Billy Bob Thornton’s new film, Jayne Mansfield’s Car, just had its world premiere at the Berlin International Film Festival; meanwhile, Angelina Jolie’s directorial debut, In the Land of Blood and Honey, got a few spotlight screenings at the fest earlier in the week. The exes were both in town in the freezing German capital, and rumors were a-blazin’ that Thornton’s next film, about a man who picks up a wild woman on a road trip, would be based on his relationship with former wild-child Angelina. Bring out the vials of blood! We caught up with Thornton at the fest to address these speculations and to discuss Jayne Mansfield’s Car, which he stars in as a disfigured war veteran with a slew of social and emotional issues.
I wanted to ask about your new movie-in-the-works, And Then We Drove. You just announced it, right?
No, no, no … who knows why that —
It was in Variety.*
I was just told that last night. Yeah, Tom [Epperson] and I are gonna write another script together —
And it’s about Angelina?
No! Not in the least!
Variety said it’s about your experience with Angelina — it’s about a guy who goes on a road trip and picks up a wild woman. Where did that come from?
We have no idea. My manager told me this last night. He’s Angelina’s manager, too. He goes, “You didn’t say any of this, did you?” And I said, “The only press I’ve done was this press conference, and you were there. Everyone heard what I said at the press conference.” I mean, I was asked about Angelina because her film was playing here, if I’m gonna see her and I said, “I hope so” or something like that.
You guys are on good terms, right?
Oh, fantastic terms. We talk off and on all the time. Believe me, if I were gonna write a movie about her, we certainly wouldn’t announce it until it was done. We haven’t even started on this movie yet! And the idea has nothing to do with the way I met her or anything to do with her.
Did you see her new film?
Yes. Oh God, I was so proud of her. I’m so glad she directed a movie because I think she has a talent for it. She took on a very hard subject, and it was a very hard movie to make, and I’m so proud of her.
Would she be upset if you made a movie about her?
I would never do it.
I would never make a movie about my best friend, either, or any other ex of mine, or something. That’s not my bag. I don’t mind exposing myself, but I'm certainly not gonna make a movie about someone else.
So you feel like it would be a betrayal of your friendship to expose parts of her that maybe she would want to keep private?
Absolutely. If she came to me, or any of my friends came to me, and said, “I would like for you to write a film about these experiences I’ve had,” then I would consider that. But no — we don’t even know how that happened. I did an interview with Variety recently that already came out and it had nothing to do with any of this. And then suddenly we see this. People takes bits and pieces of conversations and put it all together sometimes.
What is the film about then?
It’s a movie about a homicide detective who’s just retired and doesn’t really know quite what to do. That’s the seed of the movie. It’s a road movie in a way — that’s a bit simplistic, but anyway — it’s about a guy played by me who picks up not a crazy woman, but a mysterious girl, along the road. It’s a very ethereal story. Sort of a landscape kinda movie, and soundscape. But it has nothing do with her whatsoever.
Not even in the back of your mind? Not even vaguely inspired by her? Is that even how you actually met her?
No! We met each other through our mutual manager. I’ve known her since she was like 19 or 20 years old. We met in a very ordinary way and became friends and we’ve been friends ever since. And anything else is just silly.
In Jayne Mansfield’s Car, there are a few male characters that are roughly your age. How did you choose which one you would play?
And why do you ask that question?
I like to think that when someone chooses a role, that there’s something that they specifically have to offer role that they don’t think anyone else would.
I was writing a movie for me and for Robert Duvall. I knew that I was gonna be Skip, and there were gonna be two brothers, and there was gonna be Duvall as the father. I generally write with people in mind, even if they don’t end up playing the role — just so you have something to hang onto. Just like when I did Sling Blade [which he also directed and starred in]. You see, I’m an actor. I’ve done over 60 movies. I’ve only directed four features, so I’m not like Martin Scorsese or something. I’m an actor who directs his own stuff in self-defense. In other words, when I did Monster’s Ball [which he starred in only], nobody ever says to me, “Did you ever think of anybody besides you playing that?”
My point is I’ve been asked that question on Sling Blade and this movie, the question about choosing the role for myself. Your answer makes sense to me. But these other people are like, they’re insinuating, “Hmmm, made yourself a pretty juicy role there, didn’t ya?” It’s like, Well, goddammit, I wrote the fucking thing, I can do whatever I want to do. None of these other actors wrote the thing. I did. I’m known as an actor. I act in movies all the time. So if I didn’t direct it, they would never bring that up.
Anyway, I wrote the character that I wanted to play. So I didn’t, like, three weeks later go, “Hmmm, maybe … maybe Jack Black should play this.” You know what I mean? You get inside a character like that, and that’s not an easy character to explain to another actor. Even on the page, they wouldn’t read that character and automatically know what I was looking for. The other characters were pretty clearly drawn; you’ve seen guys like them before.
How was Robert Duvall involved?
I kinda know him so I wrote it specifically for him. The hard thing for him was really the part where his character does acid, 'cause he’d never done drugs, so I told him a few stories.
A lot of the characters that you’ve played have had tics or OCD or phobias, and the character in this film seems like he has Asperger’s, the way he gets fixated on things and his direct way of talking. Do you think you’re drawn to these kinds of characters?
Well, I have extreme obsessive-compulsive disorder that I’ve had treatment for. I don’t retain what I read, yet I can speed read. And I’m also severely dyslexic, and I don’t see well. Like, I should have glasses on right now, but I can see you across the table, it’s not like I’d think you were like Claude Rains or something.
So if you see a through line, sometimes I do love playing those kinds of characters. For instance, in Bandits, this comedy I did with Cate Blanchett and Bruce Willis, I played a guy who had obsessive-compulsive disorder and phobias, and I brought some of mine to the table for it. But in other movies where I seem to have these problems, I may be having a day in real life where my stuff is a little worse than it is on other days — and that might just come across.
* UPDATE: The author of the original Variety report, Gregg Goldstein, tells Vulture that And Then We Drove producer Alexander Rodnyansky has confirmed on the record that when Thornton originally laid out the story for the film, the actor/writer/director said that it was partly based on his relationship with Jolie. Goldstein has updated his original story to include Rodnyansky's quote, which was not in the original post. Goldstein also notes that neither Thornton nor any of his representatives requested that Variety correct the story.