A career of curious characters

Spotlight

Spotlight on:Billy Bob Thornton

February 23, 2007|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

WASHINGTON — WASHINGTON-- --Billy Bob Thornton has made a career of going against the grain.

He doesn't much like Hollywood, and insists he would just as soon keep a low profile. He's a Southerner who specializes in playing Southerners, but not the illiterate racist rednecks that popular culture seems to favor. His favorite roles have included Davey Crockett and a foul-mouthed Santa Claus.

And if all that's not against-the-grain enough for you, remember this: In Sling Blade, the 1996 film that made him famous and won him a screenwriting Oscar, he played a sympathetic ax murderer.

All of which explains why his role in The Astronaut Farmer may be his most atypical yet. This time, he's playing a character right out of Hollywood 101, an Everyman hero who dreams big. Charles Farmer builds a rocket ship in his barn, and despite the U.S. government's objections, is determined to fly it.

The result is the kind of movie the studios churned out constantly back in the '40s, pieces of feel-good populism designed to appeal to the sentimental softie in all of us.

"I wanted to do my Jimmy Stewart, my Mr. Smith Goes to Washington bit," Thornton says over coffee in a Georgetown hotel lobby. "The common man fighting the system - I love that theme.

"Besides," he adds, "I was interested in doing a movie that not only had drama and emotion and everything, as well as some magic to it, but I also wanted to do one that was also a movie the whole family can see. I'm not exactly full of those movies in my career."

No, he isn't. But his career is full of just about everything else. In the decade since Sling Blade was released, he's played a sleazeball president of the United States (Love, Actually), a blackmailing barber (The Man Who Wasn't There), a Southern prison guard battling his inherited racism (Monster's Ball), a strip-club owner (The Ice Harvest), even a hard-drinking Little League baseball coach (the 2005 remake of The Bad News Bears). True, that may not be the most family-friendly resume to ever come out of Hollywood, but it's impressive nonetheless.

One of the people it impresses most is Thornton, who spent years knocking around the movies and TV, showing up in bit parts in films like Going Overboard, a 1989 star vehicle for a young Adam Sandler, or among the guest cast in such TV series as Evening Shade, Matlock, even Knots Landing.

All that changed when his Carl Childers started grunting and plodding his way through Sling Blade, a tale of anything-but-ordinary madness that became the sleeper hit of 1996. Soon, every comic worth his salt was doing a Carl Childers imitation, jutting out their jaws and speaking in the slowest of Southern drawls.

Out of nowhere, Billy Bob Thornton became a star.

"I thought the critics would like Sling Blade, but that it wouldn't do so well at the box office," he says. "I thought I would probably be starring in independent films for the rest of my life, and every now and then, I'd be offered a role like Armageddon, where I was second guy to Bruce Willis or something. I didn't realize that I would ever be the name above the title, and be in movies that made a lot of money. That I never expected."

He's certainly made the most of it. The 51-year-old Arkansas native has appeared in more than 30 films since Sling Blade, even earned a supporting actor Oscar nomination in 1999, for A Simple Plan (he lost to James Coburn in Affliction). For a while, he even got a taste of the mega-celebrity game - especially during his three-year marriage to Angelina Jolie, from 2000-2003.

He didn't like it.

"It gets old," Thornton says, peering over the rim of his darkened granny glasses. "You go through different phases. In the beginning, it's kind of exciting when you're famous. That lasts about 10 minutes. Then you get [ticked] off. That turns into - it becomes kind of humorous and silly to you. And then it becomes ... you're just tired. It's almost like some neighbor that's always coming over, or some friend of yours who is always borrowing money. It's like, `Oh God, not again.' It's not even painful anymore, it's just drudgery."

Although the work hasn't slowed, things have otherwise quieted down. The only time he's seen the paparazzi recently, he says, was when he took his young daughter to a pumpkin patch last Halloween. Off screen, Thornton says, he lives much like a hermit, avoiding the Hollywood social scene. And that enables him to concentrate on more important things.

"I've made it part of my business to portray things in a realistic way about Southerners," he says, pointing to the for-real rocket scientist he portrays in The Astronaut Farmer as an example. "I find it astounding thay you have a fairly civilized bunch of people, artists, in the movie business that can be that narrow-minded about an area of a country. "It's time to portray the South with some dignity, where not everybody talks like Foghorn Leghorn."

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

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