It’s tempting to classify Billy Bob Thornton’s genius, sinister turn in FX’s Fargo as yet another in his repertoire of brilliantly evil performances—Hollywood’s reliable bad boy bringing another scoundrel to life on screen. But Thornton, his devilish smile lighting up at the opportunity to set the record straight, would like to tell you that you’d be mistaken.
“There’s this misconception about me that I’ve played a lot of very bad guys,” Thornton says. “And you don’t even realize it until you start going through the filmography that it’s not true!”
OK, we’ll bite. There’s the role that won him an Oscar—Best Adapted Screenplay—and major Hollywood player in 1996, Karl Childers in Sling Blade, a character that challenged our notions of good and evil, and of culpability and just cause. “He was an innocent,” Thornton counters. What about Jacob in 1998’s A Simple Plan? He kills a few people, right? “Yeah,” Thornton says. “But he wasn’t a bad guy.” Bad Santa? “That’s a comedy!”
Fine. But there can’t be any disputing that Lorne Malvo, a ruthless killer on a rampage that stains Minnesota’s snow-white landscape blood red, is, unequivocally, bad. “Oh he’s definitely the most cruel,” Thornton concedes. After decades of being, in his opinion, unfairly branded as Hollywood’s bad guy, Thornton is finally playing a role that lives up to all that hype.
His character on this version of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Oscar-winning masterpiece can best be compared to Steve Buscemi’s character in the 1996 film. It’s a loose comparison, though, as FX’s take on Fargo is loosely based on its seminal namesake.
Instead of Frances McDormand’s pregnant police chief as warm as she is wise connecting the dots on a string of murders, there’s an intrepid young deputy proving herself on her first big case (played by the wonderful Allison Tolman). William H. Macy’s in-over-his-head car salesman-turned-murder accomplice is now an insurance salesman played by Martin Freeman. And the bumbling goofiness Buscemi brought to the film’s villain is replaced with the cool, calm, controlled criminal deeds of Thornton’s Malvo.
It’s a slightly different story, but one that takes place in the same frozen tundra of a universe so identifiable in the Coens’ film, complete with the dark sense of humor and all the “you betchas” and “yahs” any Fargo purist could want. (For their part, the Coens read the pilot script and gave their blessing to FX to create its version of Fargo and serve as executive producers on the 10-episode limited series. But the brothers have little day-to-day involvement.)
It’s a risky endeavor to adapt such a hallowed film for TV, and no one knows that better than Thornton, whose memory of the time surrounding Fargo’s release, and the influence that it and the Coen Brothers had on the film industry, is a little stronger than most. The movie’s big splash, after all, came right around the time Thornton was making his own mark in Hollywood: the year it won Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy Awards, Thornton also took home the trophy for Best Original Screenplay.
“You can have a movie about heroin smugglers but you can’t smoke in it. Like, this is a movie—I thought we could do anything!”
But it was actually the next year that Thornton has his sharpest Oscar memory involving the Coens—the one that solidified to him that they were creative brethren. Thornton was back at the Oscars as an acting nominee for A Simple Plan, and was seated next to his fellow winners from the year prior, the Coens. It was the year Roberto Benigni won Best Actor for Life Is Beautiful and reacted by climbing over the seats—not to mention their celebrity occupants—to make his way to the stage to accept his trophy.
“He stepped on my shoulder!” Thornton remembers. “I was one of the guys he stepped on. I loved him.” So, apparently, did the Coens. “They don’t laugh out loud a lot,” Thornton says. “But Ethan was just over there with his head down, laughing. He has this odd little laugh.”
After imitating Ethan Coen’s very…unique laugh—somewhere between a donkey hawing and a giddy baby hee-ing—Thornton starts to wax nostalgic. “Now that I’m doing press for this Fargo, I keep thinking back to that,” he says. “I remember thinking that I never felt like I was much a part of Hollywood, but I felt like I was a part of a group of it. I’m part of those guys. I have my own little forest of people in the middle of Hollywood who I feel comfortable with.”
Thornton has taken notice, too, that those trees, if you will, those people in his little enclave of Hollywood, have begun turning to TV to tell better, more adult stories. “McConaughey and Woody just did that thing,” he says. “My buddy, Kevin Bacon, he’s got The Following. Dennis Quaid had a series. Buscemi’s got Boardwalk Empire.” And now, Thornton’s got Fargo.
Was Thornton hesitant to make the jump back to the small screen? (It’s been a few decades since the days starring opposite John Ritter in Hearts Afire.) To hear him tell it, there was no other logical option.
“The adult drama, there’s no audience for that in the movie theater anymore,” he says. “People over 40, they’re watching TV. And independent films? Where they used to give you $12 million or $15 million to make an independent film and you only had to have one movie star in it, now they give you $3 or $4 million to make one and you have to have 10 movie stars in it.”
But the biggest draw of TV for him, he says, is the ever-relaxing standards of what you can and cannot show in a series. “When I was coming up, you couldn’t do anything,” he says. “Censorship was strong. Now, sex, violence, language, you can do it all.” This is happening, he says, as studios are putting tighter reins on the movie content.
“Everything has to be so politically correct,” he says. “You can have a movie about heroin smugglers but you can’t smoke in it. Like, this is a movie—I thought we could do anything! There’s always an excuse about a ratings board. But now on TV, you can smoke with your butt if you want to.”
There’s no butt-smoking on Fargo, per se, but watching Thornton murder a man who is having bare-assed, doggy-style sex, it’s hard to refute that remark. There’s also no refuting Thornton’s candor when talking about how he feels about the film industry or the parts he plays. Still, when asking him about his character’s defining trait—a horrific, Anton Chigurh-like haircut with bangs befitting a six-year-old at Catholic school—and expecting a provocative explanation on how it helped him to craft such a deliciously complicated character, it’s nonetheless jarring to hear him be so frank.
“It was a mistake,” he says. “I got a bad haircut.” But then that devilish grin flashes again. “But afterwards I looked in the mirror and went, ‘You know what? That’s pretty creepy. It works!’ Because bangs are associated with innocence. So I had this innocent haircut with this dark beard and this guy with no conscience.”
More satisfyingly complex, however, was Thornton’s explanation of why Malvo—with his unfortunate hair and mysterious, disarming air about him—manages to cast such a spell on everyone whose gaze he meets. Including the audience.
“He’s a snake charmer,” he says. “He has a lot of confidence in himself. He doesn’t care if a guy is 6’4”. He looks people right in the eye, and when he says something you know he means it.”
Of course, spend a few minutes with Billy Bob Thornton and it becomes clear that he’s no stranger to a little bit of snake charming himself. He has that same power, that same pull, that same piercing, convincing gaze that Lorne Malvo has.
In other words, when Billy Bob Thornton tells you that he’s actually not Hollywood’s bad boy—that we’ve all been mistaken, all these years and he doesn’t play a lot of “bad guy” characters on screen—you believe him. After all, we’ve all seen what those on-screen characters (none of them “bad guys,” of course) can do.