Illustration by Spence

Misleading Men: How Billy Bob Thornton Stayed Bad

The star cultivated the persona of a rugged individualist, but that type of authenticity has a tough time in Hollywood

Welcome to Misleading Men, a regular feature where we look back at the actors who ruled Hollywood for one brief shining moment.

Authenticity is one of the most prized commodities in an actor — but it’s also one of the most difficult to quantify. How is someone deemed authentic? How do you measure it? Truth is, you can’t — we either believe what he’s doing or we don’t. Take Billy Bob Thornton, whose career has been a test case in defining what makes a performer authentic. From his debut in the early 1990s to his Oscar-winning Sling Blade to the dyspeptic cult comedy that contains his signature role, the 61-year-old actor-writer-director-musician oozes a rugged immediacy uniquely his own. No wonder he has a hard time fitting into Hollywood.

Born in Arkansas, Thornton had a difficult upbringing and an abusive father who started beating him when he was a toddler. In adulthood, he was philosophical — even surprisingly compassionate — about the violence he endured. “I say get away from it, but don’t punish the person who has inflicted it upon you,” he said during a 2004 interview. “Forgive them and leave … If you’re able to, if you have the capability of leaving it, you do. If you don’t, turn towards your imagination and dream of a future when you can.”

Thornton’s future was initially going to be in baseball. He was a decent pitcher, and tried out for the Kansas City Royals. Thirty minutes after showing up at the club’s traveling camp, though, he was hit by a stray ball, breaking his collarbone. Forced to alter his life plans, he became a roadie for a rock band, landing in California. “I guess it worked out good, ‘cuz I can be an actor or a musician till I’m 85 years old,” Thornton once said. “If I had actually got even in the minor leagues, I would probably be selling cars in Long Beach by now.”

Thornton moved to Los Angeles with his friend and fellow writer Tom Epperson in the summer of 1981, holing up in a one-bedroom in between 20th Century Fox and MGM. “We thought that was a sign,” Thornton later recalled. “We live on a street that’s bookended by two of the biggest movie studios ever!” But he struggled in Hollywood, auditioning when he could and working at a pizza joint called Shakey’s to make a living. One night, he was a waiter at a fancy Christmas party, where he met Billy Wilder. It was a crucial moment: “[W]e just got to talking and, uh, he said, ‘Look, here’s the deal: Everybody’s an actor. What they need are writers.’” Thornton immediately took that to heart.

He would eventually get random bit roles on Matlock and a TV version of The Outsiders, but his career took off after he and Epperson wrote One False Move, a terrific early-‘90s thriller about a group of crooks (including Thornton) hiding out in Arkansas who run into a smart local lawman played by Bill Paxton. Critically acclaimed, One False Move is now one of the forgotten indie gems from an era that helped launched Quentin Tarantino — plus, it’s a marvelous regional portrait, the sort that could only be written by someone like Thornton, who knew the geography and small-town rhythms like the back of his hand.

Off the strength of that thriller, he landed work in movies like Indecent Proposal and On Deadly Ground. But then with 1996’s Sling Blade, which Thornton wrote and directed, he established himself as a significant chronicler of rural Midwestern life — playing a troubled developmentally disabled man let out of prison after killing his mom and her boyfriend. When he won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay (the film was based on his short he’d made previously), Thornton walked up to the stage in a Western double string tie and proclaimed, “Whoa, lord have mercy.” That moment underlined Thornton’s elemental appeal—his authenticity.

From there, he began making serious inroads as an actor. He became the no-bullshit voice of reason in movies as different as Primary Colors and Armageddon, Hollywood sticking him in the character-actor slot. But that same year, he gave one of his best performances in A Simple Plan, once again playing a troubled man who, alongside his brother (Paxton, again), finds a fortune within the wreckage of a plane crash. Thornton earned another Oscar nomination for the role, and he acknowledged a connection between this character and the one he created in Sling Blade.

“Life wasn’t real easy for me growing up … I had physical injuries, but nothing that really shows,” Thornton said a few years ago. “I think they’re more representative of a wounded soul more than anything else. I’ve also known some people who have physical afflictions or terrible scars, and I’ve always been interested in their psyche because it really affects your insights.”

Referring to his performance as an emotionally maladjusted man in 2013’s Jayne Mansfield’s Car, which he also directed, Thornton said, “[T]here’s a real childlike quality to [that character]. I think he’s trying to recapture childhood and remain a child because the adult world is too much for him. That’s similar to a few of my characters — the one in A Simple Plan and Sling Blade, for example.”

These utterly organic, lived-in performances conveyed a sense of his characters’ wounded inner life, and the realness of that pain was palpable. The psychic scars being carried around in his portrayals in The Man Who Wasn’t There and Monster’s Ball seemed ready to overcome those men at any moment.

And yet, Thornton will probably end up being most famous for Bad Santa which, while being far from the best thing he’s even done, is celebrated as his most Thornton-ian role. At the time the original was made, he was a recognizable star, but mostly as part of an ensemble on big studio films or as the lead in an indie. “[W]hen I read the script [for Bad Santa] I was like, ‘Wow, this would be the first time this has ever been done,’” Thornton recalled. “So we knew it was either going to go south or be amazing.” It was a movie that flaunted its rude, crude behavior, Thornton portraying a deadbeat drunk who made his living as a thief while posing as a mall Santa. Bad Santa spit in the eye of Christmas commercialism, but it starred a guy who loved the holiday. (“I have two boys and a girl, so Christmas is a really special time for me,” he would later admit.)

Bad Santa became an unlikely smash, and Thornton’s surly essence powers the film. Earlier in his career, he wielded his grit to play tough or haunted individuals — people you wouldn’t want to cross. When Thornton played the brusque Willie, all the anger that his characters usually try to keep bottled up exploded — often in angry, foul-mouthed tirades at anyone unlucky enough to cross his path.

The movie’s surprise success created a niche for Thornton: In subsequent years, he’d make his living playing grumpy jerks in everything from a Bad News Bears remake to Mr. Woodcock, none of them particularly inspired. He still directed movies, but 2000’s All the Pretty Horses and Jayne Mansfield’s Car were met with utter indifference. In a recent GQ profile, he was still lamenting how Harvey Weinstein butchered All the Pretty Horses, cutting it down from three hours to two and ruining the movie in the process. As a result, he said, he’s done with being a filmmaker. “I’m just going to be in a band and be an actor,” he told the magazine. “That’s it. It takes too much out of you to write a movie and direct it and spend, you know, a year and a half of your life on it and then have people either shit on it or not see it.”

There was always something a little too off-center about Thornton for him to really connect fully with the mainstream. The closest he’s ever gotten to behaving like a “typical” celebrity was during his brief, high-profile marriage to Angelina Jolie in the early 2000s — a relationship now best known for wild antics like the couple supposedly wearing vials of each other’s blood around in lockets. (“I never felt good enough for her,” he told GQ, later adding that he didn’t like all the fancy parties they’d be invited to because “I’m real uncomfortable around rich and important people.”) Bad Santa’s appeal was partly based on Thornton’s inability to just go with the flow: His Willie was the voice of all outsiders who won’t just fall in line with the status quo.

Thornton continues to record with his group, the Boxmasters, and he’s enjoyed success on Fargo and his new Amazon series Goliath. But he remains only a marginal player in the world of movies — the real exception being Bad Santa 2, his first legitimate wide-release starring vehicle in more than 10 years. This does not seem to bother him. “[T]here’s a difference between a star and an actor,” he recently told Vulture. “Sometimes the twain shall meet, but not always. I never worried that much about being a movie star. I have had anxiety about being a respected actor. … We’re all kids and we always want acceptance, we never get rid of it.”

The rugged individuality that Thornton brings to his roles has sometimes bled over into his public persona — rarely with winning results. In 2009, he famously clashed with Q radio host Jian Ghomeshi on-air after Thornton took umbrage at Ghomeshi’s mention of Thornton’s acting career during an interview about his band. And as the recent GQ feature demonstrated, the guy likes to sound off on everything from film critics (“You take away people’s right to like what they want to like by influencing people who are very easily influenced”) to fans who don’t appreciate his years writing and recording music (“Sure, I’ll sign your Sling Blade DVD. And you can go home and fuck missionary like a metronome and never have an original creative idea in your life”). But, again, that’s part of his craggy charm. You wouldn’t want Thornton to be polished and polite. There’s nothing authentic about that.