Actor got good roles by writing them Nominee: Billy Bob Thornton created a movie that could win him a pair of Oscars.

February 16, 1997|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,SUN FILM CRITIC

Karl Childers came to Billy Bob Thornton just at the right time.

Thornton, 41 and Arkansas-born and bred, was sitting in his trailer on a movie set feeling very sorry for himself. He'd just had one of his famous little scenes with a director after 10 takes.

"He wanted me to do it his way," he recalls. "See, I wanted to do it my way."

It not only almost cost him the job, but the reputation he was acquiring for intransigence almost cost him his career. But on this day, sitting in the trailer, exhausted and spent and bitter over a life that was not going where he wanted it to go, suddenly

"He was just there. He came out of nowhere. I was sitting there, lost in self-loathing, and there he was."

He felt his lower jaw thrust outward; he buttoned his top button and untucked his shirt; his eyes shrank and his IQ began draining points but not heart. A sound came out: "Mmmmmmm. Mmmmmffffffffffff." That was Karl Childers, matricide, asylum citizen, and completely unlettered in the world, with a small, dark place for a mind, but somehow decent.

"I started this one-man show. I was really interested in where he would take me. I would do him in clubs around L.A., learning as much about him as I could."

Something different

In fact, the long soliloquy where Karl explains himself -- how he killed his mama and how now, 25 years later, he still thinks about it and realizes he did something very different from the rest of the world -- to two high-school journalists who are completely unprepared for the reality that is Karl, was the heart of that performance.

Gradually the soliloquy became a screenplay that ultimately became a low-budget production called "Sling Blade," which, just a few days ago, became a Best Actor nomination and a Best Screenplay nomination for Thornton. But if Thornton has just exploded into view, it's not from lack of trying. He's been around a long time, as a bit actor and marginal presence in many bigger movies. (He got killed by Steven Seagal in "On Dangerous Ground" and kicked out of a poker game by Mel Gibson in "Maverick"; he had a small part on the TV show "Hearts Afire.")

But nobody gave him anything; he had to write himself the better parts nobody would give him. The first stop was "One False Move," which he wrote with his pal Tom Epperson, another Arkansan. An extremely violent and fast-paced film noir, it followed as two dope dealers with a high capacity for violence made their way back to a hometown in Bill Clinton's state.

Thornton played one of the bad guys, a truly malicious killer, who runs up against a small-town sheriff played by Bill Paxton.

Efforts at realism

"We hung out with a homicide detective, and we tried to make it realistic. He told us that real violence is fast and ugly, not the way they show it in the movies. We tried to get that into the film."

Carl Franklin directed, and got the most out of the movie's fascinating racial subtext, which reflected a South unknown to most moviegoers. A beautiful African-American woman traveled with the two dealers -- one of whom was black, the other white. But she wasn't the black guy's mistress, but the white one's -- that is, Thornton's. It didn't hurt that she was played by one of his three ex-wives, Cynda Williams. The movie made several Best 10 lists, but it did not give Thornton's career the boost he'd anticipated.

His next project was also as a writer. It was "The Family Way," made into a film with Robert Duvall and James Earl Jones, with another Southern theme. Duvall played an Arkansan who learns in his 60s that he's got a brother up North -- only the brother is black. He travels up to meet him, and the two, initially at odds, eventually begin to see their commonality. Well-performed, and well-publicized by United Artists, the film still did not break out.

But it gave him the juice to raise the million dollars for "Sling Blade."

"I really consider myself an actor. The writing I fell into. I like to write my own things. I'm not 'facile.' Tom Epperson can write anything; he's a real professional. But I can only write things that sort of come out of me. It's definitely the hardest thing I do."

Now he's mainline. He's got a deal to write and direct with Miramax, and he'll be co-starring in "Primary Colors" shortly, playing the James Carville part.

Pub Date: 2/16/97

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