Billy Bob Thornton is a long way from “Bad Santa” territory in his latest film, the feel-good inspirational drama “The Astronaut Farmer.”
In fact, the film — about a family man who risks his farm to fulfill his lifelong dream to be an astronaut — is startlingly wholesome, and so is Thornton’s portrayal. Only Thornton — a star who is equally at home running mission control (“Armageddon”) or coaching a ragtag group of young ballplayers (“The Bad News Bears”) — could pull off a believable performance as a man who builds a rocket in his barn.
MTV News caught up with Billy Bob to talk astronauts, super-villains and why he’ll never wear a funny hat.
MTV: This is certainly a change of pace from your recent foul-mouthed authority-figure roles, isn’t it?
Billy Bob Thornton: Well, when you look at the whole career, I’ve only done three or four comedies. I’m more known for things like “Monster’s Ball” and “Sling Blade,” but “Bad Santa” kind of became iconic quickly. Hollywood has a pretty narrow vision. If they see something succeed, they want to do it again, so after “Bad Santa” they called me up wanting me to do that some more, and I did a couple of them. I had fun doing “Bad News Bears,” but I did want to do another drama next. I had always wanted to do a movie like this, a Jimmy Stewart/ Frank Capra kind of thing or something like “Field of Dreams” or “Hoosiers,” a triumphant movie. So when this came along, it was perfect.
MTV: The movie begins with a startling image of an astronaut on horseback. Clearly this is a film that’s striving for something mythic. That must be appealing for an actor.
Thornton: There’s no question about it. You see moments like that and you know those are images that will be remembered for some time and maybe years and years later, even more. I had the same feeling as I had when I saw the opening of [Stanley Kubrick’s “2001: A Space Odyssey”]. Even though I’m on Earth, it looks like I’m on some other planet or the moon. It was intriguing right away.
MTV: Were astronauts a big deal to you growing up?
Thornton: Astronauts were a big deal to me. Astronauts were like cowboys. They were big heroes to us. We used to take tables and chairs and pretend they were a capsule. Astronauts were like the Beatles. These days we’re kind of jaded. The idols that kids have now are some ballplayer that gets a DUI every third or fourth day.
MTV: When you did “Armageddon,” did they give you a chance to ride in that zero-gravity plane?
Thornton: No. I was the earthbound guy. I didn’t get involved in all that, and I was fine not doing it. [He laughs.] But if I had the chance to go into space and orbit the Earth, I’d do that.
MTV: If you went into space, what would you like to be the first to do there?
Thornton: I’d like to be the first guy in space to jam with the Allman Brothers. [He laughs.] You’d have to get them up there too. And they have a pretty big band.
MTV: In the years since “Sling Blade,” you’ve done a few films that some call instant classics. What about the ones that didn’t quite work? What are the near-misses?
Thornton: “The Alamo” was a disappointment for me. I got amazing reviews for that movie and you’d think that would make you feel good, but I grew up as an athlete and it’s like, if the team doesn’t win, it doesn’t make any difference. I think people aren’t interested in historically accurate films, which is what [director] John Lee Hancock made. He made a movie about what actually happened, and he set it up. He told you why the Alamo took place so you had an hour of a history lesson, and people aren’t interested in that.
MTV: Then there’s something like “A Simple Plan,” which is generally thought to be a great film but few people saw.
Thornton: I would say that is my best unrecognized movie without any doubt. I think it’s an amazing movie. I loved playing that character. It was made for a major studio, and major studios don’t really care that much about those kinds of movies. They get involved in it for whatever reason, and then they realize later on, “Oh, it’s one of those kinds of movies where they talk.” So when it’s time to put the money up to advertise it, they’re not that interested.
MTV: Did the director of that, Sam Raimi, ever call you up and ask you to be in one of the “Spider-Man” movies?
Thornton: Yeah, he actually did on the first one. He offered me the part of the bad guy, the surfing guy.
MTV: The Green Goblin? Did you consider taking it?
Thornton: No. I told Sam, “I just can’t be in makeup that long.” I’d go crazy. But frankly I was never interested in being the bad guy. For some reason people think that I’ve played the bad guy a lot, but I really haven’t.
MTV: You’ve played plenty of antiheroes.
Thornton: Yes, very flawed people. Generally, I play the guy who on the surface looks like he is something but by the end you realize this was the guy who knew what he was talking about. I’ve never had the desire to be the bad guy to the big movie star. I think it’s not a good career move.
MTV: Are there deal-breakers for you in a movie that will ensure you won’t sign on?
Thornton: There are a couple of things. I told my agent one time, “Here are the rules: I don’t want to play anybody that wears a funny hat. And I also never want to be a part of a task force.” [He laughs.]
MTV: You famously clashed with Miramax over your direction of “All the Pretty Horses.” How will you approach directing your next film about the famed cave explorer Floyd Collins?
Thornton: I’m going to have a contract that looks like the yellow pages.
MTV: So you’ll have final cut?
Thornton: Definitely. I had final cut on “All the Pretty Horses” but only up to two hours. Anything over two hours was theirs. As a result, the movie was an hour and 59 minutes. [He laughs.] “Floyd Collins” is something I really want to do. It’s an important movie, but I’m having a lot of trouble talking a studio into doing it because it’s a period drama. You may as well walk in there and say, “I want to do a movie about a pencil and a bowl of soup.”
Check out everything we’ve got on “The Astronaut Farmer.”
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