2017-07-27
Billy Bob ThorntonDespite 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.
And what was the role of church and religion in your life growing up?

Growing Up a "Semi-Catholic"
I grew up in a small town in Arkansas mostly and then in Texas. Religion was just a natural part of life there. I grew up as a Methodist. I was in the First United Methodist Church. And that was, like I said, just a part of our lives. It's something that you accept because it's been in the family forever.

I had a lot of friends who were Baptists and they would joke with me and say that I was a semi-Catholic, because Methodism came from a guy named John Wesley who split from the Catholic Church and created Methodism. So they used to rib me about that all the time, that I was just semi-Catholic. They said, you're just a Catholic with no confession.

Is it still part of your life?

Well, I'd say spiritualism is part of my life. I'm not as much into organized religion. One thing that I have a bone to pick about is that I wish that religion and war weren't so closely related these days, and I wish that people wouldn't kill each other in the name of God. I'm not too crazy about that.

Are there spiritual practices--like meditation or prayer--that you do?

Oh, yeah, yeah. I tend to keep my spiritual beliefs between me and the higher power. And I don't display it much. But, it's a real strong part of my life.

Do you have a favorite either mantra or prayer or inspirational saying?

Preach Less,
Act More
The thing is, most of the things that I have in terms of mantras or meditations or anything don't really have words. They're more feelings. But I guess the Golden Rule is a good one, you know. I think that's one that we should all live by. A lot of religions at their base, their core, really are just the Golden Rule.

There's a lot of hypocrisy sometimes within certain religious groups. And I just wish people could maybe preach less and act more, you know. That would be nice.

Who are your main inspirations in life?

Billy Wilder met me when I was a waiter and he encouraged me to write, because he said that actors are on every street corner. But, he said, if you can write, it's going to make you a better actor, first of all, because you learn more about telling stories. And actors are supposed to tell stories, too, just like writers are. And so, I'll never forget him for that.

Stanley Kramer was another of the old guard, classic directors who was very nice to me and gave me advice.

My mother always has been and still is one of my greatest sources of inspiration. She's a real supportive person and a very creative person herself. And so, she's very important to me. My brother Jimmy, who passed away in 1988--another big influence on me.

And, I have to say, Benjamin Franklin was a hero of mine because he was such a Renaissance Man. He was a very spiritual guy. But he was much more than people knew about him. He was a diplomat and an ambassador to France and was responsible for us having two senators for every state and the House of Representatives having representatives according to population, because there was a big fight over that. He came in and solved that one.

And he was, like I say, a Renaissance Man--a poet, a writer, a painter, inventor, scientist. And I respect renaissance people, people who have more than just a tunnel vision about anything, that they recognize everything.

I read an interview where you said that you identify with the outcasts of society. Is that still true?

I was always a little outside the system. Growing up, I wasn't the popular kid in school. And in sports, I always did things a little bit of a different way. In music, I don't try to make music that's what's popular, or in movies, either. I do the things that I believe in and I think are good for me and good for the people that are going to see it or that are entertaining.

And I'm not real good with authority. I'm not some big celebrity kind of person as much as I am an actor. So I'm not the guy that everybody wants to photograph on the red carpet. But, I just keep doing my thing the best I can do it.

As you've gotten more famous and successful, how do you stay grounded?

Being Out of the Hollywood Limelight
I don't really associate myself with Hollywood. I stay home with the kids and watch a lot of TV, play music in the studio, hang out with my friends at my house. I just don't go out. I don't go to the parties or anything like that. I'm not much of a follower. I never was. I kind of like to have my own little domain. And the only time I was ever really scrutinized that hard was when I was married to another celebrity, and I think the papers are more interested in that than they are the individual. It's more about celebrity couples.

So I've managed to stay out of that lately. My girlfriend's just a regular gal who's not an actress or anything.

Is it hard to meet people who treat you like a real person rather than some sort of two-dimensional celebrity?

When you're a celebrity, you get used and abused and a lot of things. There's so many advantages to it. You know, you can check your life and realize that ever since you're a celebrity, you've been able to choose what you want to do more. That's one of the upsides.

But, the other side is, a lot of people are out to get you. They want to knock you down. And that's people of all types--people who have claimed to be saintly and some people who are just obviously grifters.

And sometimes, those two meet. Sometimes you have on the surface saints who are grifters and vice-versa. Every now and then, you see somebody who appears to be just like a real outcast to society who ends up being a saint. You never know. But we get all kinds. And the friends that I've had all my life are the ones that I trust more because I know exactly why they're my friends.