Some say fame changes a person. I hoped that was not the case with Billy Bob Thornton, with whom I first had the pleasure of speaking five years ago when Sling Blade was about to put him on the map. Back then, at the beginning of the wave of attention that deservedly hit Sling Blade's writer/director/star, Thornton was a hard-working, working-class actor who had just learned that he was holding a winning lottery ticket.
A couple of months after we first spoke, Thornton was nominated for two Academy Awards for his fine work on Sling Blade—for Best Actor and for Best Adapted Screenplay, the latter of which he won. With that newfound status Thornton appeared in a string of films, including U Turn, Dead Man, The Apostle, Primary Colors, Armageddon, and Pushing Tin. For his gritty performance in Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan, Thornton picked up his third Oscar nom, this time for Best Supporting Actor. He's also kept busy as a writer and director. With longtime friend and writing partner Tom Epperson, he penned screenplays for A Family Thing and Raimi's The Gift. Thornton wrote and directed the feature Daddy and Them (never released) and was tapped by Miramax to helm All the Pretty Horses, a problematic project that suffered when Miramax drastically cut Thornton's original three-hour version.
Although Thornton would very much like to still be considered the good ol' boy of his humble Arkansas roots, he is, undeniably, a movie star now, complete with fame, fortune, a Beverly Hills mansion, and an equally famous wife. He has a publicist to field the press. He has a personal assistant to take care of his day-to-day needs. And, like many stars, he has no problem with keeping people waiting (as he did with me for this interview).
But, make no mistake, Thornton has not forgotten the fight he went through to get here. He vividly remembers and values his years as a relatively unknown struggling actor. He recognizes that his current success happened, in large part, because he created opportunities for himself to be seen. Sling Blade, for example, began as a one-man play that Thornton wrote and performed whenever he could scrape up the money.
I was especially relieved to find that Thornton still possessed the spirited candor he exuded when we spoke five years ago. Though clearly enjoying the perks of stardom, Thornton is a refreshing oddity in Hollywood, and not just because he wears a vial of wife Angelina Jolie's blood around his neck. He continues to do things his way, meaning he doesn't particularly care to be told what to do, and says what's on his mind. His work ethic involves spontaneity and originality, two things that are not necessarily top priorities in Hollywood moviemaking.
While we've seen far more of Thornton these past two years in the gossip columns than we have in front of a camera, that's about to change. He'll appear in four films in the coming months, starting with the currently released comedy Bandits, opposite Cate Blanchett and Bruce Willis. Filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen tapped Thornton to star in their latest opus, The Man Who Wasn't There, in which Thornton (shot in glorious black-and-white) wonderfully portrays a taciturn small-town barber who gets irreversibly drawn into a series of misfortunes. Next up for Thornton are starring roles in the capital-punishment drama Monster's Ball with Halle Berry and Peter Boyle, followed by Waking Up in Reno with Charlize Theron.
Back Stage West: When you arrived in L.A. in the early 1980s, were you set on becoming an actor or were you still pursuing your music [Thornton recently released his first album, Private Radio], which I know you had and still have a strong passion for?
Billy Bob Thornton: I'd always wanted to be a singer, and I was a singer in a rock 'n' roll band. That's really what I wanted to be. But my buddy Tom Epperson told me I should be an actor. It wasn't like I had a burning desire to be an actor. It was like, Yeah, I guess I could, couldn't I? I was in drama in high school. I took drama mainly because I thought it would be easy and I'd get a good grade, because I sure wasn't getting any in any other classes. The teacher said to me one day, "I think you could really do this. You should pursue it." That's when I first got interested.
By the time Tom and I came to California, I seriously wanted to do it. Once I got here and I got into an acting class, I fell into it and I started doing my own stuff in class. That was my strength: I always did my own thing.
People would do scenes from whatever the hell that was—So Many Bales of Cotton [referring to Tennessee Williams' 27 Wagons Full of Cotton] or some shit like that, or scenes from Glengarry Glen Ross. There was always crap like that and I hated it all. I always thought, What are you people doing? I saw those guys do it last week. Now I see you guys doing it, and there's two other people doing it after you.
BSW: Is that what prompted you to begin writing your own material?
Thornton: Yeah. I think I had ignorance. I didn't know if I was good or not. People told me I was. See, that's the way I operate. When you're growing up and you're a kid, you don't know if you're good at anything until people tell you. So when people started telling me they liked what I did—when I got responses for what I wrote—I figured, well, maybe I could do this.
I feel so fortunate to have done it the way I did—through creating my own characters and through writing and acting together—and the fact that it took me a long time to get where I wanted to be. I still feel a kinship with actors, as opposed to being a guy who feels a kinship with movie stars.
BSW: Having worked as a director on three films now, do you find it difficult to judge actors during the casting process?
Thornton: It's pretty hard, but I've never been the type to say, "Thank you," and dismiss somebody, because I think every actor who comes through the door has something to offer. If you don't see them for whatever you're doing right then, then you'll see them later on.
BSW: Do you have a favorite audition story of your own?
Thornton: I have a bunch of them. I told a casting director over at Universal one time that she was rude as hell and that I couldn't believe she would treat people like that. I said, "If you're going to stay on the fucking phone all day, then why don't you just do that and hire somebody else to see actors? Because I drove way over here in a $150 car. I don't have time for this kind of shit."
I auditioned for things with the opening monologue from Sling Blade. Some people thought I was insane because they didn't have it in context, I guess. Some people thought it was brilliant and said, "Hey, can you come back tomorrow?"
BSW: What qualities do you most admire in actors?
Thornton: I like to see confusion, bewilderment, nervousness, hope. I don't care about focus and intensity—all the things that we're supposed to be. Sometimes I have a hard time with very studied, very brooding, intense actors. I like actors who are distracted, because they come across more natural. Really good actors know when to turn it on.
BSW: Could you talk about your acting process? For example the story has been told many times about how you created your Sling Blade character, Karl Childers, while looking in the mirror one day during a break on a movie. You were frustrated and sitting in a trailer and the character just came to you. Do most characters you play come that quickly to you?
Thornton: A character comes all at once. I read the screenplay—and we're talking about movies here and supposing this is something I didn't write. When you've written it yourself, the character is already there. You don't even have to do any work at all. The work has been done before you arrive.
I tend to read the script once and get the character. If I don't get the character—if it's not something that lives inside of me—I don't do the movie. If you look at a character as something far away from you, I think it's a mistake. I never look at it as being separate from myself. So, creating the character happens when I read it—the character has already been created if it's something that I am already. I'm plugged into the 30, 40, even 60 personalities that I have.
In terms of how I work, I don't know how to tell somebody what my process is. The only things I can tell you about are in terms of working on the character. Like I said, the character has been in me since I was born. I've read the script several weeks or months before I go on the set. I never read it again. Anybody who works with me will tell you this: I goof off right up until the last minute. I don't want to be thinking about the scene whatsoever. I will go up to the script supervisor or the first A.D. two or three minutes before we start shooting and ask to see the sides, and I'll look at them. I'll remember the scene from having read the script. I don't know it very well. I'm murder for editors because I never do it the same twice. I'm not very prop conscious. I may have the gun in my right hand and then the next thing you know it may be in my pocket because, to me, each take is supposed to be new.
BSW: I take it you are not a big proponent of rehearsing with your actors when you are directing a film.
Thornton: I don't believe in rehearsing. Of course I think technical rehearsals for theatre are good, but with movies I never like to rehearse anything. Some directors do it and I don't like it. I have directors tell me things all the time like, "When you come into the bank, could you be a little more forceful with the guy?" I'll say, "When you shoot it I will be, but not right now. Right now I'm thinking about a peanut-butter sandwich."
BSW: What's the challenge for you when it comes to acting?
Thornton: It's hard to be involved in a scene or a movie or a play or a love scene with other people that you don't really know and they don't really operate in your world. That's hard. I do a lot of off-the-cuff stuff, and I had this actor ask me one time, because I did the scene nothing like what was on the page, "Hey, that was cool, man. Let's do it again. What was it?" Then he got out a pad and paper and wanted to write it down. I said, "Well, that kind of defeats the purpose. If we're going to write it down, then we may as well just say what's in the [script]."
But I don't really know what's hard about being an actor. I feel so fortunate to be one and to be able to express myself and feel things and to have something to say to people—to have an audience to entertain and to move them in some way and to make a living at it. I can't imagine something more satisfying, other than just being at home and being a farmer, you know? I count my lucky stars every day.
BSW: Did you ever seriously consider moving back to Arkansas during your long climb as an actor?
Thornton: No. Like I said, I was so stupid; I didn't know any better. See, I didn't have anything back there, either. Shit was tough back there, too. It was, like, on one side of the cliff there's an ocean and the other side there's a fire. Do I drown or burn up? I chose burning up, and I didn't. I walked through the fire.
BSW: I know you had your share of difficult times when you were making the climb. I'll never forget the story you told me about how you had a heart attack at age 30 from living on a diet of potatoes because you were so broke. Looking back would you have done anything differently?
Thornton: There were some nightmarish times and there were some magical times. It's all part of life and I accept it. There were times when it was so bad that I don't even know how to describe it to you. I mean, seriously, it wasn't about not getting parts and stuff; it was about survival.
BSW: How did you get your SAG card? I have a strong hunch that you have a good story.
Thornton: I got my SAG card in a movie called Hunter's Blood. The director saw me in a theatre showcase and said, "I got a part for you in this movie." He said I would be playing one of these mountain men or something like that. The whole movie they kept promising me, "Oh, yeah, tomorrow we're going to shoot your scene," but what they really wanted me to be was a stand-in. They needed stand-ins who would come out and lie in the mud all day and shit like that.
All the other actors on the movie—Ken Swofford, Sam Bottoms, and Joey Travolta, John's brother—all kept on the director's and producer's asses every day, saying, "You promised this guy, so you follow through," because I was with these guys every day working my ass off, and I got sick. I got pneumonia. I passed out on the set one day. We were in the rain half the time. It was miserable. Sam Bottoms, Joey Travolta, and Ken Swofford really went to bat for me. I'll never forget those guys for that.
BSW: Five years ago when we spoke last, you were emphatic about acting being your true love above writing or directing. Does that still hold true?
Thornton: Yeah, I'm an actor. That's what I am. I like writing and I feel that I have something to say by writing, and I'll continue doing it. Directing is just a pain in the ass. Doing All the Pretty Horses almost killed me. I know this: It's going to be really hard for me to direct somebody else's thing again—or to direct something that costs a lot of money, because then they start telling you how to do it.
I won't be told what to do. Nobody should. You should be directed by directors as an actor, and that should be a collaboration, and you should discuss things. But you shouldn't have to listen to some son of a bitch in a suit who has some law or business degree from some snooty-ass Eastern college telling you how to make any kind of art, or how to develop a character, or how to cut your movie. They're a bunch of egotistical, money-grubbing, greedy assholes, and I don't like them. I can't imagine directing something for some big studio with those people again—unless I had a contract that said they literally could not even say a word to me about any of it. I don't know if such contracts exist unless you're somebody like Steven Spielberg, but then he owns his own joint.
BSW: Is there anything you would advise a struggling actor?
Thornton: Living in your own oblivion is probably the best place you can be. Don't pay any attention to what they say or what they write. I try to do that in my life. You know that my wife and I have a high-profile marriage; we're both well-known actors. It's hard to not pay attention to what people write, but the reality of life and what they write are really two different things—most of it anyway.
I used to hear this all the time: Only 5 percent of the Screen Actors Guild members are making a living [as actors]. And I used to say, Well, what's the alternative? To quit? Is that what you're supposed to do? Is that supposed to be some scary number? Don't pay attention to facts, figures, or anything else. If you have a fire burning inside you, then let it go until it consumes you, burns out, or eventually lights the torch that you're trying to light. In terms of the work, stay inside yourself. And every time you go out there to do it, do it as honestly as you know how. BSW