Billy Bob Thornton has played some devilish characters, but never one as frightening and fascinating as Fargo‘s Lorne Malvo. Malvo is a mysterious grim reaper of sorts who lives by a strict code of malevolence — one that has a way of rubbing off on the innocent souls around him. In the premiere of FX’s new series, which airs Tuesday at 10 p.m. ET, a chance encounter with pathetic pushover Lester Nygaard (Sherlock‘s Martin Freeman) leads to some very bad things in the small town of Bemidji, Minn.
The two actors — whom you may remember co-starred in Love Actually, though not in the same scenes — are a contrast in styles. That was part of the fun for Thornton. “Martin takes it very seriously, but at the same time, not too seriously, where you sit around and pontificate about all the Shakespeare you’ve done. He’s not that kind of guy,” says Thornton. “He’s an easy guy to work with, and we actually had more similarities than we thought.”
For Thornton, Fargo is a return to the medium that helped launched his career. Before Sling Blade and his first encounters with the Coen brothers — who are executive producing the FX series — he co-starred on the 1990s sitcom Hearts Afire, with John Ritter and Markie Post. Since then, he’s been one of Hollywood’s most enigmatic and eclectic mavericks, living up to his reputation as the “Hillbilly Orson Welles.”
Fargo is aiming for the True Detective/American Horror Story sweet spot with a self-contained 10-episode season, featuring characters who evoke those from the 1996 movie but go to different, darker places. Thornton was lured back to TV by Noah Hawley’s script, and because he sees an opportunity there to tell the kind of out-there stories that are becoming all too rare on the big screen.
Thornton spoke to EW about what he loved about Malvo, his dream for resurrecting his version of All the Pretty Horses, and what he loved best about being in the upcoming Entourage movie.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your character, Lorne Malvo, seems to be part Keyser Söze and part Beetlejuice. You summon him, he pops up, and bad things inevitably happen. What did you like about him?
BILLY BOB THORNTON: I love the fact that he has no conscience at all, and yet he’s got this bizarre sense of humor where he likes to mess with people — when he doesn’t even have to. Because he could just leave [town]. But he doesn’t. Like, if he goes in to rob the clothing store, instead of just taking the money, he says, “You work in a clothing store and you’re wearing that shirt? Why?” For him, that’s his own social life, just messing with his victims.
Did you have any reluctance about treading on sacred ground, what with Fargo being such a beloved movie?
[The script] was so good. The Coen brothers gave it their blessing, and I figured, Why not? It’s like making a 10-hour independent film. And by nature, I think most people, when they love a movie, they wish it could keep going. And here you get to. And the other thing — as I get older, one of the things I’ve learned is it doesn’t matter what you do now, you’re going to get sh– for it anyway. So if you do something that just gets [just] some sh–, that’s successful.
Why TV at this point in your career?
Because television has taken that slot that the movies aren’t doing any more. They’re not doing the mid-range budget studio movies, the $25-30 million adult drama, or even adult comedy, really. And the independent films, they want to give you $3 or $4 million, they want you to put 10 movie stars in it so they can sell off all the foreign territories. And there’s not as much freedom in movies sometimes: you can do movies about heroin smugglers, but you can’t smoke in a movie.
Plus, TV now has this cache. Everybody’s dying to get on TV. I was influenced by Southern novelists, and there’s no place for that in a movie theater any more. So if I’m going to do anything [like that] in the future, maybe I can do that on TV. Maybe they’ll start doing more three-part things like [Kevin] Costner did with Hatfields and McCoys. Maybe I could do something like that. So I wasn’t looking to get on a TV series that lasts six or seven years, but they said, “Coen brothers, Fargo.” I read the script, it was amazing, and then they said, “After 10 episodes, you’re done.” I said, “Yeah, count me in.” That was essentially it.
Obviously, the template and setting is pure Fargo, but the tone also reminded me of two of your other movies: A Simple Plan and The Ice Harvest.
Yeah, I could have seen the Coen brothers involved in A Simple Plan. And The Ice Harvest too. And if you combine Lorne Malvo and Lester Nygaard, you kind of get the guy from The Man Who Wasn’t There. Because his only similarity with Malvo is just the stillness, [that he’s] very inside himself and all that kind of stuff. But he’s also an innocent guy just trying to get ahead and ends up in all this mess. So yeah, maybe there’s a theme in certain parts of my career that maybe I’m drawn to subconsciously or something.
You know, you speak to enough actors and directors, and you hear over and over how they revere the great films of the 1970s, and that they’re just trying to re-capture the spirit of that era with today’s movies. But there was another window of filmmaking that really hasn’t gotten its due yet, and that’s the early and mid 1990s, when independent cinema really took over.
There were years, like 1997, when Fargo was nominated, where independent productions dominated the Oscars. And you were right in the middle of that renaissance with Sling Blade. But it was a window, because it quickly was absorbed and co-opted by the studios.
That’s exactly right. I came up around those guys, like Nick Cassavetes and Tarantino and Allison Anders, remember her? Ted Demme. We were all kind of aware that things were getting exciting, because the ’80s were kind of empty. We were aware that there was a resurgence and we were aware that there was great feeling in the film community. We felt the renaissance part of it — or the possibility of it. What we didn’t know at the time was that it was going to be so short. We thought it was the beginning of something amazing and we were going to have decades of this. We didn’t know it was going to be like, “Oh really? You think you guys are going to get by with this? There’s no f—ing way. We’re going to stop that sh– right now.” And they did.
After Sling Blade in 1996, for which you won a Best Screenplay Oscar, did you get offered directing gigs? Or was the industry waiting for your next self-generated opus?
A little of both. But after Sling Blade, what happened was, I got so many offers as an actor that there really wasn’t a lot of time to sit down and work on something else. And you know, you get sort of hypnotized by that. I didn’t have a burning desire to be a writer or director — writer probably more so, certainly not a director. So I just basically worked as an actor and then when I did this little movie, Daddy and Them – which kind of got squashed by the studio because we were in a fight at the time over All the Pretty Horses — you know, I thought, this is enough of this.
All the Pretty Horses was a difficult experience for you [with Miramax recutting the theatrical release and dumping Daniel Lanois’ score]. You still have the original version — the one Matt Damon raved about. Is there any chance that fans will eventually get to see that cut?
You know, in a perfect world, I would show my cut with Dan’s music in theaters across the country for people who know about that and just want to see [it]. In other words, not to put it out as a movie [to make money] in theaters, or not to put it on DVD to be bought. But to just invite people for free. If there were a theater big enough, it’s like, “For all you people who have kind of agreed with me here and you really want to see this and you don’t mind sitting there for two hours and 42 minutes.” That whole idea about there being a five-hour cut or something? That never existed. There was never a five-hour cut. There was not even a three-hour cut. It was 2:42. Which is the same length as The English Patient.
And it was also what they had hired you to do, because they had conceded it would be a three-hour epic.
That’s right. They wanted me to make a three-hour movie. And then once I made it, they said, “No, no, we have to cut it to under three hours.” I said, “You see, if you designed a house to be 12,000 square feet and you’ve already built it, and then they said it can only be 7,000 feet because of some zoning thing. You have to cut off 5,000 feet of this house… and you’re an architect… can you imagine?” So same story. Look, not everybody wants to watch a two hour and 42 minute movie, but for anybody who does, the two hour and 42 minute cut with Dan’s music is better.
When’s the last time you watched it?
Is it excruciating to watch?
A little bit. I mean, it’s heartbreaking to watch. What I’ve done over the years, a few friends of mine, I would show them scenes from it, with Dan’s music and my cut of the scenes, just to show them. And they’d watch that and go, “Okay, I get it.” You saw the movie, the one that played in theaters, and it’s a good movie. I was proud of it. I thought it should’ve done better than it did but they advertised it as a love story between Matt and Penelope [Cruz] and that’s not what it was. I begged them not to, but that’s what they did. She’s out of the movie a little over halfway through. It’s [really] about those three kids. It’s about the end of the west. But of course, the posters: Matt and Penelope airbrushed staring at each other.
Can you see yourself directing again?
I doubt it. It’s just too much. I did Jayne Mansfield’s Car — another heartbreak. This movie I did a couple of years ago that nobody saw, and a few bloggers said bad things about it, and nobody ever heard about it. It’s pretty damned good. If it had come out in ’96 or ’97, it would’ve done probably as well as Sling Blade did. But not now. People didn’t understand why there was humor in it: “I thought it was a drama” [people said.] “This movie didn’t know what it was.” That’s a popular thing for critics to say: “Couldn’t make up its mind what it was,” because it had dark humor in a drama.
So I think I’m obsolete as a film director. I don’t think there’s a place for me as a film director — or a writer. If I wrote anything, it would probably be for television and maybe like Costner’s thing. Or maybe like this, maybe Fargo. I can see myself doing something like that. I can’t see myself being a television director unless it’s for a two-hour movie. Like if I did an HBO or FX or whatever it is, movie. That I would do.
Did I see that you’re in the Entourage movie?
I did a cameo in it. I play a Texas oil billionaire who finances Ari’s movies. Those are the pricks [in real life] I have to go talk to and kiss their ass to get money to make a movie, right — and all of a sudden, I’m playing that guy. It was just a funny position to be in, and I had so much fun with it.
Fargo premieres April 15 at 10 p.m. on FX.