Saturday, May 12, 2007

Interview with Billy Bob Thornton

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I recently got the honor of spending some time with Billy Bob Thornton, 1:1 in a telephone interview. While we were getting heavy snow in Wichita, Billy Bob was in Boston getting ready for lunch. I was honored to do this particular interview because I have so much respect for Billy Bob Thornton. I have always appreciated him because he is known as an actor for the common man. Shunning the star status and the higher echelon of society, he has remained true to his roots which had him doing everything from working in factories, to working in restaurants as a youngster. He grew up in the hills of Arkansas and comes from a deeply devoted family. We spoke about a lot of things, from his growing up in church in Arkansas, to his tattoos. We even had a little time to talk music and wrestling. Sit back, pull up an easy chair, and enjoy the intimate interview with one of my favorites, Billy Bob Thornton.

Billy Bob Thornton (BBT): Hello Michael

Mike Furches (MF): Hey Billy Bob how are you doing?

BBT: Not too bad, yourself?

MF: Pretty Good, have you had lunch yet?

BBT: I’m about to. Here in a few minutes I’m going to have a little piece of salmon, sliced bananas with grapefruit.

MF: You’re eating light then?

BBT: Yea a little bit.

MF: Well, we’re not having a Ice Harvest in Wichita but we are having a snow blizzard.

BBT: Oh do you really.

www.thevirtualpew.comMF (with some laughter): I don’t know if you caught the little pun or not but…

BBT: You’re in Wichita? My band and I played in Wichita, I guess it’s been about 2 ½ or 3 years ago.

MF: Where did you play? Was it at the Cotillion?

BBT: Maybe that was it, it was a pretty big place. I can’t remember the name of it but it was down the road from the college.

MF: Okay, I don’t know for sure where that would be at. There are a number of places it could be. I’ve lived in Tennessee, Tulsa for a long time I loved Tulsa for the music.

BBT: Oh yea, Tulsa is great.

MF: Tulsa is a great town.

BBT: We played in Tulsa at a big out door event somewhere. But do you know where we played in Tulsa the last time we was in Tulsa was at Cain’s Ballroom.

MF: That’s a room I’ve dreamed of, well I’m a musician as well.

BBT: Okay

MF: I’ve dreamed of playing that room my whole life.

BBT: I’ll tell you it was something else. We were the last band in there before they changed it. You know they renovated it?

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MF: Yea

BBT: So we were the last ones to play in the old place.

MF: So you got to see and be a part of the history of the room?

BBT: Exactly, it was really great.

MF: It’s a pleasure to get to interview you because I am a fan. I’m not a writer per say although I do write. One of the things that’s a little bit different about what I do is that I am someone who tends to relate to regular folks.

BBT: Right.

MF: I know you have that kind of history. I’m also a musician. I used to own the old Allman Brothers touring truck and I know you are an Allman Brothers fan.

BBT: Yea.

Steve Morse with the Dixie Dregs and I did a lot of shows together and Steve used to call me Twiggs Jr.

BBT: Is that right? I’ll be darned.

MF: Twiggs managed The Allman Brothers and Dregs

BBT: Sure, I remember Twiggs when he was with them, sure.
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MF: It is an honor to get to talk to you.

BBT: Well thanks man.

MF: I’ve seen 8 out of your last 10 movies, 21 of them in total.

BBT: Wow!

MF: I have been impressed with a lot of things about the characters you have played. You play a lot of different types of characters, which of the characters have you played, that is most like the real Billy Bob Thornton?

BBT: Well the one in Astronaut Farmer is not too far off. I was raised down there with that kind of life style, family and everything was pretty close to it plus I was a dreamer growing up, I still am really.

MF: I’ve got some questions about the dreamer and stuff coming up a little later on.

BBT: Also kind of bucking the system. I’ve always kind of had a little trouble with the rules and regulations of the suits you know? (laughing)

MF: Yea!

BBT: So I related to that part of it, (Astronaut Farmer). This might sound funny, but I played a character in A Simple Plan and that was a pretty heavy movie. It involved taking some money and the moral question of what to do about something like that. I played this character who at the end of the day didn’t want to live in a world where people close to him were capable of what they did. I always related to that character quite a bit.

MF: It was a good movie and a good role. What is it about Billy Bob Thornton that causes what I call everyday, regular, ordinary, every day folk to like you? You’re probably one of the most well liked actors among the populist. Not the Hollywood Elite, not the white color types but regular folk. What is it about you that causes that type of person to be a fan of yours?

BBT: Well I guess maybe part of it is I have never really been into being a celebrity much. I will go out which is pretty rare. I stay home most of the time, especially with a 2 ½ year old daughter I stay home a whole lot. But, I guess a lot of it is I will stand and sign autographs all day long and talk with people. I’m not a whole lot different than I was when I was 18 years old. I guess maybe another part of it is as opposed to trying to become somebody else, loose my accent or try to do more maybe high brow roles that I wouldn’t be suited for as a vanity thing. I’ve tried to stick with what I know and when I make a Southern movie or play a Southern character I try to bring some kind of dignity to the character. You know how the South is portrayed?


www.mosaicwichita.comMF: Yea. If you can’t tell by my accent. (laughter from both of us)

BBT: The thing is, that most movies, up until recent years about the South were made by people who weren’t from there. So whenever a movie was made about the South it was always a racist kind of thing or a Mississippi Burning or things like that. After awhile you think these are the only kind of movies they make about this place well that must be it. I’ve tried to bring some kind of realism and dignity to that kind of thing.

MF: That is important because growing up in Arkansas you saw the racism and those types of things. To make an additional statement of what the South is like is probably important to you then?

BBT: Absolutely.

MF: Being a Southerner I can relate to that. Tell us a little about what it was like to grow up in Arkansas, the home of Bill Clinton? (laughter)

BBT: Yea, exactly. Well, I had a pretty normal childhood. I actually wouldn’t trade it. I was raised in the middle of the woods up until I was about 9 or so and then we moved into a town of about 10,000 people where I went to school. You’ve seen them, in Oklahoma, Tennessee, or anywhere, you’ve seen these towns they are anywhere from five to ten thousand people and they have a main street and all that which is part of the sadness when I go back home it’s like main street is kind of dying. Everything has moved to the outskirts of town with shopping malls and that kind of thing are kind of taking over. It was a pretty normal kind of childhood. My dad was a high school coach and school teacher so we moved around a little bit. He died, I had just graduated high school when he died.

MF: I know that you had spent a lot of time helping take care of him prior to his death.

BBT: Yea, he died at home and was there for nearly a year. He was in real bad shape so that was pretty eye opening for me and I had to grow up pretty fast. I was the oldest so I took over a lot of stuff.

MF: What were some of the pleasant memories growing up?

BBT: A lot of great memories surrounding the baseball park because I was a baseball player. I think I had my best times in the summer at the ball field. It was a typical type of, well some of it was almost like Tom Sawyer. (laughter)

MF: And you are a Cardinals fan?

BBT: Oh big time. (laughter continues)

MF: So I won’t talk about the Braves or the Cubs. (laughter gets louder from the both of us.)

BBT: (still laughing) It’s okay this year because we won the Series this year.

MF: I know it.

BBT: I could listen to about anything. You know I’ve been doing interviews with people in Boston. We were just talking about their team this Spring and how much money they paid for J.D. Drew. (laughter) I was like, well I don’t know I think he’ll hit about 270 and hit about 21 home runs and be hurt about half of the year myself. You know they pay a lot of money for ball players now.

MF: Yea, they pay a lot, a lot more than acting.

BBT: (Both laughing) Yea they do.

MF: Despite what some people may think. A question kind of out of the norm, you may have never been asked this. I am a sports fan as well. I know that you have two cousins that were professional wrestlers, the Funk boys.

BBT: That’s what I’ve heard.

MF: Do you know anything about that?

BBT: It’s just what I have heard, I really don’t know about that. I mean, maybe so. That’s pretty funny. Somebody said that to me, well I’ve only started hearing this recently.

MF: It’s on your web site.

BBT: Really?

MF: Yea

BBT: Well, see I don’t know.

MF: You may have to talk to your webmaster.

BBT: Yea I guess so. I could also talk to the wrestlers and see what branch of the family they’re from.

(Note on this point after going over my notes I discovered it was not in fact on Billy Bob’s web site, it was instead on Wikipedia. A mistake on my part, not the web master.

MF: I know that Arkansas was not a big wrestling state.

BBT: No

MF: I don’t know if you have followed amateur wrestling or not. I know you’ve done the basketball routine and other sports related films. That seems like a sports media that’s not been touched. With the Billy Bob attitude that we’ve seen in films on occasion, it seems like you would make a great wrestling coach because they are a breed apart from others.

BBT: Oh Yea, they sure are, as a matter of fact the guy that trains me was a wrestler at Southern Illinois University. You know, people don’t understand how skilled those guys are. It’s a real tough sport.

MF: A couple of quotes here actually out of respect to both actors. These are actors that said some things about you. I’m going to tell you what they said, you tell me if you know who it was that said it and something about your relationship with that person. The first quote; "If David Lynch and Horton Foote had a baby, Billy Bob would be the son." Do you know who said that?

BBT: (some silence) Let me think, maybe Robert Duvall?

MF: No, that was a close one, it was John Ritter.
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BBT: Oh John Ritter, I’ll be darned. That sounds like something John would say. That’s great.

MF: I know you were good friends with John.

BBT: Yea.

MF: He was in three or four of your movies.

BBT: Yea.

MF: Just your thoughts about John Ritter?

BBT: John was one of the greatest guys I ever knew. He was one of those people that you couldn’t find a bad word to say about the guy. He was just an amazing guy and also way more talented than people gave him credit for. Sometimes you get pigeonholed he was on Three’s Company for so many years and people thought he was just kind of a goofy comedy actor who tripped over the couch and stuff. That’s why I really wanted to show him off in Sling Blade. I knew what he could do; he was a really terrific actor.

MF: Here is another quote from another actor I really appreciate. He reminds me of a family member. This actor said; “That Billy Bob Thornton is the hillbilly Orson Welles.”

BBT: (laughter) Now that was Robert Duvall. I know that was Duvall.

MF: You are right on. What’re your thoughts of Duvall? He has been in your movies and you have been in his movies.

BBT: That’s right. Duvall has been my mentor. He is the guy that kind of brought me up. I respect him more than any other actor in the business. I think he is the greatest actor around. Maybe the last living, one of the old guard, that’s that kind of quality. He’s the best one of them.

MF: Tell me about the role you played in the movie The Apostle. There’s a powerful salvation scene where you are out in front of the tractor.

www.mosaicwichita.comBBT: That was improvised. After we did Sling Blade he told me he was making his own movie and I read the script and I knew what he would do with that because he is such a powerful actor. I knew that he had that story in his head and he had he had to get it out. There was some dialog written in the script for that and also for the scene beforehand where I come into the church. So we pretty much stuck to what was in the script in the church scene. In the bulldozer scene there wasn’t a lot of dialog to it and he said, ‘Well, how do we get from this point to you being saved right here in front of everybody in that length of time?’ I said, ‘Do you mind if we just say whatever we feel?’ He said, ‘No that would be great.’ I said, ‘Because I’m thinking that this guy is coming to knock the church down but I think a lot of it is because he feels like such an outsider. He actually comes there, wanting to make things explode in order to be saved. I think that’s why he’s coming there but he just doesn’t know how to say it. The only way he knows how to communicate is with violence or whatever’

MF: Yea

BBT: Through that he’s kind of wanting to, that’s really what’s in his mind. So he is not the kind of guy who’s able to communicate very well so that’s why when I’m on my knees there he takes a Bible and everything and is whispering to me I say, ‘I’m embarrassed.’ I whispered that to him, ‘I’m embarrassed.’ Then those ladies that were there, they were a real church congregation.

MF: Huh!

BBT: He just told them to do whatever they felt. It was chilling I’ve got to say. It was almost like you were doing the real thing.

MF: The primary site I write for and will post this on is Hollywood Jesus. It is a movie review site but we address spiritual issues in movies but it is not what I would call blatantly Christian or anything like that. In fact one of the things that might surprise you is if I ever had the chance sit down with you on vocals, me playing bass guitar and Mickey Jones on drums in a bar playing some music while having a beer or two that would be fine with me.

BBT: (both laughing) I hear you.

www.mosaicwichita.comMF: I’ve known Mickey over the years and I know that he has worked with you as well.

BBT: Mickey is great

MF: One of the things I’ve noticed though is that you have a number of tattoos.

BBT: (both laughing) Yea!

MF: I have one myself, I was even a pastor at a church that once hosted a tattoo convention. That tells you something right there. You have a number of religious tattoos with religious overtones. You have a Celtic cross and a few other things. What are your thoughts on religion? You obviously think something about it because of the imagery put on your body.

BBT: Yea, when I was raised, I was raised in the Methodist church. That was my upbringing. You did it because your parents took you to church. When you get to be a teenager or an adult you actually start to think about it. One of the things I tried to do over the years was to be more open to different kinds of religions, but to maintain the fact that at the face of all of them, most religions kind of have the same ideas originally which is kind of the Golden Rule. My religion was always more of a personal thing than it was an organized thing in some ways. As I was raised in the Methodist Church I always tried to study up on a few other things. I kind of resolved the fact that it is more of a spiritual thing than it is a particular group. As a matter of fact, I have one tattoo that really doesn’t have anything to do with religion although it looks like it does. I have an Ohm symbol tattoo.

MF: Yea, some say it is a symbol for God or something like that.

BBT: Yea it is supposed to represent God. The reason I got the tattoo is because I just saw it in a book and liked the way it looked and got it. (laughter) But it really doesn’t have to do with anything else.

MF: Yea, my son has one kind of like that. It is the Gallic symbol for strength, but he liked the way it looked. He’s a wrestler so after he got it he realized how much more he liked it.

I’m changing directions a little bit again because I want to get to the movie that is coming out. But I know you are a musician. What is your favorite band and some of your favorite styles of music.

BBT: Well I’m still a huge fan of all of the Southern Rock bands. I’m a big Allman Brothers fan. I’d have to say my favorite record of all time is The Allman Brothers Live at the Fillmore East.

MF: Yea, a great album. Let’s get to the movie here real quick because I want to get some comment on that. What can you tell us about Astronaut Farmer that’s coming out?

BBT: Well I play this guy Charles Farmer who is in the NASA program to be an astronaut. His father died and he had to come home and take care of the ranch and family and everything. He had to drop out of it, but his dream was to someday go up in space. So, since he knows how to do it, he builds his own rocket with the idea of launching himself into space. Everything is okay until he orders ten thousand pounds of rocket fuel. Then the FBI pays him a visit.

MF: We could talk about some government oppression and things at that point.

BBT: Yea

MF: I have heard you like to talk politics.

www.mosaicwichita.comBBT: (with some hesitancy) Well, to a degree. Yea, but the movie is really the story of a guy who has a dream and has a lot of questions to wrestle with, weather he ought to fulfill that dream or not. At the end of the day, if he doesn’t follow his dream he’s not going to be a happy person. He’ll be living with regrets. So his family is really supportive in it. It’s less a movie about an astronaut it’s more a movie about family and how you try to maintain that and still live your dreams.

MF: I know that time is running short, on the concept of dreams, and people being able to obtain their dreams; do you think that movies can have an influence as far as influencing the people who are in the seats to go after their own dreams? What are your thoughts about that?

BBT: I absolutely think they do influence people in that way. I know that as a kid I saw plenty of movies that made me hope and dream for things. I think movies can have a positive influence on people and they can also have a negative influence on people, but at the end of the day you’re still responsible for yourself so you shouldn’t let seeing a movie influence you in a negative way.

MF: Last question Billy Bob; What dreams, what aspirations are there that Billy Bob Thornton has not yet accomplished?

BBT: You know I’ve been kind of living my dreams out. I want to continue with the same ones really, just keep creating because I believe if you have any kind of talent you ought to use it. I just want to keep doing that. Most of my dreams for the future now have to do with my kids. I just want to see them grow up and be successful and happy. I’m kind of living dreams through them now.

MF: The last thing I will say and we can go from there. I really mean it when I tell you that I think that you have used the gifts that God has given you to the full measure. You are extremely talented. To me, one of the things I really appreciate is that the regular person, the guy that is working for the $9, $10, $11 an hour job, doing that working down at the factory, you’re an actor that they can relate to and appreciate. I’m just telling you as someone who comes from that kind of dirt, you’re doing a good job. I thank you for that. I just wanted you to know that. I have a ton of other questions but I want to respect your time and I thank you for yours.

BBT: I thank you for saying that, it really means a lot.

MF: You have a great day.

BBT: You to Mike.

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