There’s a story that Billy Wilder (legendary Oscar-winning filmmaker) once told Billy Bob Thornton (impoverished LA waiter) that he didn’t look pretty enough to make it as an actor. Thornton didn’t care. Firstly, he didn’t really want to be an actor anyway. Secondly, he looked interesting. And interesting beat pretty any day of the week. The first Billy would live just long enough to watch the second Billy (actor, writer, director) win an Oscar and marry the hottest woman on the planet.
“Mind if I sit by the window?” asks Thornton. He’s already got a cigarette in his hand. It’s lunch. He moves casually into his seat and takes a drag. Thornton does everything casually. With his shirt hanging open over a t-shirt, skin that’s lived a few lifetimes and a tuft of grey standing vertically on his head, you can see where Wilder was coming from. Thornton doesn’t exactly look the Hollywood superstar. But there’s something there. Thornton’s soft Southern drawl curls his words as gently as cigarette smoke, making him seem effortlessly comfortable in his own skin. He’s disarmingly open, warm, unassuming, don’t-give-a-damn funny. And very, very interesting.
At the beginning, though, Wilder was right. So after scraping roles in the estimable likes of Chopper Chicks In Zombietown, Thornton finally wrote himself a breakout role. His performance as a neurotic thief in B-movie thriller One False Move (co-written with his friend Tom Epperson) gave the Arkansas 30something some pay-the-bills bit-parts in blockbusters like Tombstone and Indecent Proposal. Truth be told, he was going nowhere.
So Thornton did it again. Writing, starring and now directing the superb hick-drama Sling Blade, Thornton suddenly found himself at the Academy Awards, pushing Tom Cruise and Ralph Fiennes for Best Actor and beating Kenneth Branagh, Arthur Miller and Anthony Minghella to the Best Adapted Screenplay Oscar.
Thornton’s performance as Karl Childers – a mentally impaired hick who murdered his own mother – set the tone for a career playing odd, memorable characters in odd, memorable films. A sinister overweight mechanic in Oliver Stone’s U-Turn. A dangerous dim-wit in Sam Raimi’s A Simple Plan (hello Oscar nomination number three). A Zen-cool air-traffic controller in Mike Newell’s Pushing Tin.
But by now, Thornton was less famous for his screen roles than for being Angelina Jolie’s rock-star husband. They were a tabloid dream: a pair of tattooed Hollywood misfit-lovers who apparently wore vials each other’s blood round their necks. She was a sex symbol hotter than the sun. He was hillbilly crazy-man with a phobia of antique furniture and silverware.
Ten years on from Angelina, Thornton’s sure that marriages (he’s had four of them) and Hollywood stardom aren’t for him. But while pouring his time into fatherhood (three children) and music (three albums and touring), he’s continued to work at an astonishing rate, appearing in at least two films a year for the last decade. His bizarre, sardonic, disdainful characters put the harm into charm – like him, they’re unique and impossible to ignore. Everything from flesh-slapping sex (Monster’s Ball) to noir hairdressing (The Man Who Wasn’t There). Everyone from the US president (Love, Actually) to Davey Crockett (The Alamo). Who else who could have turned a swearing, drunken, sex-addicted Santa into a loveable big-screen icon?
Now the 55-year-old is back in revenge thriller Faster. He plays a cop. A tattooed, chain-smoking, junkie cop. Obviously. Anything else just wouldn’t be interesting.
You’re a little different to most Hollywood stars. Do you feel like one?
No, I’m just this guy… I don’t know that I’m so much a star, but some characters that I’ve played are. Bad Santa and the Sling Blade character are probably the foremost. I was never much of a part of Hollywood. I mean, there was a time when I was more a part of it. I had a high-profile marriage, that was kind of in the papers a lot and I probably went more places then than I do now.
What made you want to be an actor in the first place?
I didn’t set out to be an actor. I was either gonna be a professional baseball player or a musician. That was it, since I was a little kid. I wasn’t like Martin Scorsese, who gets so excited about everything from Billy Wilder to Spencer Tracy. I was excited about The Allman Brothers and The Beatles and The Kinks.
So you didn’t come to Los Angeles to make it in Hollywood?
Music, more. It was music. Yeah, I was in a band, we were doing okay, but we weren’t going to get signed to record contract out there. So I thought, I’ll come out here, maybe get in a band.
You had no interest in acting?
I was always in the drama class in high school. But I was in there because there were chicks in there! You know what I mean? I didn’t care about acting. And also I thought, maybe if I’m in drama, maybe I’ll get a good grade in something. You know? Because I wasn’t good in school… I wasn’t the kind of guy who would be an actor. Because that was for, like, you know, fucking fruity guys, you know what I mean?
So this has all been an accident?
I don’t know if I’ve even told anybody this in an interview, because I forget shit, you know? I’ll tell you exactly how I became a actor. So… I met this guy who said I should go to acting class. So I did. And the teacher says, ‘Next week come back and by prepared to do a monologue.’ I didn’t know what to do.
This was before you’d started writing scripts?
I didn’t know how to write a script. My friend Tom Epperson and I came here with nothing. We had 500 dollars. Which lasts no time out here. Even then, in 1980.
Tom had all these books on Shakespeare. So I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be funny if I took something from Shakespeare and I rewrote it to be a contemporary thing?’ Hamlet, shit, no, that’s too hard for me… How about Othello? Now there’s a cat… Man after my own heart. He bones the old guy’s daughter! You know what I mean? I’ll do that! So I read Othello in one night.
But this is a monologue, right?
Right. But the way I’d designed it, I play all the characters. I’ll be Iago, who’s in this jail cell telling the story about what went down. I played him as a redneck from the South, Casio was like a full-on gay guy, Desdemona was this valley girl chick, Othello was this black guy like you’d see in the NFL.
What did the class think?
The people were just sitting there stunned. It was about 40 minutes. After the class, the teacher pulls me aside and he says a couple of things. First of all, just so you know from now on, monologues are three to five minutes. I go, ‘Oh shit, I’m sorry, I didn’t know…’ Second of all, I’ve never had anyone in my classes who I thought were more than likely going to become hugely successful at this. He said, ‘You are going win an Academy Award for doing this stuff some day.’
What did you say?
I said, ‘Well, I’m broke. I sleep on my cousin’s pool table.’ He said, ‘Don’t worry about it.’ This guy let me go to this class for almost a year without paying. And that’s exactly how I became an actor.
It still took you a long time to break into acting. Do you think you were seen as a hillbilly?
They didn’t understand my background. I came from a very literate family in the midst of illiteracy. And we have ties to a very famous literary family that I never have talked about. But that was hard at the beginning because they would only wanted to cast me as a redneck.
So do you think you’ve been successful despite of or because of your image?
I think it’s both things. In spite of and because of.
Why because of?
I was never called Billy Bob. That is my name. But back home, they just called me Billy. But this guy, Teddy Wilburn, a big country music star of the ‘50s and ‘60s, wrote me a letter in ‘79 saying I love your song writing. And he said, by the way, I think you should call yourself Billy Bob, because people won’t forget that. So after that, I could call any casting office and just say my first name – “It’s Billy Bob calling” – and they knew exactly who it was. I still have that letter framed.
Did you ever try to change yourself to fit into Hollywood?
No. Especially in the beginning , I didn’t. They’re pretty narrow-minded… So if they need that type, I can play like I’m that. The only time I tried to change myself purposely was once I became a movie star. Once I started playing leading roles then I thought I should look more like myself than the guy in Sling Blade.
Do you approach extreme characters in extreme ways? There’s a story that you put glass in your shoes to play Karl Childers in Sling Blade. True?
No. There was a character in a movie who did that. Brad Dourif’s character in Wise Blood had glass in his shoes. I probably in some interview mentioned that and… You know how it is. One thing leads to the next.
There are some good stories about you. That you’re afraid of silver cutlery…
…And I’m afraid of antique furniture and I wear blood around my neck and all that horseshit.
So what’s the truth about you and Angelina wearing vials of each other’s blood?
A clear locket you’d put your grandmother’s picture in. That’s what we had, Angelina and I. And it was her idea that we literally prick our fingers and rub the blood on the glass in the locket and wear it.
Do you think the story got too blown up?
You know how it is. If it had been Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, it would have been the most romantic story: this amazing couple that loved each other so much that went they were apart they would have these lockets where they’d pricked their fingers, like blood brothers. Angie and I do it and we’re these vampire blood-sucking creatures who wear tanks of blood around our necks.
Now that’s in the past, do you still get bothered by the press?
The press doesn’t bother me so long as they don’t stick it up your ass. You know what I mean? [laughs] It happens. But usually, that’s not with the legitimate press. That’s usually, these days, the bloggers. Guys who live in the basement with their mom.
Does it feel good to be out of the limelight more now?
Making the movies, that’s great. Talking to you, that’s fun. It’s all the dog-and-pony show you have to do, like go to the red carpet, go to premiere, that’s the shit I dread. I don’t dig that at all. Like, I gotta go to the premiere of this tomorrow night. And already I’m like itchy! I can’t stand it.
You play a lot of sardonic, bizarre, troubled characters. Why do you keep seeking them out?
I don’t think I deliberately do… But no. I can’t say that. Because I’m more interested in those people, yes. Who wouldn’t want to play Bad Santa? For me, as an actor, you see that and you eat it alive. I want to play that.
When you play dark characters, do you take these roles home with you? Is it hard to shake them off?
I think that’s one of the biggest secrets in Hollywood. This whole “Method” of acting. People want there to be a science to acting. And that science is interesting. And it makes so seem so… fucking… smart. And I believe that you’re either a good actor or you’re not.
What do you think made you a good actor?
Life experience. My life was very eclectic. It was very strange. I’ve been around a lot of characters. I’ve been a hobo. A street person. I’ve shovelled asphault. I’ve worked in saw mills. I’ve been in rock’n’roll bands. I’ve been a roadie. I’ve been poor. I’ve been rich. I’ve been moderate. I’ve been left. I’ve been right. And so, any time I play a character, I don’t go sit in closet for three fuckin’ weeks to become a dark guy. [laughs]
You don’t believe in Method acting?
No, but that’s what actors do. ‘I gained 65lbs, I didn’t shower for three weeks, I lived with the street people…’ I’m sorry. Unless you really did it, it doesn’t do shit for you.
So why did you put on 50lbs for U-Turn?
Because I read about those and thought, ‘Shit, oh, I’ll do that…!’ I was already heavier for a couple of things that I’d done. Simple because of the circumstances in my life at the time. Couple of health issues and things like that. I went through a bad period, so I just decided to enhance that a little bit, because I thought I needed to look like an extreme character. I’ll never do it again.
What do you think of actors like, say, Christian Bale, who stay in character even when the camera isn’t rolling?
[Flips the bird with one hand. Thumbs towards the door with the other. Mouths silently: “Fuck off. Get outta here…”]
You’re not a fan of that…
Yeah. I’ve heard a couple of audio tapes of actors who went crazy on the set and threatened the directors and DPs and things like that. Not naming any names. Those guys don’t do that to certain directors. So when that punk does the shit like that to me on set and doesn’t come out of his trailer and tells me how to set my fucking shot up, he’ll be picking his teeth out of the grass. I’ll put it that way.
How surreal was it to be at the Oscars for Sling Blade?
Pretty crazy, yeah. I don’t remember much about that Oscar thing. I remember more about the second time, for A Simple Plan. That was the year Roberto Benigni ran over all the chairs to get to the chair. I know for a fact because he ran over my shoulder. I was one of the stepping stones.
But you don’t remember the Sling Blade ceremony?
I’m pretty hazy, yeah… I don’t remember it very well. More so than that ceremony was the number of really famous iconic people who called me up. The first two people who called me when I was nominated for Sling Blade were Elizabeth Taylor and Gregory Peck. And it’s like, ‘How did Elizabeth Taylor get my phone number?’ Are you shitting me? Elizabeth Taylor can get whatever she wants. I was like, ‘Jesus Christ!’ And then Johnny Cash called me. And I became friends with them.
Which actors do you hang out with these days?
These days I live in an old Hollywood neighbourhood and people like Red Buttons would come to my Christmas party. Ernest Borgnine calls me. I’m so not a part of Hollywood that those things are still kind of amazing to me.
How did Sling Blade and the Oscar change your life?
Well, drastically. It changed in a way I can’t describe. The Academy Award puts a stamp on you. That’d a really honour because of the history of it. Knowing you’re in a club with Gregory Peck and Marlon Brando, that’s quite a thrill.
Of all the characters you’ve played, which means the most to you?
The character I could play for the rest of my life was Ed Crane in The Man Who Wasn’t There. I won the British Critics’ Circle Award for that. I’m at the Metropolitan hotel, where I always stay when I go to London. I’m into modern hotels a little more, because I can’t stay at the old creepy ones, you know!
Right, the antique furniture…
That’s why I stay there, for no other reasons! But with the Critics’ Circle Awards, there’s no stadium and red carpets. Just a bunch of guys hanging out and we have a drink. My bag. I love that award. I appreciate that award so much. That was a good year.
You’ve worked with the Coens twice. Can you explain how they do what they do?
Their movies seem like they had to be improvised, but they’re such good writers, their movies are engineered. I’m a pretty improvisational guy – like A Simple Plan, I improvised a lot of that – but with the Coen brothers and The Man Who Wasn’t There, you just do what they said.
What was it like having an underage Scarlett Johansson as your romantic lead?
Scarlett was 15 at that time. We were all afraid of Scarlett. Because she wouldn’t put up with any shit from anybody. There’s a scene where she’s going down on me in this car. I put a furniture pad on my lap out of respect for a 15-yearold girl who’s doing this blowjob scene. Scarlett just threw it off and goes,’ What are you doing? I’m not some little kid. I’m not a moron.’ We were all terrified of Scarlett.
How did you handle those sex scenes with Halle Berry in Monster’s Ball?
I loved it. If I’m going do something, I’m gonna do it. I’ve never been hesitant about doing something like that. Now, I’m not exactly Roy Rogers on a horse. I got severely injured on a movie one time doing that. I can ride a horse, but goddamn it, I don’t want to ride it down mountains. But if you’ve gotta do something, you’ve gotta do it. Once I sign on, I’m not afraid to do anything – emotional especially.
Which role has scaried you the most?
Emotionally? Er… I think… Um… Maybe… Playing… Er… Davey Crockett in The Alamo.
See, Texans are so into those heroes. And I had to play a guy who wasn’t sure he wanted to be there. There was a certain cowardice hinted at in that movie. Dangerous ground? In Texas, yeah.
Why haven’t you directed since All The Pretty Horses?
It was a good experience filming that movie, bad experience dealing with the studio. I swore I would never direct another movie I wasn’t in complete control of. Since then, I’ve written a script I’m as excited about this as anything I’ve ever done in my life. I’m going to direct it, star in it and Duvall’s gonna do it with me. We’re trying to get it financed now…
So what’s the problem?
I need $10-12m to make the movie. I can only get $6-7m. Because they say this movie is not teenage vampires in 3D. It’s not a bunch of short, fat, hairy guys who go to Vegas and get in trouble.
What is it about?
It’s a movie about… Well, it’s hard to describe anything I write. It’s a comedy-drama about families in 1969. Very much like anything I’ve ever written or been in, it’s darkly humorous on the surface and very heavy underneath. You’re gonna love the shit out of it. You will love the holy shit out of this movie.
Angelina’s moving into directing now. Have you spoken to her recently?
Oh yeah, absolutely. But I’ve talked to her several times since she’s been over her doing it and boy, I’m so happy and proud of her that’s she’s doing that – because she should be writing and directing. I got a feeling that she’s gonna turn out something real special.
Have you given her any advice?
I don’t know whether I gave her any advice, she’s way smarter than I am. I just say, ‘hey, I hope you’re holding up okay because I know hard it is directing a movie. I don’t give her any advice because she doesn’t need any. But once I get to direct this movie, maybe I’ll ask her for some. You never know…
Publication: Total Film