Billy Bob Thornton, left, and Virginia Madsen talk about
their new movie, The Astronaut Farmer at the Ritz
Carlton in San Francisco, California, February 13, 2007.
(Michael A. Jones/Sacramento Bee/MCT)
PHILADELPHIA—Two things about Billy Bob Thornton that aren’t true: He’s a trick-shot artist with a pool cue. And his cousins are famous pro wrestlers.
“It’s the Internet,” gripes Thornton, holed up at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia recently. “These Web sites have so much misinformation. Everywhere I go now, if I’m in a bar and there’s a pool table, somebody’s going to challenge me. I mean, I play OK, but just like a regular guy would. I have no idea where that came from. ...
“And the other one is that I’m related to the Funk Brothers—I’ve never heard of these guys in my life, and all of a sudden they’re my cousins.”
Such is the price of fame. Or, at least, the price of living in the age of the blogosphere, the wiki world.
But Thornton, a laid-back fellow known for, among other things, playing a low-IQ killer (“Sling Blade”) and a misanthropic yuletide clown (“Bad Santa”) and carrying a vial of blood belonging to his wife (now ex-, Angelina Jolie), shrugs it off. He’s got bigger fish to fry.
The biggest right now is “The Astronaut Farmer,” a $13 million pic about a Texas rancher who’s building a rocket in his barn—to launch himself into orbit. Opening Friday, it’s one of those follow-your-dream dramas—but with “edge,” Thornton says, courtesy of the identical-twin writing and directing team of Mark and Michael Polish. The first shot: Thornton, in a `70s-era space suit, walking the desert sands, leading a horse.
A surreal mix of cowboy imagery and moon-landing iconography, the footage panicked execs back in Hollywood when the Polishes—auteurs of a trilogy of oddball art-house titles—sent them dailies. It was the first sequence they’d shot on “The Astronaut Farmer,” and it wasn’t what Warners was expecting.
“We looked at that right away,” says Thornton, who had a different take from the studio suits, “and that gave us the tone, the whole vibe, for what was to follow. It was great.”
Thornton has spent a lot of time lately playing dark, cynical jerks (“Bad Santa,” “School for Scoundrels”) and coaches (“Bad News Bears,” “Friday Night Lights”). In the forthcoming “Mr. Woodcock,” he’s a dark, cynical jerk AND a coach. But when his agent sent him the Polishes’ script, Thornton knew it was time to change up.
“You have certain types of movies you want to do in a career,” says Thornton, wearing cowboy boots, a long black coat and his signature soul patch—a brush of gray beneath his lip.
“I’d always wanted to do a kind of Jimmy Stewart/Frank Capra movie, like `Mr. Smith Goes to Washington.’ This was one of those. ... It’s also the classic story of the common man against the system. It’s a little subversive in terms of how the government is portrayed, and I liked that. The Polish brothers were able to sneak in enough to make it hip.”
At the same time, “The Astronaut Farmer” is as American as Capra corn: Thornton’s Charles Farmer (yes, the title’s a pun) may have mortgaged the ranch to finance his dream, but he’s a family man, enlisting the help of his teenage son and young daughters (played by the Polishes’ real-life girls) and staying true to his wife (Virginia Madsen).
Michael Polish says Thornton went out of his way to encourage that family dynamic even when the cameras weren’t on, inviting the girls to his trailer to play games and read.
In real life, too, fatherhood seems to have taken hold.
“I’ve got a 2 ½-year-old daughter,” says the 51-year-old actor, speaking of Bella Thornton, his progeny with girlfriend Connie Angland. The couple live in Los Angeles. “This last year I spent a lot of time at home, and that was great, being with her. ... My boys are 12 and 13, so they don’t need me around as much.”
Mark Polish says Thornton ingratiated himself with cast and crew on the “Astronaut” set.
“We’d have fires outside the barn at night when we were filming, and he would hold court,” recalls the cowriter and producer. (His brother, Michael, directed.) “And we’d say, `OK, we’re going to go,’ because it was 4 in the morning and it’s cold. ... but he wouldn’t leave, he wouldn’t stop. He always says, `We’re just a bunch of misfits. Luckily we get paid for it.’”
And then the misfit would sing.
With three albums to his credit (“Private Radio,” “The Edge of the World” and “Hobo”) and another due in May, Thornton is serious about his music, and about music, period. Warren Zevon, the late singer-songwriter, was a close friend. (Thornton narrated a documentary about Zevon and recorded his song “The Wind” for a tribute disc.) Johnny Cash, says Thornton, was like an uncle—which is why he can’t bring himself to watch the Oscar-winning biopic “Walk the Line” (“I just don’t want to pick it apart”).
Thornton has an Oscar himself. In 1997, he nabbed the coveted trophy for his screenplay about a dim-witted Southerner with a haunted past. The film, “Sling Blade”, also landed him a best-actor nomination, for his portrayal of Karl Childers, the potaters-lovin’ simpleton who says “I reckon” about 100 times and swears, “I never used no hatchet that I remember.”
Thornton directed the film, too.
“I’d written a movie a few years earlier, `One False Move,’ and that was a pretty good movie,” he says. (It’s great, a bloody Southern noir in which Thornton costars with Bill Paxton and Cynda Williams.)
“With `Sling Blade,’ I thought critics would like it and a few people would see it—like `One False Move.’ ... Instead, it became this phenomenon, and kind of iconic.”
These days, Thornton is trying to find funding for what would be his fourth directing turn. After “Sling Blade,” he steered Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz through a handsome but hobbled adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s “All the Pretty Horses.” (Which was shot, trivia nuts, on the same New Mexico ranch used in “The Astronaut Farmer.”) A year later he directed and starred opposite Laura Dern and Jim Varney in the little-seen dysfunctional domestic comedy “Daddy and Them.”
This time, the subject is serious—and though he doesn’t exactly say as much, it touches on personal stuff.
“I’ve got a story I really want to do. It’s a period character drama, and that’s the hardest thing to talk a studio into. You know, `Jackass’ is easy. `Spider-Man,’ easy. But you go in and say, `Hey, I want to do a movie that takes place in Kentucky in 1925 based on a true story,’ that’s a tough one.”
The story is that of Floyd Collins, a famous cave explorer who got trapped in a cave—for 13 days.
“It was the biggest media event of its time. ... The media was starved for news, and here was this poor schmuck trapped in a cave. ... Congress would even take recesses and listen to the story on the radio. It was a huge deal.”
And the reason Thornton, no stranger to media circuses—look at all those US Weeklys and “Entertainment Tonight!” segments on Thornton and Angelina—wants to tell this tale?
“It’s a statement on human nature, how we like to watch other people suffer for our own entertainment,” he says. “The media wouldn’t be what it is if the people didn’t want it. The media gets blamed for irresponsible, exploitive, shallow coverage, but it’s like people really want to know what kind of necklace the actress wore to the Oscars. If they didn’t want to know, nobody would cover it. ...
“If people only wanted to see good stuff, or important stuff, then that’s all that would be covered.”