Hey, everyone. Capone in Chicago here. When I first walked into the room where Billy Bob Thornton and Virginia Madsen were waiting for me to discuss their charming and inspiring new film, THE ASTRONAUT FARMER, Madsen looked up at me from a drawing (more of a doodle, I suppose) Thornton had during their previous interview and said, "Where did you get that scar on your eyebrow?" She sounded downright euphoric about the remnants of a childhood injury, so I proceeded to tell her how, as a preteen, I was walking through a darkened room in our home, a room I thought I knew well enough to walk through in the dark, and tripped over something on the floor sending me eyebrow-first into the edge of a piano. Since the bleeding wasn't too bad, my mother (a former nurse) decided I didn't need stitches and instead slapped a couple of butterfly bandages on across my eyebrow. As a result, the cut didn't heal as well as it probably would have with stitches, so I have a white line running diagonally through the middle of my right eyebrow, which, apparently, Virginia Madsen found quite fascinating. That's where this interview begins.
Virginia Madsen: There are some actors who would kill to have the scar. They actually would shave the hair off to make it look like a scar. That's a classic "actor's flaw." As long as it's outside the "triangle of beauty" [which she demonstrates is across the eyes down to the chin, forming an upside-down triangle on the face], it's cool.
Billy Bob Thornton: So you work in Harry Knowles’ organization, right? Harry came to visit a couple of my sets in Texas. Maybe THE ALAMO or FRIDAY NIGHT LIGHTS, maybe another one that was shot in Texas. I’m trying to remember.
Capone: He mentioned that to me a couple of weeks ago, but I can’t remember which films.
BBT: He brought his dad to watch us film ALL THE PRETTY HORSES. That was great, that was terrific. I loved him. He was a lot of fun.
C: I met you very briefly, even before I started working for Ain’t It Cool News, when you and Dwight Yoakam came to town for the Chicago Film Festival with SLING BLADE.
BBT: That’s right, at the Music Box Theatre.
C: It was really late screening, and the theatre was far away from where I lived, and it's not a short movie and I honestly was thinking about skipping it. I didn’t know anything about the movie beyond your connection to ONCE FALSE MOVE, and I said, Okay, I'll stay for the movie but skip the Q&A. Then, of course, I saw the movie and said, Boy, I guess I’m staying up late tonight. Okay, I had the same first question for both of you. I’m half joking when I ask it, but I’m actually curious about how you’re both going to answer. Do you think that having a full-sized rocket in a barn and 10,000 lb. in that rocket, does that scream good parenting?
VM: [Laughs] Yes! Yes it does, because [Billy Bob's character] is following his dream, and he’s working hard to make it come true. That’s what you should show your children. I mean, obviously, this is a euphemism, and this is a wonderful fairy tale, but that’s the idea of it, that parents should be teaching their kids that dreaming is good, and that your dreams can come true, if you work really hard. We’re dreamers, and mine came true.
BBT: One thing you have to realize is that so many movies are symbolic pieces of art, you know. SLING BLADE was symbolic in so many ways, with so many different things, you know. I can remember somebody saying, Was Dwight’s character really bad enough to kill him? I said, That’s not the point. You’re representing this thing that was wrong with people, and Karl saw things that way, and he killed him for that. It’s not about whether he was a horrible murderer or something like that. He represented the dark side of life that had caused this guy’s life to be the way it was. It’s like in this movie, the rocket is symbolic of things, and this family unit is symbolic of America, its conflicts and hopes and dreams. That’s really what movies are. When you tell a story to somebody, it’s like, let’s say you and I went out drinking one night. In reality, we had seven beers between us, and we had some fun, and there was this really weird guy in there. Well, by the time we tell our friends, in order to make them feel the way we felt, we've gotta say we had two cases of beer apiece, and the guy was a pterodactyl. Otherwise, they’re not going to get it. If you just say, We had seven beers, and there was a really weird guy sitting at the bar. Uh, okay. But, if you go, We drank two cases of beer apiece, and there was a Pterodactyl in the bar, swear to God, they’re going to be like, No, what happened?!
VM: You have to color your story.
BBT: So, that’s what movies have always been, or novels or anything else.
C: I certainly notice that quality in the Polish brothers’ films. They all seem very symbolic. Do you remember the first film of theirs that you saw and what your reaction was?
BBT: NORTHFORK for me. I’d only seen NORTHFORK when I met them, when I was offered this. I hadn’t seen TWIN FALLS IDAHO. I went and got that and saw it, just now that I’m making a movie with them. I wanted to see what all they’d done. I loved NORTHFORK. I loved the style of NORTHFORK, and the fact that it was black and white without being black and white.
VM: It was very unusual also for that year. It stood out for a lot of people, because it was so unusual for that particular year, the crop of movies that were coming out, and I was, like, Oooh-h-h, who’s this? Who’s making this movie?
BBT: Jimmy Woods and Nike Nolte? I gotta see this.
VM: And, Daryl Hannah. It was so bizarre as you were watching the movie, and yet, I didn’t find it self-indulgent like a lot of the indie films. There’s just this real slant to be as weird as you can possibly be, just for the sake of being weird. It’s really self-indulgent, and it bores me. But, theirs also had a great story.
C: Yeah. It’s been an interesting evolution in the films leading up to this point. Did you get a sense that they were attempting something a little more…this film isn’t necessarily more commercial, but I mean more accessible than what they had done before? Though families could easily come see this film, it doesn’t feel like it's pandering or overly sentimental. Did you get a sense that they were going for something like that?
BBT: I think this story sort of took over. In other words, if you’re going to make this kind of movie, it’s just inherently that kind of movie, you know? But, I think they definitely made a more accessible movie. And, I’m sure they wanted to. I mean, they haven’t said that, but everybody wants people to see their stuff. So, it’s a natural evolution, like, on your third or fourth movie, that people start to think, now maybe I should make one that people will go see. But, the thing about those guys--and that’s nice of you to say about not pandering--because they’re so edgy, even when they write a story like this, there’s going to be that edge to it. So, I think that’s a great thing for this movie. There are people who could have made this same movie and made it too syrupy or whatever, because that’s kind of what they do. These guys are taking a more commercial Americana story and, because they are who they are, they can’t help but make it a little to the left of center. It just happens naturally. But also, everybody has the two sides. They’re also just two kids who grew up and had a red wagon and stuff like that. So, that part of them goes into it, too. They’re not just weird little creeps who hang out in their basement all day like I am. [Laughs]
VM: I think a lot of the film students that we’ve met are sort of hoping the brothers are going to be those creepy guys. But, they’re family men. They’re raising their kids, and they’re all-American in a lot of ways. And, they’re happy in their lives, too. I think that’s reflected in the film.
C: You mentioned all-American, and say they reflect Americana. They’ve done that in all their films. They are always set in a place that is uniquely American. It’s not always the prettiest part of America; it’s not always the most positive part. And even in this film, they get into that darker stuff with the FAA and the federal agents who follow them around, and everyone that is out to squash your dream, basically. When you read the script, did you give much thought to where, or if, a line should be drawn between following your dreams and doing something dangerous that could get you killed and take you away from your family?
VM: Well, what’s the alternative? If you don’t follow your dreams, what happens to you?
C: I got the sense, though, that even the filmmakers, at least in the beginning of the movie, are spending more time with the naysayers.
VM: Because when you’re a dreamer, you encounter many more naysayers than supporters. That’s your whole life. You’re surrounded by them, saying, "What are you doing?" or rolling their eyes at you.
BBT: It’s almost like, let’s say, I think I’ve seen this before, like, where a guy or girl has broken up with somebody or been dumped or whatever, and then they go out walking through the streets, and to them, everybody looks like the person who just dumped them, and everybody’s a reminder of that person. Like people in slow motion saying, YOU…GOT…DUMPED. That’s kind of what a dreamer encounters with people all the time, so I think they wanted you to see exactly what you thought everyday.
VM: You need to understand that world.
BBT: And also, you're going to have a lot of people say, Well, wait a minute, wasn’t he being selfish? Well yeah. Do you want a movie where the movie starts out, and it’s a happy family, who’s going to build a rocket, and then, seven minutes into the movie, he goes, "Eh-h, I probably shouldn’t do that."?
C: For both of you, when you read the script, was there a certain aspect to your characters that you identified as your entry point, that was the thing you kind of latched onto—Okay, I can identify with that, I can understand that. Was there something like that for each of you?
VM: Pretty much the whole thing.
BBT: I think the whole thing was an entry point. See, the thing is, we’re those kind of people. There’s not any difference, really, between the people in the movie and us in our lives. We’re like people who grew up and could have worked at Woolworth's and stayed in our hometowns. But, we didn’t do that. And, we were people who in school were thinking, You know what I’m gonna do someday? That’s who we are. So, you start reading a script like this, and there’s nothing about it where you ever stop and go, Hm-m-m, I don’t really understand this. I mean, it’s just totally natural, I think, from my experience.
VM: Yeah, it was exactly the right fit. Everything about this I identified with, you know, the dreaming, the struggle to support that, to the naysayers, to the kind of mother that she is. All of the above.
C: Billy Bob, coming out of independent film, you seem drawn to projects that come from people out of independent film, people like Sam Raimi or the Coens or Linklater. Do you make that a priority, to work with people that you share that connection with?
BBT: Yeah, I like to work with directors who I figure can do the job. That’s one thing you learn. When you first start out, the director’s not really that important to you. You're thinking, "Oh, I get to play a clown," or whatever it is.
VM: You got a job!
BBT: And, then later on, you realize that, Wow, that guy knows nothing about clowns. So, you do start to pay attention. One of the most important things these days is know that you’re right for the part, and second, know that the other people involved are right for their jobs, too. It’s not always the big director that you think is going to be best for a film. People assume that all these big directors who are on television, that they're a big deal, because years ago, nobody in the public knew who directors were. And, one of the first ones to change that, besides Spielberg, was probably Oliver Stone, because he was so public, talking about the movies that he did.
VM: He became the story.
BBT: So, yeah, you do play close attention to who’s directing. You got to know that it’s someone you can work with personally, professionally, artistically.
C: Virginia, I've actually seen your other new film, THE NUMBER 23, and I wanted me to ask at least one question about that. Now, be honest, does that movie make complete sense to you? I’m not saying it’s confusing, but there are so many layers to it. Does it still sort of rattle you when you think about it?
VM: No, because I made the movie, so it doesn’t really rattle me. It doesn’t haunt me. It was sort of designed to haunt YOU.
C: Oh, it haunts me alright.
VM: I like that about it.
C: When you first read the script, did it blow your mind? Were you even familiar with the 23 phenomenon?
VM: Oh yeah, I knew about the 23 thing, so it made a lot of sense to me. It was exciting, because it was an original idea. The other thing that I think is so great about both movies is that there’s one writer. And, the Polish brothers are the writer on this one, and we have two or three producers, not 17, and a lot of times with movies, the first thing they’ll do is get rid of the original writer, and then it’ll sort of go through this flour sifter until the material that ends up that there are so many cooks in the kitchen that the material that ends up at the bottom is just such a piece of fluff. So, I really was proud of the filmmakers for keeping their writers. The Polish brothers, of course, are in command, but, you know what, there were a lot of changes that both studios wanted to make on those movies that would have been to their detriment. They had to really fight to keep the ideas original.
C: You're playing a very different character than I’ve seen you play in a while, at least the one sexually aggressive character.
VM: I thought it was fun. It was an opportunity for me to play with the two images of Virginia Madsen: the sort of nice lady in SIDEWAYS and the sort of femme fatale of the '80s. These are two very strong images of me and what people think I am, and I could combine the two of them, and I liked that a lot. I mean, who doesn’t want to play two different roles. Actors love that kind of stuff.
[At this point, we were told to wrap it up, but I still had a couple of questions left to ask. So I stood up, kept my tape recorder rolling and got off a few more questions.]
Billy Bob Thornton: Can you please say ‘Hey’ to Harry for me.
Capone: I will. I’m going to talk to him later today. I noticed after MR. WOODCOCK comes out later this year, there isn't anything definitive left on your roster of upcoming films. What else is going on for you in the near future? I didn’t really see much.
BBT: I’m attached to, like, seven movies. I was supposed to star in Altman’s new movie.
VM: You were? HANDS ON A HARD BODY?
BBT: Yeah. I was the star of it. I was the guy, the reporter.
VM: You would have been so good.
BBT: And I’d known him for years. We never worked together, but I used to hang out with him, and I loved him to death, you know. When he died, then they started bringing other things up that were later in the year. But, I’m doing PEACE LIKE A RIVER in the fall. And, I’m doing another movie called THE TAMING OF BEN TAYLOR in April. And, then, several more after that.
C: That’ll be later this year?
BBT: PEACE LIKE A RIVER in the fall, like September or October when it starts shooting.
C: Okay, what about you, Virginia Madsen.
VM: I haven’t found anything that I like.
C: Don’t you have something coming out later this year?
VM: Oh, yeah—RIPPLE EFFECT. We finally got a distributor for that, but we don’t have a release date yet.
C: What is that about?