IT’S no surprise that in an industry full of eccentricity, Billy Bob Thornton has emerged as Hollywood’s leading oddball. And it doesn’t bother him in the slightest.
Thornton is as well known for his quirks and phobias, including his paralysing fear of Komodo dragons, as he is for his big-screen performances.
An over achiever, he is an Oscar-winning screenwriter, and an accomplished musician and songwriter, who tours with his band, The Boxmasters. He wrote the script for the 1996 indie flick Sling Blade, which he also directed and starred in, and which proved to be his entry ticket to A-list Hollywood. And Thornton can now add author to his CV after the publication of his memoirs, The Billy Bob Tapes: A Cave Full of Ghosts, which recounts an array of colourful industry yarns penned with his good friend, Kinky Friedman, and told as if he’s sitting in a roomful of old pals with a crate of beer.
This self-confessed hillbilly’s real-life persona is as large as his onscreen characters.
Thornton possesses plenty of humility and a chameleon-like ability which enables him to transform himself effortlessly from one role to another. For example he whittled his weight down to just over nine stone for his role in Pushing Tin. He says he ate nothing but a can of tuna and a packet of liquorice every day for three months.
“I’m 6ft tall and looking back, I know that wasn’t healthy or very smart, and I had probably had some sort of eating disorder,” he says. At the other end of the spectrum, he once put on three and half stone to play a mechanic in the Oliver Stone film, U Turn with Jennifer Lopez.
These days Billy Bob looks the picture of health, although still slight in frame, his face appears considerably more youthful than his 56 years. His jaw is strong, his eyes intense and he sports a small tuft of hair on his chin giving him a rockabilly appearance.
Refreshingly candid, he is very honest about his OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder) tendencies; his endless list of superstitions; his agoraphobia, the loves of his life including his romance with Angelina Jolie and his strange array of phobias which he claims have been blown out of all proportion in the media over the years. His fears range from the incredibly specific – Komodo dragons, French antique furniture, silver cutlery, and numerology – to more common concerns such as a fear of flying, which he says has prevented him from taking certain roles; to an OCD attack when he drove around a restaurant seven times before entering. “It’s not the driving, it’s the number seven,” he offers helpfully.
Making himself comfortable in a brown leather armchair, Thornton mentally reels off his list of phobias in an attempt to set the record straight. “Let’s start with Komodo dragons,” he states in his slow, Southern drawl. “They have this horrible toxic bacteria in their mouths so when they bite you, you instantly go blind. Who would like that?” he asks. “But I don’t worry about those too much as I’ve never come across one in Beverly Hills.”
“Now Louis XIV-style furniture really creeps me out. You know, those big old, gold carved chairs with the velvet cushions? I can spot the imitation antiques a mile off. Not as much dust,” he quips. Thornton continues unperturbed: “And you won’t see me use real silverware. You know, like the big old, heavy-ass forks and knives, I can’t do that. It reminds me of a heavy garden implement. I want to hold something light, where the food is the foremost thing on your mind.” Finally he adds: “And I don’t have a problem with flying. I just have a problem with crashing.” Well, he does have a point there.
Thornton laughs at the suggestion of seeking professional help. “No. It doesn’t bother me,” he responds. “After a while it becomes a way of life and besides,” he reasons, “it does keep me from sitting on a lot of dusty chairs!”
“I’m probably not as weird as people say I am. I’m just a regular guy. I watch Family Guy all the time. I have all the episodes on DVD and I watch them with my son Willy. He’s an 18-year-old rocker and practices with his band in my garage. I watch a lot of TV because I don’t go anywhere.” Is his defence making him sound even more eccentric or is it just me?
Thornton says that his main fears, like most people, concern the health and wellbeing of his family. “I have kids so I’m constantly worried. When people don’t have kids and they’re asking what it’s like, I say, well once you have kids you will never stop worrying again.
“You worry every minute over nothing. There are plenty of things that scare me, just like everybody else and I’m kind of paranoid to start with. I often feel like the Southern version of Woody Allen.”
Indeed, Thornton’s quirky looks make him an unlikely candidate for a movie star, but face to face the attraction suddenly makes sense.
There is no doubt his profile was heightened when he found love with the equally eccentric Angelina Jolie, who became his fifth wife. They met in 1999, on the set of Pushing Tin in which she played his on-screen wife. At the time, Jolie was just 24, and Thornton was 20 years her senior. Soon their personal lives became tabloid gossip fodder with their unconventional romantic rituals such as wearing vials of each other’s blood around their necks to symbolise their love; purchasing his-and-hers grave plots and there was even talk of a padded sex room.
Thornton sets the record straight once again: “We were supposedly vampires who had a dungeon and we drank blood.Well, we didn’t even wear blood vials around our necks. Angie bought these clear lockets, and we literally poked each other in the finger with a pin and rubbed a little bit of blood on the locket. It was more of an expression of our eternal love for one another than anything else.”
Most of their three-year marriage was spent living under the media microscope. He recently confessed that “he blew the relationship”. How so? “Because I didn’t think I was good enough for her. I was suffering from a dose of insecurity at the time.” He later stated around the time of their divorce that he “felt like Quasimodo every time we went out.”
Today, they remain very close. “She is one of my best friends and we talk on a regular basis. I will love her until the end of my life,” Thornton says. “Brad is also a great friend. I love their children and they love mine.”
As a true testament of their strong bond, Jolie wrote the foreword in his new book, stating that Billy Bob has a “big and beautiful heart.” She adds: “Some people walk through life able to quiet the voices in their heads. He can’t. And I and everyone else who knows him, loves him for it.” She concludes: “I know one thing, the world will certainly be a hell of a lot more dull if that man weren’t in it.” Jolie even had “Billy Bob” tattooed on her arm but has since replaced it with the coordinates of her six children’s birth places.
At last count, Thornton reveals he’s sporting close to 20 tattoos including some new additions; the Texas flag on his back; The Boxmasters logo on his shoulder and Constance (aka Connie), his girlfriend of nine years, inked along his spine. The couple live in Beverly Hills in a house once owned by Guns N’ Roses guitarist Slash, and have a seven-year-old daughter, Bella.
“I’ve had a few tattoos covered up,” Thornton says. “Usually names.”
“Like I’m sure Brad doesn’t want to look at my name every night. So, I understood why she had my name removed.” So why all these tattoos? “It burns just right,” he deadpans. “I got my first tattoo in 1974 when nobody had them except for bikers, convicts and sailors. It’s addictive. You start to like the way it’s a map of your life.”
Thornton is the poster boy for living the true American dream of a rags-to-riches story. He moved to Los Angeles, with no industry contacts, but a passion for creativity.
Born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, he is the eldest of three boys who grew up in a home with no running water or electricity. He colourfully recounts that suppers often consisted of freshly cooked squirrel and turtle soup. His father, Billy-Ray was a history teacher who died when Thornton was 18, and his mother, Virginia, was a psychic.
“I call her every time I fly. I just say: ‘Hey, mom what do you think? Is the plane going to get there.’ She’s like: ‘Yeah, it’s going to get there,’” he laughs.
A veteran of five marriages, Thornton has four children – a 30-year-old daughter, Amanda, with first wife, Melissa; sons William, 18 and Harry, 17, with fourth wife, Pietra, a former Playboy model; and Bella with Connie, a special-effects make-up artist. He was once engaged to actress Laura Dern, but left her for Jolie. Thornton says: “I would never get married again. There is no sense in it. I don’t even know what it means. Besides, this is the longest relationship I’ve been in, so why risk it by getting married?”
He dropped out of university, and worked in a sawmill and laid asphalt. A baseball rookie, he had ambitions of going pro, but he broke his collarbone while trying out for the Kansas City Royals which saw an end to that dream. In 1981, he moved to Los Angeles where for more than a decade he struggled to make it in show business. He even lived in his car for a while and once ended up in the hospital suffering from malnutrition. “My diet consisted of just potatoes,” he has said.
After his triumph of writing, directing and starring in Sling Blade (“I wrote it in nine days,” he says), Thornton has turned in excellent supporting performances in films such as: The Apostle, Primary Colors, A Simple Plan and Armageddon. In 2000, he directed and produced a lyrical adaptation of Cormac McCarthy’s novel, All the Pretty Horses (which starred Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz) and he wrote the script for The Gift.
One of his most memorable roles to date was in Marc Forster’s Monster’s Ball, for which co-star Halle Berry won the Oscar for Best Actress. It’s a visceral masterpiece of a film which has Thornton burning up the screen as a racist prison guard who finds his life falling apart. Other roles include a barber of few words in the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There; a rather unpleasant store Santa Claus in the comedy, Bad Santa; a turn as historical hero, Davy Crocket in The Alamo, and the US President in Love Actually.
As an Oscar-winning screenwriter who suffered from dyslexia as a child, Thornton has defied all the odds of achieving greatness. Yet, he still refuses to buy a computer and continues to write his screenplays in long hand. “Writing in long hand is a better thinking process for me and even if I knew how to type I wouldn’t do it. I write in an extreme of consciousness,” he says.
Thornton’s latest work is Jayne Mansfield’s Car, which stars John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, Robert Duvall and an 82-year-old Tippi Hedren. Set in Alabama in 1969, the drama is about two families from different countries whose cultures clash. He explains his inspiration for writing the screenplay after a break of almost a decade. “It’s a story I’ve had in my head for a long time, and because of the state of the movie business right now where every movie is directed towards people who play video games, I thought well, if I’m going to do the movies I want to do, I will have to write it myself.
“I’ve always fancied playing a character in the Sixties, those were the good days. Today, we’re witnessing the breakdown of social interaction which ironically is as a result of social media.”
He adds: “Besides, I needed something to do as I’m not the vacation type. I’ve never gone on vacation. The idea of going to the Bahamas and sitting there like those Corona commercials and listening to the water just drives me out of my mind. I need to be productive. I can just about do a day out in Disneyland with my kid.”
And with that, Thornton leaves the room as charismatically as he entered it.
• The Billy Bob Tapes: A Cave Full of Ghosts published by William Morrow is out now, £18.99. Jayne Mansfield’s Car will be released later this year.
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