A LONG WAY WITH
BILLY BOB THORNTON
Copyright 2001 www.tombraiderchronicles.com
[ December 1st 2001 ]
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.
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."
Thornton says. "That thing."
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.
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.
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.
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..."
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,
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
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.)
looked puzzled, shrugged his shoulders, and replied
in his perfect southern drawl, "We just did it
in the car."
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.
always is," Thornton replied, "every time. Every
time we do it, it gets more and more exciting."
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."
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
food, you mean?"
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."
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?"
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.
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
Bob Thornton is so thin, after all; he speaks
so softly. You can't imagine him fighting anything.
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
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.
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?"
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.
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
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
Thornton says and chuckles.
he says. "And how."
had your quota?"
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,
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."
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."
sounds lonely," I say.
he says, "but I've been that way a lot of my life.
I know it very well."
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."
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.
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."
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?
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.
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."
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."
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."
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.
assistant interrupts us, reminding Thornton that
he has to go. "Oh," he says, "it's already time?"
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?
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."