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INT: Billy Bob Thornton

Billy Bob Thornton / Derek Luke & Jay Hernandez

Billy Bob Thornton is the hero of every black guy in America. At least, that’s what he says. The eccentric star of the high school football drama FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, opening this Friday, is always good for a few interesting quotes, and at his press conference last week he didn’t disappoint. The aforementioned statement, in reference to his big sex scene with Halle Berry in MONSTER'S BALL, was my personal favorite.

In FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, Thornton plays Gary Gaines, head coach of the Permian Panthers’ high school football team. In the small town of Odessa, Texas, high school football is just about the only thing that matters, and the unassuming, intense Gaines carries the hopes of an entire community on his shoulders. Based on a true story, the film chronicles his quest to lead his team to the Texas state championship. Check out what Billy Bob had to say about his latest.

BILLY BOB THORNTON

Do you need to be a fan of football to truly appreciate this movie?

I guess the politically correct answer for the studio would be, of course, you don’t have to be a football fan, but in fact you really don’t because at the end of the day, the movie is about peoples’ hopes and dreams becoming obsession and becoming so narrow, that you have no future if something happens to that. So I think it’s a pretty universal theme. And it’s not like football’s that hard to figure out if you’re from Yugoslavia or some place. They were asking me at the foreign press conference why I think football is only in America…and it’s like they don’t play it in other parts of the world, soccer, rugby.

I said it’s because I think Europeans have a better fashion sense than we do and they don’t like the pads. (Laughs)  But first of all I think sports movies inherently are made for cinema, because you have built-in drama, a ticking clock of some sort, and to see a sporting event as a backdrop to a movie, you’re seeing two things because you’re seeing the sporting event and movie at the same time, just like when you go see a football game, it’s almost like you’re watching a movie. So I think those two are a pretty good marriage, which is why I think sports movies tend to do ok.

Were you a fan?

Absolutely. I grew up in Arkansas and that’s the law. My dad was a high school basketball coach, so I was raised as a coach’s son and I was a baseball player back in Arkansas. I lived in Texas, too, so I was just surrounded by sports. So that’s what I was going to do: pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals. I had no idea I was going to be an actor.  I got my collarbone broken in the Kansas City Royals training camp, and once I got hurt I started doing other things for a while.

I didn’t think my career was over as a baseball player, but once I’d recuperated from this collarbone injury I was, I’d always been into music and my band was playing more and then I got an opportunity to work as a roadie,  and I did that and so by that time I still loved baseball but I thought, “Well you know what? I don’t want to cut my hair anyway.” Because I was like hippie in those days and in college, you know they won’t let you do that and you’ve gotta go to bed early and stuff. So I ended up, on the road with the rock and roll band and I ended up working for the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and a lot of people like that. And that’s a whole other story.

Do you see this film as glorious high school experience or a tragedy about athletes who peak too soon?

It’s both. For some people it turns ok and some it doesn’t. It shows the potential for either thing. In other words, you take a poor kid who has no chance of an education, of a scholarship, or to make a decent living. Through sports, they have that opportunity, but also if that’s all they have, then if something happens to that, with one twist of a knee, your future’s gone. So it’s about all of that. It’s also about politics in small town America. I grew up in a town where they’re obsessed with this, and the football team wasn’t like some high school group like the Glee Club, it was like, really like the social life of the town.  The cornerstone of the town was the football team. And they are that obsessed. Some people who see this movie say, “Surely they’re not that crazy, right?” But they are, believe me. My dad was a coach and I’ve seen him break his knuckles. Not on me, fortunately.  (Laughs)

Is it a good thing for these kids to be under so much pressure?

Well, ideally, what athletics are supposed to teach you…at least back in my day, the idea was that athletics were to teach you to be a better human being. It teaches you discipline and competition, because when you get out into the world, there’ll be competition. You’re going to have to compete in some way. So a good program is supposed to teach you about how to get out there in the world and live. If that’s the way it’s put to you and if that’s what is exercised by these teachers – because a good coach should be a teacher –  then it’s ok.

But when it becomes a cock-fight – and I mean that in the rooster sense – where you really are on display…because let’s face it, you’ve got guys out there who these players might as well be meat to them, because they’re just there to make them feel better. I don’t watch as much pro sports these days as I do college. College sports is still more about the team, which is one of the things they’re supposed to teach you, teamwork. Pro sports are much more about the individual these days, so I don’t know. Once obsession gets too intense, I don’t think it is good and I don’t think it’s good for parents to push their kids into playing sports if they don’t want to. In the south, most kids want to, but some of them wanted to go to Vietnam too.

In preparing for this role, how much draw from your father?

Well I certainly didn’t draw on my dad in terms of his calmness. The real life guy, Gary Gaines, is a regular guy. He is a very sort of calm guy and I was really happy to hear that, because generally coaches are played as one-note sort of intense guys and every moment of their lives they’re screaming at somebody. When they order their breakfast, it’s intense. And I didn’t want to do that. I wouldn’t have been interested in doing this part if he hadn’t different colors.

I didn’t meet him before (filming). I did that purposefully. I didn’t want to be imitating somebody, and as an actor you have a tendency to go, “Oh wow, he always fidgets with the paper,” and then you start thinking about that too much. But he’s a coach from Texas and it’s not like a stretch. It’s not like they hired a British theatre actor to play a Texas football coach. They hired a guy from Arkansas, and so it wasn’t like it was going to be too far off the mark. So I loved that part of it and my baseball coach was like that. A very calm guy, but boy, when he got mad, you didn’t want to be around. So I found a lot of coaches to be that way.

You’ve collaborated with Lucas Black before. Were you involved at all with him being cast?

Well, first of all, I was solely responsible for all the casting, catering, wardrobe and everything. No, Pete Berg called me and he, and he said “Listen, what do you think of Lucas Black?” and I said “I think he’s a little shit. Don’t go anywhere near him”. (Laughs) Then he said, “Do you think he’s good for the part?” and I said, “Absolutely. I would cast Lucas in anything. You know, I think he’s one of the best guys I worked with.” Same with Tim McGraw. He said, “You know, I met with Tim McGraw. It seems like he might be pretty cool in the part, what do you think?” I said “Absolutely. I’ve got an instinct that this guy’s gonna be good,” and sure enough he is.

What are your favorite sports films? Did you watch any of them in preparation for this?

Well, I didn’t necessary watch any films in preparation of this, but I watch sports films anyway. My preference is to watch the documentary stuff, you know I like to watch the NFL films things that Steve Sable and his dad all those guys did. I mean, I love watching things that have the 1965 Baltimore Colts and stuff like that. That’s really what I love. But in terms of sports films that move me or whatever, I mean you know some of the old ones that everybody loves, you know like Pride of the Yankees. There’s a movie called The Stratton Story with Jimmy Stewart which is…I love that movie, it’s an incredible movie and quite dark actually for its time and you know. It’s a true story about a pitcher who lost his leg and then continued to pitch with an artificial leg later on, but it’s real psychological drama kinda thing, you know? I loved that one.

Hoosiers I think is just a beautiful movie. I remember some critics saying at the time, because Hoosiers is actually a really good movie and there’re some people who don’t like any type of sort of emotion, you know they’re just like totally cynical. I have guys who never particularly liked, critics who like my movies but were never crazy about them until Bad Santa, and then I’m like God to them. Since Monsters Ball, I’m every black guy in America’s hero, you know what I mean? And it’s true. I can’t, I can’t go through the airport without at least one security guy saying “Billy Bob. Hey man. Halle, Halle Berry man,” and I’m like “That’s right!” But it’s like I got a whole new fan base there now Bad Santa, every asshole in the world loves me, right?

So anyway, what I’m getting around to is that this critic said about Hoosiers something, he made some remark about “Of course in the end they go play the big team and they win!”, you know? Well it’s a true story, what do you wanna do - change history, you know change history so you know you have to like cry once?  But Hoosiers is a terrific movie I think and they really did win, and the same guys made this movie Rudy, which I think is a terrific movie. Yeah sure it gets schmaltzy in places but that’s okay.

Do you have any plans to release the director’s cut of All the Pretty Horses DVD?

We were just talking about that. We were offered the opportunity to put All the Pretty Horses out on DVD and I turned the offer down. The reason is, if I put out the director’s cut on DVD, I would want it to be exactly what we made and what we made had Daniel Lanois’ score in it. While I like Marty Stuartt’s score – I mean, I’m the one who hired him when Miramax said, you know “We don’t want Daniel’s music in the movie,” –  They thought it was too sparse. In other words you know when you’re making a big movie it’s like people vote for movies that have big music and thousands of extras I guess or something so they want bigger music. So they need an orchestra.

Well Daniel did this amazing score to the movie. It’s beautiful and perfect for the movie, so when they said we could do the DVD I called Daniel and said “Look they wanna put out a director’s cut, isn’t that swell?” and Daniel said, “Well, it’s not so swell because they didn’t want my music in the movie in the theatres. I don’t know that I want to give it to them for a DVD because that’s my music and I can use it.” He retained the rights to it so he can use it for other things and maybe he will have it in a big movie in a theatre some day, and I said, “I’m on your side. You’re my friend. I agree with you. I wouldn’t give them the music either.” So as a result, because I’m on Daniel Lanois’ side, I don’t want to put the movie out because I would want his music in it. So that’s a long-winded explanation for “No. There’s not gonna be.”

What else are you up to at the moment?

We’re starting in November, we’re doing a remake of the Bad News Bears.

And you’re the Walter Matthau character?

And I’m the Walter Matthau character.

Questions? Comments? Manifestos? Send them to me at [email protected].

Source: JoBlo.com

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