For an actor, Billy Zane found out he makes one heck of a group counselor.
The key for him? Just go off script.
In limited release Friday in New York City and March 22 in Portland and Los Angeles (and on DVD and iTunes April 9), the indie drama The Kill Hole stars Chadwick Boseman (of the upcoming 42) as Lt. Samuel Drake, a former soldier who's come back home but is still haunted by his actions with his unit in the Middle East.
Although he finds himself connected to a sniper he's supposed to hunt down in the woods of Oregon, one of Drake's only real friends is Marshall (Zane), a man who runs a Portland group to help veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and other concerns.
The majority of people Zane worked with during filming weren't even actors - they were real-life vets who spent the better part of eight hours talking with the group about their problems and Zane responding in turn.
"There was a scripted guide that we immediately disposed of when we realized that the unscripted stories and my improvisation in that space guiding the conversation and the session far exceeded the impact of what was planned," the actor explains. "We free-formed it and everyone just came from the heart."
Zane calls it "one of the more significant experiences in my career," even though it simply was just a bunch of guys talking.
As it turned out, he was pretty good at doling out help.
"They were surprised by I guess the quality of the advice coming from a film actor, strangely," Zane says, laughing.
One fundamental issue that kept coming up in the group was relationships with loved ones they came home from a tour of duty.
"When you burden your lover with the role of counselor, mother, friend and lover, you're going to lose them," Zane says. "You cannot put all of that on them and expect them to be all of those things and waste that precious comfort that they may give.
"They said no one's ever told them that. I found it kind of odd myself, but I just came from logic, whether you were returning from war or not."
The weight of the Kill Hole experience lingered with him after his work was done, according to Zane. The catharsis of satisfaction and relief was tempered by the burden that the veterans had themselves, still dealing with stuff that haunted them long after leaving the battlefield.
"As empathetic creatures, we take on other people's sorrow," he says. "It was heavy, it was joyful, it was a love of loss - it was opera on a very daily, accessible manner."
Zane, 47, has had a long and varied career since first appearing as Match, one of Biff's goons in Back to the Future (1985).
Fans remind him regularly of their favorite roles of his: Many remember him as the upper-crusty Cal Hockley in Titanic; servicemen dug him in Sniper; he still gets "a lot of love" for playing himself in Zoolander (he's hoping for a sequel); and the youngsters point out his title turn in The Phantom back in 1996, before superhero movies were cool. ("It was pretty cool then," he says. "It was before it became obligatory.")
More recently though, Zane looks for emotional and complex fare to tap into, like The Kill Hole and another new film Electrick Children, in which he plays the Mormon dad of a girl who's convinced she's had an immaculate conception due to rock music and then heads to Las Vegas to find the voice on the tape that belongs to her "natural father."
His title role in the four-part miniseries Barabbas for Reelz (premiering March 25 at 9 p.m. ET/6 p.m. PT) fits that mold, too. Usually bald, Zane boasts an impressive mane as the "biblical rock star" spared from being crucified on the cross instead of Jesus Christ.
"He's bit of a brute and a thug on an existentialist journey to find reason and purpose and discover his divinity ultimately through being earthbound. This is good stuff," says Zane, who filmed Barabbas in Tunisia last year and left two days before protesters overran the American embassy there in September.
Currently, he's in negotiations to star in a Tim Rice musical version of From Here to Eternity in London's West End, playing the Burt Lancaster role. But he's also continuing to develop his longtime passion project, a biopic of Marlon Brando.
"I've been circling this, or it's been circling me. I figured, OK, it's time we meet," says Zane, adding that the movie will have a "more unique perspective" that's worthy of the legendary thespian.
"The desire was to not subject him to the usual structure of a biopic, which is a linear story that ultimately tears down the icon and underserves the subject. Because he's such an indelible, international figure that has inspired so many people, I wanted to make it more subjective in its inception. It's the impressions left (that are important) rather than trying to be an authority on what happened."
The roles keep coming for Zane, although he has lessened the nomadic lifestyle of an actor since the birth of his daughter Eva in 2011.
"It is the nature of the beast, you do quite a bit of traveling, but I'm becoming a little bit more of a homebody in fatherhood," Zane says. "You just want to play with them and be there."