Billy Bob Thornton Interview

BillyBobThornton

Billy Bob Thornton has made a career out of playing what he calls “the asshole”. Nobody has done it better than Thornton. From Mr. Woodcock to Bad Santa, what Thornton has, you don’t see very often.

by Chris Neumer

CHRIS NEUMER: Dare I ask what you’ve been doodling there?

BILLY BOB THORNTON: Oh, yeah. I doodle all the time during interviews and stuff. I can’t sit still and I’ll start pulling the tablecloth up, it’s almost like I have tourettes.

CHRIS NEUMER: Well, that’s good news for me.

BILLY BOB THORNTON: I’ll turn the TV on or whatever. (looking at magazine) What if your name were Peter Guber?

CHRIS NEUMER: You could put millions of dollars worth of bowling alleys into Sony.

BILLY BOB THORNTON: This is a great magazine. It’s like, in the music business, there’ll be a magazine that a guy starts and it’ll be a little edgier and one vision kind of thing.

CHRIS NEUMER: Exactly. And that vision is mine. It beats working for a bank.

BILLY BOB THORNTON: Yeah, I’ll agree. I just draw these weird faces and stuff.

CHRIS NEUMER: Are these the people who have been interviewing you?

BILLY BOB THORNTON: Some of them are. This is one of the guys at the round table (laughs). That’s him.

CHRIS NEUMER: I’m both eager to see what I’d look like in your hand and scared at the same time.

BILLY BOB THORNTON: (laughs) I do these cartoons. I can’t really draw, but that makes them funnier. This says, “Last year, Bertram ran for student council… and he caught them”.

CHRIS NEUMER: That’s kind of like, “I miss my husband, but my aim’s getting better.”

BILLY BOB THORNTON: (laughs) Exactly.

CHRIS NEUMER: Well, I’m excited to speak to you, because I’m always excited to talk to actors who have range and can show it on screen. Thinking about this with The Astronaut Farmer, I know you’ve said a number of times that you’re renowned for playing the asshole, and this is the exact opposite of that. I thought to myself, I know hot actresses always want to play roles where they can put on weight or have a crack problem and wondered, if for you it was especially appealing to be able to play a fresh-faced, well-scrubbed guy.

BILLY BOB THORNTON: Not necessarily. I go by the script, you know?  I don’t keep looking for, “I have to do this kind of character or that kind of character.” There are some things that are on my list, and this was one of them.

CHRIS NEUMER: When you say this, do you mean this character?

BILLY BOB THORNTON: This movie, really. If you think about it, people assume that I’ve played bad guys and assholes, but really I haven’t. I did One False Move back in 1990 or and since then I haven’t played a bad guy. Except School for Scoundrels, the guy was an asshole. That guy was an asshole. The guy in One False Move was a killer. Other than that, I’ve only played good guys. They’re guys who start out retarded or as the dumbass brother or racist whatever you think in Monster’s Ball. Every one of them, at the end of the movie, is the only one who knows what’s going on and they’re the conscience of the movie. A Simple Plan is a good example of this. So, this guy isn’t a whole hell of a lot different than the characters I’ve played already. They’re all sort of Americana characters.

CHRIS NEUMER: Which fits in nicely with your music too.

BILLY BOB THORNTON: Absolutely. With this guy, it’s not as hard to get inside the good part of him. He starts out that way. The other characters you discover that there’s more to them as you go along.

CHRIS NEUMER: One thing I found interesting about this character is that if you put him up against Willie from Bad Santa they are completely polar opposites to the average viewer, the housewife in Iowa.

BILLY BOB THORNTON: Yeah.

CHRIS NEUMER: But just as you discover that Willie is good-hearted, you come to find out that this character is $600,000 in debt has taken his kids out of school and I thought, this is the other side to being a dreamer.

BILLY BOB THORNTON: Trying to live out your dreams can be costly in a lot of ways.

CHRIS NEUMER: You probably have 19 stories you can tell me about these costs from the summer of 1988 alone, huh?

BILLY BOB THORNTON: (nods) Absolutely. I mean there are so many holes in the road along the way when you’re trying to live out your dreams. It’s hard. It’s taxing. You do get called crazy or whatever a lot. There are a lot of things that go along with it. But here’s the thing, do you want—I was just saying to this lady earlier, here’s the thing: there’s the family who doesn’t take risks and the father who didn’t live out his dreams and they’re the ones who move up to the carnival.  That’s the family who’s walking around looking at the ground and the husband and wife aren’t talking to each other, the kid tries to say, “Hey, can I go over here and shoot the balloon?” and they’re like, “Hell no!” And then they swat the kid. That’s the guy who is bitter and has regrets and didn’t live out his dreams. These people are the happiest they can be. Maybe the future’s not real clear to them, but they’re happy. They love their dad the way he is. This is the one movie where the son is not some Goth kid who is on dope and hates his father. And there are plenty of fathers and sons out there who are like that. In most movies, they always have the Goth kid who hates his father.

CHRIS NEUMER: That way you can have the reconciliation at the end.

BILLY BOB THORNTON: Absolutely.

CHRIS NEUMER: When you approach a character like this—and feel free to use examples from any of your roles—a character who doesn’t necessarily engender the audience’s instant sympathy or respect, how do you go about crafting the character to bring about audience sympathy?

BILLY BOB THORNTON: I think that burden is really more on the filmmaker than on me. I just go and play the part, you know? And in terms of craft, I don’t really have one that I know of. If I were a cabinet maker, I’d call it a craft but this is sort of different… I think good actors are actors who have a lot of life experience and kind of know how to fall into situations in life.  They’ve seen the situations before or been in it. I don’t really have a process necessarily. I think some actors are instantly accessible to people on screen. Some people are likable on screen; some actors are not likable on screen. Some can do both things and still draw you in. I think I have something in me—I don’t know what it is—where I can play an offbeat guy or a crazy guy or whatever and be likable. I’ve got that thing that that is. There are actors who are better bad guys that I am because they’ve got this thing and you’re afraid of them. Then there are guys who are more likable than me, Tom Hanks or somebody like that. But I’ve got a little of both of it.

CHRIS NEUMER: And it’s interesting watching you try and put that concept into words. Sometimes you can and sometimes you can’t. Tom Jane talked at length about how if the director puts the camera in the right place, he doesn’t have to do anything. However, if the camera’s in the wrong place, then there’s no end to the amount of work he has to do balancing out energy, enthusiasm and all that. When you were talking about how you are likable, I was thinking about the contrast between ‘just having it’ and Tom’s precisely refined and articulate presentation of what he does to get an emotion across to an audience. And both are right.

BILLY BOB THORNTON: You can’t argue with that.

CHRIS NEUMER: An acquaintance of my who was one of the producers of Cagney & Lacey mentioned to me recently this standard Hollywood trick of gaining audience sympathy by having the lead ‘pat a dog’. The character comes into a room, you’re not sure whether to like him or not and he gives a dog a treat. Boom, instantly you like him more. He told me the only example where nothing like this happened was Bad Santa. He said, “This is why that movie should be studied.” I mean, instead of petting a dog, you come on screen and puke in an alley and start drunkenly peeing on your own leg!

BILLY BOB THORNTON: That’s funny. [Willie] doesn’t give it up until it’s time. That’s one of the things you’ve got to do. In Slingblade, if I had gotten emotional even once as that character… If I’d cried in Slingblade, it’d kill the whole thing. I had to toe the line the whole movie and stay in that guy and never let you see a different kind of human being. He had that speed that he went at and movement and everything else. I had to be that guy. There’s some characters where that is really crucial. Bad Santa and Slingblade are two great examples of that.

CHRIS NEUMER: You’ve mentioned again—and in doing so, you contradicted a statement of mine earlier, that I’m not too worried about because I’m actually quoting you—but you said that Hollywood has seen you as the asshole and likes casting you as the asshole, but looking back at the stuff you’ve done, you’ve got this role, you’ve played the president in projects, you’ve had roles completely across the board—

BILLY BOB THORNTON: Really across the board.

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