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Billy Bob Thornton on Fargo, Returning to Television, and His Evil Ken Burns Haircut

Billy Bob Thornton arrives at the Paley Center For Media Presents:
Billy Bob Thornton. Photo: Dave Kotinsky/Getty Images

Billy Bob Thornton plays a strange gun-for-hire with some seriously deranged bangs in Fargo, FX’s miniseries adaptation of the Coen brothers’ Oscar-winning film (premiering tonight at 10 p.m. ET). Such a project raises many questions, such as, “Whyyyyy?” But Thornton, who has starred in two Coen films (The Man Who Wasn’t There and Intolerable Cruelty), promises that the show is a well-done homage to the 1996 film — one with a completely different story, written by executive producer Noah Hawley. It begins when Lorne Malvo (Thornton) makes a pit stop in the small town of Bemidji, Minnesota, and offers to help out emasculated insurance agent Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) with a problem he’s having with a bully. Things spiral colorfully out of control from there. Vulture sat down with Thornton to discuss many things, but especially his bizarre hair.

Noah said you showed up to set with those bangs. They’re all you.
You know what my manager said? When he first saw the dailies, he called me and said, “It’s like you’re channeling the dark side of Ken Burns.” As often happens with a character’s look, it’s not always planned. It can sometimes come from some bizarre circumstance. This circumstance was I got a bad haircut.

Yes. I looked at it and thought, God, this is not right. And then I thought about it for a minute and went, No. You know what? It’s perfect. I look like a boyish devil, you know? It’s like Moe [from the Three Stooges]. You combine my character’s darkness with that innocent haircut — what an idea! I haven’t told anyone yet that it was a mistake. You’re the first.

It’s been a long time since you’ve done series TV. Why come back now?
It’s where we are headed. If you’re going to make something for adults, the mid-level movies the studios used to make, they’re gone. TV is where you do it. This is where actors get to actually do the kind of acting we used to do. If you’re going to do an independent film like I’m known for, now they give you $2 million to make it, and they want you to have 12 movie stars so you can get the foreign value, so we’re really restricted in a lot of ways in movies. Meanwhile, the studios are making big event films or real broad comedies or action movies, and that’s really not my bag.

You’ve collaborated on a few films with the Coen brothers. What happens when someone approaches you and says, “Let’s do Fargo as a series!”?
Well, it always boils down to, “Is the script good?” If it’s great writing, it doesn’t matter what it is. There are certain movies that when you watch them, you wish it went on. You wish it was a five-, six-hour movie. When they offered this to me it was like: Coen brothers executive-producing, based on Fargo, and then I read the pilot and thought, Well, who wouldn’t do it? I mean, who doesn’t wanna play that character?

But having worked with them, is it weird to be part of an homage? Like being a part of a very good copy when you’ve experienced the original?
No, no. The fact that the tone of the movie and the tone of the show are the same, essentially. It’s true to them. Noah has channeled them as a writer, and it’s amazing. If someone had sent me the script with no name on it and said the Coen brothers wrote it, I would have bought it. And believe me, I know those guys. If they had read it and they didn’t like it, we wouldn’t be doing this. Noah said Ethan’s words after reading it were, “Yeah. Good.” For Ethan? That’s being effusive. That’s Ethan being over the moon.

You think they’ll watch the whole thing?
Well, they liked the pilot. So, probably?

Maybe just to see if the show gets Minnesota right.
I think that’s really the appeal in general. That’s an area where most of us don’t usually go. We’re all on the East Coast, the South, the Eastern Seaboard, West Coast, Pacific Northwest … that’s where most of us hang out. That cold bleakness up there, being close-to-the-vest with your emotions, that very white-bread thing, it’s almost foreign to us. It’s kind of like the northern states are really more southern Canada. So it’s a nice peek through a window of something that’s alien to us. It’s also a perfect setting for danger, mystery, dark humor because of the culture being so sort of uptight.

But also well-meaning.
They always mean well. I have an actress friend, Kelly Lynch, and she’s from Minnesota. She used to do this impression of her aunt that was so funny. She would say [he assumes a Minnesota accent], “Oh, yeah, ya know, Doris, my neighbor, she committed suicide last week, but she was very depressed. She was depressed. So, uh, we weren’t all that shocked about it, but ya know, she was found hanging from a rope in the basement, and they said she was just so gosh darn blue.” The way they talk about something, it’s like they’re talking about going to the grocery store. The rest of us are all emotional wrecks. I find it fascinating.

You film the show in Calgary. Does it wind up being a good approximation for Minnesota?
The local actors they’ve got, it’s like they’re from Minnesota. There’s no real research they had to do. And it’s fun for me because I’m the outsider on the show, although at one point, you will hear me doing a Minnesota accent. I’m the mysterious stranger from out of town. Nobody knows who I am, why I’m there, or what I’m doing. I like playing the part of the enigma. I’ve always liked that.

Lorne and Lester are a sort of twisted Sherlock and Watson — slightly less in contact and more murder-y.
Martin and I seem to have some kind of odd chemistry together. Polar opposites, but yeah, in some weird way, my character is his buddy, encouraging him, like, “Dude, you’ve got to get past this.”

Your co-star Colin Hanks told me to ask you about a Canadian football game you attended together.
We went down and watched the semifinals for their version of the NFL. Saskatchewan versus Calgary. Calgary got their asses beat. It was kind of like, Oh man, the hometown team! But the fans for Saskatchewan are crazy. They’re like our Raider fans. They paint themselves green; they’re tailgating in 20-degrees-below-zero weather; their shirts are off. These people are nuts. For anyone to say Canadians are bland, that’s not true. They can get nutty, and it’s pretty great.

Billy Bob Thornton on Fargo and Ken Burns Hair