Billy Bob Thornton Talks Fargo

We chat with Billy Bob Thornton about his new limited FX series, Fargo, and why movie actors are flocking to TV.

One of the great independent film success stories of the 1990s, Billy Bob Thornton has become a legendary writer, director, and actor known for his memorable work in projects as varied as Sling Blade, The Gift (for which he wrote the screenplay), and Bad Santa. Yet Thornton, ever the smiling chameleon, is still able to surprise audiences after all these years, such as when he signed on to FX’s limited series adaptation of Fargo, thanks to the dynamic pilot script by series showrunner Noah Hawley.

We were able to sit down via a phone conversation with Thornton last week to discuss why he and any number of respected film actors—such as Woody Harrelson and Matthew McConaughey—are now considering TV as a great medium for exploring complex stories, and why as an actor who’s worked with the Coen Brothers that this FX continuation lives up to that fabled pedigree.

Was there anything about this character that you added to the role that wasn’t already really scripted for you?

Billy Bob Thornton: A weird haircut [Laughs], which was actually a mistake. I got a bad haircut and we had planned on dyeing my hair and a dark beard and all that kind of thing, but I didn’t plan on having bangs. But then, instead of fixing it, I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought, “Hang on a second here, this is like 1967 L.A. rock. I could be the bass player of the Buffalo Springfield.  This is good.” Or, Ken Burns, the dark side of Ken Burns. Bangs are normally associated with innocence, and I thought that juxtaposition was pretty great, so that was added. So, really just the look; Noah Hawley’s script was so tightly written, so good, that all I kind of had to do was show up really.

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You previously described the character here of Lorne Malvo as conscienceless, and I’d be curious how you go about finding that within yourself to play this conscienceless – hard to say – character?

Well, usually when you’re playing a character, you think a lot about their back story and that kind of thing and in this instance, I didn’t want to do that because I doubt “Malvo” thinks much about his past anyway, so even the character, the guy himself, probably wouldn’t think much about it.

And, like I said before, it was so well written that I didn’t have to really do much in order to portray the character. I think what really attracted me to it was not as much that he didn’t have a conscience, but that he has this bizarre sense of humor where he likes to mess with people, where most criminals if they go in to rob, say, a clothing store or something, they go get the money and they get out of there. But “Malvo” would look at their sweater and say, why are you wearing that sweater? I mean, you work in a clothing store. Look at all those nice sweaters over there. You look like a bag person. And so, it’s just a very odd thing.

It’s sort of in keeping with the tone of the Coen Brothers to have a character like that. But Noah managed to walk a tightrope with this thing and he does a great job. He captured the tone of the Coen Brothers and kept the spirit of their movie, and yet made it its own animal, which is a pretty tough job. I just thought it was so clearly drawn that I just had to kind of be there. I looked at Malvo as a guy who is a member of the animal kingdom, you know? We don’t get mad at polar bears, they’re all white and fluffy and they do Coke commercials with them at Christmastime and stuff like that. And yet they’re one of the meanest, most ruthless predators on earth.

So, “Malvo” probably doesn’t think of himself that way. He just thinks of the moment and how do I get the job done?

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You’ve had such an eclectic career, how do you veer towards a part like this where you have to convey physical menace?

Well, that’s a good question. It is a tough one when you weigh 135 pounds and you’re telling people who are six-four, 250 [pounds] to get out of your way, how do you do that?  Well, a lot of that is [in the eyes]. If someone is talking to you and tells you that you ought to do something, and you can tell they mean it, those are the scary people.

And I worked in a prison years and years ago on a movie, and I [talked to] these guys who were with the Aryan Brotherhood, and some of them had tattoos and they’re big, muscled guys and everything, and this one guy told me, “Do you see that little skinny guy over there in the corner, the one that’s not talking, just kind of sits by himself? That’s the big guy right there.” He said, “That’s the guy you don’t want to mess with.”

I ultimately talked to the guy and I could tell that he meant what he said. So, those are the people you want to watch out for. And it’s like maybe I can break this guy in half, but he would hunt me down, he would crawl until his fingers were bloody on the asphalt to get me. So, those are the ones.

And I look at Malvo as a type of sort of snake charmer. Once he looks at you you’re under some sort of spell.

I know you’ve talked about this before, but I just kind of wanted to talk to you again about the kind of what opportunities working in television in a series like this presents at this moment in time? You’ve talked a bit about how the independent film world, as it was some years ago, isn’t quite as fertile a place to work and that a lot of that has moved to television now. I just was wondering again how a series like this kind of fits into that reality.

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Well, the fact of the matter is we have to face this, that Baby Boomers, in particular, really have to look to television now, not only the performers and the writers and everything, but the audience. People over 40-something, they grew up in the heyday of the great movies of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and we had a little drought in the ‘80s here.  

And then the early ‘90s through like the late ‘90s was a real great time and we thought it was a Renaissance. And what we didn’t realize was that it was going to be so short. We thought it would last a couple of decades.  When I was coming up, television was a bad word. Now, it has a cache, and actors are clamoring to go on television because it’s a place that we can do the things we were doing in movies.

There’s a spot that television is filling that the movie business is not, which is the medium budget studio movies, the $25 million, $30 million adult dramas or adult comedies and the higher budget independent films, the $10 million, $12 million independent films. And you can still make a great independent film, but you’re not guaranteed anybody will ever see it, because nobody takes that much interest in putting it out, putting money into distributing it.

So, they want to put 10 movie stars in a $3 million movie, so they can cover their asses on the foreign sales and all that kind of stuff. There’s more freedom in television because in an independent film, even a studio film, you can do a movie about heroin smugglers, but you can’t smoke. Wait a minute, you can sell heroin, but you can’t smoke?  I don’t understand that.

But they’re going for a certain demographic or whatever it is and trying to sell it everywhere. On TV, you have even more creative freedom now. And I think part of that is censorship has loosened up over the years, and now you have sex and violence and language and stuff on TV. So, all those things that made us not want to do television when I was coming up in the ‘80s are gone. There’s no reason not to, and I have to face it, that’s my audience now, and all the guys my age, the ones, all of us that came up together, a lot of us even born the same year, [Kevin] Costner and Bill Paxton and Dennis Quaid and Kevin Bacon; our audience watches television, and I think The Sopranos kicked it off.

That’s when we all started thinking, hey, wait a minute. This is the place to be; shows like The Wire and things like that. You can do terrific work in television now and have a lot of freedom, and there are independent films that pop through every now and then, and there are some good studio movies that come through every now and then. But it’s the exception rather than the rule now.

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I’m wondering, we’re starting to see these more contained single season limited run TV series like True Detective. What is the feeling about that format to you as an actor? I know Noah Hawley described the show as like a 10-hour movie in a way.

Well, that’s true and that’s what it felt like making it. It felt like doing a 10-hour independent film. That’s very appealing. I’ve been accused many times as a writer/director that my pace is too leisurely, and it’s too long and stuff like that. Well, here’s a chance to do that kind of thing and you’ve got 10 hours to do it in. Actually, it feels great, and there’s great appeal in that for actors, writers, and maybe not so much directors because the directing world in television is more, those guys just come in and do a couple of episodes and they’re gone. 

But for the creator or writer, it’s a really great thing to be able to develop characters and develop stories. We would all like to make at least a three-hour movie, but here you get a chance to do a 10-hour. But also, this doesn’t mean that I’m giving up doing movies. So, I can do this, do 10 episodes, and it’s over and then still do two movies that year.  

So, it’s very appealing in that sense, and I’m sure that came into play with [Matthew] McConaughey and Woody [Harrelson] when they did True Detective. It’s a way to do both. If you came up as a film actor, you don’t have to give it up. You can do great work in television and then on the occasion that you get a movie that you really love, you can still do it.

 I had no desire to get involved in a TV series that was going to last six or seven years. I’m not saying I wouldn’t, but that wasn’t really what I was looking for. When I was offered this, it seemed perfect to me.  So, there’s a great appeal in it, and I think you’ll see more and more of it.

I’m even thinking that way now.  It’s like some of these movies that I can’t get made, like if I walked in a studio and pitched this movie that I want to do, they’d laugh [me] out of the room. It’s like, “Are you kidding me?  You can’t sell bubble gum and toys with that!”

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And I’m thinking, well, you know what, maybe there’s a way to do this movie as a three-hour or a three part thing like, for instance, Costner did with the Hatfields & McCoys.

So, you’ve been talking about what the appeal is of doing television, but were you wary at all of tackling something, before you read Noah’s scripts, as iconic as this Coen Brother movie?

If Fargo had come out in 1986 and then this came up in 1996, I would have been more worried. I’m not as worried now because of the way it works with the social network and there are a lot of blogs and this and that. You can’t win anyway…So, these days I don’t make decisions based on what people are going to think as much as I would have, like I said, 15, 20 years ago.

Were you wary of whether it could be pulled off, though?

No, I had read the pilot script.  I was offered it and read the pilot script immediately. It was so well written that Noah had walked this fine line of channeling the Coen Brothers, the spirit and the tone of their movie, and yet making it a new animal. I thought, well, you know what, this guy has done it.  He really has pulled this off. So, I didn’t worry, simply because I had read the pilot and it was so good.  And I didn’t feel like it was a rip-off.

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At one point the pilot, your character says to Lester, “You’re problem is you spend your life thinking there are rules and there aren’t.” What do you think that Malvo’s problem is?

What I think his problem is is very different than what he thinks his problem is. I don’t think he has a problem. Do you know what I mean? He’s an animal.

Do you think he’s a psychopath?

…He exists in the animal kingdom more than anything else. He goes by an animalistic instinct and so people like that don’t ever consider themselves having a problem and they also think they’re invincible.

I wanted to ask about the fact that you are able to explore this character probably deeper and longer than any of your other characters on film.  Can you talk about being able to get comfortable with a character and the length at which you can work at creating your version of Malvo?

Iis a real blessing that you have 10 hours to develop a character, and I think that’s one of the appeals to doing these, especially the ones we’re doing, the 10-hour things or the eight-hour things that McConaughey and Woody did. 

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Coming from the film business, you still want to feel like you’re making a movie, and yet TV is such a great place to be right now. So, I think it was a real, it felt like a blessing to me to be able to have that time and to watch this story unfold at its own pace and everything. 

In terms of working on the character, I mean Noah had drawn it so clearly. I think with all the characters that we really did just show up and do his bidding, which was a very clear vision. It’s funny, I guess the one thing that I had to get used to is that for each two episodes, there’s a different director and each one has a different energy. They were all terrific, but they have different energies. So, getting used to different directors was the most difficult part, just in terms of the way they deal with actors and everything. But I never went on, I never said, yeah, I’m good let’s move on to the next shot until I looked over at Noah and got a wink from him because this is his vision.

I really put myself in his hands. I think we all did.

Would you be interested in writing and directing your own limited series down the road?

Probably, immediately more as an actor. But down the road, I definitely have my eye on at least writing something. Probably not as a director so much because directors who are directing a series they have different ones come in all the time. So, you’re kind of coming onto a moving train and I’ve tended to generate my own things as a writer and director most of the time.

…If I was hesitant at all about it, it would simply be because there’s some great TV creator/writers out there, and I’d probably feel very intimidated, hoping that I was able to come up with something innovative or at least interesting to people because I’m influenced by Southern novelists mainly and kind of make books on film, which I think is probably obsolete in the movie business these days. They’re not ones that the distributors are clamoring for.

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But I think if I could come up with something that might be entertaining—I’ve also thought about different movies of mine that I can’t get made, because the movie business is not interested in certain types of movies for adults and for us Baby Boomers, so maybe since the Baby Boomers are watching TV, maybe some of those movies I can’t get made in the film business as a writer and director, maybe I could find some way to parley that into television.

At one point in the show you have to take on a Minnesota accent and pass yourself off as a local minister with Malvo embracing this Minnesota niceness. I’m wondering, did you do any research on people from the region or have you had any experience with Minnesota voice to draw from?

Oh yeah, I shot half of Simple Plan up in Delano and also, I’ve got some friends in L.A. who are from there.  I’m around actors, you know, Sean William Scott is from up there, and Kelly Lynch is an old friend of mine and Kelly Lynch used to do impressions, so, for family and for her neighbors and stuff for me all the time, and I always found it very funny. It’s odd because that part of the country, Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas, up in there, and Montana, to the rest of the country they’re almost like foreigners. It’s the only place that exists like that in the country. I think that’s why we’re so interested in those people in movies.

The Coen Brothers have really opened up a vein there. It’s kind of alien to some of us and it’s just a really interesting culture, because you guys can talk about something that’s really heavy and yet sound like you’re talking about going to the grocery store. It’s just astounding. It’s a great kind of character to explore. 

You’ve mentioned your work with the Coen Brothers before and they’re executive producers on the show, so were you able to talk with them either before you took the part or after, even during filming at all about this character and about how it fits into the tone of their vision?

Well, I didn’t talk to them beforehand, because I had already been told and had learned that they had given it their blessing and that they had read the pilot and had some input on it, so that was enough for me. Since we’ve started, I’ve talked to Ethan a couple of times.

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And Ethan, when asked about the pilot he said, “Yeah, it’s good.”  And for Ethan saying yeah, it’s good is like him saying, “This is fucking amazing.”  They don’t exactly; they’re not real forthcoming with their emotions sometimes, so to get an it’s good from Ethan is, that’s a four-star review, so I was pretty happy with that. But in reading the script, if someone had told me they wrote it I would have believed it, so that was plenty for me.  But then I have talked to Ethan since.

I know it was a pretty rough winter up there in Calgary and pretty much everywhere, but how much does the weather in the location end up becoming almost like another character in the series?

Oh, it definitely does.  There’s no question about it. When it’s that cold, you don’t have to do a whole lot of acting to make the audience feel it. I mean, it’s just there. And it also kind of keeps you up for it all day. If you’re on a soundstage that’s kind of warm and you get a little lethargic, that can affect you.You didn’t have to worry about that up there.

It was really just bone chillingly cold. And I have to say about that, I would work a couple of weeks or 10 days and then get to go home for five or six days and then come back. And, I’m going to L.A., right; you go back down there, and it’s 75 degrees or whatever and mild.  And it just so happened that every time I was off Calgary got good weather and it warmed up.

It was almost like the weather was Malvo to me. It would just mess with me. Every time I was off they’d say, hey, guess what, it’s going to be plus six tomorrow, which for them, plus six is like Hawaii. And for some reason, every time I was working, it would just get miserable. So, I think the Great Spirit was messing with me a little bit on it.

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