Urban Cinefile
"Hollywood is a place where people from Iowa mistake each other for stars."  -Fred Allen
 The World of Film in Australia - on the Internet Updated Tuesday September 15, 2020 

Printable page PRINTABLE PAGE



PAUL FISCHER talks to Bill Paxton and Oscar winner Billy Bob Thornton, who co-star in the deceptively simple, A Simple Plan; they tell him about the thrill of creating characters, and about the conditions on set, where it was fifty below zero and nothing to have but beer and cheese.

It's hard to know the real Billy Bob Thornton. He's a character actor, and each character the Oscar winner creates is vastly different from its predecessor. The big wide world first really got to know him in Sling Blade, but on meeting him, it is evident he hides behind a myriad of faces. In the chilling A Simple Plan, he gives another of those meticulous performances that defy catgorisation. How does he comes up with such a range of characters?

"I just start with my family" Thornton

"I just start with my family", he quips in his Arkansas drawl. "I've got about 27 left." After a pause, the quietly spoken actor adds; "this is the joy of [acting] for me. I'd rather come up with a character than anything else in the world, and I don't think it's that challenging to keep come up with characters; I think what's challenging is to find people that you can work with who'll allow you to do it."

But luckily he seemed to find those people when shooting A Simple Plan, a throwback to classic film noir movies of the fifties. Based on the acclaimed novel, the film is set in small-town Minnesota where Hank Mitchell (Bill Paxton) has a nice life with a job at the local grain mill and a loving, pregnant wife Sarah (Bridget Fonda). Then one day, Hank, his dimwitted brother Jacob (Thornton), and Jacob's redneck pal Lou (Brent Briscoe), discover a crashed plane with $4 million in neatly stacked hundreds, which may or may not be, from a drug deal. Jacob and Lou are ready to take the money and run, but Hank decides they must wait and see.

"I put a lot of them (my children) into the character" Thornton

As time passes, those in the know get tense, the town sheriff (Chelcie Ross) gets curious, emotions erupt, and violence is unleashed. Thornton's latest character, one of his richest creations since Sling Blade, was derived from his own children, he explains. "I have a four-year old and a five-year old boy, and I put a lot of them into the character, and I thought about them the whole movie, because I knew there's an innocence that had to be there for people to be on side of the character."

This dark thriller was shot on location in the icy backwoods of Minneapolis, and might well have been a tough shoot, but for a few unusual elements, says Thornton. "We were up in a place where there's nothing but beer and cheese, fifty below zero with beer and cheese! So you're like drunk and constipated, and freezing your rear off! It's like, we'll all freeze together and do a dark movie!"

Bill Paxton, last seen in the slightly larger Titanic, has known Thornton for a while, since appearing in the Thornton-scripted One False Move. "We really had a great relationship and we wanted to work together again ever since, and unfortunately I didn't get a break in Sling Blade," he quips.

"it was intensely personal for me" Paxton

Paxton fell in love with the book of A Simple Plan, which had been given to him by his father, who at the time even told the young actor that he 'was born to play this part'. Paxton insisted that would never happen. "So it's been a personal movie for me," Paxton adds, and in more ways than one. "I have an older brother, Bob, who's very much like the character of Jacob in the movie, so it was intensely personal for me. It was a chance to kinda explore that in these characters, in this tragic situation. What's interesting to me about it is that my character starts out married, supposedly in love with his wife who, by the end of the movie, is not the person he's close to and a stranger to him; while the man, his brother, who he thought he was estranged from, is so close to him at the end of the movie, that that's the real tragedy of the story for my character."

The film is thematically about greed and the lure of money to ordinary characters. For Paxton, the appeal of this film, was that "it was such an Everyman story. I felt that I was playing anybody who could end up in that situation. It really is the classic film noir movie, because the protagonist does a wrong thing to make something right, and that of course, is the beginning of the end."

"it's occasionally fun to see your picture on a bus stop." Thornton

Both Paxton and Thornton have emerged as two of Hollywood's A-list actors, yet both are willing to shun big bucks Hollywood in favour of making the occasional smaller film. For Thornton, it's clear that the big studio films enable him to have the freedom to be independent, but disputes the notion that true quality is solely in the land of the independent industry.

"I don't think it's necessarily true that ONLY independent films are the quality ones. I think that big films can also be quality, it's just that there are so MANY crappy ones in both areas, and that people don't see most of the crappy small ones, but they SEE all the crappy big ones. I mean, there are some junkie small films out there, like some two and a half hour movie about some father and his daughter eating corn. So I think you can make a quality film that's big. MY problem with bigger films is, that they generally cover the broad topic, and shoot it like a rock video, and put the latest band (that sounds exactly like the band that was popular last week) to do a big soundtrack. They don't let the CHARACTERS come alive, so if big movies actually allow the people to be first and the story to be caused by THEM, then I think you can have great, big movies. I enjoy doing the smaller movies myself, simply because they DO allow that, though it's occasionally fun to see your picture on a bus stop."

"our intrinsic trust of each other helped us" Paxton

Paxton, fresh from the biggest of them all, Titanic, agrees "Yeah, for me it's about the character and telling a great story through that character. Obviously, with smaller films, time is a crucial factor, and on A Simple Plan we could have done with more, but sometimes, necessity is the mother of invention and our intrinsic trust of each other helped us in this movie."

Both actors are also free to admit how tough it is to watch themselves on film. "There are even a couple of movies I've been in that I STILL haven't seen", says Thornton. "You're always nervous, though I think I know myself now, as an actor, so I usually know if I've done what I WISH I had done, but I think I'm more afraid of having done something totally weird that NOBODY gets. And you think it's the best thing you've ever done."

"you've got to do it because you love it" Thornton

What is clear in talking to both these Bills, is their genuine passion for what they do. Thornton, for instance, is the first to admit that without the audience approval for his work, it's all a waste of time. "You can't make movies with the idea that you're going to get awards or get great reviews; you've got to do it because you love it and you really want to play the part and you love the story. But then at the end of it, we depend on people to respond to what we do, and it makes you very nervous, and that's why we keep trying."

Email this article

Thornton in Simple Plan

Paxton in Simple Plan


Thornton in Sling Blade

Bill Paxton

Thornton in Home Grown

Paxton in Titanic

Thornton in UTurn

Urban Cinefile 1997 - 2020