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Billy Bob Thornton On his Devilish New Turn in FX’s Fargo

By on April 11, 2014

Pictured: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo. CR: Chris Large/FX

Fargo premieres on FX on April 15. Based on the 1996 film of the same name, the new 10 part series is co-executive produced by the Cohen brothers (creators of the original film), and stars Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo, a drifter who comes to the unassuming town of Bemidji, Minnesota where he begins to assert a dark influence over the inhabitants, including a hapless insurance salesman named Lester Nygard (Martin Freeman).

This week, ScreenSpy sat down with Thornton to discuss the ambitious new series, his experience of working on a TV project, and with co-star Martin Freeman, and of course his latest dark turn as the sinister Malvo.

“I think what really attracted me to [Malvo] was not so much that he didn’t have a conscience, as he has this bizarre sense of humor where he likes to mess with people,” says Thornton of his darkly humorous but equally dangerous character.

“Most criminals if they go in to rob, say, 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.

“It’s sort of in keeping with the tone of the Coen Brothers to have a character like that.  But [writer] Noah Hawley managed to walk a tightrope with this thing and he does a great job.  I mean, he captured the tone of the Coen Brothers and kept the spirit of their movie, and yet made it its own animal, which is a pretty tough job.

“And 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 Christmas time and stuff like that, and yet they’re one of the meanest, most ruthless predators on earth. And so, Malvo probably doesn’t think of himself that way.  He just thinks of the moment and how do I get the job done?”

Pictured: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo. CR: Chris Large/FX

Pictured: Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo. CR: Chris Large/FX

But Malvo is not just menace personified. As with the Cohen brothers’ film version, there is a generous vein of dark comedy throughout the series, highlighted in the actions of Thornton’s devilish character who lives to create chaos in the lives of ordinary and unassuming people.

“I look at Malvo’s sense of humor as his only recreation,” says Thornton. “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,” he laughs.

Added to Malvo’s sinister intent is a very specific look, which Thornton admits was actually born from a hair-styling mistake.

I got a bad haircut,” he explains. “We had planned on dyeing my hair and having a dark beard and all that kind of thing, but I didn’t plan on having bangs.  But then, instead of fixing it, it wouldn’t do, right? So 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.  So, really just the look and Noah Hawley’s script which was so tightly written, and so good, that all I kind of had to do was show up really.”

The series sees Malvo coming into contact with one Lester Nygaard, an unassuming life insurance salesman, played by Sherlock and The Hobbit star Martin Freeman (Look out for our interview with Freeman coming soon.) whose Minnesotan accent Thornton describes as “pristine.”

“It was a pleasure working with him,” says Thornton. “He’s so easy to work with and a terrific guy and a terrific actor.  The scenes I did with him were so easy to do. I think a lot of that is because we’re such opposites that we’re not playing buddies or anything. So, I just sit down and do what I do and he does what he does and that’s the way it would happen in real life and all of that.  But in terms of the accent, he did a stellar job.  You would never know if you ran into him that he wasn’t from Duluth or Fargo or wherever.  He did a great job.  So, he must have worked very hard at that.  Either that, or he’s just naturally good with accents because it was pristine.”

Pictured: Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard . CR: Chris Large/FX

Pictured: Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard . CR: Chris Large/FX

Although fans may more easily associate Freeman with TV roles, for Thornton, famous for his film roles, the decision to take part in a TV series was actually a logical  one.

“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. And so there’s no reason not to and I have to face it, that’s my audience now and all the guys my age, the ones, 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 and I think The Sopranos I guess kicked it off.

“That’s when we all started thinking, hey, wait a minute.  This is the place to be and shows like The Wire and things like that.  And 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.”

Having watched the pilot, I ask Thornton what fans can expect to see going forward.

Well, that’s all I’ve seen also is the pilot,” he admits with a laugh.  “And I, obviously, know what happens, but the pilot really sets it up good.  And the great thing about doing 10 episodes of something is that you get to feel like you’re making a movie and at the same time feel like you have something to follow for several weeks.

“And each episode just leaves you thinking because all these extreme characters, it just leaves you thinking each time, it’s like what in the world are these people going to do next?  What’s he going to do about this and where the hell is this going?

“It’s very mysterious and that’s what I like about it.  It’s not like cliffhangers and thrillers and things like that, it is a mystery and I think people love mysteries.  We always have.  That’s why they never go away.  And so, you have the combination of a crime show in sort of a white bread community with a mystery and I just think that people are going to want to know what happens to all these folks, both good and bad.”

The excellent Fargo premieres on FX on Tuesday, April 15th at 10:00 p.m. ET.

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