Billy Bob Thornton Talks Playing The Menace on FX’s ‘Fargo’

By April 14, 2014
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It’s been 18 years since the Coen Brothers released their classic Fargo on the big screen. I recently sat down and watched the movie and it truly holds up. More and more TV series are being adapted from existing film properties – “Bates Motel,” “Dracula,” and the upcoming “Rosemary’s Baby,” just to name a few. At first, I was on the fence about this trend but then I discovered the magnificence that is Bryan Fuller’s “Hannibal” (check out my recaps here). Which brings me to the brand new event series FX will premiere this Tuesday, “Fargo.” The 10 episode series will premiere this Tuesday at 10pm and we were lucky enough to sit down with Billy Bob Thornton to discuss his role of Lorne Malvo.

Check it out!

On the details he added to the character of Lorne Malvo that weren’t already in the script:        

A weird haircut, which was actually a mistake. I got a bad haircut and we had planned on dyeing my hair and a dark beard and all that kind of thing, but I didn’t plan on having bangs. But then, instead of fixing it, it wouldn’t do, right, so I didn’t fix it because I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought, hang on a second here, this is like 1967 L.A. rock. I could be the bass player of the Buffalo Springfield. This is good. Or, Ken Burns, the dark side of Ken Burns. Bangs are normally associated with innocence and I thought that juxtaposition was pretty great, so that was added. So, really just the look and Noah Hawley’s script was so tightly written, so good, that all I kind of had to do was show up really.

He describes Malvo as conscienceless and expands on how he found that in himself:

Well, you know, usually when you’re playing a character you think a lot about their back story and that kind of thing and in this instance I didn’t want to do that because I doubt Malvo thinks much about his past anyway, so even the character, the guy himself, probably wouldn’t think much about it. Like I said before, it was so well written that I didn’t have to really do much in order to portray the character. I think what really attracted me to it was not as much that he didn’t have a conscience as he has this bizarre sense of humor where he likes to mess with people. Most criminals if they go in to rob, say, a clothing store or something they go get the money and they get out of there. But Malvo would look at their sweater and say, why are you wearing that sweater? I mean, you work in a clothing store. Look at all those nice sweaters over there. You look like a bag person. And so, it’s just a very odd thing.

It’s sort of in keeping with the tone of the Coen Brothers to have a character like that. But Noah managed to walk a tightrope with this thing and he does a great job. I mean, he captured the tone of the Coen Brothers and kept the spirit of their movie, and yet made it its own animal, which is a pretty tough job. I just thought it was so clearly drawn and I just had to kind of be there. I looked at Malvo as a guy who is a member of the animal kingdom, you know. We don’t get mad at polar bears, they’re all white and fluffy and they do Coke commercials with them at Christmastime and stuff like that, and yet they’re one of the meanest, most ruthless predators on earth.

On the ability to convey menace in the characters he’s played on screen: 

When you weigh 135 pounds and you’re telling people who are six-four, 250 to get out of your way, how do you do that? Well, a lot of that is in the eyes. If someone is talking to you and tells you that you ought to do something and you can tell they mean it, those are the scary people. I worked in a prison years and years ago on a movie and I was told by these guys, there were all these guys with the Aryan Brotherhood and some of them had tattoos and they’re big, muscled guys and everything and this one guy told me, “Do you see that little skinny guy over there in the corner, the one that’s not talking, just kind of sits by himself? That’s the big guy right there.” He said, “That’s the guy you don’t want to mess with.” I look at Malvo as a sort of snake charmer, you know. Once he looks at you you’re under some sort of spell.

FARGO - Pictured: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo. CR: Chris Large/FX

On the balance of humor and menace he brings to the character: 

That’s kind of been my wheelhouse – sort of intense characters who have a certain sympathetic streak and also a sense of humor. I’ll have 10-year-olds come up to me and say, “Oh, Bad Santa, I just love you.” It’s like, what? So, yeah, I don’t know what it is, but maybe it’s that Malvo senses weakness in people or stupidity or whatever. He’s got this sort of animal instinct and he just smells people out and I think a lot of times, especially these days when the world is going kind of crazy, I think we’re all frustrated and want to just shake people a little bit. And so maybe through Malvo you get a chance to slap somebody around a little bit, I don’t know. Maybe that’s it.

But one way or the other, yeah, it is a fine balance. You’ve got to be menacing, but I look at Malvo’s sense of humor as his only recreation. I mean, it’s like for Malvo to mess with people the way he does, which he doesn’t have to, he could just leave or just use them for whatever he’s using them for, but he still has to mess with them some. And I think for him, that’s his recreation. It’s his only social contact and so, screwing with people for Malvo is kind of like jet skiing for most people.

On the appeal of working on contained single season stories on television:

It felt like doing a 10-hour independent film. That’s very appealing. I’ve been accused many times as a writer/director of my pace is too leisurely and it’s too long and stuff like that. Here’s a chance to do that kind of thing and you’ve got 10 hours to do it in. Actually, it feels great and there’s great appeal in that for actors, writers and maybe not so much directors because the directing world in television is more…those guys just come in and do a couple of episodes and they’re gone.

But for the creator or writer it’s a really great thing to be able to develop characters and develop stories. We would all like to make at least a three-hour movie, but here you get a chance to do a 10-hour. This doesn’t mean that I’m giving up doing movies. I can do this, do 10 episodes and it’s over and then still do two movies that year. So, it’s very appealing in that sense and I’m sure that came into play with McConaughey and Woody when they did “True Detective.” It’s a way to do both.

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On the show’s unique dialogue, the quality of the scripts and the Coen Brothers aesthetic:

That’s something that he has in common with the Coen Brothers, actually. Their scripts are very tightly written and if you don’t say those words the way they’re written, it doesn’t come across as well. I’ve been largely an improvisational kind of actor most of my career, except for when I’ve worked with the Coen Brothers. Now that I’m working with Noah, I rarely change anything because it’s a very specific point of view and type of language. Maybe sometimes something might sound a little formal that Malvo says, maybe it’s not something that would just naturally come out of my mouth.

But once you plug into that, then it becomes natural to you and I respect him as a writer so much that I defer to him and I think I would say the same thing about the rest of the cast. I mean, there’s very little discussion on the set about changing things. We don’t come over to him and say, hey, instead of this, I think I’ll say this. We don’t have a lot of that around that set. You just do it because there was a reason he wrote it that way and it becomes clear to you when you see it and when you perform it.

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On his experience working alongside Colin Hanks:

Oh yeah, he’s terrific. I was in a little independent film that kind of came and went with Colin called Parkland, about the Kennedy assassination, but Colin and I had very little interaction with each other in that movie. But I did get to know him personally a little bit and he’s a great guy. And the relationship with him in the show is very strange and gets stranger as it goes. So, I’ve really enjoyed my time with him, both personally and professionally. He’s terrific. I think he’s going to be a really great young actor for us in the business.

On the experience working alongside Martin Freeman:

Well, first of all, it was a pleasure working with him. He’s so easy to work with and a terrific guy and a terrific actor. And the scenes I did with him were so easy to do and I think a lot of that is because we’re such opposites that we’re not playing buddies or anything. So, I just sit down and do what I do and he does what he does and that’s the way it would happen in real life and all of that. But in terms of the accent, he did a stellar job. You would never know if you ran into him that he wasn’t from Duluth or Fargo or wherever. He did a great job. So, he must have worked very hard at that. Either that, or he’s just naturally good with accents because it was pristine.

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On any research he did regarding the Minnesota region and accent:

I shot half of Simple Plan up in Delano and also, I’ve got some friends in L.A. who are from there. I’m around actors, you know, Sean William Scott is from up there and Kelly Lynch is an old friend of mine and she used to do impressions, so, for family and for her neighbors and stuff for me all the time. I always found it very funny. It’s odd because that part of the country – Wisconsin, Minnesota and the Dakotas, up in there, and Montana – to the rest of the country they’re almost like foreigners. It’s the only place that exists like that in the country. I think that’s why we’re so interested in those people in movies.

The Coen Brothers have really opened up a vein there. It’s kind of alien to some of us and it’s just a really interesting culture because you guys can talk about something that’s really heavy and yet sound like you’re talking about going to the grocery store. It’s just astounding. It’s a great kind of character to explore. We shot in Calgary and sometimes the Canadian accent in that area is very similar to it in some ways and so we were around all those people from Calgary who had a version of that already. So, we’re surrounded by it and it’s a very interesting accent.

On the contrast between Lester Nygaard and Lorne Malvo:

Well, Malvo smells weakness in people, he smells nervousness, weakness, fear, anything like that and has an abundance of confidence in himself. I don’t think he ever considers losing, whereas Lester is just a nervous ball of mess. And I do like when you see two characters at the opposite end of the spectrum together. They end up being kind of strange bedfellows and it was a really interesting dynamic.

We didn’t really have to work on it. It just naturally happened. Martin himself seems to be a very confident person, so I think he probably maybe had to downgrade his confidence a little bit. By nature, I’m a very nervous, worrisome person, so I had to drop that a little. So, I think both of us had to definitely shed some of our real life stuff in order to play the characters.

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On his interest in writing or directing a project such as this in the future:

Down the road I definitely have my eye on at least writing something. Probably not as a director so much because directors who are directing a series they have different ones come in all the time. So, you’re kind of coming onto a moving train and I’ve tended to generate my own things as a writer and director most of the time. If I could create an original thing like, say, the “Hatfields & McCoys” or something, something that I came up with that was more movie length, like say a three part thing or if they start doing more two-hour movies for TV, I think that would be more where I would go as a writer or, especially a director.

I think my nervousness or if I was hesitant at all about it it would just be simply because there’s some great TV creator/writers out there and I’d probably feel very intimidated, hoping that I was able to come up with something innovative or at least interesting to people because I’m influenced by Southern novelists mainly and kind of make books on film, which I think is probably obsolete in the movie business these days. They’re not ones that the distributors are clamoring for.

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I don’t know about you all, but you can bet I’ll be clamoring to watch “Fargo” on FX every Tuesday night at 10pm. Join me, won’t you?

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Aside from throwing words onto your screen here, he has written for the likes of FEARnet, Examiner, Dread Central and MTV Movies Blog. And yes, he was Percy on VR Troopers.