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Billy Bob Thornton Channels Jimmy Stewart in ‘Astronaut Farmer’

We’ve known Billy Bob Thornton as a mentally challenged man (Sling Blade), a killer (One False Move) and even a demented Santa (Bad Santa). But there’s one role the actor hasn’t played yet: The everyday family man.

Thornton gets his chance with his latest film, The Astronaut Farmer. He portrays Charles Farmer, a common man who loves his family deeply but who also happens to be building a rocket in his barn so he can fulfill his dream of launching into outer space.

“I did it ‘cause I always like to change things up. I’ve done comedies. I did the Coen brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, which is my film noir movie. I’ve played the President of the United States. The one movie I didn’t have in my roster was my Jimmy Stewart movie,” explains Thornton.

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Hollywood.com waxes prophetic with Mr. Thornton about his career choices and the golden days of cinema, when a movie was made just to entertain you.

Hollywood.com: So had you finally had it with playing unsavory characters?
Billy Bob Thornton:
I’ve played a few rascals, haven’t I? Everyone keeps thinking I’ve played bad guys but I really haven’t. Only once, in my movie One False Move. He was a killer, drug dealer. But in comedies, I’ve played smart asses. After Bad Santa, they started calling. Hollywood has a very narrow vision. “Oh that was really successful, let’s do that again.” And so I did a couple of them. I think I’ve got my box set now. I did Bad Santa, then School for Scoundrels and then Mr. Woodcock, which is finally coming out soon. I think that’s probably it for now. Not that I’ll never do it again, ‘cause it’s fun.

HW: Why did Astronaut Farmer appeal to you?
There’s a lot of movies you take your kids to and you’re bored to death. Astronaut Farmer should appeal to everyone. It’s a classic American story. Its the common man with a dream fighting the system. Its Mr. Smith Goes to Washington or Hoosiers or movies like that. And I think right now, it’s a good time to see movies like this. People are so cynical right now, and [Astronaut Farmer] reminds us why movies were created to begin with. When the Warner brothers grabbed a camera and started shooting movies, they made movies for people to get out of their lives. I mean, I can appreciate an independent film where weird New Yorkers are shooting up heroin. But [Astronaut Farmer] goes back to why we liked movies growing up. You want to feel triumphant when you come out.

HW: You manage to make Charles Farmer’s rather peculiar behavior—-riding around in the space suit, for example—completely natural.
Well, I think a lot of that is the [co-writer/directors] Polish brothers, who are real ordinary kids in a lot of ways. And in other ways, really bizarre. So I think [the character of Charles] is something they would come up with. He is based on their father. I mean, my kids love that I’m eccentric. They wouldn’t want me to be normal.

HW: Did you want to be an astronaut when you were a kid?
Sure, I thought about it, one of those things. Played cowboys and Indians and a lot of WWII stuff. But with astronauts, the guy we were fascinated with was John Glenn, cause he was the first guy.

HW: Do you think audience will have a tough time believing a man could successfully send himself into outer space?
It’s so funny how we are willing to watch a movie from 1948 and not ever say, “Hey, wait a minute…” And now with Internet, anyone can get online and criticize anything. You can’t make a movie without someone saying something about it. I’ll put it this way—we aren’t trying to burn up the world with this movie. We aren’t trying to say we are something else, trying to solve any problems necessarily. We are just saying, “Hey, here’s one of those Jimmy Stewart movies.” The idea is to go into a movie, or to listen to a record or read a book, because you WANT to. And not look at it as something you just can’t wait to sh*t on. Which is what people do these days.

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HW: We have become a bit jaded, for sure.
We have to realize the reason we make movies is ‘cause we love it and we want to entertain people or whatever it is. People should understand that movies are just meant for entertainment—or maybe to learn a little something or move you in some way. People nowadays catch movies on their way to a cocktail party, “Yeah, we’re going to catch a movie and be over there later.” Hey, how about when you go to a movie, you make it a movie day. Just kick back and relax. When I was a kid, we loved it when there was a double feature. We’d get to see two movies! And they didn’t kick you out back then for staying for more than one movie. Could you imagine that now?

HW: Which actors do you admire from that era?
Look, actors sit around after acting class and talk about how amazing Spencer Tracy was. Spencer Tracy walked into the room sometimes and just did that whole thing, “Hey you, one more move and I’ll blast ya!” just ‘cause he could. We sit around and talk about our influences and they always bring up these guys. Look, I love Humphrey Bogart as much as the next guy. But, as an actor, while I love Bogart, I’m not gonna go, [imitating Bogart] “Okay, here’s the thing, see?” It’s too stiff! And nobody talks about Alec Guinness. Here’s a guy I was actually influenced by.

HW: Are you going to direct again?
Yeah, I’d like to. It’s been about six years or so. Just dealing with the studios…you don’t want somebody just taking over your movie, cutting it the way they want to, telling you who to put in it, what to do. The thing is that happens more often than they public knows, anyhow. Scorsese has it done to him, everybody does. But if you’re just a director, then you have to jump back in and do it again. I’m really an actor, so I’d rather just go on and be an actor and do my job. Honest to god, the fight over [All the Pretty Horses] was so bad, I had actual physical symptoms of it. My gums starting bleeding, and I didn’t know what was wrong with me. My doctor said my stress level had just gotten to a certain level and it was a nervous condition. It got better after that, though. It was weird.

HW: Do you have anything in mind to direct?
I’ve got one I want to direct—problem is, its an epic period piece. And to get a studio to give you a budget—and I don’t believe in an exorbitant prices to make movies—is hard. I need about $30 million to make this movie and while that doesn’t sound like a lot, it is now. I’ll tell you why. A studio is willing to make a $150-$200 million movie because it’s a big blockbuster and they’ll make their money back. The thing that’s different now, it’s harder to get a studio to give you $25-$30 million. I have a few acquaintances making their own movies for the studios for about $8 million. See, studios now think, “Oh, I see, we can get these people if their movies are their babies. They’ll take whatever we’ll give them if we let them have their way.” Now, I’m faced with a movie that requires exactly that much money to make it. Otherwise, there’s no sense making it.

HW: What’s the premise?
It’s based on the true story of Floyd Collins, the guy who was stuck in the cave in Kentucky in 1925. And everyone in the world showed up because it was kind of a slow news time. It was in between the Lindberg kidnapping and the Lindberg trial. So everyone showed up in the cave country of Kentucky to watch this poor schmuck in a cave. There was a movie already, with Kirk Douglas, made in the ‘50s, based on the same story but they fictionalized it. I’m going to make the exact story. And the real reason I want to make it is its about reality television. The media wouldn’t be what it is, if the people didn’t want it. The reason there is a media because sometime in 7 B.C. or whatever the hell it was, some guy got his leg torn off by a dinosaur and they all showed up, “Hey, did you hear about the guy getting his leg torn off?” That’s why it exists! So it’s people’s nature that creates that kind of thing. This movie is really a statement about human nature and how its human nature to watch someone else suffer for your own entertainment.

The Astronaut Farmer opens in theaters Feb. 23.

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