Interview: Moonah Ellison
Story: Zoe Stagg
Photography: Patrick Fraser
Ask 100 people to describe Billy Bob Thornton, and you will get 100 different answers. Is it the backwards Kangol and beatnik glasses of the early 2000s? The grizzled antihero of Bad News Bears and Bad Santa respectively? Or is it the present day, chilled-out rocker with a shock of silver hair? Whichever one you picture, you’re right. Thornton has smashed himself into a million pieces, because he had to. “I had no choice. I had to go forward with this no matter what happened, because it’s all I ever dreamed of, and once your dreams die, you die. I firmly believe that.” He’s mellow, his voice slow like motor oil seeping through gravel. “I never paid much attention to what people tell you are the obstacles, you know. It’s like if somebody says, ‘Well, yeah, you could try that, but that’s a tough world to get into’ or whatever and it’s like well, you have two choices —you can either try it or not try it.”
His upbringing in the woods of Arkansas was Spartan, but in his retelling, not unhappy. It taught him to make the best of what he had. “If all you have in you is a creative bone, which is about all I’ve got—all I ever did was either play music or baseball or, you know, act in movies or whatever—and everything else I did was physical labor jobs, you know? It’s not like I had it in me to be a stockbroker, that was never gonna happen.” What he did have in him, was everyone else. He’s played so many iconic roles, it’s like someone took a brick to a mirror; while they’re unrecognizable shards of the original, they still reflect him back if you look hard enough. The roles run the spectrum from art house to blockbuster, political strategist to institutionalized murderer, NASA executive to astronaut farmer. His own athletic ability gets a nod in turns as a baseball coach and football coach respectively, and then—there’s the Big Man himself.
Here’s a good trick question: Name the beloved Christmas movie with Billy Bob Thornton on the cast list? If the answer is Bad Santa, please come collect your lump of coal for not appreciating the BBT deep cuts. The real answer is: Love Actually. He played the U.S. president, and despite his broad portrayal, somehow it has aged into something downright statesmanlike. But of course, Bad Santa has also become a classic unto itself. “People don’t quite always get from Bad Santa, that the movie actually had a heart. At the end of the day, the guy sees himself in this poor kid, you know? You know he actually has a feeling for the kid, and towards the end of the movie, an actual Christmas-movie feeling. You know, even though it’s profane.” That stark juxtaposition works on screen. It’s less attractive in the dichotomous world we find ourselves in.
“There’s so many knee-jerk reactions these days, and there’s so much extremism.” Despite his seemingly edgy career, Thornton appreciates nuance. “It’s like nobody looks at what makes sense, because like politically, I might listen to somebody’s idea from the right and I go, ‘You know what, that’s not a bad idea.’ And then I listen to somebody’s idea from the left and I go, ‘Hey, you know what that’s a pretty good idea too.’” There’s room for polarization in art, less so when we’re trying to find a way to exist together.
“Change doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to just upset the apple cart and make everything one thing. But see, I think that’s more of the problem than anything, no one’s going towards the middle, everyone’s going to the East or the West or the right or the left.”
While today’s cultural battleground seems new and untested, it’s almost a historical reboot. Thornton was 13 when Woodstock rocked our cultural identity, but he was already well grown into the political scene. “I remember the days of the protests and the Vietnam War and the whole thing.”
Taking cue from that political landscape, and the artistic one it cultivated, Thornton picked up a mic. Yes, he’s an Academy Award winner and celebrated actor—but he’s also a member of the Americana rock ’n’ roll band, The Boxmasters. He sings lead and tours, calling music his first love. The music gives him a place to express himself, without a script. “You know, anytime you have an opportunity to write songs about something and it’s not to say that you can’t write boy-girl songs too, because I think that never goes away. You’re always gonna have relationship songs—but at the same time, I think you’re not worth your salt if you don’t at least write songs that are socio-political in nature, because it’s what’s going on in our world.” The Boxmasters have been jamming together for more than a decade. When he sings, the Billy Bob you thought you knew disappears. He’s still and ageless, his voice somehow channeling another time.
While it might be easy to imagine a rocker raised in protest culture to take one look at where we are today, and do a hard drop out, Thornton holds on. “You have to have hope because, you know, if you don’t have hope then all you gotta do is just spin around and, you know, stare at the television. I mean, you gotta at least do your part to make things a little better and I think you start in your own backyard with your own family, your own friends. You just sort of, try to rally the troops and make sure that you do what you can to make people happy around you and for the people you love. You know, let ‘em know that everyday.”
In the world where we literally let people know what we think of them in real time by applying tiny cartoon thumbs up or otherwise, social media is a modern complexity plaguing the human condition. “When I was coming up, you didn’t know like 50,000 people or 5 million people hated you, you know, cuz how are you gonna find that out?” Hearing it described like that, it sounds idyllic. Here in the present though, it can’t be ignored—only put in perspective. “You can’t blame it on the thing itself you have to blame it, at the end of the day, on the people and how they use it. Because I’d much rather spend my time using the social network to promote happiness, peace, progress, you know, things like that than to promote cynicism and taking shots at people.”
We should all be a little more Thornton, online.
Online is where you find a lot of him these days, as season three of the Amazon Studios hit Goliath drops in October. While streaming media was a departure from the traditional small-or-silver screens, Thornton has found in a way, what’s new is not unlike where he started—only better.
“I realized that places like Amazon are where you do independent film now. Not only that, on top of it, you have the opportunity to do an 8-hour independent film where you can really develop a story and develop characters.”
He claims he’s “essentially playing himself” in the show, and revels that the new season gives him the chance to hang out with his buddy. “I just don’t hang out with actors. I mostly hang out with my family to tell you the truth, and the guys in my band, so I’ve only got like a couple of actor friends that I ever even talk to or see and Dennis is one of them.” Dennis Quaid joins the cast of Goliath in its new season. “He lives like a mile from me and I’ve known the guy for, you know, 25, 30 years. It was great to be able to go to work with a guy you’ve known that long.”
Whether it’s longevity in friendships, or career, Thornton knows we have to grab the sands while we can. “One of the things we’re losing is our history. History is going back a shorter distance than ever.” And though it seems like he’s been everyone except himself for his entire career, the truth is, he’s been there all along. “Honestly, I’m an open book to any artist of any type who wants to talk to me about any knowledge that I may have that could be helpful, you know, I’m always there.”
To his friends, he’s “Bud.” To us, in whatever form he takes, he’s pure Billy Bob.