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

Tiffany Rose
Friday 03 September 2004 00:00 BST

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.

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"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

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