“All of those things that made us not want to do television in the ’80s are gone,” Billy Bob Thornton told a collection of journalists during a conference call about his part in the new weekly FX series Fargo. Thornton says that the series feels like doing a series of hourly independent films.
His first foray into weekly TV – where he plays cold-blooded killer Lorne Malvo – premieres on April 15th on FX. During the hour-long call, Thornton talked about deciding to make the leap to TV and the appeal of the demonic Malvo. Showrunner Noah Hawley adapted the Coen Brothers’ absurd noir, spreading the action out over 10 episodes, as Lorne blows into the life of hapless insurance salesman Lester Nygaard.
“I looked at Malvo as a guy who is a member of the animal kingdom. We don’t get mad at polar bears – we put them into Coke commercials at Christmas time. But they’re one of the meanest predators on Earth,” Thornton explained. He said he looks at Malvo as a “kind of snake charmer – once you’re under his spell, there’s no getting out.” He added that Malvo “takes his victims in like students in a way,” almost offering them advice and rationales to do the things they’re afraid to do.
Malvo makes a fascinating contrast to poor Lester, a man who seems in control of his own destiny compared to a man who seems to have lost control of his. Thornton joked that in the role, co-star Freeman probably had to push down a little of his confidence in order to play Lester, while the naturally nervous Thornton had to bolster his in order to play Malvo.
Thornton continued, “Maybe Malvo senses weakness in people or maybe stupidity.” For the actor, the character might be a way for the audience to strike out at the dim, the mean, and the cruel by proxy.
Thornton said that he came up with his look for the character, given that Hawley’s script was “so tight.” But he regrets the hairstyle: The bangs, he thinks, were a mistake, given that typically, they indicate innocence, which is an odd fit for a bad man like Malvo.
Does that mean he has a lot of insight into who the character is or where he comes from? Thornton doesn’t really think of Malvo in terms of backstory. “I don’t need to know [his backstory],” he said. “Backstory doesn’t come into this… He’s a drifter, nobody knows what he’s about. And for me, it was important to not dig into it too much.”
In fact, he says that he didn’t want to know what was coming in the first four episodes of the series – he asked that showrunner Noah Hawley actually withhold information about future episodes so that he could play Lester as someone who likewise doesn’t know what’s coming: “It’s very mysterious, that’s what I like about it.”
On conveying menace as Malvo, Thornton says it’s all in bearing. While working on a film set in a prison years ago, a member of the Aryan Brotherhood pointed in the direction of a skinny guy in a corner and said, “That’s the guy you don’t want to mess with.” That’s how he decided to play Malvo: as someone so full of confidence, nobody would want to mess with him.
Fargo premieres Tuesday, April 15th on FX.