As recently as 10 to 15 years ago, doing TV was a dirty word for an established actor like Billy Bob Thornton, to say nothing of adapting an Oscar-winning movie for the small screen. But now? It’s one of the few places Thornton can find the types of roles he’s looking for, parts he says are disappearing from the film world.
It’s the main reason he signed up for FX’s “Fargo,” a loose adaptation of the Coen Brothers’ 1996 classic that keeps the film’s same dark comedic tone and Minnesota setting (shot in Alberta), but updates it with new characters like Thornton’s Lorne Malvo, a mysterious outsider who comes to town and starts stirring up trouble. Like FX’s “American Horror Story” or the recent “True Detective,” the show will be a self-contained 10-episodes, which “Fargo” writer/showrunner Noah Hawley has likened to making a “10-hour movie,” an assessment that Thornton agrees with. Which is why, like so many actors these days, he’s excited about the increasing possibilities TV offers to tell more sophisticated stories for an adult audience.
With “Fargo” premiering on Tuesday, April 15 at 10 p.m. ET on FX and FX Canada, HuffPost TV Canada spoke to Thornton about the appeal of the TV world, playing a badass with bangs, and the Coen’s version of a ringing endorsement.
HuffPost TV Canada: Was there anything about this character that you added to the role that wasn’t originally scripted?
Billy Bob Thornton: A weird haircut, which was actually a mistake. I got a bad haircut, and we had planned on dying my hair and the dark beard and all that, but I didn’t plan on having bangs. But then, I didn’t fix it because 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 for the Buffalo Springfield. This is good. Or Ken Burns, the dark side of Ken Burns. [Laughs]
I saw somewhere you described the character of Lorne Malvo as “conscience-less.” What was it you liked about playing that type of character?
I think what really attracted me to it was not as much that he didn’t have a conscience, as he has this bizarre sense of humour where he likes to mess with people. Most criminals, if they go in to rob 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.” [Laughs]
It’s sort of in keeping with the tone of the Coen Brothers to have a character like that. Noah [Hawley] managed to walk a tightrope with this thing and he did 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. And I just thought it was so clearly drawn and I just had to be there. I looked at Malvo as a guy who is a member of the animal kingdom. We don’t get mad at polar bears, they’re all white and fluffy and they do Coke commercials with them at Christmastime, and yet they’re one of the meanest, most ruthless predators on Earth.
You’re still able to make the character very funny and weirdly likeable. Was it difficult to balance both that humour and the menace?
Actually, that’s kind of been my wheelhouse, intense characters but who have a certain sympathetic streak and also a sense of humour. I’ll have 10-year-olds come up to me and say, “Oh, ‘Bad Santa,’ I just love you.” It’s like, what? [Laughs] So I don’t know what it is, but maybe it’s that Malvo senses weakness in people or stupidity or whatever. He’s got this sort of animal instinct and he just smells people out, and I think a lot of times, especially these days when the world is going kind of crazy, I think we’re all frustrated and want to just shake people a little bit. So maybe through Malvo you get a chance to slap somebody around a little bit, I don’t know. [Laughs]
In the past, you’ve talked about how the independent film world isn’t quite as fertile a place to work anymore, and that a lot of that has moved to television now. Was that one of the appeals of doing this series for you?
Well, the fact of the matter is, we have to face 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, they grew up in the heyday of great movies of the ‘50s, ‘60s and ‘70s, and we had a little drought in the ‘80s here. [Laughs] And then the early ‘90s through the late ‘90s was just a real great time and we thought it was a Renaissance. What we didn’t realize was that it was going to be so short. We thought it would last a couple of decades.
Television, when I was coming up, it was a bad word. And now it has a cachet and actors are clamouring to get 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. You can still make a great independent film, but you’re not guaranteed anybody will ever see it because nobody takes much interest in putting money into distributing it.
And on TV, you have even more creative freedom now. 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. So there’s no reason not to, and I have to face it, that’s my audience now. All the guys my age, all of us that came up together, [Kevin] Costner and Bill Paxton and Dennis Quaid and Kevin Bacon, our audience watches television, and I think “The Sopranos” I guess kicked it off. That’s when we all started thinking, “Hey, wait a minute. This is the place to be.” You can do terrific work in television now and have a lot of freedom. 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.
We’re starting to see more contained single-season TV shows too, like this and “True Detective.” What is it that’s attractive about that format to you as an actor?
That’s what it felt like making it. It felt like doing a 10-hour independent film. And that’s very appealing. I mean, 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. There’s great appeal in that for actors, writers ... it’s a really great thing to be able to develop characters and develop stories. I mean, we would all like to make at least a three-hour movie, but here you get a chance to do a 10-hour.
And also, this doesn’t mean that I’m giving up doing movies. 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. And 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, with some of these movies that I can’t get made. Like if I walk in a studio and pitch this movie that I want to do, they laugh you out of the room. It’s like, “Are you kidding me? You can’t sell bubble gum and toys with that.” And I’m thinking, well, you know what, maybe there’s a way to do this movie as a three-part thing like, for instance, Costner did with “Hatfields & McCoys.”
Having worked with the Coen Brothers before, did you feel that gave you an advantage when it came to working with this sort of dark comic tone?
Oh, there’s no question about it. Having known the Coen Brothers for so long and having worked with them, I can plug into that pretty easily because I just love their stuff and love their vibe. I didn’t need a lot of explanation about what we were up to there. The set was very similar in some ways, other than the rush and the different directors; with the Coen Brothers, obviously you’re dealing with just the two of them, but yeah, it was very, very helpful having worked with them.
Were you able to talk with them, either before you took the part or afterwards, about this character at all and about how it fits into the world they created in the movie?
Well, I didn’t talk to them beforehand because I’d already been told 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. 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 f--king amazing.” [Laughs] They’re not real forthcoming with their emotions sometimes, so to get an “it’s good” from Ethan, that’s a four-star review, so I was pretty happy with that.
"Fargo” premieres on Tuesday, April 15 at 10 p.m. ET on FX and FX Canada.
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