In April, 2009, Billy Bob Thornton, the actor and musician, did a now-infamous interview with Jian Ghomeshi on the CBC Radio program Q. (It was also videotaped for television.) He alternately refused to speak or proffered non-sequiturs, the whole time glaring fiercely at Ghomeshi - who, incredibly, kept asking questions.
The interview went viral, mainly because it was so squirm-inducing, but also, I think, because it touched on something deeper, even if most viewers felt it only subconsciously. In our age of relentless self-promotion, watching someone adamantly reject the opportunity to shill - to the point of damaging his own product - is a rare spectacle indeed.
But Thornton, 55, has never shied from the hard way. I first interviewed him 12 years ago, when he was in Toronto shooting the movie Pushing Tin, and I was struck by his iconoclasm. He doesn't look like a star: too skinny, too many tattoos, eyes way too haunted.
He doesn't play conventional leading men. For example, when hired as a "sexy space cowboy" in Armageddon, he decided his character should have a leg brace - which he wore in every scene, though it's only visible once.
And he doesn't protect himself like a movie star, either: He's candid, admitting to weaknesses (he's been divorced five times), phobias (antiques, bed and breakfasts), resentments and sadness - stuff that most actors' egos wouldn't allow them to say out loud.
Earlier this week, Thornton was back on the promo trail, this time for a film, the revenge thriller Faster, which opened Wednesday. In a phone interview, he was again the courtly, self-deprecating fellow I first met - even when asked about the Q debacle.
"The fact that that was news is further proof that this whole Twittering and whatever the hell people are doing has gone out of control," he said. "I was stupefied that anybody cared. Me and plenty of my friends have gone into interviews where somebody lied to us, so we decided to not play their game. But these days there's YouTube." He declined to elaborate, however, on how he was lied to. "Nah, I don't want to open that can of worms again," he said.
Thornton's got bigger fish to fry. After years of kicking around in bands and on TV shows, he broke into movies by writing, directing and starring in 1996's Sling Blade (he won an Oscar for the screenplay). For the next decade, he was able to finesse his career his way, writing, directing and/or starring in an eclectic mix of films, from A-list fare ( Primary Colors, Love, Actually) to grittier indies ( Monster's Ball, A Simple Plan) and raunchy comedies ( Bad Santa, Mr. Woodcock).
In 2007, he opted to spend two years concentrating solidly on his music, making several records with his band, the Boxmasters, and going on tour. But when he came off the road ready to make movies, he found the business had changed.
"I couldn't believe how radical it was," he said. "I was a stranger in a strange land. There are no movies being made. Not the kind I'm fond of, anyway. Everything is geared toward the video-game generation. It kind of makes me laugh. They say, 'Vampires in 3-D!' I'm like, 'You really think that's new? I saw House of Wax in 3-D at the drive-in when I was a kid.' "
Though Faster is a genre picture through and through - an ex-con (Dwayne Johnson, a.k.a. the Rock) seeks revenge, and a cop (Thornton) tries to stop him - Thornton signed on because he saw opportunities to thwart expectations. "The tendency for actors is to want to look heroic, and there's a lot of testosterone in a movie like this," he said. "But to play this guy, I had to be afraid. There's almost always some parallel in your life when you're shooting a movie. For this one it's, I'm not a kid any more. Every time I go out now, I hope people still accept me, I hope I can turn in a good performance. I'm terrified every time I do something."
As I said, not the kind of thing most actors admit. But even as a kid in rural Malvern, Ark., Thornton was, he said, "overly sensitive. The things that go on in the world, even in the neighbourhood, affect me to a degree I can't describe. I carry too much of what I see and hear." His mother Virginia, a psychic, now lives in Little Rock; his father Billy Ray, a high-school teacher and basketball coach, died of lung cancer when Billy Bob was a teenager.
Father and son "didn't have a good relationship before he died," Thornton said. "One through-line I've noticed in my career, I've played in or written movies where there's an absent or bad father. I'm sure subconsciously I must have chosen those roles for that reason." He's even played three coaches - a good one in Friday Night Lights, one that needs redeeming in Bad News Bears and an irredeemable one in Mr. Woodcock. "Yeah, I went right to the source on those," Thornton said, laughing. "The part of my dad the public got was the Friday Night Lights guy, and the part I got was Mr. Woodcock."
Partly in response to the paucity of adult-oriented movies, and partly because the idea's been rolling around in his head for a few years, Thornton has just finished his first script in 11 years, a comic drama set in 1969, whose subtext is "how different generations view and deal with war and its effects on people," he said. "It'll be another kind of Sling Blade thing, with me writing, directing and starring." There's a difficult father in it, to be played by Robert Duvall. But though the budget is only $11-million (U.S.), Thornton is struggling to find financing.
"Everybody in the world wants to make this movie. Nobody has turned it down," he said. "But they say it to your face now: 'It doesn't matter who's in it, who's directing it, who wrote it. If it's this kind of movie, we'll only give you $7-million.' But I can't make it for that because I have an ensemble cast, world-class actors, eight friends that I wrote these parts for. They're willing to do it for next to nothing, but I can't ask them to sleep in a ditch."
Despite setbacks, Thornton keeps plugging, mainly for his kids: a daughter, 6, and two sons, 16 and 17. The oldest and youngest live in his house in Los Angeles, and the middle one lives across town with one of his exes. "When you've got them, you don't have time to moan about your own thing," Thornton said. "I try to keep steady for them."
Note his honesty in using the word "try."