"I was a late-comer to it because I came up as an actor in the '80s," says Billy Bob Thornton, the actor-writer-director, of the notion that people who first made their name in film might also do television, as we sit down to record an episode of The Hollywood Reporter's 'Awards Chatter' podcast in his trailer on the Raleigh Studios lot in Hollywood, where he currently is shooting the second season of the Amazon drama series Goliath. "Back then," he continues, "if you were doing TV, you were 'a TV guy,' you know? But now, the independent film business is on premium cable and streaming and all that — that's where it lives, and now that's where everybody who considers themselves some type of artist and who wants to do good work goes." The 61-year-old adds, in reference to Goliath, on which he plays a highly unconventional lawyer and for which he won this year's best actor in a drama series Golden Globe and is an Emmy contender in the same category, "I'm able to do a 10-hour independent film now. That's what everybody's doing — like, how many 'film actors' are doing this stuff now? I mean, everybody wants to do it."
Thornton, who was born in Arkansas and raised between there and Texas, had a rough childhood, but, he says, "music was my refuge." He began playing in bands as a kid, always dreaming that he might be able to do so as a career, but also exploring other paths as well. For instance, he went to a tryout for the Kansas City Royals, but suffered a broken collarbone on the field before they could see him pitch; he briefly enrolled in college, but dropped out when his father suddenly passed away; and then he began working "all kinds of physical labor jobs." Then, in the late 1970s, he and Tom Epperson, a neighbor who shared his dreams of bigger things, up and left, first for New York and then, when that didn't work out, Los Angeles.
"It was a pretty rough road for a long time," Thornton says of life in L.A. He was occasionally homeless while struggling to find work, auditioning during the days and working odd jobs in the evenings, but he stuck it out because, he notes, "I didn't have much to go back to." One Christmas Eve, while working as a waiter at a private party, the legendary writer/director Billy Wilder engaged him in a conversation about his life, at the end of which Wilder urged him to write roles for himself and not wait for others to do so. Thornton took that to heart and started writing a screenplay to star in (he penned 1992's One False Move with Epperson) and creating characters for a one-man show (including Karl Childers, the character he later would play in a 1994 Sundance short and then in his breakout 1996 feature Sling Blade, which he also wrote and directed).
Thanks largely to the success of One False Move, Thornton began getting work as a regular on TV series. "I was becoming a working actor, but still not a real 'name,'" he recalls. But when financing came through for Sling Blade (less than $1 million), he got it made (largely through favors from friends like Robert Duvall and John Ritter) and it changed everything. Released by Miramax during the indie boom of the 1990s, it garnered rave reviews, grossed 25 times its cost at the box office and turned Thornton, at 41, into an A-list star and double Oscar nominee — he lost out on best actor but won for best adapted screenplay, a win that was received with a standing ovation at the Academy Awards. "I didn't expect it at all," he says of the film's phenomenal success. "I really made the movie just for myself, my friends and my family — I thought those were the people who'd see it."
Thornton's life changed in every way. Two years after Sling Blade, he was Oscar-nominated again, for his supporting performance in Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan, and was starring in Michael Bay's blockbuster Armageddon. A year after that, he wed Angelina Jolie. ("It was a great and fun time for me," he says of their tabloid-fodder marriage, which lasted through 2003. "We had a great time." He also insists that the eccentricities of their relationship were exaggerated: "You know, you hear 'blood vials,' and the next thing you know we were vampires.") A year after that, he gave three acclaimed performances, in Barry Levinson’s Bandits, Joel and Ethan Coen's The Man Who Wasn’t There and Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball (landing Golden Globe noms for the first two). And in 2003, he appeared in two films that became cult classics: Love, Actually and Bad Santa. "That was a wonderful period of time," he reflects. "It's hard to beat that period of time."
Over the following decade, Thornton's career came back to earth and his films were much more hit-or-miss, with some, like 2004’s The Alamo and the 2005 remake of Bad News Bears, bombing badly with critics and at the box office. But his greatest frustration was his inability to direct another film that reflected his creative vision. He was heartbroken by the savaging, in postproduction, of 2000’s All the Pretty Horses, and by the aborted release plans of 2012’s Jayne Mansfield’s Car, which premiered at the Berlin Film Festival but barely was seen in America. "I don't know that I'm that relevant as a director anymore," Thornton laments. That may be, but his career as an actor was rejuvenated shortly after Jayne Mansfield by his decision to give TV a chance.
In 2014, Thornton anchored the first season of FX's Fargo, Noah Hawley’s reimagining for FX of the Coen brothers’ film of the same name, winning rave reviews — and the best actor in a miniseries or TV movie Golden Globe — for his portrayal of a cold hitman. (He also was nominated for an Emmy.) His tremendously positive experience with that show "absolutely influenced me," he says, when the opportunity to star in another, Goliath, a legal drama from David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro, came along. Thornton says he long has wanted to play a lawyer — "Lawyers and actors have a real similarity," he argues, noting the performance element at the center of both jobs — and, moreover, he felt a connection to this particular lawyer, a guarded and eccentric guy who loves his family, adheres to his own sense of justice and surrounds himself with fellow underdogs. "I relate to this guy," he admits. "I kind of play this character as myself, in a lot of ways."
With the passage of time, Thornton — the father of two boys in their twenties and a girl who is 13 — seems to have matured, mellowed and only gotten better as an actor. He still comes across as a bit impenetrable at first, but over the course of a conversation he opens up and reveals himself to be friendly and generous. Perhaps that's because he's as happy as he's ever been — personally and professionally — and would love nothing more than for things to continue as they are. "At the end of a movie that's an hour and 45 minutes or whatever," he says, shortly before getting called back to set to resume shooting the first episode of Goliath's second season for veteran director Walter Hill, "sometimes you wish you could just keep playing that character, just thinking of all the other possibilities. And in this world, you get to." He adds, "I love every minute of it."