Billy Bob Thornton has played a lot of down home characters, but none so approachable and determined as Charles Farmer, who bucks NASA and the FAA to build his own rocket and explore space in his own way, on his own time.
You’re old enough to remember the moon landing.
Yes. When Neil Armstrong and those guys
did their thing, I was 13. And people always ask if you watched on television.
My memory of it is that I did. But we’ve seen it so many times that I don’t
know if, I really saw it then or not. I’m sure I did — it was a big deal. I’m
sure my parents made me watch it, and that I wanted to go do something else.
But John Glen was a big hero when I was a kid.
But what drew me to this film was
something entirely different than rockets or space. When I was a kid, and I
think all boys think about being an astronaut, sure. But I wanted to do this
movie because, when I read it, the story immediately struck me as one of those
movies I’ve always wanted to do. It’s Mr. Smith Goes To Washington. I
always wanted to do that. It’s also got that feel of Hoosiers or Field
of Dreams. It’s a movie everybody can see, and yet the story is an
adult one. A lot of times, family movies just bore you to tears. This is the
classic story of the common man fighting the system, and I love those stories.
I had done a few comedies in a row, and I was going to do a drama next anyway.
And not only was this a drama, but it was on that list of things I wanted to
do. Every actor has that list. You want to be in a western, or a film noir, you
want to have a few things like that.
What’s still on the list for you?
I’d like to make a documentary.
What about Floyd Collins? That’s at least a real story.
Oh, I definitely want to do Floyd
Collins. But that’s really hard to talk a studio into. I’m still fighting to
get the budget for that. An epic period drama is that hardest thing to talk a
studio into doing. I could walk in tomorrow and say, ‘Hey, I want to play a
rapper who turns a bowl of soup into a space ship!’ and they’d make it just
like that. But Floyd…I really want to do that. You could call up studios and
tell them you want it. I’d play Floyd, and the lead would be the reporter, and
I know who I want for that part. They’ll make the movie. But they won’t make it
for enough money to do it right. They’ll give you 200 million, but they won’t
give you 30.
Is it almost harder to make that mid-budget movie?
You do fall in between in the sense
that you’re trying to make something big and sweeping, and you can always use
more. But you could do it. But here’s the main problem: if they give you thirty
million, they’re going to want a bunch of movie stars in it. And that’s going
to take a lot of your money away. With a five million dollar movie, you can get
by without so many stars. And in a $200M movie, if you’ll notice, they don’t
have to have stars. They have one, or maybe two, and the real star is the
movie. All the effects, people turning into jelly and all that kinda shit.
Do you ever get used to doing your best work for nothing,
based on that model?
I’ve been putting up with it for so
long. After a while you’re used to it. It’s almost like you’ve been in prison
for 45 years, with your arms chained to a dungeon wall, and someone asks if
your arms hurt and you say, no, not really. (laughs)
This movie also speaks to dreams, but are we too cynical to
have the same dreams, or to appreciate them?
I think we’re too cynical. That’s why
this is a good movie to see right now. Our society doesn’t encourage dreamers.
We’re all about power, money, control and fashion. That’s pretty much all
that’s left. The entertainment business is really about fashion now, more than
even before. I think you can go to a movie like this and come out encouraged. I
like that about it. But I think we’re a little too cynical now…well, not a
It’s also hard to be a hero now, with so much immediate
media. Everything you say gets reported.
The lunatics are running the asylum.
When people have too much access, things really go wrong. You can just be some
guy, and decide to be a critic. Next thing we know, our movies is getting
reviewed by a guy who last week was working in a welding shop. Now he’s telling
you your movie is wrong. Actors, used to be when Jimmy Stewart and Clark Gable
were around, almost the only time you saw them was in a theater. Now there’s no
mystery. That’s why you don’t see me any more. Superbowl and the World Series
are probably the only two social events I’ve done in the last three or four
years. You’ll notice you haven’t seen me in the Enquierer lately — I don’t go out of the house!
Do you miss any of it?
Oh, no. And fortunately, the thing is,
the paparazzi aren’t as interested in celebrities as they are celebrity
couples. If you go out, they’ll do something, but the good news is for me, I go
to one supermarket, and one mall, and they’re both two minutes from my house,
they know me there and are used to seeing me there.
You’ve got a middle American background — was this
reflective of that for you?
The small town aspect is. What you see
in the film is a lot like where I grew up. And a lot of those towns now, the
main street is like a ghost town and the big stuff has moved outwards. Downtown
USA is kinda gone. There’s a certain mentality, sort of a depressed feeling
sometimes. So when I grew up, all that stuff was still alive.
Would people respond to this differently if it was a true
I don’t think the audience would be any
different. I do think that when you do a Q&A after a screening, it would be
a lot different. They wouldn’t ask so many stupid questions. There’s always s a
scientist in the audience! Some guy always starts talking about the retro
rockets, or whatever, and this just isn’t that movie! They make a big science
fiction movie, and no one ever questions the rules in those. You try to make a
real movie about people doing something different, and all the mistakes get
pointed out. You know what? I’m sorry about that. I really am.
Has the way you work, as an actor, changed over the years?
You know, honest to god, when actors
talk to you about their process, and all that stuff they think about…I really
don’t understand it. I don’t know what my process is. I have no idea. I think
good actors are people that have had a lot of life experience. That’s what I
really believe. That’s the real answer to any question about any character.
What did I bring to it, what did I get out of it, what do I want people to see?
I don’t know. I don’t even BS — I just tell people what I just told you. I
don’t say, ‘well, it’s an interesting thing — I’ll take the character in the
beginning and do this…’
I take the screenplay. I read it,
usually once, and then not again until we’re shooting. I’m severely dyslexic
and have my assistant read my lines to me before I go to set. The only way I
can learn them is by hearing them, not by reading. And I get there, and go into
the scene, I don’t think about my puppy when I was nine. I think about the
scene we’re going. In that sense, I’m a method actor — I go in and do it as if
I was that guy. And that’s why I don’t do some things. I don’t play Charles
deGaulle. I don’t have a clue what French people do! So I play roles I know I’m
best suited to play. The ones I don’t think they fit, I turn down. I’ve turned
down big movies for a whole bunch of money, because they were stupid.