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Who Is That Guy?By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 23, 1996
If Billy Bob Thornton wins an Oscar tomorrow, he'll thank a lot of people, but he won't thank the Lord.
That, says Thornton, is not because he lacks religious convictions. It's just that he thinks God has better things to do than watch the Academy Awards.
While Thornton isn't exactly a born-again, he instills his remarkable directorial debut, "Sling Blade," with fundamental Judeo-Christian values along with those he learned growing up in the hardscrabble latitudes of Arkansas. For all the blade-slinging going on, the film's message is a spiritual one.
"A lot of people might think the movie is a slam on religion, but in fact it's very much in support of religion. See, I think religion is a good thing. The problem is people who take it into their own hands and use it for their own purposes, the guys that wear white shoes and have their own TV shows," says Thornton, gathering steam.
"Anytime somebody starts telling me that God told 'em to do something, I get suspicious. We're supposed to believe in God, God's not supposed to be running our lives and giving us advice. And people are always thanking God when they win ball games or get Academy Awards. Well, if I win, I'll be grateful to a lot of people, but I don't think God wants me thanking him for something like that."
"Sling Blade," which Thornton adapted from his one-man show, tells the story of Karl Childers, a slow-gaited, mildly retarded man who is released from a mental hospital for the criminally insane after 25 years. He's a cinematic cousin of Gump's, only from a darker part of the forest.
Karl was reared on the Ten Commandments. And little else. His parents, both religious fanatics, considered him a punishment from God, and kept him in the shed behind the house. He was waiting for his Bible lesson the night he caught his mother in the act with her young lover and killed them both with a sling blade. Northerners call it a scythe. Surely Karl is the angel of death.
"Kind of," says Thornton, a grin spreading across his bearded face. "The books Karl reads are the Bible, a book about carpentry and another about Christmas. There's definitely a whole lot of underlying stuff."
Billy Bob Boone
Though he faces formidable competition in both the best actor and best screenplay categories, his screenplay is eloquent and his performance mesmerizing. And Miramax has mounted an impressive last-minute campaign on his behalf.
Should he cop a statuette, he'll be the first Billy Bob to collar Oscar. "I'd probably be the first Billy Bob to get anything. I doubt a Billy Bob has ever won so much as a sausage-making contest," jokes Thornton.
Thornton grew up "literally out there in the woods at my grandparents' house till I was seven or eight. There was an outhouse, coal oil lamps," he remembers. "My grandfather was kinda like Daniel Boone and my grandmother was . . . um, also kinda like Daniel Boone."
There's an echo of his grandfather's speech patterns in "Sling Blade," a movie rich in the rhythms and peculiarities of a vanishing Southern dialect. Karl's antique locutions recall humid Southern evenings alive with stars and fireflies.
Of course, there's always that sling blade settin' on the porch and the certainty that Karl has gotten himself into a situation that might call for a bit of judicious harvesting. He's made himself an enemy of a local bully, Doyle.
"I think I'm probably every character in that movie in a way. There's even a side of me that's like Doyle," he admits. Doyle is a manic-depressive alcoholic played by country and western star Dwight Yoakam. "There's a little bit of my dad in Doyle, too. Just flying off of the handle in an instant. He'll apologize to you and cuss you out in the same sentence."
Thornton's dad, whom he describes as "a hotheaded, Irish basketball coach who just wanted to play ball," died when the filmmaker had just turned 18. "He typified Southern basketball coaches. Daddy didn't like to lose. When the Razorbacks would lose, I've seen him yank radios out of the wall and throw 'em across the room. I mean I loved my dad, he just never got music or movies or any of that kind of stuff. Sports was about all he liked. I love sports, too, and I played baseball. And he liked that. Then I always wanted to play the piano, too, but I knew better than to even ask."
His mother, who'll be on Dwight Yoakam's arm at the Academy Awards ceremony tomorrow night, is a psychic, but he told her he didn't want to know the outcome. "My mother is one of these really wonderful sweet people that everybody likes. She's one of those people who make you feel comfortable when you're around her. My mother was the main person encouraged me. She never said, `Well, why don't you go work in a factory?' "
"I don't think they like you shooting 'em around here," says the 41-year-old, who got $10 million for "Sling Blade" and today sups on trendier fare at Wolfgang Puck's Hollywood bistro.
"This is my spot. This is where I was when I heard that `Sling Blade' sold to Miramax," says Thornton. When he walks into Wolfgang's -- after holding the door for a mess of tourists -- there's no need to order. A brimming glass of Chardonnay, a Coke with lemon and a variety of trendy vittles arrive at regular intervals.
"Try that one. It'll blow your mind," says Thornton, indicating a flour tortilla. "Isn't that sumthin'. It's deer quesadilla." A Bambi burrito is no big deal to a guy who learned how to wring a chicken's neck when he was little. "Some people think that's so barbaric," he sighs.
Thornton, who tried to make it as a musician, played drums in a rock band before he and his boyhood friend Tom Epperson set out to make their fortunes in Los Angeles. Alas, fortune managed to elude them for 12 years. At one point, Thornton was so broke he ate nothing but raw potatoes for three weeks and wound up in the hospital suffering from starvation. (Perversely, Karl Childers favorite food next to biscuits is fried "pertaters," which he garnishes with mustard.)
With the help of friends, Thornton, who was deeply depressed, healed physically and spiritually and landed a few small parts. He was the bailiff on "Divorce Court" and a whiny husband in "Chopper Chicks In Zombietown." For the latter, Z-film critic Joe Bob Briggs nominated him for a Drive-In Academy Award. He didn't win, but it was an honor just to be nominated.
Still, his career hadn't taken off as he had hoped, so he took a five-line part in a 1987 cable movie, "The Man Who Broke 1,000 Chains." The temperature was in the 90s and Thornton was dying in his high-collared, wool conductor's uniform and, worst of all, the director wanted him to overact. When he went back to his trailer and looked in the mirror, Karl popped out sort of like one of Eve's three faces.
The squinched eyes, the jutting jaw, even the bowl haircut stared back at Thornton from the mirror. And Karl started telling him off, his guttural uninflected voice punctuated with gravelly "unnh-huhhs." Right then and there, he came up with a monologue that he performed as part of a one-man stage show. He later filmed the monologue to raise the $1 million to fund "Sling Blade."
Thornton, who describes Karl as a cross between Frankenstein's monster and Boo Radley, looks nothing like the gawky giant in real life. Still, "Sling Blade" fans recognize him and approach him, wave from the streets, ask for autographs and pictures.
"Hey, Billy Bob," hollers one dude, "I just bought a ticket to your movie. It cost me $8, so I hope it's good."
"If you don't like it," says Thornton, "I'll give you the $8 back."
Sean Penn would have stuffed the ticket down his throat and sewed it shut, but Thornton believes in tolerance and acceptance, which are among "Sling Blade's" major themes. Thus, a young widow and her little boy do not hesitate to take in Karl though they know he has just been released from the "nervous hospital."
Thornton adopted the euphemism from his grandmother. "She didn't want to say nut house or asylum, so she just said, `Oh God bless him, they put him in the nervous hospital.' My grandmother would let every hobo in the world through her door. And feed him all day long, ask if he wanted to spend the night."
Thornton has yet to shake the Southern soil from his roots, but since he won't fly, he doesn't get home a lot.
"I'm scared of flying," he explains, scared of dying in a crash. "I just don't want to go that way. I don't mind going some other ways but that's not the one. I just can't stand that whole idea. I want to die on the ground where I was meant to die. Besides, I think there are a lot of tourists on airplanes, and I don't want to die with tourists."
Thornton, who dwells in Los Angeles with his fourth wife and two young sons, hasn't lived in Arkansas for some time, but the place haunts "Sling Blade" as well as "One False Move" and "A Family Thing," both of which he co-wrote with Epperson. Friends since third grade, the two boys grew up in Malvern, Ark., the inspiration for "Sling Blade's" setting, with its run-down fix-it shop, modest frame houses and, of course, the Tastee Freeze.
"That's why people hate to drink wine around me, it embarrasses 'em. Because you know you're supposed to sip wine and enjoy the bowkay, and all that stuff. And they bring it around to me and they'll pour a little shot in a glass and say you want to try this? And I say, hell no. I'm not drinking because it tastes good anyway. If I wanted something that tastes good I'd order a Dr Pepper."