Fargo (FX) Interview: Billy Bob Thornton on Being the Bad Guy, Why He Decided to Do TV and More

FX is reimagining the world of the Coen Brothers’ classic 1996 film Fargo for the small screen. The limited series stars Billy Bob Thornton as a dangerous drifter named Lorne Malvo and Martin Freeman as Lester, a nervous man with self esteem issues. Recently, TV Equals joined in a conference call with Thornton, where the versatile actor, writer and director discussed what drew him to television, his favorite part of playing Malvo and more. Read on for the highlights from the interview, then tune in Tuesday, April 15th at 10/9c on FX for the series premiere of Fargo.

On What Drew Him To TV

Thornton is best known for his impressive career in film, but he has been on television before in series like The Outsiders and Ellen. However, it has been quite some time since he worked on the small screen and Fargo marks his first foray into the world of cable dramas. The actor explained that for his generation, TV has become both the best place find quality entertainment and the best place to find roles with creative freedom.

“Television now, like when I was coming up it was a bad word,” Thornton explained. “And now, it has a cache and actors are clamoring to go on television because it’s a place that we can do the things we were doing in movies.”

More specifically, he joined Fargo after being presented with a great script from series creator Noah Hawley. The prospect of playing Lorne Malvo, a character Thornton described as animalistic multiple times, was too good to pass up. He also didn’t worry about the series being based on an influential film. “I had read the pilot script,” he said. “I was offered it and read the pilot script immediately. It was so well written and 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. So, I thought, well, you know what, this guy has done it. He really has pulled this off.”

The Strange Appeal of Malvo

According to Thornton, Malvo is a villain straight out of the Coen Brothers’ playbook. He is a mysterious drifter, a trickster even and Thornton relished shedding his own feelings of nervousness to play a confident, calculating drifter with a love for manipulating people. “I look at Malvo as a type of sort of snake charmer, you know,” Thornton said. “Once he looks at you you’re under some sort of spell.”

He also noted that he didn’t want to know anything about Malvo’s backstory because he didn’t think the character would dwell on his past. Instead, Malvo’s primary form of joy is in “messing with people.” According to Thornton, Malvo’s only recreation and source of humanity is his sense of humor.

On Working with Martin Freeman

Thornton had nothing but good things to say about his co-star, Freeman, commending everything from his performance to his carefully crafted Minnesota accent. Malvo will be playing the devil’s advocate to the downtrodden Lester and it was their first scene together that Thornton enjoyed filming the most. “I really enjoyed the scene in the hospital with Lester, just when I first meet him, and a total stranger asking for a drink of his soda pop and just immediately knowing that this guy is weak. This guy is unsure of himself, so I can use him and also I’ve got to give this guy a lesson in life here. Malvo almost takes his victims as students, in a way, too. And that was the first scene we shot and I really enjoyed doing that with him, especially since we were just starting and it didn’t turn into an experiment. It just naturally happened because we’re so different.”

Thornton continued, “Malvo smells weakness in people, he smells nervousness, weakness, fear, anything like that and has an abundance of confidence in himself. I don’t think he ever considers losing, whereas Lester is just a nervous ball of mess. And I do like when you see two characters at the opposite end of the spectrum together.They end up being kind of strange bedfellows.”

Why You Should Watch Fargo

Even die hard fans of the movie should be charmed by this new vision of Fargo. It has humor, Thornton and Freeman and well-crafted writing. However, Thornton eloquently explained what viewers will find in this strange, new world, “Each episode just leaves you thinking because all these extreme characters, it just leaves you thinking each time, it’s like what in the world are these people going to do next? What’s he going to do about this and where the hell is this going? 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.”

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