Billy Zane seems sometimes like a product of old Hollywood. His classic-movie star looks helped him land the role for which he remains best-known — Cal, Kate Winslet's diabolical fiance in Titanic — as well as his starring role in 1996's The Phantom, another period throwback. His new role on Samantha Who? lands him securely in the here and now, but the past lingers again: He's playing Winston Funk, a character previously played by Timothy Olyphant, who departed to appear on Damages.
Zane's found an easy way to deal with the ghosts of the past, however: ignoring them. To play Funk, for example, he didn't even watch Olyphant's take on the character. "It felt like doing any other role," he told TVGuide.com. "They were pretty keen on wanting me to make it my own. I think they were kind of happy with where I was going with it so we just ran with it."
The decision not to dwell fits in perfectly with Samantha Who?, a show built around Samantha (Christina Applegate) losing her memory and realizing the person she used to be wasn't very nice. Funk was Samantha's boss in her previous incarnation, and Zane's episodes, which begin Thursday (ABC, 8:30 pm/ET), reunite them.
"She comes up with the notion of running his foundation and trying to bring him a little bit of a conscience," Zane says. "He's like, 'Right. Helping. Sure. Whatever gets you in the house.'"
Zane plays Funk as a benevolent playboy — a perfect counter to Todd (Barry Watson), Samantha's regular-guy love interest. "He's pretty crafty — a wily businessman, and it bleeds over into his personal life, his leveraging. And while it's, I'm sure, completely infuriating to her, it's endearing because the end game is genuine."
Whether viewers will get to see the end game this year — or ever — is up in the air: the show's season finale is scheduled for April 30, but the cast has shot five additional episodes. They could air next season, if the show is picked up again.
Zane spoke to us on what happened to be the 97th anniversary of the Titanic's sinking. He said the best legacy of the film has been the chance it's given him to highlight charities like MylifE, which helps get South African teens off the street. He got involved with it while making his new film, Darfur.
After a career focused on film, Zane says one of his favorite parts of Samantha Who? is joining a well-oiled television machine — the kind that ruled in an earlier era.
"I think just my aesthetic harks back to that era," he says. "I definitely have a soft spot for the nostalgia of this industry. I like the color palette, the lenses used, the style. I like the censorship, believe it or not. You had to play with implying and suggestion rather than blatant shock value."