Billy Bob Thornton has strung together a career’s worth of memorable performances in films including Sling Blade, A Simple Plan, Primary Colors, Bad Santa, Monster’s Ball, Love Actually, Friday Night Lights, and the Joel and Ethan Coen-directed Intolerable Cruelty and The Man Who Wasn’t There. Has he ever played as riveting a character as his small screen turn as Lorne Malvo, the manipulative, malevolent murderous catalyst for the series transfer of the Coen Brothers film classic Fargo? Thornton is smack in the center of an Emmy category stacked with fellow movie stars lured by the superior writing and character development largely missing from features nowadays. Here, he tells Deadline why the small screen was the perfect forum for his resurgence, and what happens when an actor interprets a mortal character as something else.
DEADLINE: Lorne Malvo facilitated all the good and bad that happens in Fargo‘s snowy Minnesota town. Was he the devil or just the gasoline on the fire that brought out the evil in Martin Freeman’s Lester Nygaard and the hero in Colin Hanks’ Gus Grimly?
THORNTON: Even though Malvo is mortal, there is an almost other world-ish thing to him. He’s like a ghost. The way I saw it in my head was, he’s the guy who exposes people for who they are. He doesn’t respect weakness, he sees through people and brings out of them what he sees. I’m not sure he’s the devil as much as devilish. I looked at him as some sort of being that comes to town and lights the firecracker.
DEADLINE: Malvo first meets Martin Freeman’s Lester in the hospital for that Strangers On A Train proposition that propels the season. Lester’s a meek doormat whose nose was broken by the bully Malvo offers to kill. Did Malvo recognize Lester’s capacity for awfulness in that meeting, or was he bored and looking to screw with the hapless little guy sitting next to him?
THORNTON: At that point, I think he saw someone who could be easily manipulated. I don’t know that he instantly saw his capabilities, but he definitely thought, “I could probably use this cat. I may need him down the road. Let me stick him in my pocket.”
DEADLINE: Malvo began stacking bodies in that pilot, including the back-shot murder of the show’s most decent man, Sheriff Vern. Malvo has less luck ending the season faced off against the second most decent guy in the series, Hanks’ Gus character. Why didn’t Malvo fight harder for his life?
THORNTON: Well, the only good guy he killed, that sheriff, was out of necessity. Malvo lives by the rules of the animal kingdom. He wasn’t looking to kill a good guy as much as, he’s in my way. Malvo knew that Lester was setting him up and he just had to get rid of people. Otherwise, the people he kills are creeps. That last scene with Gus, Malvo was severely wounded, and knew as soon as he got home who was waiting for him. Gus was something like his student, who was manipulated to let Malvo go early on. Malvo probably saw some decency and purity in Gus, and respected somebody true to himself. Lester, Sam Hess, all these other creeps, they’re not true to themselves. I think Malvo looked at Gus and said, “Good job. It’s my time. You figured it out. Good on you.” He wasn’t looking to go out in a blaze of glory.
DEADLINE: Did you see Malvo as a sociopath in the mold of Kevin Spacey’s John Doe in Se7en or Javier Bardem’s Anton Chigurh in the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men?
THORNTON: I suppose he’s a sociopath in the sense that he doesn’t operate the way normal people do in society. I’m not sure though; I was just an actor playing the guy and I chose to play him as an entity and not a man. Sociopath? He’s a killer, no doubt, but there seems to be some poetry in his actions.
DEADLINE: You brought Malvo to life. When an actor sees his character not as a man but rather an entity, how does that impact your preparation and portrayal?
THORNTON: When I read a script, the character has to become clear to me, like putting on a glove that fits. I’d have a few more nickels to rub together if I had taken some of the parts that I turned down because I either didn’t want to be in that kind of movie or play that kind of part, or I thought I was wrong for the job. One of the most important things for an actor is to know who you are. I read the Fargo pilot script and felt like, “Oh yeah, I understand this.”
DEADLINE: How did it feel for this personification of evil to have a mortal demise?
THORNTON: Because I saw Malvo that way, I read the ending and felt a bit…not disappointed because the writing was great, but disappointed there wasn’t a more magical way for him to exit. Maybe, after he was stuck in that bear trap, he could have vanished into thin air. There was that part of me that hoped there would be more than just a mortal ending. Like, there he is on the couch, Gus is outside the door, and the next minute he’s gone, and all you can see is a wolf in the middle of the road.
DEADLINE: As consolation, actors love death scenes, and your character seemed to die twice.
THORNTON: Yeah, yeah. No doubt about that. I guess in answer to your question, yes, I knew it very early on that I saw the character as immortal, and then, he wasn’t, or maybe he was.
DEADLINE: You’re an Oscar-winning writer for Sling Blade. Why is so much of the best writing now on the small screen and not the movie screen?
THORNTON: It has to do with economics. Moviegoers are young people into the social networks, and that is a young man’s game. So movies are either $3 million to $4 million independents that are very hip and plug into something with a 21-year-old, or they are huge event movies. Even the medium-budget studio movies aren’t for adults as much as they are mass appeal comedies telling a similar story with the same few actors. Three yuppie types, I don’t think that’s the word anymore, but three or four guys in their 30s, married maybe, college guys all grown up, who go together to Mexico City and get in trouble with a sheep in a hotel room, or whatever. They make basically the same $25 million movie, over and over. Higher budget independent films that cost $10 million to $15 million, they have to be able to get foreign distribution to make a return. The risk takers are gone, and you need five or six huge names in that $10 million movie so you know you’ll get your money back from these foreign territories.
DEADLINE: So how’s television different?
THORNTON: Television isn’t as reliant on stars and trying to hit a certain demographic like you have to in a movie theater. Baby boomers don’t go out as much, they aren’t interacting with each other and they would rather stay home and watch TV. That’s the audience for a guy like me, unless I’m doing Bad Santa. Telling a movie studio you want to make a movie for adults is not the first thing they want to hear when you walk through the door and pitch them. Television has taken over that bigger-budget independent film and the medium-budget studio film. Frankly, that’s where the serious writing and acting is taking place. The people who grew up making those movies, they’re writing, acting, and producing for television now. Once people see that, the momentum builds. It certainly did with me. And pretty soon, your living room is the new movie theater.
DEADLINE: Series like Fargo, True Detective, Ray Donovan or Luther have an authorship missing in movies because writers are on the low rung. What are these TV successes telling us about what movies are doing wrong?
THORNTON: It’s funny. Television has its side of commerciality; unless you’re on premium cable, you sell commercials. So, you can make a good show on television without having to put bells and whistles on it or test it around with people like you’re saying, “Is this toothpaste minty enough?” In movies, they take it around to test audiences, let people change the ending and other stuff because they’ve got one shot in the theater and if they fail, that’s it. So movies are selling a product, while television is actually selling a show they hope is good enough to get an audience, so they can draw sponsors to sell products. That won’t change until the movie business says, “We’re not going to do that anymore. We’re just going to put the best quality out there and give it a chance to find an audience again.” But it won’t change, and television will just get better and better.
DEADLINE: Television’s getting feature talent by allowing Matthew McConaughey, Woody Harrelson and others to commit to one season. How much of a factor was that in your doing Fargo?
THORNTON: I did sign for one season, but I signed up because I loved the script, thought it was going to be a great creative challenge, and I was honored they asked. It didn’t matter to me a lick if it was television or a movie. I think television’s amazing, and I’m going to do more of it. I love it. I think it’s a great place to be, but I’m still going to keep doing movies too.
DEADLINE: I’ve read interviews where it sounded like you were so frustrated by some of the films you directed that TV might become your primary pursuit.
THORNTON: I still love movies, and I have so many friends at studios and independent film companies who really do want to do good stuff. I still believe in movies. I don’t think there’s a line anymore for the actual artist though. We used to say, oh, this guy’s a TV actor, that guy’s a movie actor. That line doesn’t exist anymore. I want to do movies and great television projects.
DEADLINE: Next up for you is The Judge, where you go mano a mano with Robert Downey Jr in a courtroom trial where his father, Robert Duvall, is accused of murder. That is a lot of acting talent right there. Is that more exciting than, say, tearing up a sleepy Minnesota town in Fargo?
THORNTON: Boring answer, but they’re equal. Good is all that really matters. Even if it was a movie on an iPhone, the medium doesn’t matter anymore. I love being an actor, doing it all. That’s not exciting and controversial, but it’s true.
DEADLINE: MConaughey read two episodes and signed on to True Detective. How much did you read to be convinced a series adaptation of the film classic Fargo would not be a terrible mistake?
THORNTON: Judging quality material, you go by your instincts. All I read was this amazing pilot and I believe that usually, a guy who writes one terrific script is not going to follow with a horrible one. Noah Hawley captured the tone of the movie and yet made it its own thing.
DEADLINE: One of the few direct ties to the movie comes when Oliver Platt’s character finds the briefcase filled with cash by the roadside, before Malvo besieges him with the Biblical plagues. What was the Coens’ most important contribution?
THORNTON: It’s like a musical influence. You listen to some big band now and if it’s pointed out to you, you see the influence of The Beatles, The Animals, or The Allman Brothers. It’s a vibe, a tone, a particular way of looking at life. Noah was able to make his own thing but capture the spirit of that movie. That series owes everything to the Coens.
DEADLINE: You have directed some fine movies like Sling Blade and All The Pretty Horses, but clearly you’ve had soul-crushing setbacks and disappointments too. How did this TV experience dictate the way you’ll spend your time and talent going forward?
THORNTON: I’m never giving up movies and I hope to direct another but that takes a lot of time and energy if you write it. Directing television is something I wouldn’t show a lot of interest in, unless I’m directing a whole 10-part series. If you’re a director hired for an episode, you’re really there to service a creator’s vision. That’s the obvious difference between movie and television directing. I’m not the most technical guy in the world, and you need those guys who sketch things out and shoot quickly for television. Even though I’ve gotten my ass kicked, I’d probably direct a feature again once in a blue moon. As an actor? The sky’s the limit in both of these worlds. And as a writer, maybe I’ll take one of those independent films I can’t get financed, expand it and do it on television.
DEADLINE: Any you want to mention?
THORNTON: Not specifically, but there are things I haven’t gotten financed or fully finished. You think, well if those guys don’t want me, maybe these guys do. I grew up a baseball player and look at everything like an athlete. I don’t have a job right now after Fargo, but this is like me saying, I’m getting older so maybe I go to the American League and be a designated hitter. The great thing about being an actor is you can do it as long as you’re still walking and breathing. I can be 85 years old and still work if I can get out of the chair and move around a bit. I’m still in my 50s and see good things ahead.
DEADLINE: What were the most satisfying discoveries doing Fargo that compensated for the cold weather?
THORNTON: Weather aside, this was like those times you do a movie and love playing the character so much you don’t want it to be over. I got to keep playing this character week in and week out for 10 episodes, the equivalent of five movies. And then there were things I got to do that I didn’t know about until they popped up in a script. So I got to play a minister, for instance, and a dentist. Noah surprised me a lot and so you’re playing one character, who’s trying to be someone else. Great stuff.
DEADLINE: Your Emmy category consists of Chiwetel Ejiofor, Martin Freeman, Mark Ruffalo, Benedict Cumberbatch, Idris Elba. It could be an Oscar category. With the shifting ecosystems of movies and television, will an Emmy hold more prestige than an Oscar?
THORNTON: I don’t know, but I have always felt just blown away getting nominated for anything. I haven’t had award nominations and been involved in this sort of mainstream anything for a while. To be nominated for an Emmy is a big deal, especially after a dry spell, and I’m humbled and honored. I looked at the actors in that category I’m in and thought, well, there goes my chance. But I’m going to have a great time with it, see some great actors there, and do the red carpet right because it will mean so much to my family and friends. It’s like Christmas or Thanksgiving to me and I’m proud to be among those guys. Martin Freeman and I are in the same category, so I figure I will go there knowing I’m not getting it. In a way, it takes a little pressure off.
Here is Malvo’s first chilling encounter with Gus: