Billy Bob Thornton shares the story of his rise from abused child to Oscar-winning writer and movie star with students at LMU’s School of Film and Television
By Michael Aushenker
If Billy Bob Thornton were an animal, he’d surely be a cat because he’s lived nine lives.
As a writer, he co-wrote “One False Move” and scripted his breakthrough film, 1996’s Oscar-winning “Sling Blade,” which he also starred in and directed.
As an actor, he’s deftly played roles in everything from dark dramas and indie films (Sam Raimi’s “A Simple Plan,” “Monster’s Ball”), cult-favorite comedies (“Bad Santa,” “School for Scoundrels”), and big-budget effects spectacles (“Armageddon”).
He also plays music and has cut albums.
In a conversation last week before an audience of 50 film and television students as part of Loyola Marymount University’s ongoing “Hollywood Masters” series, Thornton underscored why he is an unlikely Hollywood multi-hyphenate.
He grew up with severe dyslexia and OCD in extreme poverty in Arkansas. At 18, he cared for his abusive, alcoholic father: a high school basketball coach and Korean War veteran who died of mesothelioma by 46. His mother, the arts-minded parent, was a psychic on whom Thornton loosely modeled the character in his screenplay for “The Gift,” Raimi’s 2000 film starring Cate Blanchett.
These hard times paid off later creatively. Karl Childers, the lead character he created in “Swing Blade,” was a composite of three people he met along the way on countless dead-end jobs, including a mentally challenged man he met working construction and a patient he nursed.
His first L.A.-area apartment was on Motor Avenue in Culver City, where in 1981 he paid $90 a week rent to sleep on the floor while earning $96 a week as an assistant manager at a Shakey’s Pizza.
“With the extra $6 left over, I’d buy Entenmann’s powdered donuts and rum. A diabetic’s nightmare,” he said.
While working as a food server during a mid-1980s Christmas Eve party at director Stanley Donen’s Bel Air home, Thornton also chanced upon a life- and career-altering encounter with legendary Hollywood director Billy Wilder.
“Debbie Reynolds was there, Sammy Kahn, Dan Aykroyd — Dudley Moore played the piano. I was passing out hors d’oeuvres. This little German cat said, ‘So, you want to be an actor, huh?’ I was wondering how he knew. Of course, all waiters in Hollywood were aspiring actors. He said, ‘Forget about it. You’re not handsome enough to be a leading man and not ugly enough to be a character actor.’ Then he asked, ‘Do you write?’ I said ‘yes.’ He said, ‘Create your own characters. Be an original.’”
But even after making it in Hollywood, Thornton was vilified by the media during his 2000 to 2003 marriage to Angelina Jolie, only to since quietly triumph as one of Hollywood’s most diverse actors, recently lauded for his turn on the FX series “Fargo.”
Perhaps all this is why Thornton lingered for a generously long time following his Oct. 15 LMU appearance to chat one-on-one with students.
Thornton on the death of his father: “I didn’t cry when my dad died. I did years later when I forgave him.”
On being a writer with a learning disability: “You can write when you have dyslexia, you just can’t read it!”
On “Sling Blade”: “At the end of the day, the movie is about would you rather have a father — John Ritter — who is gay who loves the kid, or would you rather have a monster who goes by the rules of society?”
On studying under Stella Adler: “I never met Stella Adler. But if you put that on your resume, you got through the door.”
On being labeled a blood-thirsty dungeon dweller: “Angie came home one day with a [locket] kit she had bought. She bought two of these. We were apart a lot [making movies]. She thought it would be interesting and romantic to take a razor and cut our fingers and smear some blood on it and we’d each wear one. From that, it became a quart of blood and we became vampires who lived in a dungeon.”
On starring in “Bad Santa”: “I prepared for this one by drinking at seven in the morning. When they say comedy is harder than drama, in some ways it is. With comedy, people are expecting a result. In some ways, in drama, you can be in the moment and be what you have to be.”
On feeling less adjusted today: “I’m as highly insecure a person as a human can be. I’m full of life and confident and at the same time terrified. I think anyone who is an artist feels that.”
On today’s lack of icons: “We wanted to be the Beatles or Elvis Presley. That ain’t gonna happen, and we were never gonna be that good. Now who are we going to want to be? Maroon 5?”
On young people: “There’ve been more people over 40 who have pissed me off than under 40.”
On his upcoming indie film “London Fields”: “Twelve people are going to see it, six people will understand it. The bloggers will destroy it. A few critics in the papers will love it. It’s a masterpiece.”