Since his star-making turn nearly two decades ago as the mentally challenged Karl Childers in “Sling Blade,” Billy Bob Thornton has been known for what may best be described as playing expressive eccentrics. There was a bad Santa, an astronaut farmer and a taciturn barber so lacking in human connection that the movie about him was titled “The Man Who Wasn’t There.”
In FX’s highly touted new series “Fargo,” Thornton adds to that oddball gallery when he plays a drifter named Lorne Malvo. But Malvo could just as easily be called The Man You Really Wish Wasn’t There. Because, basically, he’s the devil — or at least on a first-name basis with the malevolent one.
“He’s a guy who doesn’t have a conscience, but he has a confidence in himself. Like an alligator,” said the 58-year-old actor during a recent interview. “And an alligator is going to eat you if you get into the swamp.”
Thornton’s Malvo is the narrative’s eight-cylinder engine, spewing out menace and evil across the 10-episode drama, which premieres Tuesday. The series is “an original adaptation” of the 1996 Oscar-winning Coen brothers film of the same name about murder, betrayal and a wood chipper. Though the TV version has borrowed the film’s frozen north setting of Minnesota and the quirky spirit of its people, the FX take is its own story with different characters. (Joel and Ethan Coen had no direct involvement with the show but have given it their blessing.)
After a number of films that flew under the pop culture radar, the “Fargo” series could signal a comeback of sorts for the actor, director and musician. Since winning an Oscar in 1997 for his “Sling Blade” screenplay, the Arkansas native racked up credits in box office or critical hits such as “Armageddon,” “Monster’s Ball,” “Love Actually” and “Primary Colors.” But more recent film projects like “Eagle Eye,” “Mr. Woodcock” and “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” did not find a sizable audience.
Even tales of his colorful private life and romances — once fueled by his headline-making brief marriage to Angelina Jolie in 2000 — have faded. With a cooling movie career, Thornton poured much of his energy into his country rock band, the Boxmasters.
Relaxing at the Sunset Marquis Hotel, Thornton was polite and upbeat about his return to the TV arena. (Before “Sling Blade,” he was featured in a few series such as “The Outsiders” and “Hearts Afire”). Like many major film stars who have watched the marketplace for middle-budget movies fade, Thornton is excited by television’s rise and its ability to explore complex adult material. He calls his TV series “a 10-hour independent movie.”
“Audiences don’t go to see adult fare in theaters anymore, but they love to watch it on television,” he said, quietly adjusting his knit cap. “Shows like this have opened up a new world, not only for me but for everyone.”
“The mix of dark humor and drama is only being seen on TV,” he added. “The Coens can get away with it in movies, but few others can.”
The new “Fargo” boasts an impressive cast — Martin Freeman (“The Hobbit,” “Sherlock”), Bob Odenkirk (“Breaking Bad”), Oliver Platt (“The West Wing”) and Kate Walsh (“Private Practice”). But it is Thornton’s portrayal of Malvo that propels the story. With a black heart and soul, he invades and upends the lives of two mild-mannered men unfortunate enough to cross his path — meek small-town insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Freeman) and Duluth Police deputy Gus Grimly (Colin Hanks).
The series has several threads flavored by black humor and abrupt, bloody violence, connected to the discovery by deputies of a man wearing underpants who is found frozen to death in a remote area near Bedmiji. Before long, the normally quiet town is shaken by a series of murders, and the smart, inquisitive young deputy Molly Solverson (Allison Tolman) is determined to get to the bottom of the bloody spree. And while the show seems to fall into the common cable pattern of series that explore the dark side of human nature, FX Chief John Landgraf has called “Fargo” “an extraordinary good story.”
“I like to play characters where there’s not a lot of eyebrow wiggling or explaining to get a point across when you can do it with one movement of your eye or a wave of your hand,” said Thornton. “Malvo is like a snake charmer. People do what he says, and he doesn’t have to get into a fight with them.”
It was a role that at first the show’s creative team was reluctant to give to Thornton. Noah Hawley, who created the series, said initially he didn’t want Thornton because he had worked with the Coen brothers before — 2001’s “The Man Who Wasn’t There” and 2003’s “Intolerable Cruelty.” Hawley wanted to avoid any direct link with the Coens’ canon.
“But the more I wrote this character, it just became clear that there was no other actor who could do Malvo justice,” said Hawley, a novelist and producer of “Bones.” “Billy just has that charm and charisma, and he perfectly plays someone who pushes civilized people to the point they revert to an animal mentality.”
Costar Martin Freeman also praised Thornton. Even though the two had never met, the “Hobbit” star said he felt an undeniable chemistry with Thornton. “It felt very comfortable and fun with him.”
One of the main challenges facing Thornton and the “Fargo” company was the weather. The series was filmed in Calgary, Canada, and the actors were forced to behave like they were not reacting to the supreme cold.
“You look at the call sheet, and it’s going to be minus-35 degrees at 5:30 in the morning, and it’s like going to work with an actor you just don’t want to face that day,” said Thornton. “But it helps you as an actor. It’s so intense it gives you something inside, I have to be stone-faced, where all I want to do is fight against it.”
For Thornton, the “Fargo” experience has helped ease the disappointment over the reception of 2012’s “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” a film he costarred in, wrote and directed. The saga centered on two families — one Southern, the other English — and their interaction after the woman that connected them both dies. He said he was devastated when the film, which also dealt with themes of war, loss and grief, was given only a limited release.
“My career as a writer-director may be over for the time being,” he said. “I nearly killed myself getting that movie financed and making it. I did it with heart and soul. But it was killed before it came out. There were bad things written about it on blogs from people who were mad at me for one reason or another.”
In Hollywood, there are invariably other chapters ahead. In addition to what he calls a “fun” cameo in the upcoming “Entourage” movie, he’s featured in a Robert Downey Jr.-Robert Duvall film, “The Judge,” as well as two other films, “London Fields” and “Cut Bank.” (Both of the latter films are awaiting release.)
His private life remains intentionally quiet these days. Thornton, who has been married five times, has a 10-year-old daughter with longtime girlfriend Connie Angland. He said he doesn’t miss the Hollywood buzz machine and has achieved a real peace of mind and perspective on his accomplishments.
“I could retire today and be satisfied with what I’ve done,” he said. “But I couldn’t retire today and be happy in the future, because I love doing it so much. I love writing songs, and I love working as an actor. Nobody is really going to hear my music, but that’s not going to keep me from writing songs and recording them. And in my circle and in many circles in music, I actually have a name that means something, so I do it for those people.”
As for his movie career, “I still have enough of an audience where I can still do it for myself and an audience. Maybe not THE audience, but an audience.”
When: 10 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)