Billy Bob Thornton’s upcoming film, Jayne Mansfield’s Car, is not strictly speaking autobiographical but, given that he’s written, directed and starred in the Dixie-based family drama, it does cover some of the industry icon’s reflections on his own past. After years of dealing with the Hollywood gossip bandwagon, it is good to hear Thornton speaking as an artist in his own right once again.
Billy Bob Thornton occupies a unique place in contemporary film culture; he’s long been the standout square-peg fixture in a fish-bowl field. He’s the oddball in the counterculture corner; the gumshoed, southern-fried savant; the virtuoso music-maker who is more reliant on big ideas than big budgets.
And yet he’s also put together an enviable and lengthy cache of credits with films like Monster’s Ball, The Man Who Wasn’t There, A Simple Plan, Love Actually, Friday Night Lights and Bad Santa. Thornton has managed to leave his gritty prints all over Hollywood for over two full decades without bowing too much to conventions. Now, sixteen years after writing/directing/acting in Sling Blade (the movie that won him his first Oscar), Thornton is back and operating under the same successful trifecta in his new film, Jayne Mansfield’s Car.
Thornton, born in 1955, grew up as the eldest of three sons in “God’s Country” Arkansas. He admits his relationship with his father was a caustic one—there was both verbal and physical abuse.
“He was a very intense guy who I don’t think I ever had a conversation with”, Thornton admits. “From the time I was four years old, my dad would take me out to car wrecks, and I saw some things I probably shouldn’t have seen when I was really young. We actually saw Jayne Mansfield’s Car, and it was weird. They brought the real car around to small towns and set it up at fairgrounds or store parking lots, and you’d pay 50 cents to look at it, which is pretty morbid. I’ve always wanted to put that into a movie. My dad had a strange curiosity about horrible things. He had been in the Korean war, and I don’t think he knew how to articulate things very well. I mean, I didn’t sit down and have a deep talk with my dad about anything. I think somehow he was always trying to figure out this weird thing about life and death and the randomness of life, which is what the movie is about.”
Thornton is here to talk about the movie, and he knows it’s a necessary evil of his business. But talking about the movie means talking about his past, and since the movie is quite personal and semi-autobiographical, we want him to show us the wires, to discuss the pathos and method, which most celebrities are loath to do. (Especially when the articulate actor in question has been greatly scrutinized by the gutter crazed media for years.) We’ve all heard the
scuttlebutt about his eccentric relationship with Angelina Jolie and the infamous “vials of blood” they wore around their necks. (In truth, they were lockets containing only a single drop of blood.) All the constant media attention during their three-year marriage may seem absurd now, but he’s in an absurd business.
“[The press] can lead people down the wrong road unnecessarily because, frankly, it’s not always just about the things you’ve done. Sometimes it can be personal— sometimes they have a hair up their ass about you anyway. Of course, I’ve had plenty of [false] things written about me: Apparently I only eat orange food, and I’m an OCD wacko—none of that’s true. Once I really did tell a journalist I was Benjamin Franklin, because he had been politely asked not to get really personal with me but, one way or another, he got really creepy about asking some personal questions, and I ended up telling him I was Benjamin Franklin. I was just totally messing with him. But, as it turns out, he wrote that I actually believe I’m the reincarnated Benjamin Franklin! For about two or three years, I had to explain that one to people.”
But Thornton knows that, as part of the fatuous science of marketing, talking about himself goes with the territory. Despite the distortions laid bare in the media, Thornton and Jolie remain really good friends, and he only has praise to say of her. He has accepted the trappings of celebrity and thumbed his nose at the whole shebang by living the “normal life” in the house he shares with his longtime girlfriend and his four children. Which, right now, he admits, is the most crucial thing in his life.
“I would say [that] my kids are the most important thing to me. But then, that also has something to do with my career, because I’ve got to keep working to take care of them. So I think I’m really concentrating on doing good movies, but at the same time you realise that we don’t get paid what we used to for movies; the whole movie industry has changed. Unless you’re doing a big event movie, you don’t really get paid much anymore. So, with a family, you really have to think about that. It’s like, ‘Well I guess I’m going to have play Spider-Man or something’. You have to think about stuff like that and try to pick a good one.”
But Thornton admits he’s best at making his own movies and writing his own material. “Well, it’s easier to learn your lines. [Laughs] I think, having written it, you don’t have to do as much work on the character, because you already know the character. I mean, you wrote it, so you know it inside out, as well as the other characters. But, at the end of the day, it’s fairly close to the same either way. Even if it’s something I didn’t write, I try to really disappear into the character. I had the good fortune of growing up as a character actor, so even when I played a certain character, I could still play them as a real character. Some people are forgiven for that; the audience doesn’t mind the flip-flopping back and forth between extreme characters and leading man. I feel bad for some actors, because some want to play character parts, but the audience just wants to see them be the hero in a big action movie.”
Jayne Mansfield’s Car is hardly an action movie – quite the opposite, acutally.It’s the kind of lived-in, layered, character driven movie that delves into the rareed territory of the after-effects of war and our perceptions of it as it indelibly trickles down through the generations. It’s a darkly humourous drama, and Thornton’s character in the film is enduring, with dialogue only he could write.
“I’ve always been interested in war, because my uncles, my dad and my grandfather were all in the war”, Thornton admits. “I had an uncle who was in Vietnam, and he had what they now call post-traumatic stress disorder, but back then they just thought you were a lunatic—they had a another word for it: shell shock. Growing up during the Vietnam era, what always interested me was how the different generations were affected.
“When you talk to the guys who fought in World War I or World War II, they won’t talk about it too much. They had this view that they were soldiers who did their job, and they didn’t seem to be affected by it as much as they probably really were. It probably manifested itself differently in them. My grandfather was a very quiet man: he rarely spoke, and he would never really talk about it. Whereas the guy [who served] in Vietnam… that’s all he talked about, because they weren’t treated the same way as the World War II soldiers were—they came back as big heroes, even though they’d seen and done horrible things. So that subject always interested me.”
Thornton has certainly filled his film with top-notch dynamic actors. He is in exalted company alongside Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick and his mentor, Robert Duvall. Duvall has worked with Thornton several times in the past, and Thornton wrote the character specifically for Duvall.
“It’s amazing to work with Robert Duvall. He’s been my mentor and my hero for years. And then I cast John Hurt, who I’ve known for 25 years but have never worked with.This was his part. He’s the British version of Duvall to me. I was finally getting to work with my favourite American and Brit[ish] actors”, Thornton imparts. “They are all very different from each other, you know, and it’s a pretty great dynamic. It was a hard movie to make because, these days, you don’t get as much time and money to make a movie when you’re doing an independent film. Oh, and it was 105 degrees every day, so that really killed me.But it was just so good to be around all those great people, you know? Plus, the crew was terrific down in Georgia. I can’t say enough good things about all those people.”
Up until now, Thornton hadn’t directed a film for twelve years, not since he directed and adapted Cormac McCarthy’s All The Pretty Horses. That state of affairs is due in small part to the major discrepancies between his original version and the studio version of All The Pretty Horses. The “beards in charge” made Thornton cut 42 minutes from the movie’s run-time, in addition to dropping Danial Lanois’ haunting original score. Thornton had no idea how little control he’d have over the final product. “You kind of go away and lick your wounds for a few years. I certainly wasn’t ready to direct immediately after that. I waited until I could do my own movie and do it the way I saw it, because the most important thing is [having] a clear vision of what you want to do. When there are so many people involved, changing that vision … that kind of champs your ass a little bit”, Thornton says with a wry laugh.
“We like the way All the Pretty Horses turned out, though. It was a good movie, but I think the movie we actually made was better.”
Thornton says his next few projects will be small independent films that are closer to his heart. It seems he traded in the opportunity to play the president in some thriller for a little elevated culture.
“I’m attached to three movies next year, and hopefully I’ll be doing some more so that I can make a living”, Thornton tells us. “They all have really terrific scripts,and they’re the kind of things I love to do, but they’re definitely labours of love.”
One of those movies is Parkland, which is a recounting of the events on the day JFK was assassinated. (It’s due out in 2013.) He’ll also be shooting a thriller alongside James Marsden called Red Machine early next year. Jayne Mansfield’s Car will also open in theatres early 2013, hopefully in time for the Awards race.
In addition to his cinematic pursuits, Thornton also recently wrote an absorbing book called The Billy Bob Tapes, in which he lays bare his storied life and upbringing. He recounts how he almost became a major league pitcher before coming to Hollywood in 1980; how he worked all sorts of side jobs, from telemarketing to offshore wind farming; how he nearly starved himself to death for his craft. (Not to mention three chapters or so on how our culture is crumbling.) Thornton’s nonchalant approach to fame, combined with his proclivity for an almost hermit-esque lifestyle, stokes the suggestion of a man who lives his life to the beat of a different drum—without secretly vetting an agenda to collect Bentleys and endorsements galore. “People have sort of gone back to looking at me as an actor again and, for some reason, people are so interested in high-profile relationships that if you’re not in a high-profile relationship, then you can just be a regular artist again.”
Southern gentleman, misfit, rebel…you name it, Thornton has been called it. In reality, however, there is no better description of the man than the one thing he himself purports to be: a genuine artist who prefers to live his own life rather than the one others have drawn out for him. If you ever come across Thornton, expect him to be polite, straightforward and, very probably, smiling wryly as he gathers material for his next project.