on a sunny afternoon I go to talk to Billy Bob Thornton at San Francisco's Prescott Hotel. I have seen his movie, "Sling Blade," the night before, and I'm expecting a slightly more presentable version of Karl, the film's mildly retarded, ponderous anti-hero, whom Thornton describes as a "cross between Boo Radley and Frankenstein." You will understand my confusion, then, when the Miramax publicist, leading me to the interview, confesses that Thornton is "extremely charming," not to mention "really handsome."
But he is. Thornton comes from the South and looks like a rodeo star or a country-western singer. He wears a Sun Devils hat, a two-tone button-down shirt like the men wear on line dancing shows, a navy blazer, and cowboy boots. He is immediately gracious and accommodating, telling me that he smokes but doesn't have to if it bothers me at all. It takes a few minutes for me to convince him it's OK to light up, and once he does so, he stares at me and admits he's "not used to talking to pretty people." I am charmed -- so charmed, in fact, that it's not until several hours later that I realize this is the exact line Karl uses in the movie on a young, female journalist.
Despite the charm and sweet talk, Thornton is tired -- he has been sitting in this dark, smoky room since 8 this morning, talking about his movie and the two unexpected Oscar nominations he recently received. When it opened, all signs suggested that "Sling Blade," which features no stars and cost only $1 million to make, would become yet another critically lauded box-office failure.
Then a funny thing happened: "Sling Blade" became a celebrity favorite. Liz Smith wrote in her gossip column that "Sling Blade" was the best movie she had seen. Soon Elizabeth Taylor and Bruce Willis were leaving messages for Thornton, saying how much they loved his film. Next thing you know, Billy Bob Thornton was nominated for Oscars for best screenplay and best actor.
Thornton declines to disparage the Academy. "It's easy to knock the Oscars, but it's not like some real estate company is nominating you. These are your peers."
Thornton lights another cigarette and leans forward. "There's a certain kind of snobbery in the independent world," he announces. "It's like, 'I'm a cutting-edge guy, I wear a beret, I hang out in coffee shops, and I don't like anything that is not some crappy little movie where all the girls wear pointy glasses and all the guys are grapefruit salesmen and the movie has no point.' I don't like people who stand around looking at a canvas with a blue dot on it and talk about how it represents the shrinking universe for hours and hours. I think they're as full of shit as people who make Chris Farley movies. Not that Chris Farley's full of shit. He's a talented guy."
Thornton's defensiveness about the Academy and dismissal of independent directors (even though he is one) make perfect sense. In a year when independent movies have become so mainstream that only one of the nominees for best picture comes from a major studio ("Jerry Maguire"), in a year when Slamdance, the "underground" festival for Sundance rejects, is itself the subject of a documentary by PBS, it seems the most truly "alternative" thing for a talented filmmaker to do is go Hollywood.
"The Independent Spirit Awards this year, it was such a ridiculous deal," Thornton says. "It was like, let's all pick 'Welcome to the Dollhouse.' I never saw the movie, maybe it's terrific, but the fact of the matter was they got in there and decided, 'We're going to shut out anybody who's had any success so far.' In other words, success is a bad thing to independent film people. Once you're successful, they say, 'We don't want you anymore. Now you're one of them.' As if you can help people going to your movie! I just thought it was horseshit. And I was nominated, so I feel like I can say this."
For the time being, Thornton is caught between two worlds, neither of which he seems too eager to become a member of. While he scorns the world of independent film, he admits he hasn't talked to his friend Jim Jarmusch since the nominations because he's afraid of being teased. And yet, as the interview proceeds, Thornton seems to tire of playing the smooth Hollywood up-and-comer with a press-release-perfect answer to every question. When I ask him about the inspiration for the character of Karl, his eyes suddenly fill with tears. "For some reason, I feel like talking about things I don't normally talk about, " he says, and launches into a 10-minute confessional not unlike Karl's opening soliloquy.
"I was raised with a lot of sorrow and misery," Thornton begins. "I was raised in a place where a guy who was kinda deformed, and couldn't talk plain, was made to live out in back of his parents' house. They fed him like a dog. The story was that the mother thought he came out the way he did -- and he struggled, just to walk -- his mother said she was scared by a snake when she was pregnant, and it caused him to come out like that -- he was the devil's child. It turned out he had polio. That's all it was. That's where I got the setup for where Karl comes from.
"I've told the story a billion times about how I was making faces at myself in the mirror and came up with the character, which is also true, but that's such a surface thing. That's not really what it's about. The humble, politically correct thing to say about 'Sling Blade' is that 'oh, I worked in the theater on the character, and developed it over the years,' but the deeper thing is that I'm the kid in 'Sling Blade.' Ninety percent of the stuff in 'Sling Blade' really happened. I've seen way more than I want to see in my lifetime, and I think 'Sling Blade' was a way for me to regain some security and some innocence about my past, and the things I've seen. That's what appeals to me about Karl. I feel more comfortable being Karl than I do myself. I like being Karl. I like it a lot."
After discussing the Big Question of what to wear on Oscar night -- Thornton says he's debating between a lime-green leisure suit and an Armani tux -- he ends our interview by assuring me this is all for naught, since he won't win, anyway. It's his karma to be nominated, he says, but not to win. (I, on the other hand, am not sure -- Karl, with his gentle-giant presence and plainspoken wisdom, is the direct heir of Dustin Hoffman's Rainman and Tom Hank's Forrest Gump, both Oscar winners.) As I leave the darkened hotel room and Thornton heads for the hotel bar, I can't help but wonder whether his confession was sincere, and if so, what will happen when Karl goes to Hollywood.