Billy Bob Thornton's career has spanned more than three decades, earning him an Academy Award (for penning the Sling Blade screenplay), plenty of accolades, and juicy roles.
Thornton's latest turn as the malevolent Lorne Malvo on Fargo marks the rise (and fall) of one of the most sinister characters to take television by the throat this year. From his first moments on screen, blood-red light streaking over his eyes on the road, to his literally bloody end, Thornton has brought a unique kind of evil to the small screen and viewers have gobbled up every lascivious moment.
We had the chance to chat with the actor about his run as on Fargo this season, how he got into Malvo's twisted mind, and what he thinks of the role of technology in entertainment.
"Malvo is all about having a job to do and whatever he has to do to do it. That's what he does, and he has supreme confidence," Thornton says of his character's motivation. "He doesn't think about failure, and he's not afraid of anything."
It's true. Malvo's not even afraid of terrible haircuts reminiscent of the Coen brothers' film version of Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men. In fact, Malvo's got quite a lot in common with the cattle gun-toting hitman Chigurh. Malvo stirs up trouble wherever he goes, killing just about anyone that gets in his way, and wreaking havoc on the lives of those he doesn't murder. Thornton readily describes Malvo as "an animal -- and animals are eating machines."
"Malvo is almost like God and the devil wrapped into one, and I think these things were just going to happen. Do you know what I mean?" Thornton says of Malvo's simultaneously impish and Biblical more-than-human nature. "I think a lot of this is about faith. You always think about, 'If I'd only gotten on my motorcycle two minutes later, then I wouldn't have hit that deer. Or whatever it is.' Malvo is kind of the spirit that makes all those things happen, sort of lines up people's faith for them."
Thornton says that Malvo is probably one of the only characters he's ever played that doesn't actually have a back story. He points out that an origin story would may have ruined the character and given viewers an excuse to feel for Malvo and rationalize his malice. "It might give me too many reasons to do things, and I didn't want to do that," Thornton says. "So it's the first time I've ever not had a back story in my head or otherwise."
On Fargo, it looks like the Malvo's sinister temperament sits squarely on Thornton's shoulders -- much like that fur-collared coat he's sporting most of the time. Turns out Malvo's physical nature was partially intentional and partially inspired by Thornton's self-described Montgomery Burns stature. "I think a lot of that is just because after years and years of injuries and weighing 140 pounds," Thornton says. "I look like Homer Simpson's boss to start with -- my physicality -- so some of it is just natural. But I did choose to be very sort of slinky and I just sort of appear from places."
Indeed, Malvo often creeps up on people unawares -- remember that silent, lone wolf from the finale? -- and that part of the character was a wholly conscious choice on Thornton's part. "I did choose to be very quiet, but not like purposely menacing like the guy who twirls his mustache," Thornton explains. "Malvo even acts like he's a pal to people sometimes, especially Lester. That was conscious to make him not the typical bad guy, who screams a lot and grits his teeth and grabs people by the collar."
That being said, Thornton doesn't think Malvo could have left Lester alone even if the meddling insurance man had backed off after re-introducing himself the first time in Vegas. "I think Malvo is kind of like a cat with a mouse," Thornton says of the tug and pull between Malvo and Lester in the hotel during one of the last episodes of the season. He also references scene that highlights Malvo's signature animalistic nature "in a little café where [Malvo tells Lester] about how he needs to be a man and step up and realize that we were once apes."
Like many of the other cast members of Fargo, Thornton has a particular fondness for working with Keith Carradine, who plays Lou. "I've particularly enjoyed working with Keith Carradine in the one scene we've had so far in his diner," he says. "I've always wanted to work with Keith. You could feel two actors disappearing into their characters in that scene. I remember coming out of it as if I'd actually been through something."
Thornton had a handful of other favorite scenes, including a few right from the very first episode, such as the ones with Martin Freeman (Lester) in the hospital waiting room and the face-off with Colin Hanks (Gus) before Malvo speeds off in his car. "I remember those as particularly good moments," he says. "I remember feeling completely lost in them that we were really there, but I have to say all the stuff we did just felt really good."
Beyond his scenes with the other actors on set, Thornton also had to tap into the minds and physicality of Malvo's disguises; however, the actor says it wasn't so much a case of playing a new character as it was expanding the original one. "The thing is, is at the end of the day there was always at the root of it all, he was still Malvo and knew he was," Thornton explains. "No matter what he was pretending to be, it was like camouflage for an animal in the forest really, so I tried not to think about it too much."
Though he tried not to get too much into the heads of Malvo's other identities, Thornton admits there was one of the alter-egos that he really enjoyed, especially because he got to tap into the same Minnesotan vibe that all the other actors were doing day in and day out. "I have to say playing Frank Peterson gave me a particular thrill," he says. "Just because I was around all those other actors, who were doing these type of characters, and I was thinking, 'I wish I could do one of those just one day.' So I was thrilled when I found out I got to do it even for a minute there, so I would say, yes, Frank Peterson really thrilled me."
Having worked with the Coens before, Thornton had a good idea of the world he was about to immerse himself in with the television show. He also acknowledges that there's a lot the current showrunners owe to the original filmmakers for breaking cinematic ground that hadn't been touched on in the same way the Coens have.
"Something that I think has been overlooked a little bit and not talked about enough is that if it weren't for Joel and Ethan Coen, we wouldn't be here," Thornton says. "They created a whole new genre practically for movies. It's not that nobody else had that dark sense of humor and nobody else had thought about these kinds of things in their mind before. Otherwise the Coen brothers wouldn't have any fans. But all those people who had that sensibility, they hadn't done it yet. The Coen brothers are the first to do it. They set this tone, and deserve the credit for us even having this show."
Despite the Fargo's devoted internet following that analyze everything from the episodes' parables to Coen brothers Easter eggs on the show, Thornton admits that he doesn't follow the technological side of the entertainment industry, whether it's being on set or social media. "I try to stay in the snow or the trees and with the people more so," Thornton reveals.
"I try not to think about the technology whatsoever," he says. "I think in some ways technology has really helped us, but I wish it would be relegated to the medical field and business and stuff like that rather than art, to tell you the truth. I see a day coming when we're not going to be using film anymore at all. I'm not sure why we need to see every pimple -- but that's the way it is now -- and I just try to ignore it as much as possible."