Eighteen years after the Coen brothers scored with the whimsical crime drama Fargo, a series inspired by the movie comes to FX (Tuesdays, 10/9c) with new murders in the frozen wilderness of Minnesota. The new cast includes Martin Freeman, Colin Hanks and Billy Bob Thornton as Lorne Malvo, a menacing mystery man who’ll figure heavily in the bloody plot. Having done a lot of TV before rising to red carpet fame with Sling Blade (the same year, 1996, that Fargo hit theaters), Thornton explains why he’s embracing a (temporary) return to the small screen, among other things, in this frank Q&A.
“I went to a little college called Henderson State University in Arkansas. I went a year and a half and mainly drank beer and chased women. That was really what I majored in. I didn’t go to class much.”
You’ve become known for playing some pretty scary guys.
One False Move years and years ago was pretty bad, but other than that, this is probably the first time in a while. There’s a common misconception that I’ve played a lot of bad guys, but if you look back through my career, I haven’t really. I’ve played a few smartasses, but generally, I haven’t played full-on bad guys. When I was coming up in the early eighties as an actor out here, to get the part of the bad guy, particularly on television, you had to be loud and jump on desks and spit everywhere, and in reality that’s not the way actual bad guys are because I’ve run into a few of them. They’re more seductively evil or mysterious. So I was determined if I did, one it would always be a guy who was more like they really behave.
Is that how you see Lorne Malvo? Even the name sounds malevolent.
Malvo doesn’t just kill people ’cause he likes to kill people or do evil things. He has a mission and whenever it’s necessary, he kills or he impersonates someone or whatever the job requires. He’s a drifter who’s not from any place in particular. In my mind, he’s probably born in the Midwest somewhere and just kind of drifted around. Nobody knows why he’s there, what he’s up to. He’s not a typical bad guy. It’s sort of God and the Devil all wrapped up into one, a puppet master in some sense who is not only capable of very dangerous things, but he also is very mischievous and toys with people.
You did a lot of television early in your career. What drew you back to TV?
The movie world has changed drastically, particularly in the last five or six years. The mid-level movies for studios and higher‑budget independent films don’t really exist anymore. The motion picture studios make big event movies, and they make broad comedies, and they make action movies. If you want to do good dramatic work or work with dark humor and drama, you have to do it on television, and it’s a great opportunity to develop a character over a period of time. So they offered me this thing based on Fargo, and they knew my history with the Coen brothers. It had a great pedigree. It was so well written. While paying a great tribute to the movie and having the same tone, it’s its own fresh thing. Playing a character who is sort of the enigma is in my wheelhouse. There was no reason not to do it. Especially when they said it’s only ten episodes, and then you can go back to movies.
What intrigues you about the northern setting?
It seems so foreign to us. It’s such a white bread culture where they keep it close to the vest, to set [against] all this danger and weirdness and trouble. The snow is so symbolically pure, and then you have blood on the snow and that’s so dramatic.
You have several movies coming up.
I did a small independent film up in Canada called Cut Bank, which is myself and Liam Hemsworth, Bruce Dern, John Malkovich, Oliver Platt, Teresa Palmer—really great people—and that’s going to come out at some point this year. The Judge is with Robert Downey, Robert Duvall, Vincent D’Onofrio. I play a prosecuting attorney against Downey’s defense attorney, and then London Fields is based on the Martin Amis book. It’s a very crazy book and very crazy movie.
Is there a kind of character you haven’t gotten to play and would like to?
I’ve always wanted to play a college professor.
Did you go to college?
I went to a little college called Henderson State University in Arkansas. I went a year and a half and mainly drank beer and chased women. That was really what I majored in. I have a lot of incompletes on my transcript. I didn’t go to class much.
You write. Why not write a script about a professor?
If I weren’t so lazy, I would. I write every five or six years. I write a lot of songs, but I don’t write [scripts] much. I grew up on Southern novelists, like Erskine Caldwell, and the movies I make are like that: books on film, and that’s not popular anymore. I think I may be over as a writer and director. I think I’m just an actor now. I don’t think they’re interested in what I write and direct anymore.
Are you writing songs for an album?
I just recorded a new record with my band the Boxmasters. It’s called Providence and it’ll probably come out in May. But I won’t go on the road again until the fall.