By James Calemine
“I just kind of play myself to tell you the truth.”
–Billy Bob Thornton
Today’s dispatch revolves around Billy Bob Thornton. This morning I just re-listened to his band The Boxmasters’ great new album In Stereo! released last month. The emotive music evokes panoramic images like most of Thornton’s writing…
Billy Bob Thornton’s career skyrocketed since his 1991 directorial debut about the Athens, Georgia, band Widespread Panic titled Live from the Georgia Theatre. His connection to Phil Walden, Widespread Panic and Capricorn Records led to the filming of his masterpiece Sling Blade that won an Academy Award. From there, he’s only ascended…
Thornton paid his dues. Hollywood can be ruthless to southern actors as the Arkansas-born Thornton revealed in a recent New York Times interview: “There is some prejudice against actors from the South. I didn’t really get auditions when I was coming up in Hollywood. They either wanted me to play a hillbilly or a killer, sometimes at the same time! Sometimes they’d even say I wasn’t Southern enough. Really, I am not Southern enough? They wanted me to talk like Big Daddy [in the Mississippi-set “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof”].
In 2017, Thornton won a Golden Globe for Best Actor in the Drama TV Series for Goliath; season two is now running on Amazon Prime. Thornton’s been touring with his stellar and underrated band The Boxmasters this summer. He stars in a new film with Amber Heard called London Fields that will hit theatres on September 21.
At 63, Thornton shows no signs of slowing down. That’s good news. My favorite Thornton films (in no particular order) count as The Man Who Wasn’t There, Sling Blade, Monster’s Ball, Friday Night Lights, One False Move, A Simple Plan, The Alamo, Primary Colors, Bad News Bears, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Bad Santa, U Turn, Pushing Tin, Homegrown, Jayne Mansfield’s Car, Chrystal, Dead Man, The Badge, Levity, The Apostle, Tombstone and his direction of All The Pretty Horses (even though it was cut to bits) adapted from a Cormac McCarthy novel.
I caught up with Billy Bob last year in Macon, Georgia, where the Boxmasters performed at the Douglass Theatre. My friend Michael “Buffalo” Smith introduced us. “Bud”, as his close friends call Thornton, proved to be very down to earth, and friendly. No traces of Hollywood condescension emanated from Mr. Thornton. We talked like we knew each other for years about music, baseball, writing, and his California home. We smoke the same brand of American Spirit cigarettes. I gave him my first two books–The Local Stranger and a galley of Insured Beyond The Grave. “I look forward to reading these books, James. I need a new book to read on the tour bus.” I mailed him Insured Beyond The Grave Vol.2 a couple of weeks ago.
In April of this year, Thornton told the New York Times: “I’m in a business I hate, but I worship L.A. I’ve been in L.A. 38 years. This is the city where my kids were born and raised, and the place where my dreams were realized.”
I believe him. This June, Thornton informed the L.A. Times what he thought about the weird social media-driven hysteria that surrounds public figures, and how he doesn’t really play the game: “I don’t think the audience cares about what I have to say anymore. I think they still care [about me] as [an] actor. I think I’m obsolete as a writer and director. I think I would probably come across as the old guy saying The Beatles are better than the music now. Personal stories seem to be less important right now. Issue stories are important. My issues are things you can’t write about anyway. A) it gets you in trouble, and B) nobody’s going to listen.”
I’m looking forward to watching the rest of Goliath season two, and his new film London Fields. And as far as “Bud” Thornton’s music, writing and films go–it’s redemptive to know he’s achieved everything on his own instinctive southern comfort…
Photo Credit #1 Kendrick Brinson
Photo Credit #2 Robert Gauthier