Billy Zane’s acting resume is quite lengthy. His career began in 1985, playing a thug in Back to the Future, and its 1989 sequel. It’s also been an eclectic career, with 154 credits according to IMDB. The list spans the titular superhero in The Phantom, creepy onboard villain in Dead Calm, Shakespearean actor in Tombstone and assassin in Sniper. But Zane became a household face when he played the snooty fiancée of star Kate Winslet in the blockbuster film, Titanic.
Titanic also emboldened Zane’s hobby as an artist. While he was on location in Mexico, he developed a unique abstract style, integrating found objects with industrial materials.
Earlier this year, Zane met vintner Kirk Wiles at a dinner party. Wiles, CEO and founder of Virginia-based Paradise Springs Winery, informed Zane he had opened a tasting room in Santa Barbara to showcase a new line of Central Coast wines. Their talk turned to the devastation wrought on that community by the December 2017 wildfires and a mudslide on January 9, 2018. The two soon hatched a plan.
Using ash and mud from the disasters, Zane would create a label for Pink Ash, the new Paradise Springs rosé that would raise money for disaster victims. And he’d do so outside in a vineyard, namely the historic Sanford & Benedict property in the Sta. Rita Hills. The label adorns both the bottle and a wall of Paradise Springs’ Santa Barbara tasting room.
Zane discussed the project with Wine Enthusiast last week.
How did you get into art?
I had always painted, more for pleasure, but it really became a very healthy pastime on filming locations around the world. It’s an antidote to art-by-committee, the singular expression.
When I spent about seven months in Mexico during Titanic, I converted my garage into a studio, and it was one of the more prolific periods for me.
I was inspired by a lot of the found-art objects that would wash up on the beach after storms. I got creative with what I was using. I discovered that I rather enjoyed not bringing materials with me, but using what I found. And with industrial materials, I can pretty much source whatever I need from the hardware store or garden center or marine supply in any village in the world.
The purpose was that I wanted abstract pieces from a midcentury palette, and I just didn’t want to pay hundreds of thousands or millions of dollars for them. I knew what I liked, and I was able to create something that suited my fancy.
Ten years later, while I was away, my sister invited a gallerist to my house, who was generally impressed. I suddenly had a show in 2010 [at Santa Monica’s] Bergamot Station, and it was received quite well. That’s all you can ask for, is to be deemed authentic.
How did the Pink Ash project come to be?
I’ve always had a love and knack for branding and marketing. I really enjoy the entrepreneurial mindset, and the balance between commerce and art and technology and the power of storytelling, especially if there’s an impact economic model or social benefit tied to it. When you combine a service with a genuine artistic expression and a thoughtful social impact message, it tends to be quite successful and serves all masters.
So I was at a dinner in Manhattan Beach…and Kirk [Wiles] was there, and he mentioned that he had a winery in Santa Barbara. This was just after the fires, and he was talking about how devastating that was. He was launching a rosé and wanted to do something for the community. I thought that was very noble and wise.
I had once done a wine label on a lark…so I asked Kirk if he had done a label yet, and said that I’d love to do it. I’d be happy to support this initiative. You can use my name and we can generate some awareness around it and move some bottles. He was very grateful for the proposal.
How is your artwork like your acting?
They are improvisational, not really conceptual pieces. Much like acting, you deal with what is, and there is a sense of beauty and aesthetic. There are certain rules and tool sets, but for the most part, you hope to conjure beautiful accidents. That’s something afforded both disciplines. That’s how I work.
Did you come to Santa Barbara to create the art [for the bottle]?
Heck yeah, that was the whole point. I love working on location. And I wanted to integrate the soil—the mud from the slide and the ash from the burn—because Kirk said the name of the wine should be Pink Ash, based upon the sunsets at the time.
So my girlfriend and I drove up and went to the vineyard. We had some ash and mud that had been collected, and I was going to use wine, too. I work on the ground, in an action-painting style, quite improvisational.
The first thing to hit the canvas was rosé. Well, it hit my lips first and hit the canvas second. We had Tom Carlos Jobim and Stan Getz playing a little bossa nova alto sax, just to keep the vibe rosé. Then I started mixing some colors that would be indicative of the sunset, and started using the ash and the mud.
I ended up applying it really aggressively with my foot. It was an act of violence that created that moment, so I applied it almost kicking it on there and scraping it with my foot to create this very kinetic, almost explosive hit, which started to look like a lightning strike on a tree. It looked like a big vine exploding.
Without intending to, it morphed into more of a figurative work than I usually do, and it looked like their logo. I just went with it, and created what looked like a fiery phoenix. Then I used some gold, so it had this sense of rebirth.
My work has this weird balance of being messy, almost chaotic, a very masculine application, but with beautiful colors. There is a male-female thing going on, with an aggressive applique but an adherence to beauty that pulls from the feminine.
Is it hard being known as an actor who is now an artist?
There is an unfair and unfortunate ceiling that’s put upon the art world. If you’re known for another artistic expression, there’s a prejudice cast upon you [in a new medium]. So you have to be double-good.
I found low expectations are your best friend, if you’re good, if you can deliver. Critics come in bemoaning the actor/painter, but if they are genuinely impressed, their praise becomes quite vociferous. It works to your favor. They surprise themselves, and they tell their friends. In particular, I thought I was gonna get reamed when I had a show in London, but they were genuinely quite pleased.
How much time do you spend on art versus acting?
It’s so cyclical, and it depends on the gig. I try to balance them and integrate them, because they really inform each other. I like geotagging the artwork based on the location I am in, and it brings context to the artwork and makes them somehow more fun to collect. They’re associated with movies, and there’s another point of reference around them.
What’s your wine background?
I’ve had the privilege of tasting great wines around the world. I’ve spent a lot of time in France and Italy, enjoying some of the classics, great vintages, and bookending meals with a good [Château] d’Yquem.
But I’ve enjoyed discovering wine that’s fallen prey to perception and bad branding, but whose roots are literally historic within the pantheon of wine. I enjoy Bulgarian wine, which was the major wine producer for ancient Rome. We think of it only in a post-Soviet kind of context, but it’s the country of wine and roses.
And Malvasia in Greece. There’s a quote in Shakespeare about drowning in a vat of Malvasia wine. You think of retsina, but there is some award-winning and fabulous wine coming out of Greece.
And I’ve always been a sucker for French rosé, but to find something coming out of Santa Barbara that tastes just as good…that’s awesome.
What would you pair the Pink Ash wine with?
I brought a bottle to the Tombstone 25th anniversary. I flew privately with a friend and popped a bottle on the plane. I made crudité like they make at the La Colombe d’Or in St-Paul-de-Vence, where they serve this anchovy mayo dip with a gorgeous basket of fresh vegetables. I’m known for recreating this French basket, and the rosé is a great complement to the crudité.
Do you want to work with more labels?
I really like the platform. I’d be interested to do more. Let’s do some reds.