The Softer Side of Billy Bob Thornton

The actor known for bad-boy roles discusses his inspirational movie, coping with his dad's death, and hanging out with his kids.

BY: Interview by Michael Kress

 
Billy Bob Thornton

Despite his alpha male reputation, Billy Bob Thornton--actor, director, screenwriter, and musician--wants it to be known that he spends most of his free time hanging out with his kids and watching television. Known for mature-themed films like "Sling Blade" and "Monster Ball," the much-tattooed actor stars (with

Virginia Madsen

) in the new family film "The Astronaut Farmer." In it, Thornton plays Charlie Farmer, a family man and farmer who, despite financial hardships and the mockery of his neighbors, is building his own homemade rocket ship to fulfill his lifelong dream of experiencing space travel.



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Listen to Billy Bob Thornton talk about:
On His Father's Death
Growing Up a "Semi-Catholic"
Preach Less, Act More
Being Out of the Hollywood Limelight

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Has there ever been something in your life that you've dreamed of so badly, that you'd sacrifice anything for it--like Charlie Farmer did?



My big dream as a child was to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals. I was a baseball player growing up. And actually, I had a tryout with the Kansas City Royals, and I got injured in their camp and never got to really throw for the big guys. So I had a big dream of playing baseball, as well as being an actor and a musician and everything else that I ended up doing. But that was one that was never realized.



How did you deal with it?

I ended up hitting the road with a band as a roadie and then was in the music business--and still am. So, the thing is, if I had made it as a baseball player--let's say I was good enough to get in the pros--I would have been retired like 10 years already. Career longevity is a lot better in the movies, anyway. But, at the time, it was pretty devastating. But I took it in stride, really.



In the movie, Charlie is haunted by his father's death. How did your own father's death when you were young affect and shape you?



On His Father's Death

My father died when I had just turned 18. It was four days after my 18th birthday. And I was told by his best friend at the funeral--he came and hugged me and he said, "You're the man now." Well, that puts a lot of pressure on you. And I felt a lot of pressure, in those years right after my father died, to try to be the man of the family. And I don't know how good a job I did because I was still a kid.



I didn't communicate very well with my father. And I always have regretted not having done that. But when you're young like that, you don't really know how to communicate as well. And he was set in his ways, so it was kind of tough. But, my father died when he was 45 years old. I thought in those days that [being] 45 was an old guy. Well, I'm older than that now. And now I see how young he was. It was a pretty devastating thing.



Did the experience change how you interact with your own children?

There's no doubt about that. I'm extremely communicative with my kids and affectionate. The problem with me, I guess, is I'm not much of a disciplinarian. I have such a hard time saying no with my kids.



So, they can get away with anything?



Not anything, but pretty much. My little girl is only two and a half. So she's not asking to get away with any horrible things yet.



I read that your mom is a psychic. What was that like when you were growing up?



It wasn't like she was a fortune teller or had a corner store. She used to speak at medical conventions on parapsychology and the study of that. It was just a natural part of life for us. We never even questioned it.



Do you have the same level of belief in that sort of stuff like she did?



Same level of belief? I don’t know if it's a belief. I mean, if something happens that no human could possibly know, then--in other words, it's not something you have to have a belief in. It just happened. And my mother, as well as others, have said things to me that [only] I was the only person in the world who [could] know it.



It's just like when you wake up in the middle of the night, you're in Sacramento, Calif., and you wake up thinking about an old friend of yours in New Jersey or whatever, and it's like, "I've got to call them right away." And you called and their father just died or something like that. I don't think there's a real scientific explanation for that.



In this new movie, as well as movies like "Friday Night Lights," you focus on small-town America and the role of faith. Is that something that you knew from growing up in Arkansas?



Yeah. We were taught that you have to have faith. And I think I naturally always had faith in things. Otherwise, I probably wouldn't have gone to California in 1980 to be an actor. I just somehow believed that everything would be okay. And so, [there are] a lot of things I have faith in. Some things, I have less faith in for sure, if you look what's going on in the world.



What do you mean by that?



The way the world is operating now, sometimes I don't know how much faith I have in things getting better on the whole for the planet. But all you can do is just keep living your life and try to have some faith in the people around you and that, at the end of the day, people aren't going to try to get you or, do horrible things to you.


Continued on page 2: 'My girlfriend's just a regular gal....' »

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