Billy Bob Thornton Talks FARGO, Finding His Character, Being Scary and Likable, the Freedom of Television, Taking on a Classic & Why the Role Was So Much Fun

     April 13, 2014


An original adaptation of the Academy Award-winning feature film, the FX drama series Fargo features an all-new crime story.  Lorne Malvo (Billy Bob Thornton) is a ruthless and mysterious man who turns the life of small town insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) upside down, in a way that he never could have imagined.  From executive producer/writer Noah Hawley, the show also stars Bob Odenkirk, Colin Hanks, Allison Tolman, Oliver Platt, Keith Carradine, Kate Walsh, Glenn Howerton, Adam Goldberg and Joey King.

During this recent interview to promote the show’s April 15th premiere, actor Billy Bob Thornton talked about finding this character, not wanting to know Malvo’s backstory, playing menace, being both scary and likable, his character’s look, the freedom in television, why he wasn’t worried about taking on such a classic movie, why he rarely ever changed anything in the scripts, how his previous working relationship with the Coen brothers work to his advantage on this, how much the Calgary weather affect the shoot, and why this role was just so much fun.  Hit the jump for our Billy Bob Thornton interview. 

billy-bob-thornton-fargo-interviewQuestion:  How did you go about finding this character?

BILLY BOB THORNTON:  Well, usually when you’re playing a character, you think a lot about their backstory, but in this instance, I didn’t want to do that.  I doubt Malvo thinks much about his past, anyway.  The script was so well written that I didn’t have to really do much in order to portray the character.  I think what really attracted me to it was not  much that he didn’t have a conscience, as he has this bizarre sense of humor where he likes to mess with people.  Where most criminals, if they go in to rob, say, a clothing store, 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?  You work in a clothing store.  Look at all those nice sweaters over there.  You look like a bag person.”  

It’s just a very odd thing.  It’s in keeping with the tone of the Coen brothers to have a character like that.  Noah Hawley has managed to walk a tightrope with this thing, and he does 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 that I 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 because they’re all white and fluffy and they do Coke commercials at Christmastime, and yet they’re one of the meanest, most ruthless predators on earth.  And so, Malvo probably doesn’t think of himself that way.  He just thinks of the moment and how to get the job done.

How do you approach playing menace, both physically and emotionally? 

THORNTON:  Well, that’s a good question, and a tough one.  When you weigh 135 pounds and you’re telling people who are 6’4″ and 250 pounds to get out of your way, how do you do that?  Well, a lot of that is in the eyes.  If someone is talking to you and tells you that you ought to do something, and you can tell they mean it, those are the scary people.  Those are the people you want to watch out for.  You might think you could break this guy in half, but he would hunt you down and crawl until his fingers were bloody on the asphalt to get you.  I look at Malvo as a type of snake charmer.  Once he looks at you, you’re under some sort of spell.

The character of Malvo is both really scary and weirdly likeable.  Is that balance difficult to pull off?

billy-bob-thornton-fargo-interviewTHORNTON:  My wheelhouse is intense characters who have a certain sympathetic streak and also a sense of humor.  I have 10 year olds who come up to me and say, “Oh, Bad Santa, I just love you.”  I don’t know what it is.  Maybe it’s that Malvo senses weakness or stupidity in people.  He’s got this animal instinct.  He just smells people out.  Especially in these days and times when the world is going kind of crazy, we’re all frustrated and want to just shake people a little bit.  And so, maybe through Malvo, you get a chance to slap somebody around a little bit  I look at “Malvo’s” sense of humor as his only recreation.  For Malvo to mess with people the way he does, which he doesn’t have to because he could just leave or use them for whatever he’s using them for, it’s his recreation.  It’s his only social contact. 

How did you decide on the look for this character?

THORNTON:  The weird haircut was actually a mistake.  I got a bad haircut.  We had planned on dyeing my hair and having a dark beard, but I didn’t plan on having bangs.  But then, instead of fixing it, 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 Buffalo Springfield.  This is good.  Or, it’s the dark side of Ken Burns.”  Bangs are normally associated with innocence, and I thought that juxtaposition was pretty great, so that was added. 

What opportunities does working in television, in a series like this, present to you, at this moment in time?  

THORNTON:  Well, the fact of the matter is that we Baby Boomers really have to look to television now, and not only the performers and the writers, but the audience.  People over 40-something grew up in the heyday of the great movies of the 50s, 60s and 70s.  We had a little drought in the 80s.  And then, the early 90s through like the late 90s was a real great time.  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.  And when I was coming up, television was a bad word.  Now, it has a cache, and actors are clamoring to go 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, like the $25 million and $30 million adult dramas or adult comedies, and the higher budget, $10 million and $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 that much interest in putting money into distributing it.  They want to put 10 movie stars in a $3 million movie, so they can cover their asses on the foreign sales.  

There’s more freedom in television because in an independent film or even a studio film, you can do a movie about heroin smugglers, but you can’t smoke.  I don’t understand that.  But, they’re going for a certain demographic and they’re trying to sell it everywhere.  On TV, you have even more creative freedom now.  Part of that is that censorship has loosened up, over the years.  Now you have sex and violence and language on TV.  So, all those things that made us not want to do television, when I was coming up in the 80s, are gone.  And so, there’s no reason not to do it.  I have to face it, that that’s my audience now.  And all the guys of my age, like Kevin Costner, Bill Paxton, Dennis Quaid and Kevin Bacon 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. 

billy-bob-thornton-fargo-interviewWe’re starting to see these more contained, single season, limited run TV series, like True Detective.  What is the feeling about that format to you, as an actor?  Does it feel like you’re doing a long movie, more than a TV show?

THORNTON:  Well, that’s true, and that’s what it felt like making it.  It felt like doing a 10-hour independent film.  That’s very appealing.  I’ve been accused, many times, as a writer/director, of my pace being too leisurely and too long.  Well, here’s a chance to do that kind of thing, and you’ve got 10 hours to do it in.  Actually, it feels great and there’s great appeal in that for actors and writers, but maybe not so much directors because, in television, those guys just come in and do a couple of episodes, and then they’re gone.  But for the creator or writer, it’s a really great thing to be able to develop characters and stories.  We would all like to make at least a three-hour movie, and here we get a chance to do a 10-hour one.  

That doesn’t mean that I’m giving up on doing movies.  I can do 10 episodes of this, and then still do two movies that year.  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 that I wouldn’t, but that wasn’t really what I was looking for.  But when I was offered this, it seemed perfect to me.  There’s a great appeal in it, and I think you’ll see more and more of it.  Some of these movies that I want to make, if I walked into a studio and pitched this movie that I want to do, they’d laugh me out of the room.  So now, I’m thinking, “Well, maybe there’s a way to do this as a three-part thing, like Costner did with Hatfields & McCoys. 

Before you read any of these scripts, were you wary about taking something that was so iconic and doing something new with it?                       

THORNTON:  If Fargo had come out in 1986, and then this came up in 1996, I would have been more worried.  I’m not as worried now.  With the way it works with the social network and blogs, you can’t win anyway.  So, because of that, you just have to stop worrying about anything.  If I were to say something outrageous today, then tomorrow it’s going to be everywhere and your career is in jeopardy and you owe the public an apology.  And then, if I make the apology, everybody gets online and stars saying, “Oh, he only apologized for his career.”  But if you don’t apologize, they say, “What an asshole.  He didn’t apologize.”  You can’t win, no matter what you do.  So, these days, I don’t make decisions based on what people are going to think, as much as I would have, 15 or 20 years ago.  And I had read the pilot script.  I was offered the role and read the pilot script immediately, and it was so well written.  I thought, “This guy has done it.  He really has pulled this off.”  So, I didn’t worry, simply because I had read the pilot and it was so good.  It didn’t feel like it was a rip-off. 

billy-bob-thornton-fargo-interviewSince you’ve written and directed a handful of projects yourself, do your ideas as a writer and director ever intrude on projects where you’re working strictly as an actor?

THORNTON:  Not so much.  When I go there as an actor, I like to just go in and do my job.  Every now and then – and this has only happened to me a couple of times, ever – you go in there and you’ve got a director that maybe doesn’t quite get to the plan.  You might end up thinking, “Are you sure you want to do that?  Are you sure you want to put the camera there?”  You find yourself thinking it, every now and then, but I try not to say anything.  You just try to do the best you can, and one of the best ways to do that is when they tell you to do something that you know is wrong, you just nod your head and say, “Okay,” and then go do what you want to do anyway.  That’s about the only way around it, really. 

What do you think Malvo’s problem is?

THORNTON:  What I think his problem is, is very different than what he thinks his problem is.  I don’t think he has a problem.  He’s an animal.  In other words, he exists in the animal kingdom more than anything else.  He goes by an animalistic instinct.  People like that don’t ever consider themselves having a problem.  They also think they’re invincible. 

What are Malvo’s motivations for some of his crazy actions?

THORNTON:  Well, the reasons aren’t as important because Malvo thinks in the moment.  He has a plan, and he knows where he has to go.  It’s like an alligator.  An alligator has to eat, so if somebody jumps in the swamp to take a swim he will eat them.   There’s no two ways about that.  And that’s really who Malvo is.  So, I don’t need to know his motivations, necessarily.  And in terms of knowing the episodes ahead of time, we have the opportunity to ask Noah, and he would tell us as much as we wanted to know.  I didn’t want to know about the first four episodes.  After that, I had some questions that I did want to know about because, once we got deeper into the plot, I did need to know where he was, just in order to know how to play a couple of scenes. 

billy-bob-thornton-fargo-interviewWhat’s it like to work with these scripts and the very specific dialogue in them? 

THORNTON:  I’ve been largely an improvisational actor for most of my career, except for when I’ve worked with the Coen brothers.  And now that I’m working with Noah, I rarely change anything because it’s a very specific point of view and type of language.  Sometimes something might sound a little formal and isn’t something that would just naturally come out of my mouth, but once you plug into that, it becomes natural to you.  I respect him as a writer so much that I defer to him, and I think I could say the same thing about the rest of the cast.  There’s very little discussion on the set about changing things.  We don’t come over to Noah and say, “Hey, instead of this, I think I’ll say this.”  We don’t have a lot of that around the set.  And I had the same experience with the Coen brothers.  You just do it because there’s a reason it’s written that way, and it becomes clear to you when you see it and perform it. 

Did you ever ask about Malvo’s backstory and why he ended up the way that he is?

THORNTON:  I purposely didn’t because Malvo himself wouldn’t ever think about his past or his backstory.  He thinks in the moment and whatever the job is that’s at hand.  It wasn’t important.  If I had, I might have brought more sentimentality to the character, and that might have messed it up.  There are a lot of people who already are saying that they are rooting for Malvo, but I’m certainly not trying to do that.  I do think Malvo is a good person to vicariously get a thrill out of.  Sometimes we don’t want the bad guy to get caught because otherwise the story is over.  You want to at least see it through to the end.  So, backstory didn’t come into it.  It normally does, as an actor.  If I were playing Lester’s brother in this, I would have to do some homework and test the chemistry.  But with Malvo, he’s from out of town.  He’s a drifter.  Nobody knows him, or knows what he’s about.  So, I think it was important for me to not dig into it too much.  I think it would have affected the performance in a negative way. 

Having worked with the Coen brothers before, do you feel that that gave you an advantage, coming into this universe and working on this series, in regard to the tone and helping to shape your performance?

THORNTON:  Oh, yes, 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.  I just love their stuff and love their vibe, and having worked with them and having known them definitely helped me.  I didn’t need a lot of explanation about what we were up to.  It was pretty clear, and then you just go try to pull it off. 

Considering your relationship with them, did you talk to the Coen brothers, either before you took this role, or during filming?

THORNTON:  I didn’t talk to them beforehand because I had learned that they had already given it their blessing, and they read the pilot and had some input on it.  That was enough for me.  Since we’ve started, I’ve talked to Ethan a couple of times.  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 fucking amazing.”  They’re not real forthcoming with their emotions, so to get an, “It’s good,” from Ethan is a four-star review.  I was pretty happy with that.  But in reading the script, if someone had told me they wrote it, I would have believed it. 

billy-bob-thornton-fargo-interviewHow much does the weather on location end up becoming another character in the series?

THORNTON:  When it’s that cold, you don’t have to do a whole lot of acting to make the audience feel it.  It’s just there.  It also keeps you up for it, all day.  If you’re on a soundstage that’s warm and you get a little lethargic, that can affect you.  But, it was really just bone chillingly cold.  I would work a couple of weeks or 10 days, and then get to go home for five or six days, and then go back.  I’d go back to L.A. where it was 75 degrees and mild.  It just so happened that every time I was off, Calgary got good weather and it warmed up.  It would just mess with me.  For some reason, every time I was working, it would just get miserable. 

How much fun was it to play this character?

THORNTON:  Well, it was a lot of fun.  Anytime you get a chance to play some extreme character, in any direction, it’s always a great blessing.  I was honored that they asked me to be a part of it.  It’s a very, very different kind of character.  It’s probably the only one I’ve ever played who has no conscience, whatsoever.  That’s an odd character to play.  After you’ve done 60-something movies, you’re always looking for something different, and this was right up my alley.

Fargo airs on Tuesday nights on FX.

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