“All I ever wanted to do was be in the entertainment business” – Billy Bob Thornton
Sit through a grindhouse movie from 1989 called "Chopper Chicks in Zombietown" and you’ll catch a glimpse of the guy who would go on to become one of the most recognized film personalities in the world. Yet Arkansas-born William Robert Thornton, famous for his quirky, offbeat performances in productions such as "Goliath," "1883," "Fargo" and "Bad Santa," never set out to be an actor.
"When I first moved to Los Angeles, I was pretty destitute for a number of years," Thornton said. "Living like that gives you a perspective you don’t get by studying to be an actor. When I play a character, I just draw on those life experiences."
A chance encounter with a Hollywood legend provided some valuable career advice.
“I was a waiter at this big dinner with Dan Aykroyd and Debbie Reynolds, I can’t remember who else was there, and I served Billy Wilder, the director. We got to talking and I told him I’d had some small roles and I’d started to write. Wilder told me I wasn’t good looking enough to be an actor, and I should keep writing."
In 1991, Thornton’s screenplay for “One False Move” was made into a thriller starring Bill Paxton. A few years later, he wrote and starred in “Sling Blade," winning an Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay in the process.
In 2007 Thornton formed a rockabilly blues band called The Boxmasters. To date, the band has released six albums and toured the country several times. Sidelined by the COVID-19 pandemic for two years, The Boxmasters are currently on a 60-city tour in support of their latest CD, “Help ... I’m Alive." They will perform at Wisconsin’s Crystal Grand Music Theater in Lake Delton on Monday, May 23. Thornton spoke with OnMilwaukee in advance of the show to talk about his early life, previous visits to Milwaukee and some aspects of his career.
OnMilwaukee: Welcome back to Wisconsin.
Billy Bob Thornton: Thank you. We’ve been to Green Bay before, and those are real nice people up there. And we love Milwaukee! That motorcycle party is still probably the biggest audience we’ve ever played to. Something like 150,000 bikers crammed into a parking lot. (Laughs) It felt like Woodstock.
The audience for your subsequent show here in 2017 wasn’t quite as big.
(Laughs) Maybe a couple hundred people. We played a little place that had a bar on one side and the stage in the other half.
The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s review of that show said, quote, "Thornton, the affable movie star chatting between songs, was far more entertaining than Thornton the rocker. He had a capable but colorless voice and was a strangely stiff performer." Can you talk about that?
Oh yeah, I remember that guy. He was a real asshole. Asked me all kinds of weird questions. He just didn’t get it. We’re old guys; we don’t do dance steps or jump around on stage. Mick Jagger does that. We go out there and I read the room, see how it feels. We’ll do a few songs, then I’ll have some fun with the audience, we’ll play a couple more songs. Paul McCartney doesn’t do anything on stage. He just stands there and sings. Eric Burdon from The Animals, he stood in one place. I really don’t know what this writer was talking about.
We don’t fly from city to city. We all travel together in one bus, and nobody’s better than anyone else. We stay in cheaper motels to keep the costs down. A long time ago, I went to see Creedence Clearwater Revival and John Fogerty hit the opening chords for "Green River," all the stage lights came up and the show was underway. That was it. No announcers or introductions. Our last four tours have seen a little profit because we’re very mindful of expenses. That’s the kind of band we are.
A lot of musicians our age say The Beatles were a huge influence on them.
I was eight years old in 1964 when The Beatles were on Ed Sullivan. It was like being hit by lightning. When I mentioned that to Tom Petty, he said the same exact thing happened to him.
You know, I wasn’t what you’d call a stellar student. I loved music and playing baseball. And I knew I didn’t want to work in an office or whatever for the rest of my life. All I ever wanted was to be in a band. I worked in a grocery store, a screen door factory and a machine shop. I even had a job with the Arkansas highway department. I hated every one of those jobs. I listened to the Animals, the Kinks, the Dave Clark Five, anything from the British Invasion. The first bands I was in, we played stuff like that.
Do you have a process for songwriting?
It might be an idea or a few lines that fits a musical structure, or it might be a melody and a line or two that develops. Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and John Prine have influenced me as a songwriter. My biggest influence is Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention. The band’s sound draws on The Beatles, The Beach Boys, The Byrds. Some of the songs are about relationships, others are more sociopolitical. "I Got Glendale" is about living in an unglamorous Southern California town. Some people get it, others don’t. I try to write smart lyrics and put them to music.
You were around 40 years old when you formed the current band.
Yeah, the Boxmasters began 16 years ago with guitarist J.D. Andrew and myself. J.D. was the recording engineer for my album "Beautiful Door." I heard him playing “Lost Highway," the Hank Williams song, and I loved it. We’ve been together ever since. Initially there was some skepticism because I’m an actor, but we’ve developed a following in places like Kansas City and Chicago. California, Alabama, Georgia, those are good places for us. On this tour we’re playing our first show in New Hampshire. We’ve never been there before. The internet has given us exposure to new audiences.