When Billy Bob Thornton burst onto the scene in 1996 with his acting/writing/directing debut Sling Blade, he left an indelible mark on Hollywood. He also left an indelible mark at LMU as part of The Hollywood Masters series with Stephen Galloway. Thornton talked about his difficult childhood, his odd jobs – from roadie to working at Shakey’s pizza – to being a struggling actor in Los Angeles. But his laid back, honest stories about his journey and his words of encouragement to our students were truly inspiring.
Discovering My Path – “You can really do this.”
“I grew up with severe dyslexia and OCD. And when I was growing up if you had something wrong with you they didn’t have like a support group for any of this. And I didn’t know what dyslexia was, so they just thought I was stupid and I didn’t do well in school. But I started writing short stories as a child and I got into drama class in high school. A teacher named Molly Treadway came up to me one day and said ‘What are you up to there?’ And I said, ‘Well, I was just writing a story.’ And she said, ‘Well, if you’re so smart how about you get up on the stage and, you know, pick a few actors and direct your little short story that you’ve written.’ And I did. I looked at it as punishment in the moment. But after I did it, she said, ‘I’ve never had anybody in my class that I actually thought should make this their living. You can really do this, so you should consider it.’ And so she was the first teacher who ever encouraged me.”
Choosing Projects – “I always start with the script.”
“I know it’s boring to say this but I always start with the script; if it’s well written and it’s a character that I haven’t necessarily played before. And, you know, they kind of fit like a glove usually. I mean, you read something and you just feel this makes sense. I have been fortunate to get some really good scripts over the years and I haven’t turned down anything that I regretted so far. Maybe the biggest surprise was what an amazing and fun time I had on Bandits. I’m not saying it’s the best movie I ever did, but it was the best experience I ever had. I actually am a phobic, twitchy sort of nervous guy and I was making a movie playing someone probably closer to myself than my image as portrayed.”
Advice from Billy Wilder – “Be an original.”
“I worked as a waiter at this party at the home of director Stanley Donen. And I’m walking around passing the stuff out and this little German “cat” starts talking to me. And in a German accent he said, ‘so you want to be an actor, huh?’ Well I thought the cat had ESP. I wasn’t clued into the fact that waiters are all actors. And so I said, ‘yeah,’ and he said, ‘forget about it.’ And I said, ’thanks.’ [LAUGHTER] He said, ‘you’re not handsome enough to be a leading man but you’re not ugly enough to be a character actor.’ So what do I do? Do I get prettier or uglier? And we started talking and he said, ‘do you write at all?’ And I said, ‘yeah I do, actually.’ He said, ‘we really need writers, you know, that’s where it all starts. Forget standing in a line with a bunch of actors. Everybody and his brother wants to be an actor. Create your own characters. Be an original.’ And I did. I started thinking along those lines and I started doing a one-man show.”
Sling Blade – “Carl is an innocent.”
“I wrote the script in nine days. Carl (lead character) is an innocent, you know. And at the end of the day, the movie was really about, you know, would you rather have a father who’s gay, which John Ritter played, who loves that kid or would you rather have a monster who doesn’t love the kid but since he goes by the rules of, you know, normal society supposedly then he’s okay. I based him on three different people. One was a mentally challenged black man I knew. The voice came from this old man named Reid who lived in this nursing home I worked at. And the seed of the story is based on this guy from my hometown. He had physical problems and turns out he had like muscular dystrophy or something but his family was crazy old hillbillies and they actually kept him out back. He was like a disgrace and they fed him kind of like a dog.”
Acting, artists, and Monsters Ball – “I’m as highly insecure as a human can be.”
“Acting is almost like being a musician. Some nights you play and you’re just on and other nights you just can’t do it. It depends on if you get in a groove or not. Sometimes a set can be fairly light with a nice crew and everybody’s having fun and you’re doing something heavy. Sometimes you’re doing a comedy and every day is miserable and nobody’s laughing even though what’s on the screen is funny. Monsters Ball felt like it felt [in the movie] all the time. I’m playing what’s essentially my dad, beating myself up there. The hardest scene to do was that one where [Heath] kills himself. I guess because you see the part of yourself that has thought about it, you know. And I don’t imagine there’s a person who hasn’t had the thought. ‘Maybe I’m not worth it.’ And I’m as highly insecure as a human can be; probably more so, now. I think insecurity is sort of the order of the day now.”
The Coen Brothers and TV vs. Film – “Fargo felt like making a 10-hour independent film.”
“I always wished there was somebody like the Coen Brothers and they appeared. My favorite role that I’ve ever done was in The Man Who Wasn’t There. That’s my very favorite character I’ve ever played. When I was coming up in the ‘80s, if you were on television either you were a young actor just coming up, or you were an older actor whose career was over. Now actors are jumping over each other to get on television. And it’s essentially because the $25 to $35 million dollar studio movies that are about human beings are not being made, so television has taken that spot. There are no rules in television, and there are rules in movies. For me, this 10-episode idea appeals to me more. Fargo felt like making a 10-hour independent film, frankly. So it didn’t feel any different. Television is amazing right now, but I love film too much, and by film I mean film.”
The Hollywood Masters is a new series that examines the careers of Oscar-winning filmmakers and successful executives, with The Hollywood Reporter’s Stephen Galloway and presented by LMU School of Film and Television.