Thirteen years have passed since the original Bad Santa, and in that time, the movie industry and Billy Bob Thornton's career have changed immeasurably. Then again, Thornton has managed to surf most of the waves than have come his way since he first moved from Arkansas to Hollywood in the 1980s. A staple of the 1990s independent-film scene, Thornton won an Oscar for Sling Blade, spent a stint as a studio leading man, and coupled up with one of the most famous celebrities on Earth. As the movie business started to squeeze out all but the biggest tentpoles, though, Thornton has adapted: He helped inaugurate the limited-series boom and the move to streaming television with roles on FX's Fargo and Amazon's Goliath, respectively, and now derives most of his personal satisfaction from touring with his band, the Boxmasters. As a blast from his past is resurrected with Bad Santa 2, I sat down with Thornton in Los Angeles to discuss his turbulent career and just how much of it he saw coming.
You started as a working actor, but you had to write your first few breakthrough movies. Where did you get the confidence to convince other people you could do that?
I think a lot of it was ignorance, honestly. If you don't know fire is hot, you can walk over the coals. I grew up as a musician, predominately, and a ballplayer. I had this natural willingness to put myself out there, and I was used to the possibility of falling on my ass.
And when you fell on your ass, you were fine with that happening?
Yeah, because that's part of the game. I wasn't a trained actor — I came out here to play music. A friend of mine said, "You should come to my acting class," and the next thing you know, that was 36 years ago. I'd been in drama in high school but just because girls were there, and I thought I'd get a good grade or something. So my first acting class, I didn't really know what to do, and the teacher said to come back with a monologue or scene to perform. My buddy who I'd come out to L.A. with had books on Shakespeare, and I remembered that Andy Griffith used to do these classic stories like Cinderella or Romeo and Juliet and turn them on their ass, so I rewrote Othello and went in there and played every character.
The whole thing?
Well, the teacher stopped me after about 45 minutes and goes, "What is this? How much more of this is there?" And I said, "I dunno, probably half an hour." He said, "I'm gonna have to stop you now and let some other people go, but I want to talk to you after class." I thought, Well, I've already screwed up, but after class he said, "This is really unique and wild. Come back and finish it next week but from now on, just so you know, monologues are supposed to be between three and five minutes long."
It takes some real ballsiness to rewrite Othello.
And to not know better. But I showed him something that people wouldn't normally have done, and I think my lot in life is doing stuff that's maybe a little bit outside the norm. I remember I was working as a waiter at a big Hollywood party with all sorts of old-timey famous people there — Debbie Reynolds, Stanley Donen, all of them — and I was passing out hors d'oeuvres to people in a tux that didn't fit me, and Billy Wilder talked to me. I didn't even know he was Billy Wilder, I thought he was just some little German guy.
What did you talk about?
He started by joking with me, and I didn't even know it was a joke. He said, "So, you want to be an actor?"
He could tell?
Well, the joke is that in L.A., all the waiters want to be actors. I didn't know that. I thought he had ESP! Anyway, he said, "Don't waste your time. You're too ugly to be a leading man and you're not ugly enough to be a character actor." Thanks! He said, "Can you write? That's the way to do it right there. Write your own stuff, your own characters, and don't wait around for other people." He said, "We need writers." So that's when I started writing stuff. I belonged to a theater group here and started writing one-man shows, and that's where the character from Sling Blade came out of.
As your naïveté about the industry started to fall away, did ambition replace it?
I've always had this weird sense that everything's going to be okay. I wasn't trying to be a movie star — that was the other thing. I thought at my pinnacle, I would be a guy who had a few lines in a movie, and maybe someday I'd have a scene with someone like Burt Reynolds or Robert Redford. I thought maybe that would be my career, popping up now and then with one scene.
You had your first two big successes with One False Move, which originally was not supposed to come out in theaters, and Sling Blade, which had this awards-season afterlife that could not have been predicted when you first started. Did that give you the mentality that it's about the work, and anything else that comes is gravy?
Sure. Every time ...Well, you know what? That's not entirely true. Now, after having been a movie star, a TV star, a screenwriter, a director … my instincts were always pretty good, and I think I have finally gotten to a point where I still don't expect anything, but I kinda know what's gonna happen. Like, I can tell you right now — and I won't, simply because I won't put that out there — but I can tell you exactly how it's gonna go with this thing I did for Amazon, Goliath, and with Bad Santa 2. I know exactly how they're gonna go.
You mean, how they'll be received?
Yes, and what I'll get from them and how well they'll do — the box office for the movie and the audience for the TV show. I know how well they'll do in terms of critics and awards season. I know exactly how it's gonna go and I'm hardly ever wrong.
So how does that feel?
I think I've accepted it. For one thing, you have to. You've got no choice. Also, I think having accomplished things gives me a sense of peace because I know that the things that have been accomplished won't be taken away.
That's a very healthy attitude, but I don't know that every actor feels that way. I talk to a lot of them who've accomplished quite a bit but are still anxiety ridden about the current state of their careers.
A lot of times, I think people can be a part of something that they know isn't their best thing, and they still want accolades. I don't do that. I think I find great satisfaction when I can sit back and look at the thing I've done, whether it's making a record or going on a tour or a movie or the TV thing. If I can sit back and watch them or listen to them and know that I did what I set out to do, then my job is done. I can be satisfied knowing it's good. If people miss the boat on it, I still know it was good. And then sometimes, I'll be in something that people really love, and I'm like, "Eh, that's not my best."
But you still see their reaction coming?
I mean, I've been in movies before, and I can tell you which actor they're going to pick out as "the one." Oftentimes, it's the most showy, or the most on the money. "Oh yeah, that's that character." The loud neighbor, or whatever the hell it is. "Oh man, wasn't Bill great as the loud neighbor?" And as an actor, I look at it and go, "No, Bill wasn't great as the loud neighbor." I knew when we did Goliath and I knew when we did Bad Santa 2 who is going to be picked out, what's going to be said, who's going to get attention, which one out of those two projects is going to be the most successful critically and financially. There's a certain comfort in it simply because you're prepared for it already, but at the same time, it's earlier disappointment. In other words, you're disappointed way in advance of the actual disappointment.
It's preemptive disappointment.
It is preemptive disappointment. It does take the edge off of when the hammer finally drops, but at the same time, you spend a longer time being disappointed.
When things changed for you after Sling Blade, and people pitched you for projects instead of vice versa, did you get sucked into that feeling of success?
I knew what it was. One False Move gave me a name within the business, not with the public. And then Sling Blade, overnight, it changed my life in every sense. But there's a difference between a star and an actor. Sometimes the twain shall meet, but not always. I never worried that much about being a movie star. I have had anxiety about being a respected actor.
How did you define that respect? What would indicate to you that you were respected?
A lot of it is being accepted by my peers as a good actor, by other good actors. We're all kids and we always want acceptance, we never get rid of it. I had kind of a rough childhood in some ways, especially with my dad, and I think I'll always want acceptance, but you don't want to be accepted by Norman — some guy with snot running out of his nose who has a blog or something — as much as you want to be accepted by Robert Duvall, you know what I mean? Kris Kristofferson said one of his favorite songs is a song I wrote, and yet some music critic will say, "What's this actor dude doing making a record?" It's like, "So you know more than Kris Kristofferson about songwriting?" But better that than if Kris Kristofferson told me I should stop writing songs while Norman loved me. [Laughs.] You know?
So your peers matter more to you than critics?
Surprisingly … well not, "surprisingly," more like "disappointingly" … I've had more accolades from critics than from guilds over the years, between the Academy Awards, Golden Globes, critics' awards, things like that, if you're looking at actual hardware. I rarely have won anything [from the guilds].
But you would have preferred that.
Well, it would be nice to know they recognize me. They do, on a personal level, but it's never quite made sense to me. I guess it's like everybody says, you don't go into a movie wanting to win an award ...
I think some people might.
Well, maybe not wanting to, but expecting to. You don't go out there and try to get one. If you do, you purposely start doing your scenes in a certain way, as opposed to letting it go the way it goes. I don't know. I guess these days, if I can sit back and feel like I did everything I can do, the rest of it's not up to me. [Long pause.] Even when I tell you that I was ignorant coming up and that I didn't expect much, that's not quite right. You know when you think back on a relationship with somebody and it always seemed fine and you probably thought you'd get married, but when it falls apart, you realize then that you always kind of knew it would? You think, "Wow, I fuckin' knew it that one morning I saw him or her in the bathroom, standing at the fuckin' mirror. I knew it was over." So I think I always knew I was going to be successful, but not in a real ambitious kind of way. There were a lot of movies I didn't do — bigger movies — that I just felt I was the wrong guy for or didn't particularly like. I could have made more money and been in more high-profile movies, I know that for sure.
But it wasn't important to you.
Not really. Much to my handlers' dismay, a few times I've not done things that they thought I should do. And a couple of things I've done things I wanted that never went anywhere, and they were right about it. Some little thing that a friend of mine was producing and I went and did it anyway.
Something that was still satisfying to you?
Not always! Not always. Sometimes it was. But you do what you feel is right in the moment, and it doesn't always work out. I've got a real hope for the things I've got coming up. The ones that are done and the ones that are yet to be done. At the same time, I already see the writing on the wall, both positive and negative. It's not always the one you'd think it would be.
But it's usually the one you think it will be?
This interview has been edited and condensed.