As seen on TV

Billy Bob Thornton finds a fit with FX’s ‘Fargo’

 
Alberto E. Rodriguez / Getty Images

After failed attempts and broken dreams, by golly, someone went and put Fargo on series TV.

The 10-episode season premieres 10 p.m. Tuesday on FX as a furtherance of the 1996 crime classic by Joel and Ethan Coen. Like that film, the series is set in rural, snow-glazed Minnesota, but 20 years later (in 2006), and is stocked with new characters, deadly mischief and a bounty of stars including Billy Bob Thornton, as Lorne Malvo, a sotto-voce psycho with a mysterious path.

The Oscar winner radiates still menace while sporting what he calls “a haircut gone wrong.”

“This was not from a salon,” Thornton explains to the Associated Press. “It was done by a friend. But looking in the mirror, I thought, ‘Wow — this dark character having bangs, which you associate with innocence, would be great.’ So we decided to go with it.”

And when he encountered Lorne Malvo in the pilot script, “I don’t know why, but I just went, ‘Yeah. That fits: a hand in a glove.’”

Another appeal: playing someone with no conscience.

“He has this weird sense of humor. He likes to mess with people. And as we went along I started thinking, he’s a loner, so messing with people is actually his social life, his recreation.”

This is a guy who, when threatened on his home turf by a thug twice his size, unconcernedly steps to his bathroom, drops his trousers and takes a seat. His foe, appalled, beats a hasty retreat.

“He doesn’t like weakness,” Thornton adds. “He has this weird curiosity about weak people. And he sees them as people he can use.”

Speaking with a reporter in New York last week, the 58-year-old Thornton is jauntily clad in pants with broad black-and-navy stripes, T-shirt, leather jacket, boots and knit fingerless gloves. He is friendly, easygoing and charismatic with his soft Southern accent — like his character, a force to be reckoned with.

“The most important thing for an actor to know is who he is,” Thornton says. “He’s got to know, ‘OK, I’m the guy for this role — or not.’ Like I always tell people, ‘If you’re doing a movie about Charles de Gaulle, get a French man. That ain’t me.’

“People will say, ‘Well, you need to stretch yourself as an actor.’ But if you start trying to play people who are inherently not you, that’s not going to be your strongest stuff.”

No one can say Thornton hasn’t stretched. He has scored in popcorn comedies like Bad Santa and Mr. Woodcock between decidedly grown-up dramas: the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, Monster’s Ball, A Simple Plan and, of course, Sling Blade, which he wrote, directed and starred in, winning an Oscar for best adapted screenplay and a best actor nod.

He arrived in Los Angeles as a young man from backwoods Arkansas, looking to write for Hollywood or form a rock band (music remains a lifelong passion).

This country boy with a hayseed triple name may have seemed like a long shot in Tinseltown, “but I’ve always believed in providence,” says Thornton. “Things were really hard at first, but I always had this belief that it was going to be OK.”

Then he found his way into an acting class.

“My desire was just to be a working actor,” he replies when asked the scope of his career goal.

“I thought I’d always be sixth or seventh on the call sheet. I never expected much more.”

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