by Rick Shaw
photos by Jeff Katz
The first time I saw Sling Blade, I walked around doing Karl for three weeks. I must have gone, “Ah reckon ah git me summa dem frinch frahd p’taters” and went, “Ar-iyt den” about 500 times. I probably grunted, “Mmm-hmmm” to anything anyone said a thousand times. Billy Bob Thornton’s 1996 masterwork Sling Blade made Karl Childers, its haunting and heartbreaking tragic-hero, a pop-culture icon. When I asked Billy Bob how it felt to be as big as the Wild and Crazy Guys, Beavis and Butthead, and “Is that your final answer?” he was flattered.
“You really think I’m as big as Butthead? Really, it feels great. People come up to me imitating Karl all the time. They don’t even talk to me first, they just go right into it. I love it. How could you not?”
Billy Bob Thornton loves a lot these days. He loves his work. He loves his kids. He loves his cigarettes. And he seems completely crazy about his new wife, Angelina Jolie. Crazy about her in the kind of way that’s a little nauseating to have to sit and listen to, until you realize that a crazy love like that is exactly what we’re all after. Billy Bob is less the hard-boiled, psychotic whack-jobs he usually portrays on the big screen, and more a relaxed, thoughtful, pretty-cosmic, and easy-to-laugh regular guy who likes to sit around and shoot the shit. Or at least as regular as a guy who’s won an Oscar, is married to one of the world’s most beautiful women, and is known by his first two names, gets.
We meet at a secluded Beverly Hills-adjacent photo studio which is fashionably adorned with unfinished sheet-metal walls, anorexic models, and 19-year-old executives speeding down the halls on Razors. He offers me something from the craft-service table. I’m dying to ask fer summa dem frinch frahd p’taters, mmm-hmm, but I somehow resist.
Sling Blade made Billy Bob Thornton an overnight sensation, after more than 15 years of relative Hollywood obscurity. At 21, he packed up a ’68 Buick Century and drove west from Alpine, Arkansas, with his buddy and occasional writing partner Tom Epperson. He paid his dues, doing a lot of the usual crap struggling actors do in L.A. Then in 1992 he wrote (with Epperson) and starred in the critically-acclaimed One False Move and landed on the show-biz industry map. He sold a couple more screenplays and did some TV and movies along the way - which is no small accomplishment in and of itself - but none of them brought him the fame, acclaim, money, and clout of Sling Blade. It won him an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay and, by all accounts, a very close runner-up vote for Best Actor. If you ask me, he should have won, mmm-hmmm. It was a part that could have very well both launched and crashed his rising star, however. A role so true and indelibly compelling, the often visionless Hollywood powers-that-be might not have been able to see him as anything other than that backwoods hillbilly.
So Billy Bob proceeded to take on a range of acting challenges that set him apart from the standard Hollywood character actor and defied the type-casters. He played John Travolta’s super-slick campaign manager in Primary Colors; a ruthless killer in Oliver Stone’s U-Turn; a new age air-traffic controller in Pushing Tin; a troublemaking redneck in Robert Duval’s The Apostle; and Bill Paxton’s paranoid and simple-minded brother in A Simple Plan - a role which earned him Screen Actors Guild, Golden Globe, and Academy Award nominations as Best Supporting Actor.
But accomplished character player and movie star are two different things. It was not until his turn as the head of NASA who helps Bruce Willis save the world, in the summertime blockbuster Armageddon, that Billy Bob finally began to see himself in the new light. “I sat there wondering, why do they want me to play that? That’s not what I do. I’m not the handsome guy with the pretty wife who saves the world. I’m just a goofball.”
Pushing Tin was another opportunity that helped Billy Bob redefine himself, on-screen and off. “Suddenly I said, ‘Hey, I can be myself, without hiding behind some strange accent or makeup. Maybe even look good on screen. I can be the cool Clint Eastwood guy who comes into town.’ It made me feel good about myself. At the same time, that’s also when the pressure of, oh no, I have to worry about looking good and shit, sets in. It’s kind of scary.”
Scary’s a word often attributed to actors. And crazy. I can vouch for that. I’m married to one. But I want to know this actor’s take on it. “I guess we are crazy. In that really wonderful way where we sit up all night and just talk about wild ideas and stuff. But I can’t stand the self-importance and self-involvement. Like some crazy son-of-a-bitch who comes out of his trailer screaming he wasn’t delivered the right coffee beans before noon and he’s going to ream somebody. That’s abusive.”
Yet, he’s quick to point out that his other (possibly even more potent) talents as writer and director all merge together within, different shades of the same color. “When I’m a writer, I do feel all actors are crazy. It’s like, ‘good grief, I have to put words in that idiot’s mouth again?’ But then when I’m an actor, I think, ‘Oh, no, here comes the pain-in-the-ass writer again.’” Of course, he feels the greatest power as a director. “I’m the ringmaster in some weird circus. I have the whole picture in my head and in my soul, and I have to convey it to my crew and make sure they get it. I think of the cast and crew as my brothers and sisters, but it’s power, for sure.”
“Anyone who makes a living in this business should consider
themselves lucky. I consider myself the luckiest son-of-a-bitch in the world. I carry around my past, and all my shitty jobs, and my upbringing in my hip pocket all the time. I remember very clearly what it was like to not be able to do what I do.”
What Billy Bob’s got to do these days is a lot. He co-wrote, directs, and stars in the upcoming Daddy and Them, alongside former girlfriend Laura Dern. It’s the story of an eccentric Alabama family that he calls “a Southern Woody Allen movie.” His directorial adaptation of the bestseller All The Pretty Horses, starring Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz, due out Christmas Day, is being touted as a masterpiece and is already generating Oscar buzz. Also on Billy Bob’s schedule is a sex comedy entitled Wakin’ Up In Reno, co-starring Charlize Theron; as well as the new Joel and Ethan Coen film, a 1940’s period comedy featuring Billy Bob as a barber. Next year, he again teams with his ‘movie-star’ buddy Bruce Willis in Barry Levinson’s Bandits, followed by another turn as director in Cinderella Man.
But whether acting, writing, or directing, it’s the telling of stories and creating of characters that Billy Bob sees as his gift and purpose on this earth. “It’s all about the character,” he says, and the character tells you the story. He grew up in the American South, a place rich in characters and history and heritage, “because it’s haunted by so many souls of the dead,” he says. He claims everyone in the South’s a good storyteller, in the tradition of William Faulkner and Erskine Caldwell. I ask him if he means telling stories like that other Arkansan saying, “I did not have sex with that woman,
Miss Lewinsky.” He smiles and tells me it’s the Southern way that people sit around with nothing else to do but drink and tell stories that pass the culture along. He talks so easily he’s halfway into one before you even realize you’re hearing it. Suddenly, I want to curl up in bed, with a warm plate of cookies and a hot cup of cocoa.
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