'Fargo's' Billy Bob Thornton on What TV Can Teach the Film Industry

The Oscar winner tells THR that filming the FX anthology series has reinvigorated him and he'll likely return to TV for short-run fare and potentially bring film projects that can't get financing to the small screen.
"Fargo's" Billy Bob Thornton

Oscar winner Billy Bob Thornton returns to the small screen with FX's Fargo, an anthology series inspired by the "Minnesota nice" that helped the Coen brothers earn an Oscar nomination for the film starring William H. Macy and Steve Buscemi.

In the 10-episode drama from showrunner Noah Hawley, Thornton plays Lorne Malvo -- the big bad opposite Martin Freeman's bumbling car salesman Gus Grimly  -- in his first series regular role since he co-starred in Hearts Afire.

Here, The Hollywood Reporter talks with Thornton about returning to TV, what the film industry can learn from the risks that broadcast and cable networks are taking right now and his interest in returning to TV after Fargo.

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What was it about Fargo that piqued your interest?

It was so well-written. If you told me the Coen brothers wrote it and I didn't know any better, I'd believe it because it's their sensibility and vibe. The show has their vibe; Noah managed to not imitate them. He made this his own animal without imitating them and still capturing the spirit of what their movie was. That's a hard trick. It was like making a 10-hour independent film. Once the 10 are over, I can go off and do movies again. And this character, Lorne Malvo -- he's this mysterious drifter, stranger and contract killer. It's a terrific part especially because of his dark sense of humor. I just love playing it. Fargo was a terrific experience that actually rejuvenated me. I see the great work being done on television now; there's more freedom in TV than in movies. I made three movies before I started Fargo that are all coming out over the next year, so I felt I had something in the bank and that frees you up to go on to something new and try it out. I'm into some of these TV shows. They are taking the place of that renaissance we had in the early to late 1990s of great independent film. That's kind of what it looks like on TV now.

You made similar comments at TCA. What do you think the film industry can learn from what TV is doing right now with shows like Fargo and HBO's True Detective?

It can tell the film business that there is still as big of a market as there ever was for adult dramas and adult comedies. The problem is that -- and I think the movie industry knows this -- if people can watch them on television in the comfort of their own home and not pay a bunch of money and buy a $10 bag of popcorn, they figure, "Well, why go?" So, in other words, the film business maybe has their hands tied a bit if they do want to make those movies because they have to find a way to entice that audience to come to the theater. People over 40 or 45 aren't really going to the movie theaters so the movie business spots that and says, "OK, we have to gear movies toward a young audience."

Do you think seeing actors like you, Matthew McConaughey and Woody Harrelson coming to TV will help the film industry tell different stories?

I think they'll only do it if they can get the audience in, but it's kind of like, how do you do that? They would have to make the movies first and see if they worked. And the industry doesn't gamble as much as it used to.

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Which is incredible considering how much TV is gambling with style, format, tone and pacing, like with True Detective. Is that something you'd ever do?

That's a very interesting show, yeah. What I'm probably going to do is try to do a couple of movies a year and find something else like this. Maybe split my time between really great television projects and movies. That's probably the idea from here on out. I even thought some of these movies that I can't get made anymore because they're not making them as much -- even if it's an independent film at $5 million or $6 million -- maybe some of those that I'm having trouble getting financed, maybe I'll do them for television. Maybe expand them like a 10-hour, 10-part series or like Kevin Costner did with Hatfields & McCoys and do like a three-part thing.

What was your biggest challenge in doing Fargo?

The biggest challenge was working with different directors all the time. I come from a world where we worked with one person all the way through. All these directors on this were terrific but each one has different energy and a different manner of working, so I had to get used to that. Other than that, it was pretty smooth sailing.

Having returned to TV for the first time since the '90s, do you find the process has changed?

It felt like a long movie. There was a time when TV didn't dig very deep. One of the things that has changed is the networks. Obviously the HBOs and Showtimes have been doing it for a long time but the networks have loosened up in terms of censorship. You can do pretty much what you want. We didn't have to hold back doing Fargo for FX. I think television started to attract more talent and the stories got better because you could actually show more realism and you could have language, sex, violence and things that used to be taboo in television.

How would you say Lorne compares to Steve Buscemi's and Peter Stomare's big bads from the Fargo feature? Did those performances influence you?

Not at all really. I was talking to Martin Freeman about that. He didn't look at the movie again before we started this. I haven't seen the movie in several years and I love it, but I purposely didn't watch it. I didn't want to be influenced. I do remember it well enough to know that I'm not really like any of the characters. This is a brand-new character for this world. Martin's is loosely based on Bill Macy's character, but really mine is a new guy.

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How would you describe Lorne Malvo? Do you see any character you've played before?

I think he's got a little bit of Clint Eastwood from his Spaghetti Western days. Lorne is like that in that keeps things close to the vest and the way he looks. It's always in the eyes. He's like The Man With No Name character. But in terms of characters I've played, it's like if Ed Crane from The Man Who Wasn't There had a really bad brother -- that might be this guy.

We know FX's Fargo is a closed-ended story. Would you return for a second season and play a different character if that's the route Noah takes?

Noah is a pretty mysterious guy. He's kind of like Malvo. He hasn't really given me an indication of what that's going to be like. I suppose there's going to be new characters and a new story. I just signed on for this one, so I'm not sure. I may not even fit in after this.

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One of the things that FX's American Horror Story does well is it brings back its core cast playing characters that are completely different than what they've done before. Is that of interest to you?

Oh sure, it'd appeal to me. No doubt about it. But then again, I'm thinking of maybe even writing something for television or getting another kind of short-run series, so I'll see what comes my way.

Would you come back to FX?

I haven't been treated this good by a studio in so long. I don't think anybody has; they're a real unique bunch at FX and I'm very happy to be a part of their world.

Fargo premieres April 15 at 10 p.m. on FX. Will you watch?

Email: Lesley.Goldberg@THR.com
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