Nearly 20 years after the release of Joel and Ethan Coen’s Fargo, FX is returning to small-town Minnesota for a new tale of murder and mystery. The 10-episode original series features a new cast of bizarre characters that includes Lorne Malvo, a drifter and gun for hire who gets his kicks by exploiting weaknesses and toying with people in any way that he can, usually for no other reason than to amuse himself.
In a recent conference call with journalists, Billy Bob Thornton spoke about portraying the villainous Malvo, working alongside Martin Freeman, and the new opportunities being offered by the ever-changing landscape of television.
In previous interviews, you’ve described the character of Lorne Malvo as having no conscience. How do you get into that sort of mindset, to play a character like that?
Well, you know, usually when you’re playing a character you think a lot about their back story and that kind of thing, and in this instance I didn’t want to do that because I doubt Malvo thinks much about his past anyway. So even the character, the guy himself, probably wouldn’t think much about it.
It was so well written that I didn’t have to really do much in order to portray the character. I think what really attracted me to it was not as much that he didn’t have a conscience, as he has this bizarre sense of humor where he likes to mess with people. Most criminals, if they go in to rob a clothing store or something, they go get the money and they get out of there. But Malvo would look at their sweater and say, “why are you wearing that sweater? I mean, you work in a clothing store. Look at all those nice sweaters over there. You look like a bag person.” And so, it’s just a very odd thing.
I just thought it was so clearly drawn and I just had to kind of be there. I looked at Malvo as a guy who is a member of the animal kingdom, you know? We don’t get mad at polar bears, they’re all white and fluffy and they do Coke commercials with them at Christmastime and stuff like that, and yet they’re one of the meanest, most ruthless predators on earth.
Was there anything about the character that you added, something that wasn’t originally scripted?
A weird haircut, which was actually a mistake. I got a bad haircut and we had planned on dyeing my hair and a dark beard and all that kind of thing, but I didn’t plan on having bangs. But I didn’t fix it because I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought, “hang on a second here, this is like 1967 L.A. rock. I could be the bass player of the Buffalo Springfield. This is good. Or, Ken Burns, the dark side of Ken Burns.” And bangs are normally associated with innocence and I thought that juxtaposition was pretty great, so that was added.
You manage to make the character of Malvo scary, yet strangely likeable. Was that a difficult balance to achieve?
Well, actually, that’s kind of been my wheelhouse, sort of intense characters, but who have a certain sympathetic streak and also a sense of humor. I don’t know what it is, but maybe it’s that Malvo senses weakness in people or stupidity or whatever. He’s got this sort of animal instinct and he just smells people out and I think a lot of times, especially these days and times when the world is going kind of crazy, I think we’re all frustrated and want to just shake people a little bit. And so maybe through Malvo you get a chance to slap somebody around a little bit, I don’t know. Maybe that’s it.
But one way or the other, yeah, it is a fine balance. You’ve got to be menacing, but I look at Malvo’s sense of humor as his only recreation. I mean, it’s like for Malvo to mess with people the way he does, which he doesn’t have to, he could just leave or just use them for whatever he’s using them for, but he still has to mess with them some. And I think for him, that’s his recreation. It’s his only social contact and so, screwing with people for Malvo is kind of like jet skiing for most people.
There’s such an interesting contrast between Malvo and Martin Freeman’s character, Lester. Whereas Lester can’t seem to control his own destiny, Malvo seems to have absolute control over his. Can you talk a little bit about that contrast?
Well, Malvo smells weakness in people. He smells nervousness, weakness, fear, anything like that and has an abundance of confidence in himself. I don’t think he ever considers losing, whereas Lester is just a nervous ball of mess. And I do like when you see two characters at the opposite end of the spectrum together. They end up being kind of strange bedfellows, and it was a really interesting dynamic.
We didn’t really have to work on it. It just naturally happened. And Martin himself seems to be a very confident person, so I think he probably maybe had to downgrade his confidence a little bit. And me, by nature, I’m a very nervous, worrisome person, so I had to drop that a little. So, I think both of us had to definitely shed some of our real life stuff in order to play the characters.
You’ve also talked about independent film offering fewer opportunities than it has in recent years, and that a lot of those opportunities are moving toward television. How does a series like Fargo fit into that equation?
Well, the fact of the matter is that Baby Boomers, in particular, really have to look to television now, not only the performers and the writers and everything, but the audience. When I was coming up, [television] was a bad word. And now, it has a cache and actors are clamoring to go on television because it’s a place that we can do the things we were doing in movies.
There’s a spot that television is filling that the movie business is not, which is the medium budget studio movies, the $25 million, $30 million adult dramas or adult comedies and the higher budget independent films, the $10 million, $12 million independent films. And you can still make a great independent film, but you’re not guaranteed anybody will ever see it because nobody takes that much interest in putting it out, you know, putting money into distributing it.
So, they want to put 10 movie stars in a $3 million movie so they can cover their asses on the foreign sales and all that kind of stuff and there’s more freedom in television because in an independent film even or a studio film, you can do a movie about heroin smugglers, but you can’t smoke. Wait a minute, you can sell heroin, but you can’t smoke? I don’t understand that. But they’re going for a certain demographic or whatever it is and trying to sell it everywhere.
And on TV you have even more creative freedom now. And I think part of that is censorship has loosened up over the years, and now you have sex and violence and language and stuff on TV. So, all those things that made us not want to do television when I was coming up in the 80s are gone. So there’s no reason not to and I have to face it, that’s my audience now, and all the guys my age, all of us that came up together, a lot of us even born the same year, Costner and Bill Paxton and Dennis Quaid and Kevin Bacon; our audience watches television.
That’s when we all started thinking, “hey, wait a minute. This is the place to be.” You can do terrific work in television now and have a lot of freedom, and there are independent films that pop through every now and then and there are some good studio movies that come through every now and then. But it’s the exception rather than the rule now.
We’re starting to see more of these contained, single-season stories, like True Detective. As an actor, how do you feel about that format, especially with Fargo being conceived in much the same way, being described as a 10-hour movie?
Well, that’s true and that’s what it felt like making it. It felt like doing a 10-hour independent film. That’s very appealing. I’ve been accused many times as a writer/director of my pace is too leisurely and it’s too long and stuff like that. Well, here’s a chance to do that kind of thing, and you’ve got 10 hours to do it in. Actually, it feels great and there’s great appeal in that for actors, writers and maybe not so much directors because the directing world in television is more, those guys just come in and do a couple of episodes and they’re gone.
But for the creator or writer it’s a really great thing to be able to develop characters and develop stories. We would all like to make at least a three-hour movie, but here you get a chance to do a 10-hour. But also, this doesn’t mean that I’m giving up doing movies. So, I can do this, do 10 episodes and it’s over and then still do two movies that year. So, it’s very appealing in that sense and I’m sure that came into play with McConaughey and Woody when they did True Detective. It’s a way to do both.
If you came up as a film actor you don’t have to give it up. You can do great work in television and then on the occasion that you get a movie that you really love you can still do it. I had no desire to get involved in a TV series that was going to last six or seven years. I’m not saying I wouldn’t, but that wasn’t really what I was looking for. When I was offered this, it seemed perfect to me. So, there’s a great appeal in it and I think you’ll see more and more of it.
I’m even thinking that way now. It’s like some of these movies that I can’t get made, like if I walked in a studio and pitched this movie that I want to do, they laugh you out of the room. It’s like, “are you kidding me? You can’t sell bubble gum and toys with that.” And I’m thinking, well, you know what, maybe there’s a way to do this movie as a three part thing like, for instance, Costner did with the Hatfields & McCoys.
As a writer and director, would you be interested in developing your own project for that format? Or are you more interested in being involved in a limited-run project as an actor?
Probably, immediately more as an actor. But down the road I definitely have my eye on at least writing something. Probably not as a director so much, because directors who are directing a series, they have different ones come in all the time. So, you’re kind of coming onto a moving train and I’ve tended to generate my own things as a writer and director most of the time.
And if I could create an original thing like, say, Kevin did with the Hatfields & McCoys or something, something that I came up with that was more movie length, like say a three-part thing or if they start doing more two-hour movies for TV, I think that would be more where I would go as a writer or, especially a director.
I think my nervousness, or if I was hesitant at all about it, it would just be simply because there’s some great TV creator/writers out there and I’d probably feel very intimidated, hoping that I was able to come up with something innovative or at least interesting to people, because I’m influenced by Southern novelists mainly and kind of make books on film, which I think is probably obsolete in the movie business these days. They’re not ones that the distributors are clamoring for.
You’ve taken so many different roles over the course of your career, and you’ve worked on both sides of the camera. Is there anything that you’re still surprised to learn about yourself?
Oh, gosh, when you get my age there’s not much you’re surprised about. With this character it was really, because he doesn’t have a conscience and because I’m not thinking about a back story here, it didn’t cause me to learn a whole lot about myself. It did make me know that I can do that. I was capable of going in there and like, erasing any sort of like human feelings that I might have about a situation. That was an interesting challenge.
But a lot of times as an actor you’re trying to think constantly and in this case I was trying not to, so that was a little bit the opposite, and so I guess I learned that I could do that. I also learned that when you get in your 50s, that 42 below zero feels much worse than when you’re in your 30s.
Fargo premieres on April 15 at 10pm, exclusively on FX.