Q&A: Billy Bob Thornton

Billy Bob Thornton is known for a lot of things. The Arkansas-born bad boy and husband to Angelina Jolie in her pre-Brad Pitt days is best known for playing “the jerk” character in films like

Billy Bob Thornton is known for a lot of things. The Arkansas-born bad boy and husband to Angelina Jolie in her pre-Brad Pitt days is best known for playing “the jerk” character in films like “Bad Santa” (2003) and “Monster’s
Ball” (2000).

But the one thing the 51-year-old is not known for is family movies – the genre he’s recently embraced as the star in the family-targeted film about a farmer aspiring to explore space.His latest film, “The Astronaut Farmer,” was written to target a family audience and focuses on doing what it takes to make your dreams come true.

Written and directed by twins Mike and Mark Polish, “The Astronaut Farmer” stars Billy Bob Thornton with supporting roles played by Virginia Madson, Bruce Dern and Bruce Willis, Thornton’s long-time partner in the movie industry. Director Mike Polish said that Willis enjoys helping Thornton and that the two work very well together.

“They’re able to stand toe-to-toe and act,” Polish said.

Thornton is far from the jerk he often portrays. In a recent interview with “The Temple News” and other members of the press held at the Four Seasons Hotel in Center City, Thornton explained why he enjoyed playing “the family guy” so much this time around.

“I’ve done a lot of cynical comedies lately, and I figured, ‘Well, I’ve got the box set on those,’ so I just wanted to do a movie
of “The Astronaut Farmer’s” nature,“ Thornton said. “The character appealed to me because he’s the kind of guy that you would see in those classic stories, maybe in the 40s or 50s, where you had the common man fighting the system and also the subversive nature of the movie.

“It was actually one of those scripts that, when I read it, I felt I was the right guy for the job. Those are usually the kinds of movies I take.”

The Temple News: Was there anyone in your life that inspired you never to give up?

Billy Bob Thornton: There were two people, actually. The first is my high school drama teacher. I never wanted to take it, and the only reason I did was because there were a lot of girls in the class. She was the first teacher to actually come up to me and say, ‘Hey, you’re good at something. You can definitely go far with it.’ The other was my mom. Whatever I wanted to do, within reason, she was for it.

TTN: You grew up in Aalpine and Malvern (Aarkansas) in a house without running water. How has that shaped your world view and the person you are now?

BBT: Back then, I could imagine being an actor or being a musician, but I couldn’t imagine the level of success that I reached. I mean, I would have been so happy just to know that I could be in movies at all, without the money, without becoming a “movie star.” But I wouldn’t trade my background for anything. It makes things a lot easier now. It’s like the hardships early-on create an appreciation. There are people who don’t believe me when I say I grew up without running water.

TTN: What about your phobias? Specifically, your phobia of antiques and certain silverware. Aare those phobias

BBT: It’s kind of funny how much people play on that in the press. It’s not as big a deal as it sounds like. The antique furniture thing: it’s not just the furniture, it’s the whole vibe. It’s like, in France or England, or something, people might like to go to a restaurant that looks like an old Scottish castle. Not me. I don’t want anything moldy or dusty or anything near me. The silverware thing is true too, but it’s not just any silverware.

Like, I can use silverware from Sears, but not real silverware, like that heavy, ornate, clunky stuff. Same with plates. I can’t use those fancy ones with the flowers on it and everything – no way. Sometimes at home I just eat off of paper plates with plastic forks and knives. I just love it.

TTN: Your talent has taken many forms: songwriting, acting, directing, music. Could you talk about the synergy
between those different pursuits, and how one informs the other?

BBT: Well songwriting, which I love, and which I’ve been doing for the past years, it’s all storytelling. At least the kinds of songs I write are story songs. So it’s not very much different. I don’t get a huge difference between the feeling I get from acting and writing music. The businesses are very different, and out of the four things that I do, the ones that give me the most pleasure are acting and playing music. Screenwriting is very hard, because you’re starting with nothing except your life experience. I love the result of it, but it’s the process that’s really hard.

TTN: Is it hard to be away from your girlfriend Connie and your kids?

BBT: My little girl, I’m in love with her. She’s almost two and a half now, and I’m kind of having a hard time being away from her. When this is all said and done, I’ll be away from here for 10 or 11 days. And she’s really a daddy’s girl. Connie says she asks for me every night, and she said, ‘Daddy’s working. He’s on an airplane.’ She’s definitely having a hard time with it.

TTN: Do you ever get the urge to write another movie after “Sling Blade” had been such a huge success?

BBT: Oh yeah, definitely. I’ve written about 23 movies over the years, but only about four actually have been produced. I’d like to do another one. But it has to be an original. The joy of writing for me is coming up with the characters and creating their world. To adapt something that someone else has already done – that’s too much, like, work to me. It would feel like a job. I’d rather have someone adapt it for me and then do a character polish or something.

TTN: You have described yourself as a private person, but there are a lot of tabloid rumors that go around. What do you think is the biggest misperception about you?

BBT: The biggest misperception is probably
about me being this crazy eccentric, but I’m kind of regular to tell you the truth. I definitely have my quirks – there’s no question about that, but there’s been a lot of exaggeration.
Like, if a carpenter or a plumber has eccentricities, nobody cares.

But all of a sudden, if you’re a celebrity, they want to know everything. And a lot of it gets overblown in the public. Like, supposedly I wore this vile of blood around my neck, but it just didn’t happen. It was a little tiny locket that I poked my finger into – it was nothing. According to the papers, I had, like, a mayonnaise jar full of blood or something [laughs].

TTN: How has your stay in the city been so far?

BBT: I love this town. I have a whole album full of pictures from Philadelphia because I’m a big history buff. I don’t know if I should say this, but I will. I like it better than Boston.

Carlene Majorino can be reached at c.majorino@temple.edu.

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