Billy Bob Thornton on Why ‘Fargo’s’ Format Rules: ‘Now I Can Make a 10-Hour Movie If I Want To’

The FX star talks with EmmyWrap about his return to TV in “Fargo” and his frustrations with independent film

EmmyWrap2_Issue_061114_RGB_cropped_lowrez 3A version of this story originally appeared in EmmyWrap: Movies/Miniseries

Implacable, coldly efficient and apparently devoid of anything resembling conscience or humanity, the assassin played by Billy Bob Thornton in FX’s “Fargo” miniseries is one of the most vivid, fearsome and blackly humorous villains on current TV.

The miniseries ends on Tuesday night after 10 dark, perverse and funny episodes that nicely captured the tone of the wonderfully twisted 1996 Coen brothers movie that inspired it. Thornton’s Lorne Malvo showed up in the first episode to quietly wreak havoc, setting in motion a series of violent (but also comic) misadventures set in the frigid environs of Bemidji, Minn — and after a startling jump of one year in Episode 8, he returned with a different look for what seems to be an inevitable showdown with Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard.

An Oscar winner for writing “Sling Blade” in 1996, Thornton has spent his career flitting between acting, writing, directing and performing music with his band the Boxmasters. These days, acting is the only one that really pays the bills. The frustrations that came from directing the unsuccessful films “All the Pretty Horses” (which led to an extended fight with Miramax over edits) and “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” and the changing environment for independent films, are what made him receptive to television when “Fargo” adapter Noah Hawley came calling.

See photos: 12 Outtakes From Billy Bob Thornton’s EmmyWrap Magazine Cover Shoot (Photos)

Billy Bob Thornton photographed for TheWrap by Dan Busta
Billy Bob Thornton photographed for TheWrap by Dan Busta

In between enthusiastically talking about baseball and music, Thornton sat down with TheWrap to discuss his his newfound interest in the medium.

The Coen brothers’ “Fargo” was the same year as “Sling Blade,” right?
Yeah, it was. They won Best Original Screenplay and I won Best Adapted that year. And I guess I had known them at that point for three or four years through a mutual friend of ours. We used to have these Super Bowl parties, and they would come to those.

I’m trying to picture Joel and Ethan paying much attention to a football game.

Well, I don’t know how much they cared about the Super Bowl. They were in the corner. [Laughs]

But when Noah offered me the TV show I thought, that’s not a bad idea. I read the script and it was good, and my only request was, “Do the Coen brothers dig this? Are they OK with it?” If they were against it, I probably wouldn’t have done it. But I found out that they said yes, so I signed on.

The miniseries has a different setting, different characters, different story, but it really does seem to have the same DNA.
Absolutely. I didn’t watch the movie again, because it might have made me think too much. But I remembered it well enough to remember the tone, and that’s all we needed to know. I kinda know the Coen brothers’ vibe pretty well, I’ve done a few things with them, so I didn’t need to study up.

And frankly, my character didn’t have to know any of it. I could have played that character without having ever seen a Coen brothers movie. It’s the only character in the show that’s completely set aside from what they did in that movie.

The rest of them at least have to have the accent.

See video: TV Reporter Interviews ‘Fargo’ Star Bob Odenkirk but Doesn’t Know It

I don’t know if you’re the kind of actor who goes back and tries to figure out your character’s childhood and everything, but it strikes me that Lorne Malvo might not require that. He’s an archetype and a mystery, and maybe you don’t need to know what he was like in grade school.
You’re right on the money. It’s probably the first character I’ve ever played whose history I never thought about. I didn’t have to. It’s probably better that you don’t. Since he doesn’t have a conscience, he probably doesn’t think about his past either. And so you just go out there and you do the job every day — as an actor, and as the character.

I’ve said it before, but he’s a guy who lives more in the animal kingdom than with humankind. He’s a predator. It’s like when he meets the big guy, Sam Hess [Oliver Platt], in the first episode, he walks in, and Sam has got all these big thugs with him, but Malvo doesn’t care. You know, even a bear an elephant doesn’t want to get bitten by a cobra. They look at him and go, “That’s a f—ing cobra. I better leave that thing alone.” He has this sort of mesmerizing thing, where people go “Wow, I think he’s serious, I better do what he says.”

Is it tricky to create a guy who’s that quiet but that commanding?
You have to have supreme confidence to do that. He has it as a character, so you have to have that confidence as an actor.

When you got the role, did you know where the story and the character was going?
More in a cosmic sense, you know what I mean? Not really the details. They didn’t say, “In Episode 7 you get killed,” or anything like that. I don’t think Noah had written, or maybe even thought out, 9 and 10. I don’t know that he knew exactly how it was going to go.

So when did you find out?
Well, you got the episodes two at a time, because a director would do two episodes. But I purposely didn’t look at ’em until it was time. ‘Cause you know, you don’t really know what’s going to happen in life, so you kinda don’t want to know what’s going to happen in this.

In a movie, obviously, you’ve got to read the whole script. And in this case, since it’s spread out, it was kinda cool to not know where it was headed.

Did you get any scripts where you thought, oh hell, I didn’t see that coming?
Oh yeah, absolutely. [Laughs] There was always a sense of, I wonder who I turn out to be? Because these days in TV, there are no rules. It could be anything. It could all be a dream, it could be that some other guy is actually the bad guy, it could be anything. I was always a lot of fun when I read a new one.

sling-blade-billy-bob-thornton-featuredYou did a little TV at the beginning of your career, but not much since then. Did you have any qualms about returning to the medium?
Well, they told me it was 10 episodes, which was really appealing, I mean, I’m not giving up on movies. A lot of people have, but I still believe in movies. And maybe TV
 is taking over so much that the movie business is saying, “Wait a minute, we better do something about this.” I’ve got a couple of movies that I want to do over the next year and
 a half, so I wasn’t looking to get on to something that lasted seven years.

And this felt like a 10-hour independent film — that’s the way it plays. We were talking about this one day, about the renaissance period of independent film, like ’90, ’91 through about ’97 or ’98. It was great, and we thought it would last longer than that. But it didn’t. That’s the way television feels now, that there’s this great renaissance period for artists.

Also read: ‘Fargo’ Boss Noah Hawley on the ‘Hubris or Foolishness’ of Adapting the Coen Brothers

I have a lot of friends who did it before I did. Woody [Harrelson] and [Matthew] McConaughey did that “True Detective,” before that Dennis Quaid did a TV show, Kevin Bacon, [Kevin] Costner did that three-part series on the “Hatfields and McCoys,” [Bill] Paxton had done the Mormon thing. So all these guys who are my age, are now looking to this as a new way to do things. They always get on my ass about making movies that are too long. Now, I can make a 10-hour movie if I want to.

Billy Bob Thornton photographed for TheWrap by Dan Busta
Billy Bob Thornton photographed for TheWrap by Dan Busta

Could you make “Sling Blade” today?
Probably. But the only reason they’d let me make “Sling Blade” (above) now is that we made it for $980,000. I think I could probably get somebody to give me the money to make it. I don’t think it would be received the same way it was at the time. And on the opposite end of that, I think the movies that I’ve made in recent times would have been received better if they’d come out then. Things are different now.

You can always find somebody to give you a million bucks to make a movie. But even when they give you that, it’s like, “OK, you need eight-and-a-half million dollars to do this movie? We’ll give you three. But we want George Clooney, Tom Cruise, Cameron Diaz and Ryan Gosling.” And they also want you to cut the movie to an hour and 40 minutes.

On TV, they’ll not only give you the budget to do it, they’ll let you tell the story in 10 hours. If I can find something I’m trying to get financed that makes sense in a longer format, I’d love to do it.

Also read: ‘Fargo’ Star Allison Tolman Admits ‘There’s Well-Deserved Skepticism’ Over Adaptation

Did the “All the Pretty Horses” experience sour you on directing?
Pretty much everything after “Sling Blade” soured me on directing ever again, yeah. I don’t know what I have to offer as a movie director anymore. If we froze ourselves in time in 1995, I think I could have directed 10 movies that would have done pretty well. But after that, I don’t think so. After “All the Pretty Horses” I said that I wouldn’t direct a movie again, but I did [with “Jayne Mansfield’s Car”] and I got my ass kicked again. I don’t know if it’s worth it.

But you’re still writing?
Yeah, I write all the time. Generally for myself. And for my mom, my brother, people who understand me. I write songs all the time, and I write those for myself, too. If one of them ever gets on the radio, so be it. That’s the way I look at everything these days.

My one job that kinda works on a consistent basis is as an actor. So I’ll keep doing that to remain in the current entertainment world. I hope to be a character actor when I’m Bruce Dern’s age, doing what Bruce is doing.

But your band, the Boxmasters, are still active, too.
We just got out of A&M studios a couple of days ago. We’ve got about 500 songs that have never been on records. We just keep recording.

Because people know me as an actor, it’s hard for me to get a fair shake as a musician. Whereas any sonofabitch in the world who’s ever made a record can be in a movie, and people don’t care. You know what I mean?  But I grew up playing music. I wasn’t an actor. So if I hadn’t ever become an actor, there would be a different perception. And that doesn’t make any sense. The whole spirit of that is wrong, you know?

We have a great cult following, and our shows sell out, and musicians want me to write songs for them and stuff. But we have to contend with the social network now, and they’re never going to say anything nice about me by their nature. That’s the way it works. It bothers you for years, and then all of a sudden you wake up one day and say, “Oh, I see. You can’t win.”

There’s absolutely nothing you can do, so you just go on with your life.