The tattoos alone tell a wild story. All those cherubs and arrowed hearts adorning Billy Bob Thornton’s razor-sharp frame are like an illuminated manuscript on love, loss and squirrelly good times. nothin’ doin’, scripted on his left biceps, is the name of a party band he played with in the 1970s. The magic mushroom on his right calf celebrates his beloved Allman Brothers and Lord knows what else. Thornton’s kids (he has four by three women) leave their marks too, as does Connie Angland, his current wife—Mrs. Billy Bob number six. The most striking is a vibrant angel in the crook of his left arm, shedding bloodred leaves. It now reads peace, though it once spelled angelina. “That was probably the most painful one to ink,” Thornton says.
Here’s a little show-business secret: Some of our finest character actors are absolute bores off-screen. We’re talking celebrated Oscar winners you wouldn’t want to share a cab with. There’s no such disappointment with Thornton. He’s tackled wide-ranging roles in movies such as Sling Blade, Friday Night Lights, A Simple Plan and Armageddon, and he’s every bit as riveting when he’s sitting straight across from you. The intensity, the oddness, the feeling that he’ll forever be an outsider—it’s downright mesmerizing. And contagious: You feel his influence in the brooding backwoods banter of Matthew McConaughey’s Rustin Cohle character from the first season of True Detective and in Bradley Cooper’s emotional transparency in American Sniper. Existentialist torment with a country twang—that’s Thornton.
In the past two years alone, Thornton has worked on more than a dozen films and television shows, including Our Brand Is Crisis, Bad Santa 2 (out this holiday season), FX’s Fargo and David E. Kelley’s new legal drama, Goliath, on Amazon. His return to the ever-shifting ground of TV (one of his earliest roles was a bit part on Matlock) is resulting in some of his best work yet.
Billy Bob Thornton is his real name, bestowed on him August 4, 1955. His father, Billy Ray, was a high school history teacher and basketball coach, and his mother, Virginia—who is Native American, English and Spanish—worked at the telephone company and as a psychic. Thornton spent much of his childhood at the backwoods house his maternal grandparents owned in rural Alpine, Arkansas. They ate whatever his grandfather caught, which meant squirrel and possum on good nights. The family later moved to Malvern, where Thornton got into theater, rock and roll, baseball, drugs and girls. Adversity was never far: His father beat him, and a younger brother died of heart failure at the age of 30.
The gauzy cinematic breakthrough scene happened after Thornton kicked his worst habits and moved to Los Angeles. He was working as a waiter at a show-business party when he encountered Some Like It Hot director Billy Wilder, who encouraged him to write screenplays. “He told me, ‘Everybody’s an actor,’ ” Thornton recalls. “ ‘What we need are better stories.’ ” Wilder’s words pushed Thornton to focus on the scripts he’d been toying with. A short film he wrote about a mentally disabled Arkansas man who murders his mother and her lover led the way to Sling Blade. The 1996 film earned Thornton, who also stars in it, an Academy Award nomination for best actor and the Oscar for best adapted screenplay. He has been a household name ever since.
Contributing Editor David Hochman, who interviewed Kevin Hart for the October Playboy Interview, has known Thornton for more than 20 years. “I saw a very early screening of Sling Blade and said, ‘I need to know more about this guy,’ ” Hochman says. “We’ve sat down for some very deep and wonderful conversations over the years. This time, we met at the Sunset Marquis, where Thornton lived on and off for six years from the mid-1990s to the early 2000s. ‘Dwight Yoakam’s joke was that every time I got a divorce, I lived here,’ he told me, ‘which was pretty often.’ After all this time, and whether he’s talking women, booze, political correctness or his famous OCD, he’s still got that twinkle in the eye and a radical way of sharing that makes you go, ‘Billy, you did not just say those words.’ ”
It’s been more than a decade since you helped set the Hollywood F-word record for a Christmas film with the original Bad Santa. Are you still saying “Fuck the fuck off” in front of the children?
Yeah. This one may better that record depending on how they edit the thing. I would say this movie is more emotional and has more of a human story than the original. My character, Willie, was just an abused kid who grew up bitter and sour because of it. Despite his salty tongue, he has a heart. He’s a hero to a lot of people, talking about the commercialism of the holiday and all that. But yeah, the material is still very funny and definitely fucking filthy.
How’s the man under the dirty beard holding up?
That’s a bigger question. I guess I feel older in the sense that the character would feel older. My youth is behind me. I’m a veteran now. In the old days, if the character saw a pretty girl on the street, he would be more likely to go up to her than he would be now. Now he’s a little more tired and a bit more mature. I can relate to that. I think I’m over the stupid shit people do and say to you. Now it’s like, “Just get out of my face.” I’ve been in this business for around 30 years at this point. I’ve done pretty much everything you can do. I’ve been at every level of success and failure and disappointment and joy and humiliation and heartbreak. It’s not like I’m going to do something that will thrill me other than doing some good work as an artist and being with my kids. Those are the two things. I think I’m more stable, more focused, more comfortable with myself. It’s kind of like I was on a train for years and I just got off at a stop I liked. So now it’s just, Okay, I’m going to settle down here.
That sounds downright sane for a guy who has always talked about being a weirdo.
I don’t know if it’s that I’m sane or just older and wiser. You get to a point where you don’t want to put up with any more shit. I’ve always been really co-dependent. I still am to a large degree, but now I don’t mind telling people I’m not going to do this or that. There were times when that wasn’t the case. Say a director wanted me to do something that was against my instincts. I used to do it anyway. These days I’ll just say, “I think this dialogue is bad. Why is this scene so shitty? This doesn’t make sense in the story.” It’s the same with people. I’ll say, “Tell that asshole over there he’s not going to manipulate everybody.” If somebody knows more than I do, I’m delighted. I don’t want to be the smartest guy in the room. But if I get the feeling you don’t know where to put the camera, I’m sure as hell going to say something.
You’ve admitted you were drinking during the shooting of the original Bad Santa. Did you apply the Method acting technique to this one too?
Not in the same way. On the first Bad Santa, I was kind of living the life of that guy. I was having way too much fun. I’m a million times tamer now. I’ll have a light beer or two every few weeks, and the next morning it will feel like I have a sinus headache. When I was doing the original film, that was one of the only carefree times in my life. I mean, I’ve never allowed myself to be truly happy since my brother died in 1988, but that period in the early 2000s was pretty fucking great. I was doing great movies with anybody I wanted—The Man Who Wasn’t There, Monster’s Ball, Bad Santa. There were a lot of great people around. It was movie-star time.
I’m still, at 61, exactly like I was in high school. The popular kids don’t equate with me.
Those were the Angelina Jolie years. Looking back, could you have made that relationship work?
Ultimately, no. I think we could have lasted a couple more years, maybe five more, but I kind of blew it with her.
How did you blow it?
I don’t know. I always felt beneath her, and if you’re living a life with someone you feel you’re beneath, that’s not good for either of you. Angie and I are still friends. That won’t ever go away. We don’t talk on a regular basis; sometimes I won’t see her for five years. But I offer. I know she’s been through a lot. “If you ever need to talk, if you ever need anything….” She knows that. She’s a great person. And she’s one of the people who didn’t abandon me. She never has.
What do you mean by “abandon” you?
Well, my relationship with the show-business world is that generally I feel apart from it. I mean, I was accidentally or just a situational victim of it a couple of times, but I’ve never been much a part of Hollywood. I don’t have any friends in Hollywood. I have friends in Los Angeles, though. One guy is a carpenter who still goes to theater groups and is working on short films and stuff. I have one friend who lives in Oregon in a hut. The guys in my band are my friends. Dwight Yoakam has been my best friend for years and years and is still just that. We’re all busy, though. He and I won’t see each other for six months. It’s always been the same. Outside of that, I’m not part of that whole rat pack. I was a guy people used to look up to, but they sort of dropped me like a hot rock.
Who are you thinking about?
Well, I can’t say, because I don’t talk about my enemies. I can’t do it. I’m talking about various actors, mostly. Most of them were either slightly younger or a decade younger than me. For a while I was the senior member of a group of them, and I was the guy they always wanted to be around. They would ask me to write them a script, or they wanted to be in something I was directing, or they wanted to be in a movie with me. We all hung out here at the Sunset Marquis or the Whiskey Bar. I’ve reached out to them, and it’s like, “Hey, man, so good to hear from you.” But then I don’t hear from them anymore. I mean, it puzzles me. I assume part of it is my doing. I have things like obsessive-compulsive disorder and dyslexia that cause certain behavior that can come across a little like Asperger’s. But still, I’ve felt hurt a few times, because I came up with those guys. There are a handful I still hear from who I really appreciate. Bill Paxton checks in. I love him, always will. Bruce Willis checks in, and Dennis Quaid. We’re good friends. Kevin Costner and Dwight, of course. John Cusack keeps up with me. Other than that, I’m not close with anybody in the movie business. I’m not part of a clique. I’m just like I was in school. I was an outcast in school. I hung out with a bunch of nerdy kids and bad guys. I was with the music geeks and the guys who smoked by the incinerator. I didn’t belong in either of those worlds completely, but I sure didn’t belong in the popular-kid world. I’m still, at 61 years old, exactly like I was in high school. The popular kids still don’t equate with me. But I guess one thing that has really changed is I’m no longer envious.
You’ve made tons of good movies. You have an Oscar. What were you envious of?
Maybe that the handsome star guys got the big parts based on their popularity and looks. I’ve always known who I am as an actor. I think probably one of the most important things you can have as an actor is knowing who you are. I have friends who don’t work like they ought to because they insist they’re Clark Gable, and they’re not. I always knew I wasn’t Clark Gable, but I still had feelings inside that would create some jealousy or envy or whatever. Not that I ever expressed those feelings, really. I always appreciated other actors, and I loved my friends. Fortunately, these days it never crosses my mind what else is going on out there. I don’t care who’s starring in what. I really don’t. I focus on whatever it is that I’m doing right now.
That sounds like a personal breakthrough.
My daughter Bella had a lot to do with it. She’s 12, and she’s a kid who desperately needs her father as a friend, not just as a father. She and I have so many things in common. We connect on some kind of magical level. I’m there for her, and she knows that. In a larger sense, I’m okay with the overall direction of my life. I have faith that things are going to pan out okay. That’s not to say you don’t get thrown for left turns. My life in particular has had a lot of those. Some of the people I know, their lives are pretty much the same as they were 20 years ago. But mine has had high notes, low notes and everything in between. I’m just drawn to a certain type of intensity, I guess. I think it’s an uncontrollable appetite for life. I can’t get rid of that passion, just like I can’t get rid of certain neuroses. You just have to make peace with them.
Your phobias are more famous than some of your ex-wives. Are you still apprehensive about antique furniture and Komodo dragons?
Put it this way: I still have a lot of eccentricities, and I embrace them all. I figure if you’ve got them, just live with them. As long as it doesn’t hurt people, you’re okay. For instance, I’m often late for things because I’ve had to drive around the block more times than I should have. I have to do it like three times or the world’s going to fall apart. It’s part of that lifetime struggle of having OCD. I used to watch the clock to see when my dad was going to come home. When I was younger than my daughter is now, probably when I was 10 or so, I would start looking at the clock. If my dad was supposed to be home at 3:30, at 3:25 I would say, “If I can count to 100 20 times before I hear the car pull in the driveway, everything will be okay.” They say that for a lot of people who have OCD, that’s part of it. It’s a way to control your environment, whether it’s imaginary or not.
Anxiety is a big issue for you.
I have terrible anxiety issues. Mine are all up here swimming around all the time. I have anxiety over specific things sometimes, but usually I’ll get these attacks of anxiety that come out of nowhere. I’ll get a really rapid heartbeat, numbness in some part of the body, a feeling of disconnection, everything looking like it has a white film over it. And trouble breathing, your diaphragm getting right up under your rib cage. You can breathe in your lungs, but you can’t get a full breath. It can happen in a social situation when somebody comes up to me and I don’t know what to say.
But what’s ironic is, I’m great in an actual emergency situation. I’m not afraid of anything then. I’m usually the one in charge if somebody, let’s say, at work runs into the wall in a harness and gets injured. I’m usually the one that’s like, “Shut the fuck up. You get over there. Let me do this. Unhook him.” I’m good in those situations. I can come to the rescue both emotionally and physically for people. Whatever I went through growing up, it helped me with certain crisis situations. I may weigh 137 pounds, but I still have the hillbilly in me, anxieties and all.
There are therapies and medications that can help ease these burdens. Have you tried any of them?
I’ve never taken anything for it. I think it’s part of what makes you what you are as an artist. I don’t know. I don’t personally go for therapy, because it’s kind of like people in Alcoholics Anonymous sometimes. I think AA is a great thing to get people sober, but then the behavior afterward sometimes doesn’t change. In addition to that behavior, you now have this anger and nervousness that was held down by the drug or the alcohol, and then there becomes this very judgmental part of them. I think sometimes people in therapy…. Look, I don’t want to get into that hornet’s nest. I think therapy is good for people it works for, and I think AA is good for people it works for. I’m saying don’t use it against everybody else in your life. Sometimes when people are in these therapy or group situations, they come out as a little higher and mightier than everybody else. You develop this personality where you’re willing to change everybody else’s world just so yours works.
You don’t like people telling you what to do.
Exactly right. If you’ve made a change for yourself, that’s fine, but then don’t tell me I need to quit smoking. There was a guy I worked with not too long ago who, every day when I was hanging out in the naughty corner—me and a couple of the other bad kids—he would come by and go, “If you ever want to stop that stuff, I know a guy. I have a person.” It’s like, I really don’t give a shit. I don’t care how many guys you’ve got. I know you quit this and that and the other. That’s fine. But don’t go around promoting it. I’m not bothering you with my shit. That’s why I go in the corner. So just leave me in my corner.
We live in a society that’s increasingly mean-spirited and judgmental. I’m probably more open-minded than I’ve ever been even though I grew up as a hippie and a real liberal guy. Still, I find myself moving a little closer to the center over certain things. Like I’m not a fan of political correctness.
I have a lot of eccentricities, and I embrace them all. I figure if you’ve got them, just live with them.
You’re not alone in that. But isn’t political correctness intended to offer protection to the marginalized and the oppressed?
I was thinking about this the other day. I grew up in the South during segregation. I experienced separate drinking fountains as a little kid. When the Civil Rights Act was passed, I was old enough to know what was going on. We’ve sure made leaps and bounds as a country, but on another level, the divide is greater than it was then. We’re more separate than we’ve ever been, and there are problems we’ve never gotten over. Is political correctness helping? In some ways, no. Artistically, I think things are worse. In this age of technology we’ve come a long way, but in a lot of ways we’ve gone really backward. I know this is going to make me sound like a dinosaur, but in my generation, the watermark was higher for our culture. I grew up in an age when the musical bar was set by the Beatles. As actors, we all wanted to be Spencer Tracy or Marlon Brando or James Dean. That was the benchmark.
Now we live in a time when you can’t say anything or do anything out of fear that you’re going to offend someone. You can’t take creative risks. I’m not saying everybody has to walk into a Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit and say, “Oh, this is lovely.” But now, when you go to the movies, it’s like anybody who does anything politically incorrect ends up being the bad guy who gets killed.
I want to be able to tell a joke. I want to be able to kid with my friends without somebody outside our group pointing their finger or wearing Earth Shoes and having a rally about it. That’s the weird thing about some liberals, and I’m one of them, trust me. They’ll go telling some other religion or lifestyle or whatever, “We’re standing up for you.” But that’s not really their job. In other words, if I have a gay friend who doesn’t mind a joke, I want to be able to tell that joke. Don’t you, a straight guy, come out of nowhere and interrupt me and my buddy and say, “That’s not right.”
So do you know any good jokes?
[Laughs] I can never remember any jokes, which is probably a good thing in this case.
Next question then. What was your toughest movie to make?
A Simple Plan, just because of the conditions. It was cold. Intense. That was real hard, and I loved every minute of it. But this movie I shot recently, London Fields, was extremely hard to make, and I’m not sure anybody will ever see it. It’s based on the Martin Amis book. There was a fight between the producers and the creative people about the cut. The two approaches were very different. I saw the director’s cut, which I thought was a masterpiece, but it is probably going to be tied up for years and won’t come out.
One thing already came out from that movie, which was the rumor this summer that you were sleeping with your London Fields co-star Amber Heard, something that allegedly sent her then husband, Johnny Depp, into a jealous rage.
Here’s what’s ridiculous about that: It was not based in reality whatsoever. I was on tour with my band, just sitting in my chair, and had nothing to do with any part of that rumor. The whole thing not only was not true, but none of it even came close to happening. And yet there it was on the internet. A friend of mine calls me and goes, “Hey, did you see the news? They’re claiming you’re from Mars.” Then it all begins. The press is calling your publicist, asking if you want to make a statement. No, I don’t want to make a statement. This was a stupid made-up story. The problem is, these days all you have to do is say something, and it’s true. Somebody makes an accusation—any accusation—and it sticks with you a little. Especially if it has anything to do with sex or something like that.
What should men know about women?
First of all, when you look at a guy who has been married as many times as I have, I’m probably not the best expert. But then again, maybe I am. Either way, this is one thing I’ve learned: If you’re with a woman and you’re unfaithful to her one night at a restaurant on the bathroom sink, she’ll usually get past that. Because you didn’t have feelings. It was just some stupid thing you did. However, if you have feelings for a woman, even if you don’t have a sexual relationship but you have love or romance, well, that means way more than fucking on the bathroom sink. With men, meanwhile, if your wife or girlfriend falls in love with another guy, men will somehow get past that. Guys will be okay. But I’m telling you, if she confesses to one time on the bathroom sink, shit! You are out the door! Guys are brought up almost as though sex is an athletic event. We weren’t taught the romance. We were told you’ve got to be the best and the biggest and the strongest and the fastest, especially a guy like me, whose dad was a coach. Fortunately, I’m also a hopeless romantic. If my wife fell in love with someone, it would absolutely kill me, but I would understand her for it. The bathroom sink I wouldn’t understand. I couldn’t see her in the same way again.
You and Connie Angland, your daughter Bella’s mother, have been together for more than a decade and have been married since 2014. Is she finally the one?
Yeah, I’m done. We’re real. She’s shown me how to enjoy stability and all that. She’s truly got my best interests at heart. She doesn’t need anything outside this life that we’ve built. Mostly, she knows who I am. She knows I’m not ever going to be the guy who’s running around the world to exotic places. She loves to travel, but she knows I’m never going to be that guy. Angie knew that about me too. She knew I was never going to go live in Vietnam or China or whatever and travel all over the world and fly to this country and that country. She knew I would never be that guy. She also knew that I wasn’t going to be that involved in society.
I’m a bit of a hermit. I still like to stay up at night and sleep during the day. I’m not somebody who goes out to things. I’m a guy who’s pretty content just staying home, watching the news or whatever.
You’ve been doing more television in recent years. Fargo is a big cult hit, and now you have a new Amazon series, Goliath. Are you a binge watcher?
Not at all. If anything, I’ll watch Andy Griffith and Gomer Pyle and Hogan’s Heroes and all that. Or sports. I’m a baseball freak, and I love football too. So I watch sports and I watch the Smithsonian Channel because every now and then it will have something weird on. I’m terrified of flying, so I watch that show Air Disasters. Sometimes when you’re afraid of something you can’t help but get into it. I do a little of that. But no, I don’t watch the current TV shows.
I do understand that TV is the place to be right now. It was certainly enjoyable working on the recent projects I’ve done. I love the character I play on Goliath. I think we hit our stride about halfway through and realized what it was. The last three or four episodes are pretty amazing and intense.
Let’s take a step back. What’s your earliest memory?
My grandmother’s front yard. It’s where I spent my growing-up years, in a community called Alpine, Arkansas. The population was around 100. The place was magical. It’s where I started discovering the wonders of life. My grandmother Maude Faulkner was the matriarch. Everybody came to her little cabin for reunions and whatnot. And not only from my family; she was a figure for the whole community. Alpine was in a very backwoods place; the cabin didn’t have electricity. But my grandmother was very intelligent. She was one of the few literate people around there. She used to write for magazines. She did income taxes because other people couldn’t read or write. These were logging woodspeople. They wouldn’t pay her in money. They would give her a bushel of peaches or make her a quilt. I really admired how much she helped other people.
I fantasize all the time about going back to the beginning and starting all over again. That’s what heaven is to me. You’re born into the same family; you’re exactly who you are this time—you don’t become a beetle or whatever. You get to live the same life again but with the knowledge of what you did the last time, and you’re in total control of everything.
What would you change?
I would still be relatively poor. I would become famous in music before movies in my early 20s. I wouldn’t have to be the Beatles, just respected, and people would know I was honest. I think there are three or four events I wouldn’t go through again, like a couple of health events and a couple of marriages. Obviously I would have my father live longer. He died when I’d just graduated from high school. I would love to go back and be able to talk to him again. What I would talk to him about would completely change what he thought of himself. He knew he was never going to rise above who he was, but he had more capacity in there. He just didn’t know how to mine it. I think he was a frustrated guy who longed to live a fuller life and wanted to have more.
In the autobiography you wrote with Kinky Friedman a few years ago, you forgive your father for being physically abusive to you.
Absolutely. I think everything is forgivable except murder. I understand why my dad was the way he was. I think he felt a lot of guilt that he couldn’t provide more for his family, and that probably triggered a lot of envy and jealousy and anger. He took it out on the very people he wished he was better for.
How old was he when he died?
He was about 44 or 45. He was a fireman in the Navy, on a destroyer. Have you ever seen these mesothelioma commercials? “Were you in the Navy? Did you work in the shipyards? Were you a fireman?” He was all of them. That’s what killed him. The same thing killed my friend Warren Zevon. It’s one of those bad diseases. My dad smoked, and you can imagine what his diet was like back in the South in the 1960s and 1970s. But he probably would have lived to the age of 75 if he hadn’t gotten mesothelioma. My mom’s still around. She’s 83 and living in northern California with my brother and his wife and two of her grandkids.
How are you like your mother?
In almost every way. My daughter calls me Marlin. He’s the father fish in Finding Nemo who’s terrified for his son and won’t let him go out and swim. My mom and I, we’re both worriers like that. It’s interesting, because when I’m performing, it’s the one place where I’m not anxious.
So you always knew you would be an actor?
No. I was absolutely going to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals. Baseball was everything to me, but I had an injury and that sent me in another direction. In high school, there were always girls in drama class, which interested me, but I didn’t think much about being an actor, frankly. I was good at girls but not very good at school. I had dyslexia on top of everything else. Then one of my teachers in Malvern, Arkansas recognized something in me. She said, “Hey, most people are in this class to goof off and so they won’t have to do math, but I think you’ve got something and should do this.” That was really meaningful to me. I never forgot that. I became an actor, star of the senior play and all that.
Were you a partier in school?
We all did stuff then. That’s just what you did. Drugs, drinking, sex. We didn’t have AIDS, so nobody was worried. Sex was like, whatever you want to do, go for it. You might get the clap, but you’d go to the doctor and get some ampicillin or whatever. We were living.
How long did that lifestyle last?
Well, it gets old pretty fast, or at least it did for me. I did all kinds of hard stuff when I was in my late teens and early 20s, and I was fine. We tried everything. I was mostly a downers guy. It’s different now for kids. I made a joke on a set the other day about taking reds. They were like, “Reds? What’s that?” It turns out they don’t even make that shit anymore. Drugs never really interested me after that early experimentation. Even pot. I think I’m allergic to it. If I smoke a joint I start thinking the FBI is after me. My heart beats real fast, and I’m paranoid. I’m one of those guys who starts driving 20 miles an hour. But it was fun when it was fun.
How did you get to L.A.?
I had a friend, Tom Epperson, who was moving to California to become a screenwriter. He said to me, “Look, you were in drama. Why don’t you try to be an actor?” So I came out here in the early 1980s. I joined a theater group. I took telemarketing jobs and all kinds of shit to get by. I never expected money from acting. I certainly didn’t expect stardom. But I caught the acting bug. I wanted to work as an actor. I got a role on Matlock and other minor parts. This was thrilling for me. Then Tom and I wrote One False Move, which got a lot of attention. Critics really liked it, and audiences did too. It was a great time. We were inventing things to do for ourselves. That’s exactly what happened with Sling Blade.
How does Sling Blade look to you when you watch it now?
The same as it did the first time I ever saw it. That movie is exactly what I wanted it to be. Here’s the thing: I’ve only directed in self-defense, to protect the thing I’d written. That’s what it was with Sling Blade. I never wanted to be a director. I just wanted to make sure the movie hit all the notes I saw in my head. That whole experience still blows my mind. The fact that people to this day come up to me saying “Mmm-hmm” in that character’s voice and say things about a movie I did more than 20 years ago, I consider that an absolute honor.
This might surprise people, but I’d love to do a movie with Brad Pitt. I think we’d be great together.
You’ve said that after he saw an early cut of that movie, Martin Scorsese predicted correctly that you would win an Oscar for it. He also predicted that you would never again have the freedom to make a movie exactly the way you wanted. Was he right about that too?
Oh, he was definitely right. That’s how it works in Hollywood. When you’re this hot discovery, people treat you one way, but once they’ve got you, it’s pretty much all over. Look at Sling Blade. John Ritter was the most famous person in that movie. I wasn’t any more well-known than the kid in it. You can never make a movie like that twice. It’s like, let’s say, a man meets a girl who’s a rock star. She’s got tattoos and piercings, and the guys are falling all over themselves, and maybe a couple of women are too. She plays her guitar like Jimmy Page in concert, and you’re like, “Wow, this chick knocks me out.” You start going out with her. Then you go to a concert and see her up there in her underwear, and all the guys, and maybe some of the women, are still falling all over themselves for her. But the next day, you’re saying, “Listen, I want you to get those tattoos covered up.” Sometimes when the suits get involved, it’s like that. They love how original you are. They love that you did it your way. You’re gonna be fucking huge. But once you sign up with them, you’re gonna do it a whole different way.
How is it that you’ve spent your whole career bouncing from indie projects to blockbusters?
You know what it is? It’s that I made my way in independent film. I was a guy who could play a leading man or a character because I started out playing character parts, so the audience lets me do it. Whereas for guys who made it as matinee idols, like Tom Cruise or whoever, the audience sometimes doesn’t allow them to play an extreme character. I feel bad for them, because I’m sure they want to. I thought Tom was great in Rain Man with Dustin Hoffman.
These days, if you do an independent film, it gets a little distributor, they give you no money to make it and they want seven movie stars in it. So you end up casting people who aren’t really right for the parts, and the whole point of independent film is that it feels real. If you’ve got seven top movie stars in a $3 million movie about a guy who lives in a closet or something, all of a sudden you’re taking out a movie. When independent film went that way, it kind of was lost. Now it’s premium cable, which is a great format for independent film because you can make an eight- or 10-hour movie. That’s what Fargo is.
Are you happy with the career you’ve had?
I didn’t think I’d ever be in a movie, let alone be part of some of the most fantastic movies of the past few decades. It’s a miracle to me. Monster’s Ball, The Alamo, Friday Night Lights, all those movies. There are also things I wish I had gotten to do. I was set to star in Robert Altman’s last movie before he died. That’s a regret. I would love to make a movie with Martin Scorsese. I’ve always wanted to work with Woody Allen, Jack Nicholson, Gene Hackman. I want to play a college professor in a movie. I always have. I always wanted to do a World War II movie. I’ve played a soldier, but I can be a general now. I can play Eisenhower or somebody. Oh, and this might surprise people, but I’d love to do a movie with Brad Pitt.
That would certainly be interesting to watch.
Yeah, I think we’d be great together. We’d play a good couple of Southern guys. We grew up not far from each other, me in Arkansas, him in Missouri. We come from the same thing. Brad does a very good Southern character. There was a little movie this year called Hell or High Water, about two brothers who are bank robbers in Texas. They have to get money to save their family’s farm. Now, the guys who starred in it were around 35, which is natural. But Brad and I could do our own version of a Southern heist thriller.
You’ve been touring again with your band, the Boxmasters. Do you ever want to be a full-time rock star?
Not really. I love balancing music with acting. We make good records. Nobody will ever give us a chance probably, but we do. I have two concept records that one of my bandmates and I wrote that are as good as any concept record I’ve ever heard. But (a), where are you going to sell a concept record? And (b), who cares about us? The music business is not a place where you make a living anymore, unless you’re one of the top pop or hip-hop or Nashville country stars. We’ve had some good reviews and great tours, but I hope it doesn’t end there. I’d say that if we don’t have an album that’s recognized on a high level at some point, I’ll be disappointed.
That’s right. You never stop sculpting your life. You never stop thinking about things you can do to stretch yourself here and there. It’s not always neat and clean as you go along. There are a bunch of things I might like to try over again, and some people over the years who maybe I’ve wronged. I hope I can get around to apologizing for those things. But I’ll tell you something: Right now, things are pretty good. I’m happy with my family, happy with my work. I’m still passionate about everything. I just don’t care about the party anymore. By “the party” I mean it in every sense of the word, not just partying. I don’t need to be part of the machine. I’ve got my life, and my life is enough for me. As long as I get to keep doing things that feel good and making things people enjoy, that’s all I care about.