Written by Alice Chapman Newgen
I have always been a big fan of Billy Bob Thornton. “Sling Blade” showed his amazing talent as a writer, director and actor. “Armageddon” was another film he starred in that became a mega hit with the viewers. It’s almost as if he’s not acting—he’s a natural for whatever role he portrays. I finally got a chance to meet him in person for an interview in Atlanta about his upcoming film, “The Astronaut Farmer.”
His flight had been slightly delayed from Miami to Atlanta on the day I was scheduled to meet him. I waited and wondered just like the others at the round table what he would be like in real life. Did he have a pleasant personality? Or would he be quiet and reserved? It didn’t take long to find out after he entered the room. Thornton stepped inside and sat down with a big grin on his face. He said he was in a good mood because the Colts had just won the Superbowl game against the Bears. He had been in the stands to watch it first hand.
I knew the weather hadn’t been very accommodating to the crowds on that day so I asked him if he had gotten a tad bit wet during the game. After that I asked him how he managed to maneuver around in the astronaut suit he wore while filming “The Astronaut Farmer.” That’s how the interview began.
Billy Bob Thornton: I’m real happy today because the Colts won last night. That was amazing. I was there–incredible.
Question: It rained on you didn’t it for a little bit?
Billy Bob Thornton: It rained on me for about a quarter-and-a-half. Then a friend of mine who was up in a guy’s box from Miami–I called him, I said, ‘Man, it’s really raining down here.’ He said, ‘Come up, don’t be an idiot.’ So I went on up there.
Question: There was a comment from someone in the group: You should have called earlier.
I know. I wish we had of. We ended up having a great time up there. We got to see the whole second half from in the box. And I don’t like to go in boxes usually because I am a big baseball fan. They are always putting me up in a box. Baseball, you seem really separated from the game when you are in a box. Football, you can still see pretty well. You still feel like you are still in the game. It wasn’t bad, you know, it’s a hell of a lot better than sitting out there in the rain.
Well I’m curious about your astronaut suit. Was it hard getting on that horse?
It was hard doing everything. That suit is really not the most comfortable thing in the world. It takes a long time to get in it. You don’t just unzip it like coveralls and slip in it. You have to like put this arm in first, and then, your head goes through this metal ring, and then, one leg here and there. It’s just kind of weird you have to twist yourself up pretty much to get in it. Once you are in it, it’s very hot. Real astronauts have a cooling system in there, you know. I didn’t have that. So it was pretty hot. Once you get in the capsule, it doubles that effect, and I’m pretty claustrophobic to start with. So you are in a tiny little capsule, basically, and then you put the thing down, you start thinking you are going to die in there. They are going to forget you are in there, or something, you know.
What was it like playing Charlie Farmer?
Well, I had an amazing time doing it. This is the kind of role I always wanted to play. I’ve played guys that are kind of like this, but in different sorts of movies. This is sort of a family film. This is like for all ages. I’ve played guys from Texas, or whatever, I wonder why that is (he smiles), but they are usually edgier movies, in other words. Then, I’ve done a few comedies recently, and I really wanted to do a drama next, which is basically what I came up doing. Then all of a sudden I did all of these comedies and I said, ‘well, I want to go back to what I used to do.’ When this came along, I wasn’t necessarily looking for that kind of movie, but when I read it—it’s like, you know what, you’ve always wanted to do one of these and here it is right in my lap. It’s amazing because every actor has a list of things they want to do. Everybody wants to do a western or play like I played Davy Crockett in the Alamo. You have those things you want to do. I wanted to do my Jimmy Stewart movie, basically. I wanted to do “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” and there it was, you know. It also has the feeling of “Hoosiers” or “Field of Dreams, those kinds of movies. You feel good coming out of there. They are very nostalgic movies.
Also it’s a classic story coming out of the little guy gets the system, which I love that theme, always. Everything about it is great. Then you throw Virginia and all the rest of the cast, and my old buddies, Bruce—both Bruces, (Dern and Willis) who I have known forever, and are my friends. It was just great. There’s nothing about that movie I can say– you know when models whine about we are out in the sand, which I don’t do that anyway, but this one I really can’t complain about anything at all.
You wrote, directed and starred in “Swing Blade.” Do you prefer to just act and not get involved with the writing and directing when it comes to behind the scenes type of work?
You want to be able to go to work and not be the director when you are just supposed to be the actor. That’s the ideal situation. When you are working with people like the Coen brothers, Sam Raimi or certain other directors I have worked with over the years–that is real easy. And these guys too, the Polish brothers, easy as pie and their script is great. You are going to make some suggestions as an actor anyway. When you get out there you are going to say, ‘Hey, listen, you want these lines here? They don’t really roll off my tongue so easy. Could I say it this way? Or did you guys see that room behind the barn and that weird looking tree log? Maybe we should shoot it out there. You say things like that anyway.
What’s bad is when you show up and you want to tell the director to jump off a building. That’s when it gets hard. If they don’t know what they are doing and they are nice guys, then you can try to sneak it in there without being too bossy. You can say, hey listen, Roger, maybe you want to do this and we can be out of here by noon. I promise it’s not that complicated. You can do things like that. But if a director doesn’t know what he is doing and he is an asshole, then it is really horrible. I’ve had that a couple of times. I mean most people have. For the most part my experiences in the forty-eight or forty-nine movies I have been in my career I think I have had really good experiences. I’ve hardly ever had a bad experience. I’ve had two or three where I felt like I need to coup d’etat a couple of times.
This isn’t the first creative team of brothers you have worked with. I was wondering if there was a difference in working with the Coen brothers versus the Polish brothers. Was that even on your mind at all?
It wasn’t even on my mind at all. Every now and then, they remind me of like Coen junior brothers, simply because of the way they work. Michael is a director, where as in the Coen brothers Joel is the director. Ethan and Mark are known as the writer-producers. But they all do all of it. I talk to all of them as directors. I talk to them as writers. They work exactly the same. They are both on the set all the time and both are sets of twins. Mike deals with more of the headaches probably than Mark does because of just setting up shots and talking to the technical people just as Joel does. Joel and Ethan do act a lot like twins. They really do finish each others sentences. Both times were great experiences. I’ve done three things with the Coen brothers now. I loved everything with them. I think these guys are going to do an amazing job from here on out.
Are there any similarities between your life and that of Charlie Farmer?
I grew up in a small town. When I see that town in a movie, that’s kind of where I grew up. We are probably very similar in that sense and obviously in the movie I’m playing a guy where we are supposed to be about the same age. One experience is that he grew up when there was still a main street and when mom and pop organizations were around. Now, in this age, it’s Wal-Mart and all those fast foods on the outskirts on even the smallest town. That part of hometown America is sort of gone. He’s living in that society, but he kind of dreams the way they did back when hometown America was still there. I had a similar experience. I hope I am a little hipper than Charlie. (He laughs)
In “The Astronaut Farmer” you are the one at the controls instead of Bruce Willis as in “Armageddon.”
It’s funny because Bruce Willis and I were in “Armageddon” and he’s in this one. We exactly traded roles. You know, I was the NASA guy telling him what to do and now it is the other way around. I never had a particular interest in doing a space movie. To me this movie is a character drama with some humor. It’s not really a space movie as much as it is, like I said, this is “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.” It’s that movie. It’s also the guy fighting the government. In some ways even though it’s on the surface a family film it’s a pretty subversive movie in some ways because it really does take some shots at the government.
“Armageddon” was different. “Armageddon” was designed to be a two hour rock video. Those movies are fine. I mean that is the biggest movie I have ever been in terms of box office that made something like eight hundred jillion dollars. It’s that kind of movie, and this movie shouldn’t be seen any differently than most movies I’ve done like “Sling Blade,” or a movie like that, or “A Simple Plan,” or other movies. It should be seen as just a movie. In the space aspect of it, it is more about his dream than about NASA. Yet, we got a few shots in there while we were at it, which is great.
If you met Farmer in real life would you be like his son, Shepard and adore him, or be like Audie and worry about what he was trying to do?
I would be all for it. I’d be the first guy to say, ‘hell, yeah man go up there.’ I might even hitch a ride if I could. I was just telling somebody the other day I wouldn’t go up in a helicopter, but I would go up in a space shuttle. You do it for something cool. Why are you are going in a helicopter? Are you seeing the Grand Canyon or working for a news crew?