Copyright 2001 www.tombraiderchronicles.com

[ December 1st 2001 ]

The actor, writer and movie director Billy Bob Thornton has had a gruelling fortnight. Two of his films have just been released in America, and he has flown back and forth across the country - at a time when the rest of Hollywood is staying at home and hunkering down.

He is feeling tired and talked out. We have arranged to meet in a hotel suite in Los Angeles. He does all his interviews in this same hotel. He'll be bored, I think. Bored and jaded, and sick of reporters and of this hotel room - and who could blame him? I watch him talk to his assistant across the room. The assistant tells Thornton that he has to be mindful of the time - he has an appointment at the Screen Actors Guild later this afternoon. "Plus," he adds, quietly, "don't forget, you have that other thing for an hour."

"Oh yeah," Thornton says. "That thing."

He ambles over and takes a chair next to my sofa, then changes his mind and comes to sit next to me. He speaks softly, with a southern accent that is so courtly and charming it sounds like a parody. His eye contact is extremely good. He smiles. I have read about Thornton's smile. You don't see it much, up on screen (though you do get it for a moment in his new film, Bandits, released in the UK yesterday, in which, dressed in a bathrobe and a mudpack, he grins directly into the camera). Thornton, a 46-year-old who grew up in the Arkansas backwoods, does not generally choose to play smilers.

We talk about Bandits, the new film, which is a comedy, love story and heist movie all rolled into one, and produced with a lightness of touch that you don't often see in Hollywood. Thornton plays Terry Collins, a brainy, obsessive-compulsive bank robber who escapes from jail with his partner, Joe Blake, played by Bruce Willis. Terry is a hypochondriac and phobic: he is terrified of antique furniture and, of all the things to be afraid of, Benjamin Disraeli's hair. For most of the film, Terry is a jabbering wreck of real and imaginary nerves: he has an attack of tinnitus every time a gun goes off, and is convinced that he is developing a brain tumour.

The character is a long way from the dimwit Thornton played in A Simple Plan, or his macho air-traffic controller in Pushing Tin, but it turns out that Terry is at least 70% Billy Bob. The phobias about antique furniture and Benjamin Disraeli's hair, for example, are Thornton's own - he has a fear of dust and castles, and has been phobic about Disraeli's hair since an old black-and-white movie about the erstwhile prime minister put him off his dinner 25 years ago.

Certainly, Thornton has his tics. When, later in the afternoon, he writes his assistant's number down for me, he hesitates for agonising moments with the pen poised above a scrap of paper - as if he has forgotten not just the number, but how to write. Then he scribbles it down fast, tracing back over the numerals again and again with his pen. "Sorry," says Thornton, looking at the spidery mess on the paper. "I have this obsessive-compulsive thing..."

" 'Billy Bob Thornton?" a Hollywood actress said to me before I met him. "He'll charm the shit out of you. He's got that car-mechanic thing going on, and yet he's also a power player. Irresistible, right?"

Thornton became a player around 1996, the year he was nominated for two Academy Awards - best actor and best screenplay - for his movie Sling Blade, which he also directed. He won the screenwriting Oscar, and went on to appear in a range of movies, from box-office hits such as Armageddon and Primary Colours to smaller films such as Oliver Stone's U Turn. It was on the set of Mike Newell's Pushing Tin that he met his fifth wife, the Oscar-winning actress Angelina Jolie.

The couple are famously in love. They live in a 1920s Spanish-style hacienda which used to belong to Slash, the Guns N' Roses guitarist. They have "Till the end of time" written in blood above their bed, and both wear lockets containing a drop of the other's blood. And, to judge by appearances, they have a fantastic sex life. They showed up at an MTV awards ceremony last year, fabulously post-coital, both wearing old jeans and T-shirts. "Billy Bob and Angelina!" the presenter of the live television show exclaimed, as they walked up the red carpet. "What's the most exciting thing you guys have ever done in a car?" (A car company, we have to assume, was sponsoring the show.)

Thornton looked puzzled, shrugged his shoulders, and replied in his perfect southern drawl, "We just did it in the car."

The presenter's smile froze. Jolie was concentrating on kissing the edge of Thornton's mouth. "Was that the most exciting thing?" the presenter said brightly, through her smile.

"It always is," Thornton replied, "every time. Every time we do it, it gets more and more exciting."

It was compelling television, and illustrated just why Thornton feels that, with Jolie by his side, and with work that he is proud of (Bandits, the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There, the forthcoming Monster's Ball) life is pretty good. "I've made my living here and done what I want to do," he tells me. "I've met the person that I am supposed to be with. Things have gone the way they are supposed to go."

It wasn't always so. Thornton grew up, as he puts it, "in the woods", and then in the small town of Hot Springs, Arkansas, with his parents and two younger brothers, John David and Jimmy Don. "When I was a kid, I used to eat crap, really," he says, out of nowhere.

"Junk food, you mean?"

"No, not junk food. Well, as a teenager I ate junk food. But my brothers and I were raised in the woods in Arkansas, so I used to eat possums and squirrels. We used to shoot things and eat them because we didn't know better. I would never shoot a deer, though. There was something that represented innocence to me about a deer, you know. I just could never bring myself to do it as a kid."

Perhaps as an adult? He looks appalled. "Oh no. I can't shoot anything. I can't even squash a bug. I can't I have two little boys who are seven and eight and my little brother Jimmy died when he was 30. That was in 1998. And since then I can't see anything die. You know?"

Jimmy Don had a heart condition. "Nobody knew he had it and he died very suddenly. It is just one of those things that I have a hard time with. Anything dying. Even things that I'm freaked out by." Thornton pauses for half a second.

"I could kill a Komodo dragon," he announces suddenly, his voice raised. "They shouldn't be here - they're dinosaurs. But it would be hard to kill a dragon," I say. "You couldn't just squash it like a spider. There would be a fight. Could you fight it to the end?"

Billy Bob Thornton is so thin, after all; he speaks so softly. You can't imagine him fighting anything.

"Oh I could," he asserts. "I definitely could. They are dangerous, cold-blooded animals. They have no business being here. What are they for? They bite you, poison you, you go blind, and then they eat you."

As a teenager, Thornton played in a number of bands - including a ZZ Top tribute band - and got a job loading bulldozers on to trucks for transportation. He arrived in Hollywood in 1981, aged 26, and it was 15 years before he experienced any degree of success as a film actor or writer.

"I don't know how I did it," he says of the lean years. "I didn't know any better. You don't think of things being far off in the future. You think they're right around the corner, so you don't give up. Maybe you look back at a certain point, and you're like, wow, I've been here for nine years and I'm still washing dishes. What's going on? But you can't give up, because you think, what if I give up and it's tomorrow that it happens? And besides, it wasn't like I came here for an event. I was never going to be discovered at the drug store. I came here and started doing theatre, and because I was doing that, I thought I was doing well. I was broke and miserable, but I thought, wow, I'm in a play. Plus, the alternative wasn't so great. What was I going to go back to? Shovelling asphalt for the highway department in Arkansas?"

Still, broke and miserable is no understatement. It has been reported that, at one point, Thornton was hospitalised for heart problems brought on by malnutrition. "People write all kinds of stuff," he says. "I didn't have a heart problem. I was ill because of the lack of potassium in my body at the time. It's something that many anorexics get," he says.

Was he anorexic? "I didn't eat," he admits. "For a while, I didn't eat at all. I was acting in a play here in LA. I lived in a shitty apartment, and I didn't have any money, so I couldn't buy food. I was too ashamed to tell anyone, so I just stopped eating."

And now? I have read that Thornton will eat only orange food. He laughs. "I do eat papaya in the morning," he says, "but the rest is nonsense. I eat healthily now, but I'm the last person to try anything. I won't eat anything weird, or anything creepy. I eat meat, but I don't have dairy or wheat. I'm like the cleanest eater in the world. I don't eat anything old. I only like modern shit. If somebody put a possum in front of me now, I'd throw up."

"Do you drink?"

"No." Thornton says and chuckles.

"I have," he says. "And how."

"You've had your quota?"

"Yes," he says. "I've been sober for a year and two months. That's when I stopped smoking. I haven't had alcohol for about six years. And it's been 20 years since I've been on drugs. I mean, you just feel better, period. You can make decisions. You're not an idiot. I look at my kids and think, I'm not going anywhere. My father died of lung cancer," he adds, matter-of-factly.

His father was, he says, "a monster". "My mother is great." Thornton's mother, a psychic, was the inspiration for his film The Gift, about a woman with supernatural abilities. "But my father was not happy, and as a result he loaded it on to us. He never really liked me. They say he was crazy about me when I was a baby, but when I started talking it was all over. He didn't like anyone with their own opinions."

"That guy in The Man Who Wasn't There," he continues, referring to Ed Crane, his character in the Coen brothers' film noir, "that guy in so many ways is me." The character, a small-town barber, is so isolated, so introverted, that he goes through life without anyone really seeing him. "I can be outgoing," Thornton says, "and it was the hardest part I ever played, because the tension of the movie rests on my face. But half of me is just like that guy. A guy who doesn't know why the hell he's here, and doesn't know where he belongs, and would rather go and sit off by himself someplace and be quietly desperate."

"That sounds lonely," I say.

"Yeah," he says, "but I've been that way a lot of my life. I know it very well."

I ask if he's ever sought help. "Not really. I don't want help. Because I'm also very happy. On the one hand, I like people, and I love the world. I have a beautiful marriage. I have beautiful friends. Mum's okay. My brother's okay. But there are things that I don't like, and when I'm around that stuff I live inside myself. That's what I mean by what I said."

What, specifically, doesn't he like? "I don't like Hollywood," he says bluntly. "I don't like the movie business. I don't like the music business. I don't like contemporary television. I don't like movie premieres." No wonder he has to disappear into himself. He's a movie star, married to another movie star. He recently released an album, and he's just recorded another. As an artist, he is completely plugged into an industry he professes to hate. The first album, Private Radio, a country-ish collection of original songs, has sold well overseas but less so in America. "It wasn't taken seriously here," Thornton says. "Because I'm an actor." His next record is a collection of 1960s cov ers, with a band he named, especially for the record, the Box Masters. "It's such a good 1960s band name," he explains. "Though it actually means something else entirely," he adds, sounding sly for the first time.

Last year, Miramax released Thornton's film All The Pretty Horses, adapted from Cormac McCarthy's bestselling novel. It was advertised with an off-putting trailer that pitched it as a schlocky romance, and received poor reviews. "It was a nightmare," Thornton says of the experience. "But I don't hold anything against anybody."

Thornton and Miramax, the story goes, feuded for a year over the length of the film. In the end, Miramax won through, and Thornton was persuaded to edit the film down. Is he not bitter, or angry?

"No," says Thornton, "because it's like this." He pauses for a second and then embarks on a long monologue, something he does often. "It's my fault. We were talking earlier about the Komodo dragon, remember? Well, if I went to the island in Indonesia where they live, with the fear that I have of that dragon, and one bit my ass, that's my fault. I signed up to work with people who are not the kind of people who I like, want to work with, or have anything to do with at all." Thornton speaks without rancour. He could be selling double-glazing, and describing what happens when you choose the wrong brand. I don't doubt his sincerity for an instant, but he seems to be acting all the time - acting brilliantly, without ever hitting a false note.

"Their view of the world is entirely different from mine," he continues. "They operate in a different way. I had no business doing it. I was talked into it, and I was assured that what did happen would not happen, but I knew that it would. I went ahead and did it, anyway. All my advisers said, 'Do it, it's a big movie. You should direct a big movie.' But I'm not a director. I don't want to be a director. I only direct things I write because I don't want anybody else to do it. And I began to care about it, because the people around me cared about it.Matt [Damon], Penelope [Cruz], Henry [Thomas], Lucas [Black], all the crew, they all did a brilliant job. The movie looks like a big, beautiful movie. But we didn't factor in the fact that they were going to take this epic story that should have been a three-hour movie, and change it so that 14-year-olds could go and see it. But that is all they care about."

Thornton likes making these long speeches, delivering them without pause or correction. He improvises at length on the subject of Jolie, too. "She's my best friend. She was from the time we met several years ago. We knew it then. We were instantly together, even though we weren't actually together. I've been married before. More than once, but I never kind of realised that I was married. It just kind of happened."

Thornton married young. He has a 21-year-old daughter by his first wife, Melissa, and two sons, William and Harry, by his fourth wife, Pietra Cherniak, a former Playboy model. After his divorce from Cherniak in 1997, he dated the actress Laura Dern. And then there was Angelina, the wedding in Vegas, the matching tattoos, the double burial plot in Arkansas that they bought for their first anniversary. "People say, well, you guys are like this or that, but we've been misquoted a lot. Angie is actually a pretty regular gal. We have a really good life. We live in a tiny world and we don't pay much attention to anything else. But we don't have a dungeon. It's foolishness, really. But when you are first coming up in your career, people only want the edgy part of you, so you play it up. They don't want to know that we both just wanted a home. But we didn't want a home with anybody out there, and then, when we met each other, it was like, oh my God, you're the other me. It's you. I have a home. It was home. Instantly."

When he writes, he says, it either comes immediately, or not at all. He wrote Sling Blade in nine days. Songs come in a few minutes. "I've never rewritten a thing," he says. "It's like automatic writing. Whatever comes out, there it is. Characters and dialogue come easily, but structure does not. But then I'm not a structured person, not in my writing or my acting. I'm not very conventional, you know?" He laughs. "I'm more normal than people think I am, though," he ends, contradicting himself. He is a contradiction - an easy-going guy who likes to stay at home; a Hollywood player who happens to be married to the hottest girl in town.

His assistant interrupts us, reminding Thornton that he has to go. "Oh," he says, "it's already time?"

"Yes," says the assistant, reminding Thornton of his seemingly immovable schedule. "You have that thing" - the "thing" they'd been whispering about earlier, before the interview began. Does he have another interview to go to?

Billy Bob starts talking. He's performing again. He's torn. He has to do something he would rather not. It's tough, but he's got to go. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, it's that kind of a situation. "I' m not going to bullshit you," he says. He smiles again. "It's not like I've got another interview. I have " He stops and laughs. "It's so embarrassing, but I have to be honest. Okay," he says and takes a breath. "It's not that big a deal, but I'm getting a facial," he says, and he has the grace to laugh loudly at himself. "That's what I'm doing. I'm just going to go home and see Jenny the facial girl."

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