well, now that I have all of these followers, what am I going to do with them? Oh, maybe I’ll put a record out,” you know. (Laughs).
Right, you are a musician; you sing, and play piano and guitar.
Yeah, I’ve been playing music since I was 15. These last two years I got the resources to put my own stuff together and throw it out there, and it’s a good thing.
Your solo CD, “Removed,” did really well on CD Baby, where it broke some records. Plus, it must have felt great to finally get your music out there.
Yes, we were No. 1 on CD Baby for a few weeks. After so many years of putting my music on the back burner, it was nice, very cathartic. And I have been, and will be for some time, working on my second record.
Awesome. I understand you’re a big Elton John fan. His early stuff like “Madman Across the Water” really drove me wild listening to it as a kid.
Oh yeah, me too, and it still does. If I had any major early influences, his early stuff and Billy Joel’s early stuff sort of shaped what goes into a lot of my music today.
Is it true that you had no or very little training before becoming an actor?
Um, that is true. There was an early bio put out by somebody that said that I went to Western Washington University, which is completely false. I don’t know where that came from. I happen to know a guy, when I lived in Bellingham, whose dad was a professor there, but that was my only connection to the school. (Laughs). But yeah, I’ve never officially met an acting coach. (Laughs). I do believe that any form of art is either something you can or cannot do. From there you can either hone skills or you can do on-the-job training, which I’ve done for almost the better part of 20 years now. (Laughs).
Well, your resume is impressive for someone who has had no formal training. I mean, your resume would be impressive for someone who was formally trained, too.
Yeah, I work a lot off of imagination and instinct. And whatever works for other people is fine. But for me when I get an idea and it’s organic, I don’t like to mess with it. I want it to come out in its purest form. I feel like a lot of teachings and buzzwords can get inside you and never find their way out. I’d rather, ‘If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” Oh, I just got the name of the restaurant: Cuvée!
Oh, Cuvée, great place. But sadly it closed last year. But some of the people involved with it previously have other have other projects going on around here.
That sucks! That place was amazing. Oh well, you can give them my props if you wish.
Absolutely. So has playing Charlie Swan, the very devoted father of Bella in “Twilight,” related in any way to you being a father in real life?
No, not in the least. (Laughs). Going back to instinct and imagination, we got pregnant during the filming of the first film, so I had no idea what it was like to be a father at that point. I was only guessing. The good thing about Charlie, the way I interpreted him, was that he would treat his daughter the way he would treat any human being, with kindness and respect, and that was sort of the jumping off point that I started with. One of the major descriptive lines about Charlie in the story is that he doesn’t hover. To me, that means he fathers her from a distance, but looks after her and wants to make sure she’s safe always, of course, but doesn’t get all up in her grill. And, you can take that and say, yeah, he’s completely oblivious to what’s going on in her life and that’s true. I struggle with that as well. (Laughs). As an actor it’s tough to sometimes forgive what’s going on in these stories, you know what I’m saying?
Yes. In the story, he’s oblivious that his daughter is involved with a vampire … what?!?
(Laughs). Yeah, not only that, but there’s all these deaths happening and events going on, and he’s oblivious to it all, and he’s the police chief of the town! (Laughs) So some would say he’s not the greatest cop in the world (Laughs). But I look at it like he’s there to facilitate the connection between the fantasy world and the reality and the gravity of what’s going on in this girl’s life.
You star as Chris in “Freaky Deaky” slated for next year, based on Elmore Leonard’s novel.
Yeah. We just got finished shooting in Detroit. It was a lot of fun – great cast, great crew, great script. I have hopes that the movie will reflect the script. It was based on a book that I actually didn’t get a chance to read before we started shooting, because I was offered the gig literally no more than 48 hours before we started shooting. Elmore Leonard showed up on set, he was very sweet and encouraging and told us that this was his favorite book ever he’d written. So that made us all want to make a good movie.
You’ll be on TNT’s “Rizzoli & Isles” soon, reprising your role as Special Agent Gabriel Dean, possibly trying to rekindle your relationship with Angie Harmon’s character, Detective Jane Rizzoli?
That might be what’s happening! Angie and Sasha (Alexander) are really great chicks and we had a good time making that show. I was on last year and they were kind enough to invite me back this year. It’s a little season finale cliff hanger …
We’ll stay tuned. So tell us something cool about Kristen Stewart that most people wouldn’t know about her.
Um, I’m not sure that there are things that people know about her. There’s a lot of conjecture and things people would love to believe because that’s what people do. That’s the weird, strange thing about this business. People look at people on a movie screen or in an interview and they develop ideas and opinions that probably most of the time are not anywhere near true. So I guess the first thing that comes to mind is that she’s probably way more misunderstood then people would imagine. And she’s such a genuine human being, and seems to be very true to herself. I really admire that about her.
– Photography by Christopher Beyer / interview by Christine Fontana