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Billy Bob Thornton Gives Insight To FX's Dark Comedy 'Fargo'

Poonam Patel Poonam Patel
April 15th, 2014 9:31am EDT

Fargo - Billy Bob Thornton

It seems as though mini-series are quite a trend today. If you are an avid TV viewer, you are most likely tuning into one every week. That case, you won’t mind to add another show to your list.

Premiering this week is the highly anticipated crime drama, with a dark comedic flare, titled “Fargo.” Does the name ring a bell? You may recall seeing Frances McDormand winning an Oscar for her role in the 1996 movie adaption. “Fargo,” a Coen Brothers’ film, won Best Screenplay at the 1997 Academy Awards as well as was said to have been "culturally, historically or aesthetically significant" by the Library of Congress. It is no doubt that someone would come around to taking such a cult film and debuting an adaption of it for television.

Mini-series “Fargo” is similar yet not tied to the movie at all. Besides executive producing the series, the Coen Brothers didn’t contribute to the writing of the script. The writing was left up to Noah Hawley, who was approached by FX to create the series. “It was so well written that Noah had walked this fine line of channeling the Coen Brothers, the spirit and the tone of their movie and yet making it a new animal,” Billy Bob Thornton explains.  The only similarity that the viewer will find is the Minnesotan location and the mood of the script.

Billy Bob plays Lorne Malvo, a drifter who enjoys ruining people’s lives. The series opens with Malvo driving a car in which he has someone locked up in the trunk. He is arriving in Bemidji, Minnesota. Why is there someone in his trunk? That is just something Malvo does. “I mean, it’s like 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,” Thornton reveals.

Read on to see what more Thornton has to say about the mini-series and Malvo in our conference call. The mini-series premieres April 15 on FX.

What can the fans expect from the pilot and generally from the show going forward?

The pilot sets it up real good…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.

What do you think Malvo’s problem is?

His problem? What I think his problem is is very different than what he thinks his problem is. I don’t think he has a problem. Do you know what I mean? He’s an animal. In other words, he exists in the animal kingdom more than anything else. He goes by an animalistic instinct and so people like that don’t ever consider themselves having a problem and they also think they’re invincible.

Malvo thinks in the moment. He has a plan and he knows where he has to go. It’s like an alligator. An alligator has to eat one day and so if somebody jumps in the swamp to take a swim he will eat them.

One of the things that is so fascinating about “Fargo” is that you make the character of Malvo both sort of really scary and weirdly likeable. Was the balance between humor and menace hard to pull off?

Well, actually, that has kind of been my wheelhouse, these sorts of intense characters, but who have a certain sympathetic streak and also a sense of humor.  And I’ll have 10-year-olds come up to me and say, “Oh, Bad Santa, I just love you.”  It’s like, what?  So, yeah, I don’t know what it is, but maybe it’s that Malvo senses weakness in people or stupidity or whatever. 

He’s got this sort of animal instinct and he just smells people out and I think a lot of times, especially these days and times when the world is going kind of crazy, I think we’re all frustrated and want to just shake people a little bit.  And so maybe through Malvo you get a chance to slap somebody around a little bit, I don’t know.  Maybe that’s it. But one way or the other, yeah, it is a fine balance.  You’ve got to be menacing, but I look at Malvo’s sense of humor as his only recreation… It may be a sick sense of humor, but it is at least a sense of humor.  He really likes to toy with people and he gets some kind of kick out of that.

Did you ever ask Noah about Malvo’s back story and why he ended up the way he did?

I purposely didn’t because I think Malvo himself wouldn’t ever think about his past or his back story. When you think the way he does, he thinks in the moment and whatever the job that’s at hand. And it wasn’t important. Besides, if I did, let’s say we came up with a back story for him… [That] the reason Malvo is like that is because he was abused and had a horrible childhood… I might bring more sentimentality to the character. It [that sentimentality] might mess it up.  There are a lot of people who already are saying that they kind of root for Malvo in a way, but I’m certainly not trying to do that.  But I do think Malvo is a good person to vicariously get kind of a thrill out of maybe.  And sometimes we don’t want the bad guy to get caught because otherwise the story is over. 

With Malvo, he’s from out of town. He’s a drifter. Nobody knows him, knows what he’s about. And I think it was important for me to not dig into it too much. I think it would have affected the performance in a negative way.

We’re starting to see these more contained single season limited run TV series like “True Detective.” How do you feel about that format as an actor?  It almost seems like it’s sort of, what Noah Hawley described, like a 10-hour movie.

Well, that’s true and that’s what it felt like making it. It felt like doing a 10-hour independent film. That’s very appealing. I’ve been accused many times, as a writer and director, of my pace being too leisurely and it’s too long and stuff like that. Well, here’s a chance to do that kind of thing and you’ve got 10 hours to do it in.  Actually, it feels great and there’s great appeal in that for actors and writers, but maybe not so much directors because the directing world in television is more, those guys just come in and do a couple of episodes and they’re gone. 

But for the creator or writer it’s a really great thing to be able to develop characters and develop stories.  We would all like to make at least a 3-hour movie, but here you get a chance to do a 10-hour.  But also, this doesn’t mean that I’m giving up doing movies. I can do this, do 10 episodes and it’s over, and then still do two movies that year.

Photo Credits: Courtesy/FX