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Billy Bob Thorton: The Hillbilly Orson Welles

Billy Bob Thorton: The Hillbilly Orson Welles

Articles - Directing

He wears his redneck roots like a crown and wields
his Deep South eccentricities like a saber, but Billy Bob Thornton
reckons he’s been feeling mighty Canadian lately. The Arkansas
native and Oscar-winner for his breakthrough Southern Gothic fable
Sling Blade recently spent four months in Toronto for the Mike
Newell-directed black comedy Pushing Tin, which stars Thornton
and John Cusack as stressed-out air traffic controllers trying
to circumvent imminent insanity. Think M*A*S*H meets Airport ’75.

Thornton, of course, gained renown for playing off-kilter
hillbillies, like Karl “Mmm-Hmmm” Childers, the simpleton
savant who kills with "what some folks call a sling blade,” and
the grease-fried sloth of a mechanic who terrorizes Sean Penn in
Oliver Stone’s U-Turn. So when producer Jerry Bruckheimer (Top
Gun, Beverly Hills Cop, The Rock) asked Thornton to play – literally
– a rocket scientist in this summer’s second asteroid-colliding-with-Earth
apocalyptic opus Armageddon, Thornton was dumbfounded. His character
is the sanest voice in a movie about a bunch of roughneck oil rig
workers – Bruce Willis, Ben Affleck and Steve Buscemi – recruited
to drill and then detonate a nuclear device in the doomsday asteroid. “It
was just so strange they came to me for that role," shrugs
Thornton, 42, who is the figurative rock at NASA’s Mission Control
guiding this ragtag team of space cadet yahoos. “I figured
if they had that much confidence in me to do this, that’s not bad.”

Thornton questioned whether taking this $140 million
FX extravaganza would be viewed as selling out his indie cachet. "To
be honest, it’s inevitable when you have any success that you’ll
be offered this kind of movie…it just always happens,” he
reasons. “Actually, I was offered four or five of these kinds
of movies at once, and most of them were pure junk. But what was
interesting to me was that Jerry and [director] Michael Bay decided
not to have the usual mainstream usual suspects in a blockbuster
action film. They wanted me and Steve Buscemi and Owen Wilson (Bottle
Rocket) and people like that. That appealed to me.”

Dwight Yoakam, Billy Bob, and John
Ritter yak it up in Sling Blade (1996).

Apparently so did the Jerry Bruckheimer-trademark
flag-waving. “I actually reacted to the heavy patriotic nature
of the movie, which has been sort of a dirty word in the last couple
of decades,” states Thornton. “I think a little patriotism
seems like a good thing right now.

“And believe it or not,” continues Thornton, “this
character, who puts his faith in these morons sent up to space,
was an interesting turn for me. ’Cause quite frankly, as an
actor, it’s more of a stretch for me to play a normal guy.
That is much more difficult for me to do. It’s far easier to play
freaky characters…I mean as a person who grew up being low man
on a totem pole, I feel closer to those kinds of characters. Here
I was playing a guy who actually runs everything. I’ve never
run anything in my life."

Thornton has indeed come a long way from rural Alpine,
Arkansas (pop. 100), where he grew up penniless and hungry, eating
whatever his forest ranger grandfather “shot in the woods
– possum, deer meat, and such.” His mother was “the main
person who encouraged me to become whatever I wanted to be,” he
says. After graduating from high school, where he’d gotten
involved in theatre, Thornton went to work – hauling hay, laboring
at a screen-door factory, and playing in local R&B bands. After
driving to L.A. in 1981 with only $500 to his name, Thornton struggled
as a rock & roll singer and drummer, subsisting on nothing
but potatoes for a while, which soon landed him in the hospital
for heart failure brought on by malnutrition. “I knew a few
people, but I was too ashamed to ask them for money,” he says
softly. “I went through a couple of weeks where I actually
didn’t eat anything."

Eventually Thornton decided to try some acting classes
and landed a small part in the 1987 HBO movie The Man Who Broke
1,000 Chains. “Val Kilmer had a real part, and I was envious
that I only had five lines,” recalls Thornton. “My life
was going by and nothing was happening.”

It was then that the seeds for his career-making
Sling Blade were sowed. “I started making fun of myself in
the mirror at lunch, literally making faces and calling myself
names.” He lowered his voice, and covered his upper lip with
his lower one, like the patients he remembered from the nursing
home where he worked in the ’70s. “I ended up coming
up with Karl Childers right there. It was a little bit of a cosmic
deal.” For nearly the next 10 years, Thornton honed Karl’s
eerie monologue as part of a one-man stage show and later in a
25-minute short film he created. Meanwhile, he was scoring roles
in, among other movies, 1992s One False Move (which he co-wrote),
Indecent Proposal, and in the early ’90s, a sitcom called “Hearts
Afire,” playing opposite future Sling Blade co-star John Ritter.

All the while, Sling Blade was still hacking away
at Thornton’s psyche, and finally he scored financial backing to
write, direct and star in a feature version of his short film.
Miramax quickly purchased the project for $10 million and signed
Thornton to a three-picture deal. Thornton began directing and
starring in his next film, a black comedy set in Little Rock about “family,
lack of communication and alcoholism,” which he wrote and
hopes will further counteract what he sees as Hollywood’s
steady stream of American South stereotypes. “It’s a terrible
thing to go to a movie and see a caricature. I think a lot of it
is because there weren’t many filmmakers from the South early
on. And so you got guys from the Bronx and California making movies
about Mississippi, butchering Southern dialects.”

It’s an artistic responsibility Thornton takes
seriously, but not to extremes. “Look, I’m certainly not claiming
the South’s any better than anywhere else, or a better place to
make a movie about, but it does have a real knack for scandal and
I think that’s a wonderful thing to explore. So movies about
the South shouldn’t just be about how great it is. Part of
the interesting thing is how screwed up it is, too."

Thornton as the demented mechanic U-Turn (1997).

“I mean I tell ya, if you went by Hollywood’s
idea of Southern movies, you’d think all that happens down there
is lynchings,” he adds. “I used to start out a show I did
in theatre by saying, ‘OK, y’all know my name’s Billy
Bob, so you probably think I married my cousin and screw goats.’ But
I also said, ‘Just remember this: if it weren’t for us,
you wouldn’t have a great deal of your literature, and you wouldn’t
have any music.’ Because modern music comes from the South of
the United States. Without it, all we’d have would be classical
music and polkas.”

Thornton, whose pal Robert Duvall affectionately
dubbed him “The Hillbilly Orson Welles,” remains evasive
about who will co-star in his next feature, “only because,
as you know from Sling Blade, I like to surprise audiences with
people they don’t recognize at first. A lot of them are friends
of mine and not all of them are necessarily known for being in
the acting profession.” And the other reason, says Thornton, “is
because none of it’s formalized yet; I like to do things simply
on a handshake. I know who I want, and they know I want them, so
it’s just a phone call away.”

Names being tossed around include Leonardo DiCaprio,
whom Thornton talked with “way before Titanic.” But can
Thornton’s small-scale budget handle DiCaprio’s new $21 million
price tag? “Oh, I can afford him – he’ll work cheap for
me,” insists Thornton with a laugh. After that, Thornton will
direct the much-anticipated All The Pretty Horses, scheduled to
lens in March with Matt Damon starring. “I mean, yeah, All
The Pretty Horses is a big monster of a movie, but I’ll use
people I like and I’m friends with and I know they’re going
to do the job and not have a lot of demands or weird personality
problems, so we can just have fun.”

I LIKE HOW YOU TALK: Thornton and Lucas Black in Sling
Blade
(1996).

One thing’s for certain: whatever role Thornton
tackles next, he will assuredly morph into yet another unrecognizable
creation. Whether it’s Sling Blade, U-Turn or Primary Colors,
Thornton refuses to embody the same look twice. “I’d kill myself
if I had to do that,” laughs Thornton, who is quite slim these
days, having shed the 50 pounds he gained for U-Turn. “If I
had to just be myself, it would be pretty stressful…I just wouldn’t
have as much confidence as an actor. Armageddon was hard enough for
me, because I was more normal looking without much of a mask. That’s
what really intimidates me. I got into acting to play anyone but
me.

And that even includes cartoon characters, namely “King
of the Hill,” which Thornton admits is his favorite TV show. “I
called Mike Judge recently and said, “I’ve got to be on ‘King
of the Hill’ – how come you haven’t asked me?” And
he said, “Are you serious? I didn’t think you’d want to do
crap like that!” And I said, “Of course I’m serious.” So
when I was in Toronto, they sent me to a studio and I recorded
my part with Mike Judge giving me direction on the phone. I play
a preacher whose fallen from grace on the show.”

But Thornton insists that contrary to rumors circulating,
he will not be reprising his role of Karl Childers for a Sling
Blade sequel. "I was even approached about doing a Sling Blade
TV series, to which I said, “I don’t even like movie sequels,
and I surely don’’t like TV stuff, and I would never even
consider it.

“But there were actually two proposals for Karl
that I thought were kind of amusing, and I certainly gave them
credit for trying," chuckles Thornton. “The first was
a Karl comic book, where Karl was a superhero who travels to a
different town every week and saves another family, kind of like
The Incredible Hulk. That was one where I actually thought for
about five minutes, ‘Hmmm, I wonder?’

“And the other was a Karl doll, where you pull
the string and he says, ‘Hey, I’m going to whack your
head off’ or he says ‘I want more mustard and biscuits.’ That
one was almost sick enough to actually do.” MM

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