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A Minute With: Billy Bob Thornton on recasting himself for TV

Actor Billy Bob Thornton arrives for the gala presentation of "Jayne Mansfield's Car" at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival, Septe
Actor Billy Bob Thornton arrives for the gala presentation of "Jayne Mansfield's Car" at the 37th Toronto International Film Festival, Septe

By Eric Kelsey

WEST HOLLYWOOD, California (Reuters) - Billy Bob Thornton, the actor of dark, psychological films such as "Sling Blade" and "A Simple Plan," takes a turn on the small screen as a laconic hit man in a TV adaptation of 1996 Oscar-winning black comedy "Fargo."

"Fargo," which debuts as a 10-episode limited-run series on April 15 on Twenty-First Century Fox Inc's FX cable network, re-imagines the film from directors Joel and Ethan Coen with new characters and plot but the same doses of frigid Minnesota winters and Midwestern folksiness.

In between puffs from his cigarette, the 58-year-old Oscar winner (best adapted screenplay for 1996's "Sling Blade") spoke to Reuters about his character and how television has begun to trump film as the best storytelling format.

Q: Your character, Lorne Malvo, has no past, roots or issues, murdering on a whim. How do you begin to tap into his thinking?

A: The psychology is like the same psychology an alligator would have. ... So whatever I have to do in order to eat, that's what I'll do. He really doesn't have a conscience. I don't think I've ever played a character who hasn't had a conscience whatsoever, and what's interesting about this conscience-less character - and a guy whose psychology is like an eating machine - there's a greed or a gluttony, but that's all that exists.

Q: The soft-spoken "Minnesota Nice" stereotype is crucial to the repressed emotions of characters in both "Fargo" the series and the film. What makes that ripe for character development?

A: It's a different kind of society. I think the reason we're fascinated by that world is because Americans by nature are very passionate, edgy, crazy kind of people. ... That northern Midwest is its own animal. There's no place like that in America. We look at them like, 'How do these people talk about suicides like they're going to the grocery store?'

Q: Like the popularity of FX's "American Horror Story" and HBO's "True Detective," limited-run series have earned critical acclaim and also made TV an appeal venue for Hollywood actors. Did you consider that when you signed up for "Fargo"?

A: I never thought about it much because when I was coming up, the guys that I came up with - Bill Paxton, Bruce Willis and Dennis Quaid - we all used to say about guys we knew, like in the '80s, they were going to do a TV movie, and ... it's like his career is over. Next stop is (TV celebrity gameshow) 'Hollywood Squares.'

So we had a different viewpoint about television and a whole different perception of it, and it was true. Now, it sort of crept up on me. I sort of felt that way up until three or four years ago, because I wasn't really clued in. I don't keep up. I live my life in a very secluded way. ... All of a sudden, the higher-budget independent films, or the mid-level budget studio movies - the $20-25 million studio movies - and that's where I lived ... there was no place for me.

Q: How do you believe television will help your career?

A: I'm influenced as a writer by Southern novelists. That's the kind of movies I do as a writer-director. ... So my career as a writer-director is probably over. And so I started thinking, 'What do you do?' All that stuff's gone, and then when I started studying television and getting into it, I realized, 'OK, that's where it went.' All of a sudden the bottom fell out of that (film) world, so somebody had the great idea, which is 'Let's do 10-hour independent films on television.'

Q: Do you think Hollywood will take notice of that?

A: You know, you can't make a three-and-a-half hour movie. That attention span is gone for theaters. So what about making 'Gone with the Wind' kind of movies that have intermissions and put them on television? That way, a guy like me, who always gets his ass handed to him by the critics for having a movie that's too slow and too long ... won't be too slow and too long for television. Pee anytime you want. Make a cheeseburger, anything you want to do."

(Editing by Piya Sinha-Roy and Ken Wills)

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