A sequel to the 2003 cult classic Bad Santa might be in the works, actor Billy Bob Thornton told a gathering of students October 15 at Loyola Marymount University’s School of Film & Television.
In a wide-ranging interview that covered everything from his early days living in dire poverty to his overnight fame following 1996’s Sling Blade to his horrified reaction living the life of celebrity during his years married to Angelina Jolie, Thornton said he was a great fan of his broad comedy as a nasty Santa.
As for the sequel, “We’re just waiting for a script,” he said. “I mean, we’re never going to beat the first one, but you got to get as close as you can. It will do real well, I would imagine. And hopefully we’ll get it off.”
Thornton, wearing a fedora to conceal the scalp he has shaved bald to play Sandra Bullock‘s James Carville-like nemesis in the forthcoming film Our Brand is Crisis, was a guest in the second season of The Hollywood Masters, the interview series moderated by The Hollywood Reporter’s executive features editor Stephen Galloway. The series of 90-minute interviews, to be televised later, will also feature Hans Zimmer (Oct. 29), the Farrelly brothers (Nov. 5) and Hilary Swank (Nov. 12). Other guests this season have included Michael Mann, James L. Brooks and Charles Roven.
Thornton said the first Bad Santa was easy. “I prepared for [portraying a drunk department store Santa] by drinking from 7 o’clock in the morning,” he said. But he noted that comedy is harder than drama, “because with comedy you’re expecting a result..you make them laugh. [If] they ain’t laughing then you’re screwed. If you come out and do Sweet Bird of Youth or something onstage and people aren’t howling, then you’re good.”
Thornton also said his popular character Lorne Malvo in Noah Hawley’s FX series Fargo (which recently concluded its first season) was close to the character he played in The Man Who Wasn’t There, the 2001 film by Joel and Ethan Coen (creators of the original 1996 Fargo film).
“I think they thought of him being a little more bad guy-like, more hyperactive possibly,” said Thornton. “And I saw him more as, really the guy in The Man Who Wasn’t There, only if he had gone insane. If the guy in The Man Who Wasn’t There became a contract killer that’s the contract killer he would be.” The frigid Calgary location helped Thornton nail the character. “You’re freezing so you just kind of do your thing and you don’t think much. And an actor should never think.”
Lorne Malvo is as hirsute as Thornton’s Our Brand Is Crisis character is clean-shaven. “My manager said I looked like Ken Burns with a beard,” said Thornton. “But yeah, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t try to get too spooky with it. But also I didn’t want to play a typical bad guy. I mean I connected with his sense of humor really. I think the reason people connected with the character is because he said things to people that we all want to say every day. When you walk into a motel and they say well, it will be $10 extra for a pet, Lorne Malvo says, ‘What if I had a fish? You know, would you charge me $10 dollars for a fish, or how about a spider? I mean, you know, what does pet mean?’ “
Thornton also talked about the “whirlwind” of his 1995 – 2003 romance with Angelina Jolie, when tabloids feasted on stories of their alleged dungeon and blood vials. “I mean it was a crazy time,” said Thornton. “I’ve never been fond of it.” The “dungeon” was actually his basement recording studio. “Vial of blood is very simple,” said Thornton. “You know those lockets you buy that are clear and you put a picture of your grannie in and wear it around your neck? She bought two of those. We were apart a lot because she’s off making Tomb Raider and I’m making Monster’s Ball. She thought it would be interesting and romantic if we took a little razorblade and sliced our fingers, smeared a little blood on these lockets and you wear it around your neck just like you wear your son or daughter’s baby hair in one. Same thing. From that, we were wearing quart jars of blood around our necks. And we were vampires and we lived in a dungeon.”
A full transcript follows.
GALLOWAY: I’m Stephen Galloway and welcome to the Hollywood Masters filmed on the campus of Loyola Marymount University. I remember what’s now quite a few years ago seeing a film, not really knowing what it meant and being astonished by the guy who acted in it, wrote it, directed it, and that was our guest today, Billy Bob Thornton and the film was Sling Blade. And he’s gone on to do simply extraordinary work as an actor in films, in Primary Colors, A Simple Plan, as a director, appearing in Monster’s Ball and most recent in maybe the best television series I’ve seen in a long time, Fargo. I’m really honored to introduce Billy Bob Thornton. [APPLAUSE]
THORNTON: All righty. You’re all dressed up.
GALLOWAY: Well just for you. You saw me putting a tie on before you came, you know, I like your hat by the way.
THORNTON: Sure. Here’s the reasoning for the hat. I was supposed to start a movie in New Orleans at the end of October and I took my daughter who, for her first double digit birthday when she turned 10 she wanted to do something special so we took her to Hawaii and it was like 102 here, you know, unseasonably warm. And we were gonna be in Hawaii, I didn’t start work until the end of October. I shaved my head, which I do occasionally when I’m not working. And then they tell me I start the movie October 5th. So in the movie I will have a shaved head. But when I’m off duty, yeah I can try to save it for a surprise.
GALLOWAY: What’s the movie?
THORNTON: It’s called Our Brand is Crisis with Sandra Bullock. Yeah, it’s sort of a comedy drama about politics and I’m playing a political consultant so I kind of look like James Carville with my head shaved so it kind of worked out all right anyways.
GALLOWAY: How do you choose your projects?
THORNTON: I have a dartboard at the house. I just put them up, throw a dart. No…I know it’s boring to say this but I always start with the script. I mean if it’s well written and it’s a character that I haven’t necessarily played before. And, you know, they kind of fit like a glove usually. I mean, you read something and you just feel this makes sense. And sometimes before you even read it you have a feeling that yeah, I’m probably gonna do this one. You know, there’s just something about it. And, you know, when you hear one you’ve heard the story of it and who’s involved, you’re always praying that it’s as good as it sounds like it’s gonna be. And, you know, you have ones that you like better than others. I have been fortunate to get some really good scripts over the years and I haven’t turned down anything that I regretted so far. And my manager who I’ve been with for over 25 years is very good at knowing what I should and shouldn’t do a lot of times. And there are two movies that I wanted to do over the years which will remain nameless. But…
GALLOWAY: Oh, come on you can tell us. No one else will know.
THORNTON: Oh yeah. [LAUGHTER] See I came up in a different time. You really could say things and nobody would know. Now somebody will know within four seconds. But one way or the other they were big movies and I desperately wanted these things and they turned out not very good. And I was happy that I didn’t do them. And then in terms of the ones I’ve done, I mean between movies and television in the early days when I was coming up I’ve done 75 or 76 motion pictures and TV things. And so, you know, in a group of things that big, you know, you’re gonna have a couple that you weren’t fond of.
GALLOWAY: What was the biggest pleasant surprise and what was the biggest least pleasant surprise.
THORNTON: Maybe the biggest surprise was what an amazing and fun time I had on this movie, Bandits. It was the best experience I ever had. I’m not saying it’s the best movie I ever did, but it’s just an experience of making it, of me and Cate Blanchett and Bruce Willis and we were all pals to start with. And the locations were incredible. We played bank robbers and we started robbing banks in Oregon and robbed them all the way to Century City. And we actually did it in sequence and all the way down the coast and the locations were just tremendous and we had such a great time. Barry Levinson directed it and I’d always wanted to work with him and he turned out to be just a wonderful guy. And I guess the fact that I was making a movie playing someone probably closer to myself than my image as portrayed as, you know, with the public and everything, I actually am a phobic twitchy sort of nervous guy. You know, and that’s what I played in the movie.
GALLOWAY: We were talking about that because I just said to Billy Bob, you know I’d spoken to him the very first time on the phone 10 years ago and I still remember this conversation. I was wondering if I should take this personally you didn’t care for Benjamin Disraeli and, a British politician, but you said you’re okay with British? [LAUGH]
THORNTON: Oh no, I didn’t have anything against Benjamin Disraeli, it was actually about George Arliss, the guy who portrayed Benjamin Disraeli in a movie. And that had nothing to do but with one of my phobias. I was afraid of George Arliss’ hair. [LAUGHTER] And it was… It’s an old movie and I was really broke at the time when I watched it. This was, you know, a long, long time ago before I ever came to California. And I was watching this old black and white movie and I’d bought a T. dinner and I knew I probably wouldn’t have another one for a few days. And I can’t watch old creepy stuff while I’m eating and here comes George Arliss’ Benjamin Disraeli and big old drapes and creepy carved furniture and his hair and this weird face and I couldn’t eat my TV dinner. [LAUGH] And that’s what that was all about.
GALLOWAY: Do you still have phobias or do you?
THORNTON: Oh absolutely, yeah. I have many. I grew up with a a learning disability which is a severe dyslexia and an OCD which I didn’t know anything about. And when I was growing up if you had something wrong with you they didn’t have groups and chat rooms and, you know, it’s like hey my elbow hurts what is this? And like 8,000 people talk about how their elbow hurt, don’t worry about it. [LAUGHTER] It was, you know, as a… They didn’t have like a support group for any of this and I didn’t know what dyslexia was. So they just thought I was stupid, you know, and that’s all it was. And so I didn’t do well in school and I did go to college for a year and a half and that just mostly involved liquor and girls. But, yeah.
GALLOWAY: They think the same thing so. [LAUGHTER]
THORNTON: Now, I’m sure that’s still a part of it but I didn’t do the studying part. But, you know, when I grew up and I learned that there were these things. So between OCD and phobias and dyslexia, it makes it hard to sit still and read a book.
GALLOWAY: And yet you started writing at a very young age.
THORNTON: Yeah, you can write when you’re dyslexic, you just can’t read it. But I started writing short stories as a child and I found the short story format a real nice one. You know, I love short stories and I love short documentaries or short films of any kind. And I got in drama class in high school and I only got in there because there were girls and I thought maybe I could make a grade above a C in something, you know. And because I’d already been threatened by my algebra teacher and, you know, told you’re gonna get kicked out of here if you don’t quit acting like an idiot. So I figured well I’ll go act like an idiot in drama class, which I did. And a woman named Molly Treadway who is a teacher… Wasn’t really accustomed to having students who really wanted to be in there anyway, you know. Because athletics were the big thing in my school. And while she was up there talking I was usually writing short stories. And she came up to me one day and she said what are you up to there? And I said well I was just writing a story. And she said well if you’re so smart how about this, how about you get up on the stage and, you know, pick a few actors and direct your little short story that you’ve written. And I did. I mean I looked at it as punishment in the moment. [LAUGHTER] But after I did it, she said, you know, you can really do this so you should consider it. She said I’ve never had anybody in my class that I actually thought should make this their living. And so she was the first teacher who ever encouraged me.
GALLOWAY: How old were you then?
THORNTON: I was in her class at 16 and 17.
GALLOWAY: Where does that come from, the gift? This was in Arkansas, rural Arkansas. They were pretty different people. Tell us about them.
THORNTON: My dad was a high school basketball coach and high school basketball coaches particularly then didn’t make money. You know, so we were pretty poor. And my mom was a psychic. And there’s a movie called The Gift that I’d written years ago with Cate Blanchett which is loosely based on my mom. Now whatever you believe, and I’ve gone in and out of believing different things as you do over the course of your life, having grown up with someone who had that particular gift, I saw it happen, you know. And just when I was thinking eh, how could somebody know that she would say something to me that no one could know who wasn’t inside my head. And I don’t know what there is out there, I have no idea, but I do know some people can tell you if I were you I wouldn’t talk to Debbie anymore. [LAUGH] You know. So they didn’t really interact in a way that made sense to either one of them. You know, my dad is very sort of, you know, go team and my mom is sort of into, you know, artistic things and all that. And she used to speak at medical conventions on parapsychology. And she was tested by Duke University because they had the leading school in parapsychology. And so in other words it wasn’t like a corner store with a tarot card sign or something like that. It wasn’t like that.
GALLOWAY: What did she tell you that turned out to be true?
THORNTON: Many, many things. I was extremely destitute at one point and she lived in Louisville, Kentucky with my stepfather. My father passed away when he was 46. At the time I thought he was an old man, you know. But…
GALLOWAY: They still think that, by the way.
THORNTON: Well yeah. They do think that. But he died very young. And my mom remarried a few years later and she married a doctor and he was a paraplegic. He’d been in an auto accident so they moved to Louisville, Kentucky and he became the guy who gives the physicals for people to see if they can get veteran’s benefits at the VA. That’s what he did. And he wasn’t into helping out the stepchildren I’ll put it that way. And so there I was living in this place in Alaska, I’d lost my job shoveling asphalt for the county road department and it was in the winter and the heat was shut off. So I lived in the old house, you know, that I grew up in by myself and there was no heat and I was ashamed to tell people that I knew so I just sort of was grinning and bearing it. And my mom would slip me like a $20 in an envelope every now and then and send it to me and that would have to last me until the next one came. And I would sleep in an easy chair, like a recliner, an old La-Z-Boy thing that was all beat up and I would recline in that and watch television because cable had first come out then. And the cable people didn’t realize that I’d never paid for it. So I lucked out. That’s where I saw George Arliss. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: That’s called karma.
THORNTON: Yeah, exactly. And so I would sleep in a coat in this chair because it’s freezing and watch cable TV so the only luxury I had was cable TV. But anyway, she told me one time that I was going to… She said do you know someone named Slidell? I said I don’t think so. And she said or a place called Slidell or something like that. I said no, I don’t think so. So one way or the other I didn’t think anything about it and about two or three weeks later a distant cousin of mine who was a truck driver, he knew that I’d driven a truck for the country and he got ahold of me, came by and knocked on the door and he said listen, I just got back from California, I’ve been driving and I’m beat and I have to make a run to Louisiana and I’m wondering could you share the driving with me and I’ll pay you $200. At that time $200 to me was like 1.5 million. [LAUGHTER] And I said yeah absolutely. I said where are we going? He said Slidell, Louisiana. And my mom had told me, she said someone or something to do with something Slidell is gonna help you out with money. And sure enough that happened. So I mean that’s kind of obscure. That’s not you’re gonna meet a tall handsome stranger. Or our next president’s gonna be a male, you know.
GALLOWAY: [LAUGH] Yeah, the hard stuff.
THORNTON: Yeah, that kind of stuff. So yeah. I mean there’s some pretty freaky things that have happened over the years. But that’s the household I grew up in and my mom’s family were very artistic. My grandmother was a schoolteacher. I was raised until I was eight or nine at my grandmother’s because we had to do that while my father was going to college and he went on the GI bill. He’d been in the Korean War and in the navy. And so we lived at my grandmother’s. So we didn’t have electricity or running water or anything like that until I was about eight or nine and then we moved into the city which was 10,000 people. And…
GALLOWAY: That was Malvern.
THORNTON: Malvern, right. Exactly. And that’s where I ended up going to school and everything and got into music and baseball and I learned pretty quickly that if you could throw a good slider like I could that girls liked you better. And if you were in a band they liked you even better. So I did both of those things.
GALLOWAY: Was your father tough?
THORNTON: He was beyond tough. There’s a thing in the news right now about an NFL player who took a switch to his kid and there’s a lot of trouble over that right now. And it’s so bizarre, you know, watching that. I mean I can’t imagine laying a finger on my kids. I go the other way and probably because my father was so abusive. But in terms of the switching, I mean I got it daily. And that’s something you guys, there are a few things that I grew up with that you guys will never have to go through and maybe you have gone through it, I don’t know, but one of them is not only did you get beat up at home if you had a dad like mine, and that was standard issue. This wasn’t like my dad in particular was an ass, I mean this was like everybody’s dad. And if you were over at somebody else’s house and you did something wrong their dad may beat your ass. I mean it was crazy. And at school we got whipped at school. I always got whipped at school because they gave you a choice, you could get 10 licks with whatever implement that teacher preferred or you could be suspended for three days. I would always pick the licking because if I got suspended what I would get form my dad was so much worse than what they gave you at school that I’d rather get it over with, you know. And so yeah. My dad’s family were, you know, sawmill workers and tough guys and my mom’s family were writers and musicians.
GALLOWAY: But that stopped with your dad at some point when you stood up to him.
THORNTON: When I was about 16, close to 17, he gave me one, one day. Because once I got bigger then it became a little more physical. When you’re a kid, you know, you could take a shoe and swat somebody with it or whatever but I mean once I got older it became more physical. And one day I couldn’t take it and it was over my mom who I mean to this day I’m sort of a momma’s boy. And he never laid a finger on my mom. And one day he got a little out of hand with her and when she wasn’t around I confronted him about it and there was… An argument ensued and I ended up putting him through the closet door. Yeah. So after that he left me alone. A year later he was diagnosed with… I don’t even think they called it this then, I never heard of it, you see the commercials where mesothelioma, you know. Because he was in the navy. And if you notice on those commercials it said did you work at a shipyard, were you in the navy, it’s a whole asbestos thing. And he was a fireman in the navy on a destroyer on a cruiser and that’s what he had. Once he got cancer and I watched him wither away of course I felt bad about it. And if you’ve ever seen anyone die with cancer before your very eyes it’s not fun. And I used to carry him to the table to eat because he, you know, wanted to keep some of his dignity. So he always wanted to eat at the table instead of being fed in the bed and all this kind of thing. Because back then it was a death sentence. Now you can live for years and years with a lot of these things. But he died eight months after he was diagnosed and he wanted to do it at home. So by the time he died he was unrecognizable and weighed, you know, like 80 pounds or whatever it was and I can remember carrying him like this to the table. And we would feed him and he would throw up on the table and stuff like that. It’s a very horrific thing. So when you see that, before your very eyes it does a lot to ya. And not to mention that I ended up working for a highway department where one of my jobs was cleaning up after accidents. I had a lot of friends who were in the drug dealing trade after my dad died. I saw some pretty ugly things. And so at a young age I… At my dad’s funeral I didn’t cry when my dad died. I did it years later when I forgave him, which I’ve totally forgiven him and I loved my dad. So we live in an age of a lot of cynicism and it’s a very judgmental society now. And it’s one of the things I miss. I miss being able to say… In other words if I said something today that offended somebody I can literally lose my career over it. If it were that way when I was growing up I mean nobody would have ever done anything because, you know, I mean the rules were different.
GALLOWAY: Do you miss the South?
THORNTON: Do I miss the South? Certain parts of it, you know. The South is like anywhere else other than the air is heavier there. Yeah, the air is a lot heavier there. I’m working in New Orleans right now and trust me the air is heavier there.
GALLOWAY: You got out relatively early. You drove to New York with the person who became your writing partner, Tom Epperson.
GALLOWAY: And then a few years later you went to L.A.
GALLOWAY: And I think it was quite a struggle starting in L.A.
GALLOWAY: I think you said that, you know, you lived in poverty and uncertainty all the time.
GALLOWAY: How did you maintain faith in yourself?
THORNTON: I attribute all my success to ignorance. [LAUGHTER] If you don’t ever think about not getting where you want to be, I think it helps you out. People used to say well why did you stay? I mean if things were so hard why didn’t you just go back home? But what was I gonna go back home to? I mean you know working for the highway department or a sawmill or something which is… Those are the things I did, you know. And so, you know, having nothing and also not knowing any better we stayed. And yeah, it was miserable for years and years. Practically a street person at one point. And I don’t know. I never expected to be a movie star. It’s not that I didn’t want to be, I didn’t think about it. I wanted to be an actor. And really just wanted to be in a band but I go tin this acting class and then one thing led to the next and you know one day all the sudden you’re on Matlock or Knots Landing and you’re like wow, okay. But it was a real hard time.
GALLOWAY: You worked at Shakey’s Pizza.
THORNTON: I did, yes.
GALLOWAY: You worked in a sawmill.
GALLOWAY: Laying asphalt.
GALLOWAY: What was the worst job you had to do?
THORNTON: The sawmill probably. That’s dangerous. I mean the fact that we used to have a joke. It’s like what is this? [Holds up two fingers.] That’s a sawmill worker ordering five beers.
GALLOWAY: Oh wow. [LAUGHTER]
THORNTON: But yeah, it’s the fact that I got out with all my limbs was pretty nice. But that was a rough job. I worked as a roadie in the rock and roll business which was great fun. Very little money, very little food and the whole thing about the roadie’s lifestyle is great because all the groupies have to go through the roadies to get to the rock stars. It’s not necessarily true. Roadies are working all the time. Yeah, and I did that for a spell. And when we got here yeah, we didn’t have a job. My first apartment was on Motor Avenue and as most of you know Motor Avenue starts at 20th Century Fox and ends at what is now Sony but when I moved here it was still MGM. And there was a sign above MGM at the time and the sign said Rich and Famous which is a movie with Candice Bergen and Jacqueline Bisset.
THORNTON: And I just remember seeing the movie for the first time I actually saw one of those things that was a mistake. It was like snowing on part of the land and it wasn’t on the other part and I was like hey, wait a minute. But Tom and I thought this was a sign. You know, we’re on the street that’s bookended by two major motion picture studios and it says Rich and Famous. This means something. Neither one of us had a job. I had gotten some money from my retirement from the Arkansas State Highway Department. $500. Because you know you build up retirement but I’d only been there a year and a half so I got $500. So we got this apartment and it was $90 a week. We paid by the week. And it was in an old converted motel so it was one room with a bathroom. No kitchen. And Tom was four years older than me. I’d always been bullied by him and his friends. So there was one bed and we sure weren’t gonna sleep in it together. So I slept on the floor and I was the one with the job. I never got that but anyway. [LAUGHTER] So because he’d taught freshman English at the University of Arkansas so it was above him to work at Shakey’s Pizza at the time but, you know, I was a scumbag so I worked at Shakey’s pizza. So anyway I brought home $96 a week and our apartment was $90 a week. So with that $6 that we had left over I would go to Lucky Supermarket and buy a box of Entenmann’s powdered donuts and a bottle of generic rum.
GALLOWAY: Very healthy.
THORNTON: And so every Friday night we had powdered donuts and rum. And a diabetic’s nightmare. And so the way we ate was I got one personal sized pizza a day for working there. And this is not a small pizza, this is a personal sized pizza which is even smaller than a small. So what I did at the end of the night and Tom, he’s always been like an old man, he would go to sleep at like 8:30 at night. But he would wake up when I got home at like 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning because he knew that’s when we ate. Because I would take the personal-sized pizza and I would put everything we had on it. You know. I don’t even eat mushrooms but I’d just load them on. I didn’t even care what it was. I would load them on there and I had to cook it extra because, you know, there was all that junk on there. So I would take that home and I rode the bus and the guy who ran the place, the manager, once I became an assistant manager which mean you have to, you know, do all the money and everything. At the end of the night you count it up, you put it in a sack, you take it to Bank of America. Well I would take the bus down to this corner in Culver City there and, you know, 1:00 or 2:00 in the morning and I’ve got like several thousand dollars in a burlap sack or whatever. And I had a key. They give you a key and you open the big round thing on there and you’d dump your deposit in there at the end of the night. So that was dangerous, you know. And then I’d wait for the next bus to come by and take me down there and I’d get off on Motor and walk up to the place. So that was the first year and a half or so.
GALLOWAY: But you did start acting and you had an encounter at a party when you were a waiter with somebody who gave you some pretty important advice. Who was that?
THORNTON: Billy Wilder.
GALLOWAY: Do you all know who Billy Wilder was? Really one of the towering writer and directors. You were a waiter, you didn’t know who he was.
THORNTON: I knew who he was but I didn’t know that was him. You know.
GALLOWAY: That helps.
THORNTON: Yeah, back in Arkansas we didn’t get many pictures of directors, you know. But I was… I didn’t know how to be a waiter. I was working for a company that blew up balloons for parties. And I’d done a few things by that point. I’d done a movie, a couple of scenes in some you know, horrible movie and I’d been on a show called A Judge which was kind of like Divorce Court and Matlock, I did do Matlock. And so I’d done a couple of things. And so now we’re into like the mid-80s sort of and a friend of mine knew that I needed the money and he said listen, I’m doing a party with a catering company tonight. It was Christmas Eve and he said on Christmas Eve they pay you extra. Like if you’re gonna get $150, they give you $300, it’s like a bonus thing for working Christmas Eve. And he said do you have a tuxedo. And I said what do you think? [LAUGHTER] And…
GALLOWAY: Do you have one today?
THORNTON: No. I have two suits. They’re both in Liverpool, England. Yeah, and together they cost $400. I wear them to everything. For years now, I’ve worn… I only have two because I like the suit, you know. And so when one’s wrinkled up in the closet I’ll wear the other one. They’re exactly the same suit, they’re Beatles suits. I mean they’re actual Beatles suits. There’s a company called Beatwear that sells real Beatles suits and I wear them to everything and haven’t bought a suit in years.
GALLOWAY: Being wrinkled up in the closet, that kind of intrigues me.
THORNTON: Yeah well, you know. When you’re tired at night and you go to some creepy event you didn’t want to go to you take it off and throw it in the closet. But anyway, so he gave me one of his tuxedos. Well this guy was about 6’5”. And I had to pin the legs and the arms up. And I went to this place out on Stone Canyon Road there and it turned out it was at the home of Stanley Donen who was a wonderful director of musicals. He did Singing in the Rain, Seven Brides for Seven Brothers. He was a big musical director and instrumental in all those Gene Kelley movies and all that. And I was really nervous. Debbie Reynolds was there, Sammy Cahn, the famous little songwriter who wrote a lot for guys like Sinatra and people like that. Dan Aykroyd and his wife were there and I told Dan this years ago… Years later and he said no way. I said yeah, I waited on you, dude. And so people like that. Dudley Moore was playing the piano and I was in charge of passing out the hors d’oeuvres and all that which I didn’t know how to do that or how you’re supposed to behave. But I’m walking around passing the stuff out and this little German cat starts talking to me. And in a German accent and he said so you want to be an actor, huh? Well I thought the cat has ESP. I wasn’t clued into the fact that waiters are all actors, you know. [LAUGHTER] And so I said yeah. And he said forget about it. And I said thanks. [LAUGHTER] And he said you’re not handsome enough to be a leading man but you’re not ugly enough to be a character actor. So what do I do? Do I get prettier or uglier? Which one do I do? How can I do this? And so we started talking and he said do you write at all? And I said yeah I do actually. He said we really need writers, you know, that’s where it all starts. He goes forget standing in a line with a bunch of actors. You know, everybody and his brother wants to be an actor. He said create your own characters, you know. He said be an original. And I did. I mean I started doing that. I started thinking along those lines and I started doing a one-man show.
GALLOWAY: Well you had your first I supposed big success as a writer with One False Move.
GALLOWAY: And then you came to this film that really put you on a map. Let’s take a quick look at a scene from Sling Blade.
THORNTON: I haven’t seen that in ages.
GALLOWAY: You haven’t?
GALLOWAY: I find it extraordinary and the more I watch it the more so. And I guess what you don’t have… Just seeing it, sitting here watching it where, you know, on the big screen where you’ve held that [shot?] and had the courage to hold the shot which must be difficult for a first time director and your eye moves from one to the other I just think it’s terrific work.
THORNTON: Well I appreciate that.
GALLOWAY: And I find him a very tender… I find you a very tender person. I find him very, very tender.
THORNTON: Well he’s an innocent, you know. And that’s really, I mean, that’s at the end of the day the movie was really about, you know, first of all [had?] you rather have a father who’s gay which John Ritter played, you know, who loves that kid or would you rather have a monster who, you know, doesn’t love the kid but since he goes by the rules of, you know, normal society supposedly then he’s okay, you know. And the book was a lot about religion and how religion’s not a bad thing… Religion is a bad thing when it’s in the wrong hands like anything, you know.
GALLOWAY: Are you religious?
THORNTON: I’ve gone through my periods. I’ve read the Bible completely, all the way through twice. I did it once when I was about 20 and I did it again when I was about 30. And that’s a long discussion. That’s very… I mean the Old Testament is a bloody history book, you know. And then as maybe you could see on Family Guy they talk a lot about how it’s… There’s a lot of magic and stuff that goes on. I think probably like anything else things have been misconstrued through the years and I believe in something. I can’t imagine that each and every person here doesn’t have something in them that doesn’t live on. I’m not sure how you would die. I don’t know how that works. I mean I don’t know how there’s this energy that thinks and moves through this life. All individual… In all individual ways and crazy stuff that you can’t explain and all this and then so you just blank out and then there was never you to start with? I can’t imagine that. But I also can’t imagine a guy with a beard and a cat who’s got a registry and, you know, a dude who blows a horn when it’s your time and you walk down a gold road in the clouds. I don’t see how that could be possible either, so. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: I find there’s something very spiritual about this character. Where did he come from and how did you transform? I mean I’m watching him and I look at you and I don’t see how you could go from one to the other. Where did he come from and how did you create him? And there are actors in this group who’d love to hear that.
THORNTON: Well first of all when people… One of the most asked questions, especially when you’re talking to, you know, a lot of times groups of actors there are usually two main questions. One is yes, how do you make it? [LAUGH] You know, and just like [INAUDIBLE] if I know. And the other one is what is your process? The answer to the second one is I don’t really have a process that I could explain to anyone. And I do have one, but I don’t know what it is. I do know what it is but I don’t know how to tell you what it is. And people like it when there is something. If there’s a trick to it, then everyone thinks they can do it. And if you tell them you know what, this is something that I can’t explain to you, then that’s not a good answer. It’s a good answer. I used to put that I studied with Stella Adler on my resume. I never met Stella Adler. [LAUGHTER] But if you told a casting director you studied with Stella Adler all the sudden they’d let you in the door. And so there are all these things that supposedly exist like you’re never supposed to look right directly in the lens for all you directors and cinematographers. You’re never supposed to do that. Well there’s a camera right there I’m looking right down the lens. Yeah you can. It depends on when you do it and how you do it. Now if you put a piece of tape a half an inch away from that lens and look at that because in a few minutes Robert Redford does his side and then you do your side so you look at the tape on this side and then he’s gonna look at it on that side, it’ll all match up, why don’t I just look at him, you know. I do it all the time. Nobody’s ever said hey, he was looking directly in the lens. You can’t tell.
GALLOWAY: But there were roots to this character. I think you based him on one white man and one black man that you’d known.
THORNTON: I based it on three different people. I worked as… I hauled heavy equipment… Notice how he pulled me back into the question? [LAUGHTER] I was going off on a tangent.
GALLOWAY: I like the tangents.
THORNTON: You’re good. But I worked hauling heavy equipment, bulldozers and backhoes and that kind of thing and I was given this assistant as if I could have an assistant because I was a nobody there but I was hauling heavy equipment to job sites and there was this black man who was in his… Probably I was in my 20s and he was probably 35 or 40 at the time and he was mentally challenged. And nobody took care of this guy. And he lived in a trailer that didn’t have any heat in it. You all know those construction site trailers. And I loved this cat. He was real funny and I used to take him, me and another buddy of mine who worked at this place we would take him bologna and bread on the weekends and some 7-Ups and Kool Cigarettes. The actual brand, Kool, not… [LAUGHTER] And so… Because that could be code language, you know. Anyway so we would take this over to him and the physicality of the character in Sling Blade was from him. That walk and the sort of posture and all that was from this guy. The voice was… I used to work in a nursing home and there was an old man named Reid and he would… He didn’t know at this point as we used to say his ass from his elbow but he would every now and then say something and he’d always follow it up with kind of a guttural thing, you know. And hey Mr. Reid, how you doing today and he said yeah, fine. Mm-hmm. You know, kind of like that. So the voice kind of comes from Mr. Reid. He stole one of the nurse’s cars one day by the way and I had to chase him, yeah. Because he was only going like five miles an hour so I like ran down the thing, I opened the door. It was like an action movie, it was pretty great. [LAUGHTER] But anyway and then story, the seed of the story, there was a guy who lived in the little town when I was without electricity and stuff when I was a kid. There was a guy whose family… He had physical problems and you couldn’t understand what he said and stuff and turns out he had like muscular dystrophy or something like that but they had… These were old hillbillies and they said his mother was scared by a snake when she was pregnant or the father was drunk when he was conceived. You know, like crazy old hillbilly fairytales. And they actually kept him out back, he didn’t live with the rest of the family, he was like a disgrace or whatever and they fed him kind of like a dog so that was the seed of the story.
GALLOWAY: You’d done the character on stage.
GALLOWAY: And then there’s a short film version of this. If you haven’t seen it, it’s really fascinating to see. Did you not like the short?
THORNTON: I did like the short. I liked the short very much. I’d written it and a guy I knew who was a director, a budding director said do you have anything you’ve written? One False Move was like my favorite movie and I said yeah, I got this short film. And we went out there and he had some guys who had $10,000 or whatever it was to make it and we went and made it. The casting in the short film was against what I’d envisioned. I had JT Walsh in mind for the guy who was in the short film as well… JT was the only one in the short who was in the movie. The other actors were terrific, they’re just not what I was looking for. Like the guy who ran the mental institution, I saw him as an older guy who might have been a, you know, a 10th grade science teacher. That’s the type. So when it got time to, you know, I’d finally decide to make a movie and I wrote an entire script and did it myself. So I think the short’s very good. But the people who made the short also talked about possibly doing a feature. Their idea for the feature did not make sense to me. It was full of flashbacks to Carl as a child and all these things and I thought… I just said that’s not the way to do it so I’ll just do it this way.
GALLOWAY: As I think you know, Billy Bob won the Oscar for the screenplay for Sling Blade and when you’ve picked up an Oscar you see all these people being led backstage by beautiful young women and there’s a warren of rooms where they’re all interviewed, the T.V. room, the radio room, the print room which I was in and you came on and someone said how long did it take to write the script and your answer was…
THORNTON: Nine days
GALLOWAY: Nine days. Right after you, Anthony Minghella, lovely writer/director came on and he said well it took me two years to write The English Patient. So we were all in shock. That film turned you into a celebrity. You were married to Angelina Jolie. How did you like that kind of celebrity life? You were in the news everywhere. He’s got a dungeon, he’s got a vial of blood, he’s this, he’s that.
GALLOWAY: Did that suit you? Did it not?
THORNTON: I mean we…
GALLOWAY: Did you have a vial of blood? A dungeon?
THORNTON: I don’t know how the vial idea started. We did not have a dungeon. It was, I mean it was a crazy time. I mean from ’95 or so when we were making Sling Blade on through the time Angelina and I split up which was 2003 I suppose, that whole time was quite a whirlwind and that was, you know, an amazing time. And I’ve never been fond of it. There’s so many things that you can say about this stuff and you know why I like to do this? I mean if we had three hours it would be so much better. Because I could actually….
GALLOWAY: You can come back and we’ll do it in three hours.
GALLOWAY: They’ll all be here, I promise you.
THORNTON: Well whether it’s popular or not popular I think it’s your duty to kind of tell people the truth about this stuff and the truth is not encouraged anymore. People want the truth but they only want the truth so they can talk bad about you on the blog or on television. They want you to tell them the truth and it screws everybody. It screws journalists and the actors and stuff too because people clam up. You know, we’re clamming up a lot more these days. And it’s because you know you’re gonna get your ass handed to you. So anyway, during that time the reason I brought that up is because I know people like to say oh he says it’s hard being famous, sure, these over privileged… Well I’ve told you what my life was like. I was hardly over privileged. I mean, you know. And I never made 25 million dollars a movie or anything like that. And so, you know… But there’s a hard part of it and the hard part of it is you never know how long it’s gonna last. And when people are bothering you constantly when you’re trying to do just a simple thing that humans do every day but they won’t let you do it without bugging you about it, that was a hard thing. Because I became a movie star overnight. From a working actor and working writer to a movie star by playing that guy. That doesn’t normally happen. Normally you’re 21 years old and you look like Tom Cruise and you do a couple underwear commercials first and then you’re a movie star. That didn’t happen for me. So it was all quite overwhelming. And then when Angie and I got married and we were friends before that for quite a few years and it was an amazing time and all the stuff that they said about us, I mean it had some basis in fact. I mean you know we had a basement. [LAUGHTER] Which I had a recording studio in. So it was a recording studio and so when I tell a journalist I stay down in the dungeon all the time, you know, recording music and they don’t hear recording music, they hear dungeon. You know. Because it makes a better story. When a journalist says to me… Asks me a very personal kind of insulting question and I say to him well I wouldn’t know about that because you know I’m Benjamin Franklin then he goes you’re Benjamin Franklin? You mean you’re reincarnated? I said well I don’t know if you call it reincarnated, I’m Benjamin Franklin. I was Benjamin Franklin in 1776 and I’m Benjamin Franklin now. You know. The next thing you know you’re Benjamin Franklin, you’re a lunatic and you think you’re Benjamin Franklin and he doesn’t understand that I’m saying dude, don’t ask me stuff like that because if you do I’m gonna tell you I’m Benjamin Franklin. So anyway that’s what happens. .
Vial of blood is very simple. Angie came home one day with a kit she bought which is a… You know those lockets you buy that are clear and you put a picture of your grannie in it or something like that and wear it around your neck? That’s what it was. She bought two of those. We were apart a lot because she’s off making Tomb Raider and I’m making Monster’s Ball. We were on opposite ends, we see each other for two weeks and whatever. She thought it would be interesting and romantic if we took a little razorblade and sliced our fingers, smeared a little blood on these lockets and you wear it around your neck just like you wear your son or daughter’s baby hair in one. Same thing. From that we were wearing quart jars of blood around our necks. [LAUGHTER] And we were vampires and we lived in a dungeon. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: By the way, thank you for that answer. I didn’t want to go down that long path. But you did… And I must admit even though I’m skeptical about a lot of journalism, I do remember when we spoke on the phone being quite shocked that you were so… Well very funny back then and…
THORNTON: Hey, what do you mean? [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: As soon as I said that…
THORNTON: You know what, they always get one jab in, believe me. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: And just original and bright, you know. And just really wonderful. And in which we’ve seen the work. So around that time you were doing a lot of big films. Armageddon, Primary Colors with Mike Nichols. And you chose to do the film you mentioned which is a small, very dark film, which I want to talk about so let’s take a look at a clip from Monster’s Ball. [CLIP] [APPLAUSE]
GALLOWAY: Is it hard to play anger?
THORNTON: If you’re on… It’s almost like being a musician. You know, I mean like some nights you play and you’re just on and other nights you just can’t do it. Just not in you. So I don’t think one thing’s any harder to play than the other. It depends on if you get in a groove or not. And we were in a groove on that whole movie. I mean it’s hot, we’re out in-out in the sticks in Louisiana and we know we have a difficult movie to make. And that was a very, very heavy movie. Sometimes it’s not like that. Sometimes a set can be fairly light with a nice crew and everybody’s having fun and you’re doing something heavy and you’d never guess that it was that way. Sometimes you’re doing a comedy and every day is miserable and nobody’s laughing on the set even though what’s on the screen is funny. You can never tell. That movie felt like it felt all the time and Heath Ledger was a great guy and when I see him I get very emotional because I’m playing what’s essentially my dad, you know, beating myself up there. And then as you know Heath left us. And in the movie he commits suicide. And the hardest scene to do was that one where he kills himself. Yeah.
THORNTON: Well I guess you see the part of yourself that has thought about it, you know. And I don’t imagine there’s a person who hasn’t had the thought, you know. Maybe I’m not worth it, you know. And I’m as highly insecure as a human can be. And…
THORNTON: Oh yeah. Probably more so. And I don’t know how people their age do it right now. I mean I used to know that 25 people who wrote for magazines and stuff hated to me but to know that 125,000 do? That’s a whole different world, you know. And so yeah. I think insecurity is sort of the order of the day now. And I don’t know how people do it.
GALLOWAY: How do you get over that and work?
THORNTON: If you love it you just keep doing it, you know. I mean I think you tend to do it more and more for yourself. I’ve made movies before that I wasn’t that into that made hundreds of millions of dollars. They’re fine movies, but I didn’t lay my heart out on the table, you know. And then there are movies… I just made a movie last year in London that’s gonna come out next year. 12 people are gonna see it, six of them won’t know what it means and the other six are gonna think it’s a masterpiece, which it is.
GALLOWAY: What’s the movie?
THORNTON: I didn’t direct it, by the way, so don’t start thinking I’m saying I made a masterpiece. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: What’s the movie?
THORNTON: It’s called London Fields. It’s based on a Martin Amis book. I recently saw it with the director. It’s not all together yet but it’s brilliant. It’s like they used to make movies that were different. I mean if you want to say avant-garde, I suppose you could but it’s really more… It feels very contemporary and yet it feels like a movie like Blow-Up. You know, it’s terrific. It excited me to see it. It excited me to make it and every day it was hard. Every day was miserable on this movie and with the weather in London and we had no time and no money and it was a real, real hard movie to make. And I miss it. It’s almost like an abusive relationship or something. [LAUGHTER] It’s like I wish I was back there making it again because it was so hard and yet we knew we were making something that the bloggers will destroy it, a few of the critics in the papers and stuff like that are gonna love it. It’s gonna be a polarizing movie and the average… Like if you’re looking for a broad audience like the guy that runs a lawnmower shop out in Iowa or something, they won’t even know what it is. I mean, it could be is that a raccoon or a baseball bat? They won’t even know what it is.
GALLOWAY: But that broad stuff doesn’t seem to be to your taste in any case.
THORNTON: No, I mean I’ve been in movies for broad audiences, Armageddon and you know Eagle Eye. Bandits was made for that but unfortunately it came out at a bad time but.
GALLOWAY: What makes you fully committed to a role?
THORNTON: I think I fully commit myself to any role to the extent to which I can. In other words there’s some roles that maybe it’s just not there, in other words on the page. You know, I mean your job is you need to play the governor and that’s what you do. I mean I’m not going to stay up all night if I’m playing a functional role. And I’ve played a couple of functional roles. And so I’m not going to do anything other, look he’s a functional guy. He says hey mister, you forgot your hat. By the way the meeting’s at 7:00. I don’t really have to go like think about when my puppy died all night long to do that. If it’s a heavy role in the movies that I’ve done that I have loved and fit my soul; A Simple Plan, Monster’s Ball, Sling Blade, One False Move, Bad Santa even. I mean Bad Santa is a comedy, and it’s a very dark comedy, and it’s become like iconic, you know. And I mean I have eight year olds, Bad Santa! And I’m like yikes, [LAUGHTER] you know. Your parents let you watch that? But I was committed to that role, really committed. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: Let’s take a look at Bad Santa.
THORNTON: Grown-ups! [LAUGHTER] [BAD SANTA CLIP PLAYS] [APPLAUSE]
GALLOWAY: I’m in a sad minority of one.
THORNTON: You are literally the only person. Did you know that no critic on earth didn’t say that was a five out of five? You are special, sir. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: Do you like that film?
THORNTON: I love it. It’s one of…
GALLOWAY: I heard you might do a sequel.
THORNTON: That’s what they say. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: I heard you might be doing a sequel to it.
THORNTON: Yeah, supposedly. We’re just waiting for a script, you know. I mean we’re never going to beat the first one but you got to get as close as you can. I mean you know you just can’t go out there and do it halfway. So we’re waiting for something that’s close enough. And you know it will do real well I would imagine. And then you know people will say well, it wasn’t as good as the first one. And we’ll say yeah, we knew it wouldn’t be. And but I think it should be fun. And I think people who like this one will enjoy it. And hopefully we’ll get it off, yeah.
GALLOWAY: Is it harder to play comedy?
THORNTON: I prepared for this one by drinking from 7:00 o’clock in the morning. [LAUGHTER] But yeah, I mean comedy is different. There’s no doubt about it. And when they say comedy is harder than drama, in some ways it is because with comedy you’re expecting a result, you know, from the audience. I mean you make them laugh. It’s like if a standup comic comes out. I always thought that’s got to be the hardest job in the world because if you come onstage and you start yapping and they ain’t laughing then you’re screwed. I mean if you come out and do, you know, Sweet Bird of Youth or something onstage and people aren’t howling then you’re good. You know what I mean? Because when you’re trying to elicit an emotion from people that’s not laughter or whatever you don’t know while it’s going on. So I mean some ways drama you can just be in the moment and do your job, be who you’re supposed to be. But comedy you realize that, you know, if people don’t laugh at this it’s not going to work.
GALLOWAY: Is there a gauge for funny when you’re shooting?
THORNTON: That was pretty funny, it was. Yeah, we kind of knew. Yeah, it was pretty funny. I mean the set wasn’t funny on that one. It was actually a very kind of weird set. It wasn’t like fun and games every day. Except for when John Ritter was there, it was always fun. But and Tony makes me laugh.
GALLOWAY: Was Robert Duvall a version of your father in Jayne Mansfield’s Car?
THORNTON: Yes, absolutely.
GALLOWAY: And now you’re back with him in The Judge.
GALLOWAY: Does it help as an actor when you’re working with someone you know is really good?
THORNTON: Sometimes it’s harder. You know, what do they call it? Is it the whore/Madonna complex? Is that what it is, right? That’s when like after a while your wife starts to be like ah, she’s too family-like to whatever, you know.
GALLOWAY: Maybe your wife.
THORNTON: Yeah. Well no, I’m just saying I think that’s the idea, right?
THORNTON: Not mine. Don’t get me in trouble here. But I mean it’s like sometimes it’s harder to work with an actor that you know because, that you know very well because the idea here is that you don’t know them and you’re supposed to-this is supposed to be real life here you’re creating, you know. And if you know them too well you have to forget who they are, you know. And if you’re working with somebody you don’t know so well. I mean if someone’s playing your partner, or your wife, or whatever, you know, it’s good to kind of get to know each other a little bit, you know. But, you know, if you’re like when we did The Alamo I was playing Davy Crockett. I didn’t say a word to General Santa Ana until he already killed me and you know we were at the wrap party because I wasn’t going to talk to the guy who was going to hack me to pieces. But I talked to Jason Patric who was playing Jim Bowie, and Dennis Quaid.
GALLOWAY: What did you say to the other guy at the wrap party?
THORNTON: He didn’t speak English. [LAUGHTER] Yeah, he didn’t speak English. It was pretty easy so I could just say hi, how are you? Nice working with you. Who knows what he thought I said.
GALLOWAY: Do you find yourself more drawn to comedy or the darker side of things?
THORNTON: Oh, both. You know, I don’t have a favorite of anything. I’m not real big on, I’m not real big on sort of what’s, I don’t know how you would say it. I don’t like movies that are shot on green screen much, you know. I mean, I know that’s the thing to do, and I know that it’s getting. I’ll put it this way; David Lean would probably kill himself, you know, again if he knew that people were watching Lawrence of Arabia on a telephone, you know. I mean that’s one of the experiences that I hope somehow comes back around. Everything is very convenient now and it would be real nice if somehow people started going back to the movie theater. And it’s people of my generation. It’s their fault in a lot of ways, people over 40. It’s their fault that the only movies are about robots and beautiful vampires. It’s wild, all vampires are beautiful. And when I saw that show Lost I learned something. Other than one sort of big dude if you’re in an airplane crash only models survive. [LAUGHTER] So you know sit next to somebody pretty, but anyhow.
GALLOWAY: You said you are equal parts humorous and melancholy.
THORNTON: That’s true.
THORNTON: I can’t imagine that everybody’s not. But I just know I am, you know. I mean I’m kind of sad and happy all the time. Just kind of like feeling, you know, full of life and confident, and at the same time terrified. I’m all of those things at once. And I think anybody pretty much who is any type of artist feels that. You know a lot of broken people in this business. And I think that’s maybe why we want to do it, you know, because you probably grew up wanting to prove of yourself, wanting to be accepted. It’s the hardest thing in the world to be in a business where it’s all about people accepting you, and you have a desperate need to be accepted, and yet you live in a, you operate in a society that’s now very unaccepting. And most of the time people think I’m talking about, it’s like just believe me this is not oh, this younger generation. It’s really not them. It’s more people, like I said, over 40. People over 40 stay home and watch television, that’s why there are no movies out there.
GALLOWAY: And yet you have certain nostalgia for the past.
THORNTON: Oh, completely. Yeah, oh I wish you guys could have been there. [LAUGHTER] I mean see I grew up in the, I was born in 1955. I was there. When I was a kid I met Elvis when I was three. I didn’t meet him. My mom was holding me. He was on the way to the Army, and the bus pulled and bought all of the kids a Coke and stuff at the gas station. If you have Elvis and The Beatles, you know, and all this kind of thing; John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Frank Sinatra, Sammie Davis, Dean Martin, you know which were my parents’ folks. But still it’s pretty heavy stuff if all the icons that you grow up on Hollywood Boulevard, and buy pictures of, and get posters of. If Hollywood shows you pictures of Marilyn Monroe, and Frank Sinatra, and you see The Beatles and Elvis Presley, and then now you live in a time when people wonder why young people are so restless and so desperate to do things. When I watch like a cat who’s like 21 years old and he shows me his film I see the need to create that again in them. Do you know what I mean by that?
THORNTON: Okay. Okay, if you’re in the heyday of rock and roll and movies, and that’s where I grew up. We didn’t have to look for it. We didn’t have to create angst. We didn’t have to create desire. We didn’t have to say, see we were screwed, my generation, because we wanted to be The Beatles or Elvis Presley. That ain’t going to happen. So we always had this thing to reach for. So if you’re 26 years old, or you’re 21 or 20, and you’re going to Loyola, you know and you have this need to be something, if there’s no carrot dangling out there, if there’s no idol. See we’re not encouraging idols other than on the TV show, you know and that’s the wrong way to do it. If we had become famous from a contest show we’d be embarrassed in my generation. But if that’s the benchmark then I thought well young people who want to be filmmakers, or musicians, or whatever are screwed. But maybe they’re not because what they’re doing is they’re creating their own thing. We got cats, like I said, from my age who are at fault. We need to go back out there. I mean honestly I was in a hotel recently where there were people from one of these comic book deals or whatever, and I thought I’m going to see like 19 year olds. That’s okay, you know. If you’re 25 years old dressed up like Superman at a comic book convention, that’s great. If you’re 78 and you’re doing it, something’s wrong. And I was in an elevator full of them and they hated my guts. I mean and so I think they have a place that; in other words they’re trying to create that atmosphere through their films, and through their music, and stuff like that. So as opposed to having idols and heroes to look up to, to go toward, they’re really having to dig in here, you know, to create those and make them themselves. And I think that’s not a bad thing. And so I guess what I’m saying is there have been more people over 40 who have pissed me off recently than under 40. [LAUGHTER]
GALLOWAY: Are you in sync with the Coen Brothers?
THORNTON: Yes, absolutely. I mean when I was growing up, when I was 11 years old I was listening to The Mothers of Invention. You know, I mean I was a Frank Zappa fan in Arkansas. You know, in the hills of Arkansas as an 11 and 12 year old I listened to Frank Zappa. But I also listened to Hank Williams. And so if you know all that stuff, I mean if that’s your vibe and you run into people who have a sense of humor that sort of, you know, jives with yours it’s a great thing. And yeah, I mean I always wished there was somebody like the Coen Brothers and they appeared. And so yeah, my favorite role that I’ve ever done was in The Man Who Wasn’t There. That’s my very favorite character I’ve ever played. [APPLAUSE]
GALLOWAY: The black and white photography adds a layer to it.
THORNTON: I actually shot that myself. I did it under the name Roger Deakins, yeah, my alias.
GALLOWAY: I acted in it under the name Billy Bob Thornton.
THORNTON: That’s right. That’s right, yeah.
GALLOWAY: First question please.
GALLOWAY: Hi, my name is Jess. And I was wondering because you’ve had success on television before, Hearts Afire with John Ritter who you talked about. And I was wondering from then until now, coming back to TV, and with how reputable television is with shows like Fargo, what the biggest difference was working from then and now, and whether television was something that you wanted to seek out again, or if it was just an opportunity that sort of presented itself?
THORNTON: Well, the difference is when I was coming up in the ‘80s television, if you were on television that meant either you were a young actor just coming up like I was, or you were an older actor whose career was over and you had to go on television. Now actors are jumping over each other to get on television. And it’s essentially because the $25 to $35 million dollar studio movies that are about human beings are not being made, and the independent films, higher budget independent films, $10 to $12 million dollars, are not being made very much. And so television has taken that spot. Television is making, there was in independent film renaissance late ‘80s through the mid-90’s. It was an amazing time. Television is doing that right now. So that’s why everybody wants to do it. I mean if you’re writing stuff like, you know, Fargo, or True Detective, or any of these things that are on, Breaking Bad, there are no rules in television. And there are rules in movies. I did a movie playing a bad cop who was a heroin addict but they wouldn’t let me smoke in a movie.
THORNTON: And I said wait a minute. I can do heroin but I can’t smoke? I don’t understand this. Well, one of our board members doesn’t like smoking. I said well one of your board members is an idiot because I’m smoking in the movie, and I did. I mean that’s one good thing. Once you get a little juice, you know, at least you can tell someone you know sorry. I’m not going to stick a needle in myself and then go ooh, get the smoke away from me. [LAUGHTER] But on TV you can, you know you can cram, you know, 30 people into a closet and have an orgy, and then they can all shoot up, and everybody has cigarettes in their nostrils and their ears. They don’t care. [LAUGHTER] So yeah, television is amazing right now. Whether I would do it again, I’m about to do a cameo in something that’s just a fun thing, kind of like Matt Damon did on 30 Rock that time when he played Tina Fey’s boyfriend. I’m about to do something like that.
But in terms of totally being — I love film too much, and by film I mean film. And I’m hoping that they don’t throw all the film away because I still use it. It separates. The thing about a motion picture is that look of film on a big screen takes you into a magical world. Digital, sure you know it’s getting better all the time. It’s getting closer to film. Not really. It’s clearer, it’s sharper. There’s no doubt about that. But I got junk all over my face I don’t want anybody seeing, you know. And so it actually looks like so real that it’s begun to look hyper real. And television is actually kind of, maybe because it’s smaller, you know and you can’t see all that junk, seems more like film to me right now. And actors love it. And I mean as a director if you want to be a creative person in your life, unless you’re directing pilots or miniseries, TV directing would hold no interest for me. I’ve been offered that. But you know it’s the creator of television shows who run the show. They tell you what to do. And it’s a producers and writers kind of medium, you know. And so TV directors, it may be fun and you make some money, and it’s very technical and that kind of thing. But for actors there is no reason to not do television right now at all. I mean for me this 10-episode idea, that appeals to me more. I don’t want to do anything for seven years.
GALLOWAY: Did you discuss Fargo with the Coens?
THORNTON: I simply said are you guys cool with this? And they said yeah. So that was nice, yeah.
GALLOWAY: Hi, Mister Thornton. My name is Ari. I’m a sophomore screenwriter. And I know you spoke previously about the process of getting into character and how it’s something indescribable. But could you just elaborate a little bit on playing the character of Lorne Malvo, and how that was different than previous characters in film, like the different medium?
THORNTON: Well, it felt like making a 10-hour independent film, frankly. So it didn’t feel any different. In other words the television thing, that part of it never came into it with me. It was a little funny because we had five directors over the 10 episodes that are two. Each director would do two episodes. And you’d just get used to one guy and then there’s another guy in there you’re talking to who has a different vibe or whatever, you know. And like I said, they don’t have as much to do with what you’re doing as an actor. But just having somebody new on the set who is kind of bossing everybody around is different. But in terms of getting into that character it was written so well I didn’t have to do much. I mean the look I kind of came up with myself. The manner in which I conducted myself was kind of my deal because I think they thought of him being a little more bad guy-like, more hyperactive possibly. And I saw him more as, really the guy in The Man Who Wasn’t There, only if he had gone insane. If the guy in The Man Who Wasn’t There became a contract killer that’s the contract killer he would be. But it was very, very well written so I can take very little credit for how great that character was. It was just Noah Hawley’s brainchild. And I really loved playing it. And when it’s that cold you really get into character, you know you’re freezing so you just kind of do your thing and you don’t think much, you know. And an actor should never think.
GALLOWAY: Thank you.
GALLOWAY: You shot in Calgary?
THORNTON: Calgary, Canada. Yes, pretty cold.
GALLOWAY: Was it difficult deciding how far to push that character?
THORNTON: Yeah. And that was one reason for the look, you know. It was kind of, my manager said I looked like Ken Burns with a beard. But yeah, I wanted to make sure that I didn’t try to get too spooky with it. But also I didn’t want to play a typical bad guy, you know. But it was actually a very, it was frighteningly very easy for me to play. [LAUGHTER] So I don’t know. But I mean I connected with his sense of humor really. I mean I think the reason people connected with the character is because he said things to people that we all want to say every day. I mean when you walk into a motel and they say well, it will be $10 dollars extra for a pet, I’ve always thought you know why? And Lorne Malvo says what if I had a fish? You know, would you charge me $10 dollars for a fish, or how about a spider? I mean you know what does pet mean? You mean a dog or a cat, right, because you don’t mean a…
GALLOWAY: Was that dialogue in the original script?
THORNTON: Oh, no. That was in there. I adlibbed very rarely in that thing.
GALLOWAY: Do you like to improvise?
THORNTON: Depends on what it is. I improvised a lot in A Simple Plan. Some movies you feel the need to. And others, you know, especially the really stylized ones like Fargo or like a Coen Brothers thing. They’re very stylized and one thing leads to the next. It’s pretty taut, you know. And so you don’t want to mess with it much.
GALLOWAY: Next question.
GALLOWAY: Hi, my name is Hazar. And thank you so much for sharing your personal stories. They were very inspiring. I wanted to say that I loved your work on movies like Princess Mononoke and Puss in Boots. So how is it different to prepare for a voice role than to prepare for a live action role?
THORNTON: There is absolutely a difference. I’m intimidated by doing voiceover work. I’ve always been. And I haven’t done it much. I did those two and I did an episode of King of the Hill a long time ago. And I don’t know. I never want to look goofy doing something, even in front of like a couple of people. I mean you know what I mean? And it’s like when you’re doing voice work you’re doing like a different thing, and you’re standing before a microphone.
THORNTON: There is three or four people there, and you got to go, “Hi, Cubby. Are we all coming over tomorrow?” And there’s something like that, and you’re like oh God, I don’t want to do that, you know. [LAUGHTER] You know, so I mean people that are good at that are astounding to me. I’ve always admired people who are great at voice work. And I mean, see a guy like, you know, Robin Williams who was an acquaintance of mine, God rest his soul. You know Robin was so good at that kind of thing. I mean there are certain people who are performers. See I’m an actor. I’m not a performer. I’m not like a song and dance guy who can take a cane and a hat and do it. I would just you know. That’s why I never did commercials. You know I tried. I went on two commercial auditions, and you know held up a tube of Preparation H or whatever. And it’s like try Preparation H. You know I’m like I can’t do this. I just can’t do it. [LAUGHTER] And so the times I’ve done a voiceover it was so difficult for me. And you know it’s weird because you got a director there who you’ve never met and never heard of because you’re not in that world. And they know exactly what they want, you know.
THORNTON: I mean they’re putting this all together piece by piece. And all of a sudden, you know, you kind of get your hackles up because here’s some cat in there saying okay, let’s do a few more, you really need to. You know, it’s like do you know who I am, dude? I’ve got a trophy full of, a hardware case full of trophies at my house for doing this. What are telling me? You know I’m playing a pig or whatever, you know. And so at first it takes some getting used to. It’s like oh yeah; I don’t know how to do this, do I? You know and then you relax. And you start following their orders and it comes out okay. And I’m very proud to be in those movies because it’s the only thing I’ve ever done that my daughter; well, Princess Mononoke she can’t see. But Puss in Boots is the only movie of mine that my daughter’s ever seen. And she saw a little bit of Armageddon once and Astronaut Farmer. She saw The Astronaut Farmer. And other than that, so I’m glad to be able to do those every now and then. But that’s a good question. I’ve never been asked that. But it’s a totally different way to prepare, yeah. Mainly prepare by saying to yourself this is going to be embarrassing. Just get ready for it.
GALLOWAY: Have you ever been fired?
THORNTON: Fired? No. I mean not in the movie business. I’ve been fired other places, yeah.
GALLOWAY: We’ll take a couple from the audience and then have our reception.
GALLOWAY: Hi, I’m Sarah Rose. Thank you so much for being here today. You’ve had so much success as an actor, as well as a writer and a director. From your experience what advice can you give to budding actor, writer, directors? And juggling all three hats on one production, what’s that like?
THORNTON: So actor, writer, and director you’re saying, right?
THORNTON: Well, people a lot of times say that you know it must be hard to direct yourself. That’s a myth. It’s easier to direct yourself. There’s no middle man, you know. If you’ve written it you know exactly; whoever you’re playing if you’ve written it you already know it. As a matter of fact, you’ve already made the movie if you wrote it. You’ve made it in your head. So you know that. So there is nothing scary about that at all. Once you write it, that’s the hardest part. I mean once it’s written and you are satisfied with it, if you can look back and go that’s what I intended to write then you’re over all the hurdles. And in terms of, I mean you know, yeah sure, there are certain things about how do you direct the other actors while you’re in the scene? But you can feel it, you know. I mean I go back to the music analogy, you know. If you’re onstage with a band and you’re playing electric piano, you’re playing the song, you’re not constantly looking over at the sax player going I don’t know, and you know stuff like that. You feel it, you know. You feel if a scene is going well. And, of course, you have video playback. If you want to go look at it and go yeah, I like this one. You tell the script supervisor put a star by take two. And, you know, I don’t do a lot of takes. Three is huge for me. So, you know, I mean after three takes people start thinking too much, you know. And like I said earlier, actors really shouldn’t think. And so you usually get it in a couple. But there’s nothing scary about it. I would just say do what you know. I mean that’s the most important thing, as opposed to saying okay, what’s popular? You know, what’s popular? Okay, vampires are very popular. Let me make my vampire movie. I’m not saying you can’t make a vampire movie. But if you’re going to do one do something crazy. I mean don’t just get a bunch of, like I said, models and make them into vampires so you’ll get an audience. You know maybe get some ugly vampires for a change, [LAUGHTER] right?
GALLOWAY: My dad raised me on the Cosmik Debris…
THORNTON: There you go.
GALLOWAY: …so I know you’re actually Abraham Lincoln because so am I.
THORNTON: [LAUGHTER] Nice.
GALLOWAY: And as someone who’s not attractive enough to be a leading male, and not ugly enough to be a character actor, I’m coming at you with this question. How grateful are you to have had experienced such depravity of the spirit in your life?
THORNTON: That’s the number one thing that I think drove me. I mean the most important thing you can have as an actor, writer, director, or whatever you are, poet or whatever it is, is life experience. Life experience doesn’t mean you have to live 50 years to have it. I mean you know a lot of people have huge life experience by the time they’re in college. Whatever that life experience is you know you just always use that. And I’m very, very fortunate to have had a very eclectic life, and a mainly difficult one. I’m happy about it now. It wasn’t so much fun when I was up to it. But it’s, you know, the best thing you can use, you know. I mean copying people is creepy. That’s always, I mean if you listen to songs right now out of like, you know like in say country music, you know they’ve been singing the same chorus for 15 years. The idea now, as opposed to when I was growing up the idea was to be different, if I could only be different. What can I do that, you know, it sets me apart from everybody else? Now the idea is like how can I make this song sound exactly like that one that made a jillion dollars, right? And I just think that’s bad. And I think I’m counting on you cats to turn it around so I will still have a job that I want to do for the next 20 years. You know what I mean? So yeah, I mean dig in, man. You know, and use every creepy thought you ever had, or every great thought, or every person who ever broke your heart. I mean that’s where the good stuff comes from.
GALLOWAY: Do you see yourself as more of a theatrical actor, or a method actor? In other words do you like try to live the character in your life when you’re preparing for it beforehand?
THORNTON: Well, yeah I’ll go back to the answer to his question in a way. I already lived it. I always say if you’re going to do a movie about Charles de Gaulle get a Frenchman, you know. I’m not French. And yeah, sure I could get with a dialect coach and work for six months trying to talk like a Frenchman. But there’s some French actors. Just get one of them, you know. That’s the way I look at it. But if they do a movie that takes place in Houston, Texas, if they get a f—ing Frenchman I’m mad. [LAUGHTER] You know what I mean? So that’s my attitude toward it. It’s like whether I’m method or a theatrical actor, method is closer. Yes, much closer to what I do. Yeah, I’m not able to do it superficially. And maybe that’s why I haven’t played a bunch of British lords because I just, I don’t feel like doing that. You know, I really don’t. I mean not that I don’t appreciate British lords. Don’t get me wrong. [LAUGHTER] But all I’m saying is we got plenty of Texans, and people from Montana, and New Jersey, and Wyoming, or Kansas City. We got plenty of actors. So we don’t need some cat from Cardiff-upon-Rosemary-upon-Thyme, or whatever the hell it is, playing people from Montana. And in the reverse, they got plenty of people from Cardiff-upon-Rosemary-upon-Thyme that they don’t need our asses coming over there trying to do British accents. So, you know, I’m not saying on; in the theatre, yeah sure, why not? I mean yeah, I mean you got to yell anyway. [LAUGHTER] You know what I mean? And so that’s, and I did theatre for years I hear. But I mean if you’re going to have to yell anyway why not use an accent? I mean you’re already not real, you know. I mean Robert Duvall taught me years ago. He said, “You know theatre is not real. I don’t like plays.” You know, he doesn’t like plays. And I agree with him in certain ways, you know. They can be fun. I don’t mind going to see them. I went and saw Phantom of the Opera. I thought hey, that’s cool. Look at the mask and all that. Whatever, you know. [LAUGHTER] But I mean I really don’t want to come out and like bound up on the stage and say Brad, hey listen. Ha, you tell Suzie that I’m not the guy. You know, and all that kind of stuff. You know, I just don’t care. I don’t give a shit, you know. I mean I’d rather just come walk out on a film set and the camera is right there. And say, hey listen, tell Suzie don’t be calling me anymore, you know. I’d rather do it that way. And so as a result, even in film, if it’s a part where I’m going to have to play some kind of thing like that I’d just rather not do it. Yeah, I don’t know if that answered your question. I know I was rambling, but okay.
GALLOWAY: On behalf of LMU, thank you very much.
THORNTON: Oh, any time. Thank you. [APPLAUSE]