Interview with Billy Bob Thornton “Fargo” TV series
FX’s new drama, Fargo, is created by Noah Hawley, inspired by the film written and directed by the Coen Brothers (also Executive Producers on the show). I sat in on a group interview with co-star Billy Bob Thornton, who plays the mysterious, charismatic and vicious drifter, Lorne Malvo, on the show. I did not get a chance to ask him a direct question, so here is the full transcript with questions from a group of reporters from various outlets.
Reporter Was there anything that you added to your character, “Lorne Malvo,” that wasn’t already scripted?
Billy Bob A weird haircut, which was actually a mistake. I got a bad haircut and we had planned on dyeing my hair and a dark beard and all that kind of thing, but I didn’t plan on having bangs. But then, instead of fixing it, it wouldn’t do, right, so I didn’t fix it because I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought, hang on a second here, this is like 1967 L.A. rock. I could be the bass player of the Buffalo Springfield. This is good. Or, Ken Burns, the dark side of Ken Burns. And bangs are normally associated with innocence and I thought that juxtaposition was pretty great, so that was added.
Bill I saw somewhere you described the character here of “Lorne Malvo” as conscienceless and I’d be curious how you go about finding that within yourself to play this conscienceless character?
Billy Bob Well, you know, usually when you’re playing a character you think a lot about their back story and that kind of thing and in this instance I didn’t want to do that because I doubt “Malvo” thinks much about his past anyway, so even the character, the guy himself, probably wouldn’t think much about it.
And, like I said before, it was so well written that I didn’t have to really do much in order to portray the character. I think what really attracted me to it was not as much that he didn’t have a conscience as he has this bizarre sense of humor where he likes to mess with people, where most criminals if they go in to rob, say, a clothing store or something they go get the money and they get out of there.
But “Malvo” would look at their sweater and say, why are you wearing that sweater? I mean, you work in a clothing store. Look at all those nice sweaters over there. You look like a bag person. And so, it’s just a very odd thing.
It’s sort of in keeping with the tone of the Coen Brothers to have a character like that. But Noah managed to walk a tightrope with this thing and he does a great job. I mean, he captured the tone of the Coen Brothers and kept the spirit of their movie, and yet made it its own animal, which is a pretty tough job.
And I just thought it was so clearly drawn and I just had to kind of be there. I looked at “Malvo” as a guy who is a member of the animal kingdom, you know. We don’t get mad at polar bears, they’re all white and fluffy and they do Coke commercials with them at Christmastime and stuff like that, and yet they’re one of the meanest, most ruthless predators on earth.
And so, “Malvo” probably doesn’t think of himself that way. He just thinks of the moment and how do I get the job done?
Bill In person, you look like you could be a long distance runner, like a track and field athlete and yet I see you on screen and sometimes I get the impression that you could beat up the world if you wanted to. How exactly do you convey menace, both physical and I guess emotional menace?
Billy Bob Well, that’s a good question, Bill. It is a tough one. When you weigh 135 pounds and you’re telling people who are six-four, 250 to get out of your way, how do you do that? Well, a lot of that is exactly what you said, which is in the eyes. If someone is talking to you and tells you that you ought to do something and you can tell they mean it, those are the scary people.
I worked in a prison years and years ago on a movie and I was told by these guys, there were all these guys with the Aryan Brotherhood and some of them had tattoos and they’re big, muscled guys and everything and this one guy told me, he said, “Do you see that little skinny guy over there in the corner, the one that’s not talking, just kind of sits by himself? That’s the big guy right there.” He said, “That’s the guy you don’t want to mess with.”
And I talked to the guy ultimately and I could tell that he meant what he said. So, those are the people you want to watch out for. And it’s like maybe I can break this guy in half, but he would hunt me down, he would crawl until his fingers were bloody on the asphalt to get me. So, those are the ones.
And I look at Malvo as a type of sort of snake charmer, you know. Once he looks at you you’re under some sort of spell.
Kristi One of the things that is so fascinating about Fargo is that you make the character of “Malvo” both sort of really scary and weirdly likeable. And it seems like you really enjoy playing that character and I was just wondering if that balance of humor and menace was hard to bring off?
Billy Bob Well, actually, that’s kind of been my wheelhouse is either sort of intense characters, but who have a certain sympathetic streak and also a sense of humor. And I’ll have 10-year-olds come up to me and say, “Oh, Bad Santa, I just love you.” It’s like, what?! So, yeah, I don’t know what it is, but maybe it’s that “Malvo” senses weakness in people or stupidity or whatever.
He’s got this sort of animal instinct and he just smells people out and I think a lot of times, especially these days and times when the world is going kind of crazy, I think we’re all frustrated and want to just shake people a little bit. And so maybe through “Malvo” you get a chance to slap somebody around a little bit, I don’t know. Maybe that’s it.
But one way or the other, yeah, it is a fine balance. You’ve got to be menacing, but I look at “Malvo’s” sense of humor as his only recreation. I mean, it’s like for “Malvo” to mess with people the way he does, which he doesn’t have to, he could just leave or just use them for whatever he’s using them for, but he still has to mess with them some. And I think for him, that’s his recreation. It’s his only social contact and so, screwing with people for “Malvo” is kind of like jet skiing for most people.
Kristi Okay. And I know you’ve talked about this before, but I just kind of wanted to talk to you again about kind of what opportunities working in television in a series like this presents at this moment in time? You’ve talked a bit about how the independent film world, as it was some years ago, isn’t quite as fertile a place to work and that a lot of that has moved to television now. I just was wondering again how a series like this kind of fits into that reality.
Billy Bob Well, the fact of the matter is we have to face this, that Baby Boomers, in particular, really have to look to television now, not only the performers and the writers and everything, but the audience. People over 40-something, they grew up in the heyday of the great movies of the 50s, 60s and 70s and we had a little drought in the 80s here.
And then the early 90s through like the late 90s was a real great time and we thought it was a Renaissance. And what we didn’t realize was that it was going to be so short. We thought it would last a couple of decades. When I was coming up, television was a bad word. And now, it has a cache and actors are clamoring to go on television because it’s a place that we can do the things we were doing in movies.
There’s a spot that television is filling that the movie business is not, which is the medium budget studio movies, the $25 million, $30 million adult dramas or adult comedies and the higher budget independent films, the $10 million, $12 million independent films. And you can still make a great independent film, but you’re not guaranteed anybody will ever see it because nobody takes that much interest in putting it out, you know putting money into distributing it.
So, they want to put 10 movie stars in a $3 million movie so they can cover their asses on the foreign sales and all that kind of stuff and there’s more freedom in television because in an independent film even or a studio film, you can do a movie about heroin smugglers, but you can’t smoke. Wait a minute, you can sell heroin, but you can’t smoke? I don’t understand that.
But they’re going for a certain demographic or whatever it is and trying to sell it everywhere. And on TV you have even more creative freedom now. And I think part of that is censorship has loosened up over the years and now you have sex and violence and language and stuff on TV. So, all those things that made us not want to do television when I was coming up in the 80s are gone.
And so there’s no reason not to and I have to face it, that’s my audience now and all the guys my age, the ones, all of us that came up together, a lot of us even born the same year, Costner and Bill Paxton and Dennis Quaid and Kevin Bacon; our audience watches television and I think The Sopranos I guess kicked it off.
That’s when we all started thinking, hey, wait a minute. This is the place to be and shows like The Wire and things like that. And you can do terrific work in television now and have a lot of freedom and there are independent films that pop through every now and then and there are some good studio movies that come through every now and then. But it’s the exception rather than the rule now.
Rick I’m wondering, we’re starting to see these more contained single season limited run TV series like True Detective. What is the feeling about that format to you as an actor? It almost seems like it’s sort of a, I know Noah Hawley described the show as like a 10-hour movie in a way.
Billy Bob Well, that’s true and that’s what it felt like making it. It felt like doing a 10-hour independent film. That’s very appealing. I’ve been accused many times as a writer/director of my pace is too leisurely and it’s too long and stuff like that.
Well, here’s a chance to do that kind of thing and you’ve got 10 hours to do it in. Actually, it feels great and there’s great appeal in that for actors, writers and maybe not so much directors because the directing world in television is more, those guys just come in and do a couple of episodes and they’re gone.
But for the creator or writer it’s a really great thing to be able to develop characters and develop stories. We would all like to make at least a three-hour movie, but here you get a chance to do a 10-hour. But also, this doesn’t mean that I’m giving up doing movies. So, I can do this, do 10 episodes and it’s over and then still do two movies that year.
So, it’s very appealing in that sense and I’m sure that came into play with McConaughey and Woody when they did True Detective. It’s a way to do both. If you came up as a film actor you don’t have to give it up. You can do great work in television and then on the occasion that you get a movie that you really love you can still do it.
I had no desire to get involved in a TV series that was going to last six or seven years. I’m not saying I wouldn’t, but that wasn’t really what I was looking for. When I was offered this, it seemed perfect to me. So, there’s a great appeal in it and I think you’ll see more and more of it.
I’m even thinking that way now. It’s like some of these movies that I can’t get made, like if I walked in a studio and pitched this movie that I want to do, they laugh you out of the room. It’s like, are you kidding me? You can’t sell bubble gum and toys with that.
And I’m thinking, well, you know what, maybe there’s a way to do this movie as a three-hour, or not three-hour, but a three part thing like, for instance, Costner did with the Hatfields & McCoys.
Stuart Were you wary at all of tackling something, before you read Noah’s scripts, that was so iconic, the idea of taking this movie and doing something new with it?
Billy Bob If Fargo had come out in 1986 and then this came up in 1996 I would have been more worried. I’m not as worried now because of the way it works with the social network and there are a lot of blogs and this and that. You can’t win, anyway.
So, because of that you just have to stop worrying about anything. It’s like if I were to say something outrageous today, then tomorrow it’s going to be everywhere and your career is in jeopardy and you owe the public an apology and all this kind of thing.
And then if I make the apology, everybody gets online and they start saying, “Oh, he only apologized for his career.” But if you don’t apologize, they say, “What an asshole, he didn’t apologize.” So, you can’t win no matter what you do.
So, these days I don’t make decisions based on what people are going to think as much as I would have, like I said, 15, 20 years ago.
Stuart Were you wary of whether it could be pulled off, though?
Billy Bob No, I had read the pilot script. I was offered it and read the pilot script immediately. It was so well written that Noah had walked this fine line of channeling the Coen Brothers, the spirit and the tone of their movie and yet making it a new animal.
So, I thought, well, you know what, this guy has done it. He really has pulled this off. So, I didn’t worry simply because I had read the pilot and it was so good. And I didn’t feel like it was a rip-off, you know.
Preston Do your ideas as a writer and director ever intrude on projects where you’re working strictly as an actor?
Billy Bob Not so much. When I go there as an actor I like to just go in and do my job. Every now and then, you kind of, maybe if you’re working with a director and this has only happened to me a couple of times ever, you go in there and you’ve got a director and maybe it doesn’t quite get to the plan.
You might end up kind of thinking, you know, hey, are you sure you want to do that? Are you sure you want to put the camera there. You find yourself every now and then kind of thinking it. But I try not to say anything. You just try to do the best you can.
And one of the best ways to do that is when they tell you to do something that you know is wrong, you just nod your head and say okay, and then go do what you want to do anyway. That’s about the only way around it really.
Ruta Your character says to “Lester” [Martin Freeman],“Your problem is you spend your life thinking there are rules and there aren’t.” What do you think that “Malvo’s” problem is?
Billy Bob His problem? What I think his problem is is very different than what he thinks his problem is. I don’t think he has a problem. Do you know what I mean? He’s an animal. In other words, he exists in the animal kingdom more than anything else. He goes by an animalistic instinct and so people like that don’t ever consider themselves having a problem and they also think they’re invincible.
“Malvo” thinks in the moment. He has a plan and he knows where he has to go. It’s like an alligator. An alligator has to eat one day and so if somebody jumps in the swamp to take a swim he will eat them. So, there’s no two ways about that.
And that’s really who “Malvo” is. And so I don’t need to know necessarily. And in terms of knowing the episodes ahead of time we have the opportunity to ask Noah; in other words, he would tell us as much as we wanted to know. And I didn’t want to know about the first four episodes or so.
And after that I had some questions. I did want to know because once we got deeper into the plot, I did need to know where he was headed at a couple of directions, just in order to know how to play a couple of scenes.
Greg Off the top you mentioned Noah’s name a couple of times and the quality of the scripts. So, can you talk a little bit about those scripts and how you just showed up to say the lines? Because it’s pretty specialized dialogue that everybody says. Not everybody says “foot in a toaster oven” when referring to a weird thing they’ve seen.
Billy Bob Right, exactly. That’s something that he has in common with the Coen Brothers, actually. Their scripts are very tightly written and if you don’t say those words the way they’re written, it doesn’t come across as well. I’ve been largely an improvisational kind of actor most of my career, except for when I’ve worked with the Coen Brothers.
And now that I’m working with Noah, I rarely change anything with Noah because it’s a very specific point of view and type of language and maybe sometimes something might sound a little formal even, even that Malvo says, maybe it’s not something that would just naturally come out of my mouth.
But once you plug into that, then it becomes natural to you and I respect him as a writer so much that I defer to him and I think I would say the same thing about the rest of the cast. I mean, there’s very little discussion on the set about changing things. We don’t come over to him and say, hey, instead of this, I think I’ll say this. We don’t have a lot of that around that set.
And the same experience, like I said, with the Coen Brothers. You just do it because there was a reason he wrote it that way and it becomes clear to you when you see it and when you perform it.
Greg Did you ever ask Noah Hawley about “Malvo’s” back story and why he ended up the way that he did?
Billy Bob You know, I purposely didn’t because I think “Malvo” himself wouldn’t ever think about his past or his back story. When you think the way he does, he thinks in the moment and whatever the job that’s at hand. And it wasn’t important.
And besides, if I did, let’s say we came up with a back story for him, that coldness and that sort of ruthless thing that he has, if I’ve learned that, well, the reason “Malvo” is like that is because he was abused and had a horrible childhood, all this kind of thing, I might bring more sentimentality to the character.
And it might mess it up. There are a lot of people who already are saying that they kind of root for “Malvo” in a way, but I’m certainly not trying to do that. But I do think “Malvo” is a good person to vicariously get kind of a thrill out of maybe. And sometimes we don’t want the bad guy to get caught because otherwise the story is over.
You kind of want to at least see it through to the end. And so, really, yeah, back story didn’t come into it. It normally does as an actor. I mean, if I were playing “Lester’s” brother in this or something I would have to do some homework and Martin [Freeman] and I would have to work on or at least test out the chemistry with each other and that kind of thing.
But with “Malvo,” he’s from out of town. He’s a drifter. Nobody knows him, knows what he’s about. And I think it was important for me to not dig into it too much. I think it would have affected the performance in a negative way.
Charles Could you talk about the contrast between “Lester Nygaard,” who is a man who can’t control his own destiny, and “Lorne Malvo,” who is almost perfectly in control of his own destiny, or at least he feels like he is a little bit and playing that in a role?
Billy Bob Well, “Malvo” smells weakness in people, he smells nervousness, weakness, fear, anything like that and has an abundance of confidence in himself. I don’t think he ever considers losing, whereas “Lester” is just a nervous ball of mess. And I do like when you see two characters at the opposite end of the spectrum together. They end up being kind of strange bedfellows and it was a really interesting dynamic.
We didn’t really have to work on it. It just naturally happened. And Martin himself seems to be a very confident person, so I think he probably maybe had to downgrade his confidence a little bit. And me, by nature, I’m a very nervous, worrisome person, so I had to drop that a little. So, I think both of us had to definitely shed some of our real life stuff in order to play the characters.
Ernie Can you talk about being able to get comfortable with a character and the length at which you can work at creating your version of “Malvo”?
Billy Bob Well, yeah, it is a real blessing that you have 10 hours to develop a character and I think that’s one of the appeals to doing these, especially the ones we’re doing, the 10-hour things or the eight-hour things that McConaughey and Woody did.
Coming from the film business you still want to feel like you’re making a movie and yet TV is such a great place to be right now. So, I think it was a real blessing to me to be able to have that time and to watch this story unfold at its own pace and everything.
In terms of working on the character, I mean Noah had drawn it so clearly. I think with all the characters that we really did just show up and do his bidding, which was a very clear vision. It’s funny, I guess the one thing that I had to get used to is having, for each two episodes there’s a different director and each one has a different energy.
They were all terrific, but they have different energies. So getting used to different directors was the most difficult part, just in terms of the way they deal with actors and everything. But I never went on, I never said, yeah, I’m good let’s move on to the next shot until I looked over at Noah and got a wink from him because this is his vision.
I really put myself in his hands. I think we all did.
Brent Looking toward the future would you be more interested in acting in another project like this or do you have your eyes on maybe writing and directing something that you can play out over the course of several episodes?
Billy Bob Probably, immediately more as an actor. But down the road I definitely have my eye on at least writing something. Probably not as a director so much because directors who are directing a series they have different ones come in all the time. So, you’re kind of coming onto a moving train and I’ve tended to generate my own things as a writer and director most of the time.
And if I could create an original thing like, say, Kevin did with the Hatfields &McCoys or something, something that I came up with that was more movie length, like say a three part thing or if they start doing more two-hour movies for TV, I think that would be more where I would go as a writer or, especially a director.
I think my nervousness or if I was hesitant at all about it it would just be simply because there’s some great TV creator/writers out there and I’d probably feel very intimidated, hoping that I was able to come up with something innovative or at least interesting to people because I’m influenced by Southern novelists mainly and kind of make books on film, which I think is probably obsolete in the movie business these days. They’re not ones that the distributors are clamoring for.
But I think if I could come up with something that might be entertaining; I’ve also thought about different movies of mine that I can’t get made because the movie business is not interested in certain types of movies for adults and for us Baby Boomers, so maybe since the Baby Boomers are watching TV, maybe some of those movies I can’t get made in the film business as a writer and director, maybe I could find some way to parley that into television.
Amy At one point in the show you have to take on a Minnesota accent and pass yourself off as a local minister, while embracing this ‘Minnesota niceness.’ I’m wondering, did you do any research on people from the region or have you had any experience with a Minnesota voice to draw from?
Billy Bob Oh yeah, I shot half of A Simple Plan up in Delano and also, I’ve got some friends in L.A. who are from there. I’m around actors, you know, Sean William Scott is from up there and Kelly Lynch is an old friend of mine and Kelly Lynch used to do impressions for family and for her neighbors and stuff for me all the time.
And I always found it very funny. It’s odd because that part of the country, Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas, up in there, and Montana, to the rest of the country they’re almost like foreigners. It’s the only place that exists like that in the country. I think that’s why we’re so interested in those people in movies.
The Coen Brothers have really opened up a vein there. It’s kind of alien to some of us and it’s just a really interesting culture because you guys can talk about something that’s really heavy and yet sound like you’re talking about going to the grocery store. It’s just astounding. It’s a great kind of character to explore.
And we shot in Calgary and sometimes the Canadian accent in that area is very similar to it in some ways and so we were around all those people from Calgary who had a version of that already. So, we’re surrounded by it and it’s a very interesting accent.
You know, Martin and all the people in the show who had to be from there I thought did an excellent job at it. And, you know, mine, I wasn’t supposed to be able to do it perfectly because I was just coming up with it off the cuff, in the moment, to get out of something. But it was fun to do it.
I was kind of jealous of everybody else getting to work on that, so it was nice to be able to, just for a minute at least, just to do it there. It was a lot of fun.
Jami Having worked with the Coen Brothers before in a film, they have such unique comedic sensibilities, did you feel that that sort of gave you an advantage coming into this universe and working on this series regarding the tone and helping to shape your performance?
Billy Bob Oh, yes, there’s no question about it. Having known the Coen Brothers for so long and having worked with them, I mean I can plug into that pretty easily because I just love their stuff and love their vibe and so I think having worked with them and having known them definitely helped me.
I didn’t need a lot of explanation about what we were up to there. It was pretty clear and then you just go try to pull it off, you know. But the set was very similar in some ways, other than the rush and the different directors; I mean, with the Coen Brothers, obviously you’re dealing with just the two of them, but it was very, very helpful having worked with them.
David Were you able to talk with the Coen Brothers about this character and about how it fits into the tone of their vision?
Billy Bob Well, I didn’t talk to them beforehand because I had already been told and had learned that they had given it their blessing and that they had read the pilot and had some input on it, so that was enough for me. Since we’ve started, I’ve talked to Ethan a couple of times.
And Ethan, when asked about the pilot he said, “Yeah, it’s good.” And for Ethan saying yeah, it’s good is like him saying, “This is fucking amazing.” They don’t exactly; they’re not real forthcoming with their emotions sometimes, so to get an “it’s good” from Ethan is…four-star review, so I was pretty happy with that.
But in reading the script, if someone had told me they wrote it I would have believed it, so that was plenty for me. But then I have talked to Ethan since.
Jeri How much fun was it to play this character?
Billy Bob Well, it was a lot of fun. Any time you get a chance to play some extreme character in any direction, it’s always a great blessing. So, yeah, I was honored they asked me and honored to be a part of it. It’s a very, very different kind of character, probably the only one I ever played who has no conscience whatsoever. So, that’s kind of an odd character to play.
After you’ve done 60-something of these movies you’re always looking for something different and this was right up my alley.
Kristyn I’m curious, with all of the roles that you’ve taken on over the years is there anything that you find that you’re still surprised to learn about yourself?
Billy Bob Oh, gosh, when you get my age there’s not much you’re surprised about.
But a lot of times as an actor you’re trying to think constantly and in this case I was trying not to, so that was a little bit the opposite and so I guess I learned that I could do that. I also learned that when you get in your 50s, that 42 below zero feels much worse than when you’re in your 30s.
Suzanne The show reminds me a little bit of Twin Peaks.
Billy Bob You know, that’s funny that you said that. You’re the first person that said that and when I first got on the set and I saw the lighting and I saw the way they were doing things I swear to God, that’s what I said to Noah. I said, “This reminds me of Twin Peaks.” And not so many people are saying that and that’s interesting you say that because I felt the same thing.
Suzanne Yeah, the writing is tighter and better and it’s not quite as just weird for weird’s sake. But it is very enjoyable and I can tell you’re having a good time with it.
Billy Bob Oh yeah, no doubt.
Rick I know it was a pretty rough winter up there in Calgary and pretty much everywhere, but how much does the weather in the location end up becoming almost like another character in the series?
Billy Bob Oh, it definitely does. There’s no question about it. When it’s that cold, you don’t have to do a whole lot of acting to make the audience feel it. I mean, it’s just there. And it also kind of keeps you up for it all day. If you’re on a soundstage that’s kind of warm and you get a little lethargic, that can affect you. You didn’t have to worry about that up there.
It was really just bone chillingly cold. And I have to say about that, I would work a couple of weeks or 10 days and then get to go home for five or six days and then come back. And, I’m going to L.A., right. And you go back down there and it’s 75 degrees or whatever and mild. And it just so happened that every time I was off Calgary got good weather and it warmed up.
It was almost like the weather was “Malvo” to me. It would just mess with me. Every time I was off they’d say, hey, guess what, it’s going to be plus six tomorrow, which for them, plus six is like Hawaii. And for some reason every time I was working it would just get miserable. So, I think the Great Spirit was messing with me a little bit on it.
Ernie Was there any one particular scene or act that you did that you got to tick off your bucket list of some naughty thing that you got to do?
Billy Bob Well, certainly not the killing parts, but just when I would mess with people about stuff. Like every now and then you go someplace, you know, to the cleaners or wherever it is and the people will be so incompetent or just don’t understand what you’re up to. It’s like, I told you, you don’t starch t-shirts. How could you have a dry cleaner or Laundromat and you don’t know that you don’t starch t-shirts?
“Malvo” does that kind of stuff. He really calls people on their B.S. And so, I have to say I did enjoy any time I got to mess with somebody.
Fargo is a 10-episode limited series that airs Wednesdays at 10 P.M. on the FX network in the U.S.
Special thanks to Mr. Thornton and the folks at FX.
Good luck and happy writing,
Related: Billy Bob Thornton in Fargo is the next Matthew McConaughey in True Detective
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