Billy Bob Thornton is right at home in 'Fargo'

Published April 11, 2014 9:44 am
Television • New FX series captures the offbeat, violent charm of the 1996 movie.
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In the TV adaptation of "Fargo," Billy Bob Thornton plays cold-blooded killer Lorne Malvo. Lorne is distressingly likable, particularly for a cold-blooded killer.

"I've never been afraid of that type of thing," Thornton said. "I've done a movie where, the first scene, I pee on myself and throw up in the alley."

Lorne makes "Bad Santa" look mild.

"What I love about what [executive produce/writer] Noah [Hawley] has done with the character is that it's not a typical bad guy," Thornton said. "A puppet master in some sense who is not only capable of very dangerous things, but he also is very mischievous and toys with people."

"Fargo" is based on the Coen brothers' 1996 film of the same title. It's a different cast of characters in a different year and a different town, but the spirit of the movie is there — oddballs caught up in horrific crimes set against the backdrop of stoic Minnesotans. (As was the case in the movie, most of the TV series is set in Minnesota.)

It's weird and violent and funny and odd at the same time. Like this exchange Lorne has with a mail clerk.

"This is highly irregular," says the clerk.

"No, highly irregular is the time I found a human foot in a toaster oven," Lorne says. "This is just odd."

The Coens are not involved in the production, but they are pleased enough with the results that they put their names on the series as executive producers.

"They could have just gone to their mailbox and gotten the check," Hawley said, "but they read the first script, and they really liked it. They just told me to go and make my show. We showed them the first episode, and Ethan quite expansively said, 'Yeah, good.' "

"When Ethan says, 'Yeah, good,' he's over the moon," said Thornton, who starred in the Coen brothers' films "The Man Who Wasn't There" and "Bad Santa."

After a long string of movie roles, this is Thornton's first regular role in a TV series since the 1992-95 sitcom "Hearts Afire." And he took the "Fargo" role because it's better than what he can get in movies these days.

"The movie world has changed drastically, particularly in the last five or six years," he said. "When I was coming up, if you went to television from film, it meant something was wrong. You may as well as be on, like, 'Hollywood Squares.' "

Thornton pointed out that his "peers" — actors like Dennis Quaid, Kevin Bacon, Bill Paxton, Kevin Costner — are all working in TV. And he said the films he used to do — "midlevel movies for studios and higher-budget independent films" — no longer exist.

"The motion-picture studios make big-event movies, and they make broad comedies, and they make action movies and movies about where evidently vampires are all models," he said with a smile. "So for actors who really want to do good dramatic work or good work with dark humor and drama, you kind of have to do it on television."

"Fargo" also features Martin Freeman ("The Hobbit," "Sherlock") as Lester Nygard, a nebbish who, driven to the breaking point, commits a horrific murder.

The large cast also includes Keith Carradine, Adam Goldberg, Colin Hanks, Glenn Howerton, Bob Odenkirk, Oliver Platt, Allison Tolman and Kate Walsh.

Freeman said he signed on as soon as he read the script.

"I read Episode One and by the time I got to the scene with Lorne Malvo, I thought, 'I've got to do it,' " he said.

"And at the end of the day, it always comes down to that," Thornton said. "It was just so well-written. And playing a character who is sort of the enigma is kind of in my wheelhouse."


Twitter: @ScottDPierce —


"Fargo" premieres Tuesday at 11 p.m. on FX.



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