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TV NO LONGER A BAD WORD FOR ANY ACTOR – BILLY BOB

Amid the bloody violence, black humour and folksy Minnesota accents in the new TV adaptation of the Coen brothers' film Fargo, one thing really stands out.

In fact, the unique hairdo sported by actor Billy Bob Thornton – think Star Trek's Spock with more volume – is so eye-catching it should get its own mention in the show's closing credits.

The US star confesses that this "weird haircut", which perfectly suits his creepy hitman character, was born out of necessity after a bad experience at the barber's.

"I didn't plan on having bangs [a fringe]. But instead of fixing it, I looked at myself in the mirror and thought, 'Hang on a second here... this is good'," Thornton says in his relaxed Southern drawl.

"Bangs are normally associated with innocence, and I thought the juxtaposition was pretty great, so that was added."

CASES

WHILE THE CASES AND CHARACTERS ARE ALL NEW, THE 10-PART SERIES SHARES THE OSCAR-WINNING 1996 FILM'S BLEND OF CRIME, DARK COMEDY AND 'MINNESOTA NICE' – THE COURTEOUS, MILD-MANNERED BEHAVIOUR CUSTOMARY IN THE STATE.

Thornton plays Lorne Malvo, a rootless, mysterious outsider who arrives in the town of Bemidji and turns the life of browbeaten Lester Nygaard (Sherlock's Martin Freeman) upside down when he offers to kill the man who bullied him at school.

"Noah [Hawley, who penned the adaptation] managed to walk a tightrope with this thing and he did a great job. He captured the tone of the Coen brothers and kept the spirit of the movie, and yet made it its own animal," says Thornton.

The deep-thinking actor purposely avoided creating a back story for Malvo, in case it would soften the sinister character.

"A lot of times as an actor you're trying to think constantly; in this case I was trying not to," the Arkansas-born star says.

Despite Oscar-nominated turns in the films Sling Blade (1996) and A Simple Plan (1998), Thornton is probably best-known to many as Angelina Jolie's ex-husband. The pair were married for three passionate years and were rumoured to wear a vial of each other's blood around their necks – though Thornton later revealed it was just one drop of blood in a locket.

Vial or no vial, the 58-year-old does a fine line in dark characters, from the misanthropic lead in 2003's Bad Santa to the racist prison guard in 2001's Monster's Ball.

"That's kind of been my wheelhouse, sort of intense characters but who have a certain sympathetic streak and also a sense of humour," he admits. "I'll have 10-year-olds come up to me and say, 'Oh, Bad Santa, I just love you!' and it's like, 'What?!"'

TWISTED

Malvo's sense of humour is very twisted indeed. In the first episode, he encourages a motel worker to urinate in the petrol tank of his boss's car, then sets him up to get caught in the act. At another point, he invents a lie to make a hot-headed young local attack his own brother.

"I don't know what it is; maybe it's that Malvo senses weakness or stupidity in people. He's got this sort of animal instinct, he just smells people out. I think especially in these days and times when the world's going kind of crazy, we're all frustrated and want to just shake people a little bit.

"So maybe through Malvo you get to slap somebody around a little bit," he adds with a laugh. "I don't know."

Hampshire-born Freeman was "terrific to work with" and managed to nail the lilting Minnesota accent, says Thornton.

"He did a stellar job. If you ran into him, you would never know that he wasn't from Duluth or Fargo or wherever. It was pristine."

Neither actor is anything like their character. "Malvo has an abundance of confidence in himself, I don't think he ever considers losing, whereas Lester is just a nervous ball of mess," says Thornton.

"Martin himself seems to be a very confident person, so I think he maybe had to downgrade his confidence a little bit. Me, by nature, I'm a very nervous, worrisome person. So I had to drop that a little."

The series was filmed in the Canadian city of Calgary, and the teeth-chattering temperatures took some getting used to for the father-of-four, who lives in Los Angeles.

With fewer people going to the cinema, and TV offering some of the best scripts around, Thornton is the latest in a growing line of film stars to sign up for small screen roles.

"When I was coming up [as an actor], television was a bad word, now it has a cachet and actors are clamouring to get on television, because it's a place where we can do what we were doing in movies," he says.

FARGO BEGINS ON CHANNEL 4 THIS SUNDAY, APRIL 20


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