Billy Bob Thornton: Acting very strange

OK, Billy Bob Thornton has a few little foibles (Fear of antiques, anyone?). But, boy, does he have charisma

Even in an industry full of quirky personalities, it's little surprise that Billy Bob Thornton has emerged as Hollywood's primo oddball. And he is absolutely fine with that.

Even in an industry full of quirky personalities, it's little surprise that Billy Bob Thornton has emerged as Hollywood's primo oddball. And he is absolutely fine with that.

Thornton first shambled his way into the public's consciousness when he won an Oscar for the screenplay for his 1996 film, Sling Blade. In the shoestring-budgeted portrait of madness, which he also directed, he played - and was Oscar nominated for - the mentally challenged Karl Childers, who returns to his home in the Deep South after years in a psychiatric institution for the murder of his mother.

Part hillbilly and part neurotic auteur, Thornton rarely turns in a sour performance. His roles have run the gamut from the US president in Love Actually to a sadistic wife-beater in Monster's Ball, and from morally ambiguous characters such as the neurotic bank-robber in Bandits, to a repressed chain-smoking barber in the Coen brothers' The Man Who Wasn't There.

His profile was heightened when he found his love match in another equally weird but compelling movie star, Angelina Jolie, who became his fifth wife. Their public displays of affection included wearing one another's blood in vials around their necks, purchasing his'n'hers grave plots and talking openly of their padded sex room. The couple were married for just three years.

I meet Thornton in his hotel in San Antonio, Texas, the setting for his latest film, The Alamo, in which he plays Davy Crockett. He's highly charismatic, with an infectious personality; you find that you just can't take your eyes off him.

And you couldn't make up his foibles. Thornton makes no attempt to hide his Obsessive Compulsive Disorder. His phobias range from the obscure - a fear of Komodo dragons, antique furniture, and plastic cutlery - to the common-or-garden, most notably, a fear of flying (which he once claimed, paradoxically, had completely disappeared after the September 11 attacks). Minutes before our interview, a publicist double-checks the room for any offending objects or furniture.

Thornton's quirky looks and elusive sexual appeal make him an unlikely candidate for the role of movie star - and for marriage to a glamour queen such as Jolie - but face to face with him, the attractiveness suddenly makes sense. His self-effacing humour is totally beguiling. Taking a swig from his bottle of beer, before offering it to me (I decline), Thornton admits: "I've always had this smooth talk with the ladies. I don't know why, but as far back as elementary school, even my mum's friends liked me."

He doesn't waste any time in setting the record straight about his phobias.

"Let's start with Komodo dragons. They have horribly toxic bacteria in their mouths. When they bite you, you instantly go blind. Who would like that?" he asks.

"I don't have a phobia about American antiques, it's mostly French," Thornton states in his slow Southern drawl. "You know, like the big, old, gold-carved chairs with the velvet cushions. The Louis XIV type. That's what creeps me out. I can spot the imitation antiques a mile off. They have a different vibe. Not as much dust."

In conversations like these, I struggle to deduce if the joke's on me, or if he is indeed deadly serious. I quickly decide on the latter. "My latest one is drinking liquid Cayenne pepper," he says, "because a doctor told me I had the biggest fear of parasites he had ever seen in his life.

"And I don't have a problem with flying. I just have a problem with crashing," he deadpans. "The plastic cutlery one is true to a certain degree. It's not that I won't use it; it's just that I won't use real silver. You know, like the big, old, heavy-ass forks and knives, I can't do that. It's the same thing as the antique furniture. I just don't like old stuff. I'm creeped out by it, and I have no explanation why."

I ask him if he's sought professional help, which he finds extremely funny.

"Not really, no," he replies. "It doesn't bother me. It keeps me from sitting on a lot of dusty chairs!"

Taking another swig of beer, Thornton attempts to clarify. "I'm probably not as weird as people say I am," he says. "I'm more of a regular guy. Maybe there is some truth somewhere in all these things people say about me, but it's usually blown up into this nightmarish thing."

But there's one more thing that Thornton just can't abide. Shakespeare.

"I think he's overrated. I think it's bullshit," he says straight-faced. "I would never go and see a Shakespeare play. Who would want to see me play Hamlet? Who cares? I don't know why actors do it. Shakespeare is just a bunch of soap operas."

I question his comprehension of our revered playwright.

"It's not that I don't understand it," he barks back. "It's not that hard to understand. I think that we bring a lot of pretentious baggage with us as we go along. It's like people who love the Blues. They say: 'I'm a Blues aficionado.' What the hell does that mean? If you listen to the Blues, it's really the same song. How many Blues songs can you listen to before you want to blow your brains out?"

Another obsession is horoscopes. When he is in the director's chair, he assigns an astrological sign to each actor's character that contrasts with their own.

"I try to confuse them," he says. "No, it's to help them play someone else. I always try to play a different person in every movie but some actors tend to be the same. I just tell them, hey read this... you're a Virgo, so read your horoscope, that's who you are."

Perhaps the cast could have benefited from that technique in Thornton's latest film, which has had only tepid box-office success. Produced by Ron Howard, The Alamo is directed and co-written by John Lee Hancock and stars Dennis Quaid, Jason Patric and the Hollywood newcomer Patrick Wilson. This historical drama details the Texas revolution and the siege of the Alamo in 1836, during which 200 ordinary men fighting for the independence of Texas held the fort for 13 days against thousands of Mexican soldiers, led by the ruler of Mexico, General Santa Anna.

The film was poorly received in the States, but the blame does not rest on Thornton's shoulders: he turns in an eerily polished performance as the charismatic and fearless Davy Crockett, one of the Texans' leaders. Thornton jumped at the chance to depict the legendary frontiersman. "It was a dream come true," he nods. "It's one of those parts that when they offer it to you, you can't believe it."

Not everyone has been so reverential of the location. A certain Ozzy Osbourne, for instance, who was arrested after urinating on the Alamo while wearing one of his wife's dresses, for which he was banned from the site for 10 years. Thornton shakes his head.

"You know what," he mutters. "I understand the humour involved in something like that. I understand the rock'n'roll lifestyle because I live it. However, I really don't think it's right to desecrate a place where people died."

Seconds later a wry smile slowly creeps across his face. "But who am I to talk? You see I do it all the time. Last night, I peed off the hotel balcony. But don't worry, there was no little old lady below. I checked."

Born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, the eldest of three boys, Thornton grew up in a home with no running water or electricity. According to his colourful yarns, suppers often consisted of freshly cooked squirrel. Thornton's father, Billy-Ray was a teacher, and his mother, Virginia, a psychic. He's been married five times ("I would do it again in a heartbeat," he says), and has three children - a 22-year-old daughter, Amanda, with first wife, Melissa Gatlin, and sons William, eight, and Harry, seven, with his fourth wife, Pietra Cherniak.

After graduation, Thornton worked in a sawmill, and formed several rock bands, before moving to California to try his hand at acting. (He has released two CDs, including 2002's enjoyable slice of "southern hippy", Private Radio, and he regularly tours the States with his band.)

After the triumph of Sling Blade, Thornton turned in excellent supporting performances in films such as Primary Colors, A Simple Plan, Armageddon and Pushing Tin. In 2000, he directed and produced a lyrical adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel, All the Pretty Horses, and penned The Gift.

One of his most memorable roles to date was in Monster's Ball, for which his co-star, Halle Berry, won Best Actress Oscar. It's a visceral masterpiece of a film, and Thornton dominates as a racist prison guard who finds his life falling apart.

Thornton doesn't claim to be anything extraordinary. "I don't consider what I have to be talent. I think I have a very rich life experience, so I don't have to invent anything, which makes it easier for me. I live a pretty strange life. All I have to do is sit down and start writing stuff down that I know already. I'm just copying stuff out of my heart, my soul and my brain."

However, there was a brief bleak period in Thornton's early twenties when he dabbled with hallucinogenics.

"I remember the night I gave it all up. I was watching The Honeymooners on a little black-and-white TV with some friends in this trailer. Jackie Gleason was doing things in the show which I knew damn well he could not have been doing in the show.

"I was out there, man. When you're high, you start having these stupid thoughts of what will make you better. 'If I can only get in my neighbour's yard and start his lawn mower, everything will be OK.' It wasn't the worst experience I'd ever had, but I thought... what an asshole. What am I doing? So, I just stopped."

Oddly, given his paranoias, one thing Thornton does embrace is fame.

"It doesn't bother me, as long as the people are friendly. I can't stand rudeness. You know who are the worst? Teenage boys. They walk up to you and go: 'Dude, give me an autograph.' Here's the deal... I'm 49 years old. You should learn to walk up to me and say: 'Excuse me, I know you're trying to eat your Cheez Whiz, but may I have an autograph?' Then it's cool. But if you just come up and say: 'Dude, where's my autograph...?' Sorry, sign your own skateboard."

'The Alamo' opens today

Arts and Entertainment
Kristin Scott Thomas outside the Royal Opera House before the ceremony (Getty)
film
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Channel 4's Indian Summers
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Kanye West found himself at the centre of a critical storm over the weekend after he apparently claimed to be “the next Mandela” during a radio interview
music
Arts and Entertainment
Daniel Craig and Rory Kinnear film Spectre in London
film
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tvWhy BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

    The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
    A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

    It's not easy being Green

    After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
    Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

    Gorillas nearly missed

    BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
    Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

    The Downton Abbey effect

    Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
    China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

    China's wild panda numbers on the up

    New census reveals 17% since 2003
    Barbara Woodward: Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with the growing economic superpower

    Our woman in Beijing builds a new relationship

    Britain's first female ambassador to China intends to forge strong links with growing economic power
    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer. But the only British soldier to be awarded the Victoria Cross in Afghanistan has both

    Courage is rare. True humility is even rarer

    Beware of imitations, but the words of the soldier awarded the Victoria Cross were the real thing, says DJ Taylor