Interview: 'Fargo' star Billy Bob Thornton discusses going dark for FX
On the Calgary set of FX's "Fargo" last month, most of the cast was there either shooting or dropping by on an off-day to chat with a group reporters. Billy Bob Thornton couldn't make it, but sent his regrets and expressed the desire to talk to all of the assembled scribes pre-premiere. That's the sort of thing you hear a lot in-the-moment, but doesn't normally come to pass. Things slip through the cracks and nobody's really to blame. People get busy.
Billy Bob Thornton followed through.
After a series of crossed wires and adjusted schedules, the Oscar-winning "Slingblade" scribe checked in last Sunday morning, delayed only because he got caught-up watching early baseball, which immediately gives us something in common.
"You can imagine what I think about your team," Thornton drawls. He's famously a Cardinals fan. I'm not-especially-famously a Red Sox fan.
"You guys just creamed us twice," Thornton admits, referring to a pair of Boston World Series wins. "But I respect the Red Sox organization. Really good organization."
Thornton could talk baseball all day. The game he's been watching doesn't even feature the Cardinals. It's a low-scoring early-season game between the Tigers and Orioles and even though Thornton knows former Tigers skipper Jim Leyland, that's his only rooting interest. He just enjoys the game.
Thornton also just likes FX's "Fargo." His enthusiasm was evident at the Television Critics Association press tour in January and three months later his love affair with the small screen continues. Thornton has been very frank about the current state of the film industry, especially when it comes to the understated, personal projects he's attracted to as a writer and director. The "Fargo" experience, his first prolonged TV work since "Hearts Afire" back-in-the-day, has opened his eyes to the potential of both cable work and the currently trendy "limited series" model.
He also has one of his juiciest parts in years playing Lorne Malvo, a mysterious and sadistic stranger whose arrival in Bemidji, Minnesota sets in motion a 10-episode whirlwind of murder and chaos that are thematically and tonally inspired by the Coen Brothers' "Fargo," if only sometimes linked to the movie. Malvo is equal parts terrifying and hilarious and Thornton is having a ball playing that balance.
Once we stopped talking baseball, Thornton told me about playing Malvo as a force-of-nature, the pleasures of working in TV and whether he's now inspired to target the medium for future projects.
Click through for the full Q&A in advance of Tuesday's (April 2) "Fargo" premiere...
HitFix: As a Coen Brothers veteran and fan, what was your initial wariness when you started reading this "Fargo" script and at what point did that wariness pass?
Billy Bob Thornton: I never had it, because I was offered this and then sent the script immediately. I met with Noah Hawley and Warren Littlefield right off the bat, within a couple days of reading the script, and knew the Coen Brothers had already given it their blessing, so in other words, I didn't have time to really sit around and think, "Hmmm..." You know? And by that time, I'd already read the script, which was amazing. If I'd read the script and it kinda was hit-and-miss, it would have been different, but the script was so good and so true to the spirit of the Coen Brothers, without imitating them. If it had been a direct sorta imitation of them, then that might have caused some concern, but it wasn't. It was its own animal and yet kept the vibe of the Coen Brothers. So I thought, "Wow. This guy must be a genius." Then when I met with him, I really liked him. So there was never really a period of "Hmmm... Should I do this or not?" The hesitancy for me, at all, was, you know, "I don't want to be on a TV series," even though I love TV and that's the place for actors now. If you wanna do good work, TV's where they're doing it. There are no rules. There's so much freedom as an actor and a writer. But I didn't want to get involved with something that was maybe potentially last six or seven years, because I've got a lot of movies I wanna do. So that was my only thing. So when my manager said, "Well, look. You don't have to worry about that. This is 10 episodes and it's done." So as it turns out, it felt like we made a 10-hour independent film. So there was never any sorta negative feelings whatsoever other than, "Hang on a second, I don't know if I wanna get locked into something" and it's like, "Don't worry, you'll be done in April."
HitFix: With you, this took me back to "Simple Plan," but also back even further back to "One False Move." Talk a bit about your personal and professional affinity for this side of the crime genre.
Billy Bob Thornton: You know, mine is less about the crime side of things. Mine is more about characters, characters you run across in life. I don't want to say it's the underbelly of society, because not all of the people... Like the poor guy in "Simple Plan" was an innocent. There's this common misconception that I've played a lot of bad guys. I've rarely played a bad guy. I've played few smart-asses in comedy, like "Bad Santa" or "Mr. Woodcock," things like that, but if you think about, other than "One False Move" and this, I've rarely ever played a bad guy, I mean an actual criminal. Know what I mean? I mean, the guy in "Slingblade" was partially based on Frankenstein, once again an innocent who's in the middle of society. I'm just more interested in characters who don't have a real place in society more than I am the crime element. If this were just kinda a crime show, it wouldn't have appealed to me. But you've got all the characters played by Martin Freeman and Allison [Tolman] and Keith Carradine and Colin Hanks and Bob Odenkirk, all of these "types." I'm more interested in people than the crime.
HitFix: As you say, you're playing a character here who is pretty clearly a bad guy. Do you work on what his motivations are and what makes him tick? Or do you accept that to some degree, Lorne Malvo's a force-of-nature and approach him that way?
Billy Bob Thornton: Absolutely the latter. Yes. Lorne Malvo doesn't have much of a conscience, so you don't really have to think about his motivations. He's an alligator and an alligator's only motivation is "eat whatever's in the way" or "eat whenever you're hungry." He's out to get the job done, whatever that job is. The one aspect to his personality, aside from that, is that for some reason, his only recreation, his only social life, is kinda messing with people. Whereas a guy might go in to rob a furniture store and he would just go up to the cash register and say, "Gimme the money" and get out, whereas Lorne Malvo would go in and say, "Hmmm... You call this a furniture store, huh? What is this stuff? From the 1800s?" And he might stay there and just mess with someone. He smells weakness in people and he doesn't like it, he doesn't respect them because they're weak. But at the same time, he can use them also. It's like, "A-ha. I can use this character to help me with my plan." And then he kinda gets interested in 'em. He has this odd interest in humanity and I think you'll see as the show progresses that there is this bizarre sense of interest in humanity, in weakness and strength. As I said, he's kinda a... not "kinda"... he's a complete loner, so the only contact he has with people are people that he's doing something bad to, so he kinda likes to get his kicks by messing with them. It's like camping or jet-skiing or something for him.
HitFix: As a writer yourself, is it easy for you to relate to that curiosity of his -- what makes people tick and how you can use that to manipulate them?
Billy Bob Thornton: Absolutely. Certainly in what makes people tick. I'm not much of a manipulator. As a matter of fact, I spend more time trying to not be manipulated than I do manipulating, but I do have a very, very strong interest in humankind, especially off-beat characters, people out of left-field. I really have an interest in that.
HitFix: Your approach to this character, is it different because you're stretching this performance over 10 episodes, rather than just over a 100-minute movie?
Billy Bob Thornton: Oh sure, yeah. That's the great thing about this, in television, is you actually have time to develop characters. I always get accused by, not all of them, but a number of critics will accuse me of making things too long or too leisurely paced, which I never quite understood. That used to be OK. As a matter of fact, it was looked upon favorably, but now people want things to just be over with, so they can do whatever else they're up to. Then television is really a place where you can develop a character over a period of time, as well as a story. And this whole 10-episode format? What a great thing! You're really doing a 10-hour independent film. It's just a great idea, I think, a place where you don't take that risk of being told that you're a bit too leisurely with your development.
Frankly, especially in commercial movies, let's say you're doing a movie where you've got the hero-guy and then you've got the bad guys. The bad guys are usually nameless and faceless. That's why, in commercial movies, for the most part you're never afraid of the bad guys, really. That's why it seems cartoonish, because you don't know who they are. When you establish, whether it's a movie or a TV show, if you take the first 20 or 30 minutes to set up who the people are and if you don't know their backstory or at least get their vibe, then you don't really care and show like this is really set up to let it unfold and I enjoyed it.
HitFix: Since you enjoyed it as an actor, does this sorta pique your interest as a writer and a director to know that you could do this kind of 10-episode TV series if you wanted to?
Billy Bob Thornton: As a writer it does, but not as a director. I got to see that first-hand, what a TV director's job is. It's not that they don't have any creative input, but they're there to service the creator's vision, so I guess if you created it yourself and directed every episode, that would be closer to being like a film director and writer. But I have no interest in coming in to direct Episode 11 or Episode 13 of somebody else's show. But as a writer it absolutely piques my interest.
HitFix: Has it piqued that interest in a concrete way, though? Where you have specific stories in your mind and you've gone, "OK, this might actually be TV-ready"?
Billy Bob Thornton: Not really. It's more of a general feeling. But what I have started thinking is that a lot of movie ideas that I've had and have that aren't necessarily ready, but some in more advanced stages of readiness and then some that are just seeds of ideas, but I started thinking, "Well, these movies are impossible to get made in these days and times." So I started thinking, "You know what? Maybe I should rethink some of these things for television, see how I could do that." I wish they would make more two-hour movies for television on premium cable as well as networks like FX and all that kinda thing. Hopefully they will start doing that. Also, I like the miniseries idea, where it's not even 10 episodes. What was the "John Adams" one? Or "Hatfields & McCoys" that Costner did? That kinda thing. That was for the History Channel. So that type of thing, I'm actually thinking along those lines much more than I would have been, say a year ago.
HitFix: You haven't done a regular TV gig since "Hearts Afire" and that was a long time ago. How well did you remember the TV series grind and how was it different this time?
Billy Bob Thornton: Well, "Hearts Afire" was a 30-minute comedy with five cameras and stuff. It was a very, very different animal. It's honestly as different as a lollypop and a glass of whiskey. They're two different things. This, like I said, really did feel more like shooting an independent film. And having done a lot of independent film, I've been on things where we had to squeeze 10 pounds of s*** into a five-pound bag, know what I mean? So you had 24 days to shoot a movie that's ultimately gonna be two-hours long. So the grind of it and of having to shoot a lot of stuff on one day that's probably more like three days work than one days work, that I've been used to. The only difference is that because it's a TV network and they do have more money than you do on an independent film, we did have some longer days, because they were able to do that, whereas on an independent film it's like, "No, no. Sorry. Once it gets to be 11 or 12 hours, we can't pay all that overtime. We've gotta go." So on an independent film, what you end up doing if you run into problems of being behind, is you start to cut things and, in this case, Noah's vision was Noah's vision, we couldn't cut them. So we would work long hours.
HitFix: You and Martin appear, at least on the surface, to have somewhat different acting approaches, but Martin was telling me how quickly the two of you meshed. Were you surprised by how easily that meshing happened? And what was the common ground?
Billy Bob Thornton: For me, I obviously, in the show, I don't know any of these people. I'm the stranger, the mysterious guy from out-of-town. So if I were playing Martin's brother in the show, then I've got more homework to do. I have a lot more to think about, because I'm playing against someone who I have a history with. In this case, I just sit down and start talking to a total stranger. So in that sense, I'm just sitting down to see what happens. It's like, "Oh. This guy looks like a nerdy weakling. Pretty interesting cat. So let me see what the deal is here. I'm gonna f*** with him a little bit. And not only that, he may be instrumental in this whole plot I'm hatching here." Malvo smells weakness like an animal. He's interested in it. He doesn't respect it. And he can use it. So that's really the way I behaved around all those people. That's all I had to do. I just go in there and go, "Oh. OK. I see. That guy over there." It's the same thing with Colin Hanks, who I have a few moments. It's like, "Jesus Christ. This guy's a deputy? How did he get that job." I know I'm rambling, but the upshot of it is that I'm not in scenes with people who I'm supposed to have a long history with. They're total strangers to me.
"Fargo" premieres on Tuesday, April 15 on FX.
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