“Ah like them french-fried potaters, ah reckon.” You can’t watch Billy Bob Thornton’s portrayal of the mildly retarded, fearsome, yet curiously angelic Arkansas killer Karl Childers in Sling Blade without trying to imitate his burring growl. No offense. It’s just that Karl is one of the most strikingly original characters to come along in ages. He gets under your skin – as does Thornton, who impressed the Academy enough to win Oscar nominations for Best Actor and Best Screenplay. Not bad for a movie that Thornton, who also directed, shot in 24 days for a mere $1 million. Miramax, with whom Thornton now has a multi-film deal, paid 10 times that for the distribution rights.
“Karl didn’t come from any one person,” says the Arkansas-born Thornton of his character, “just a mix of different people I’ve known all my life.” Karl is released from an asylum after 25 years. At II, he had found his mother and the town bully having sex and killed them both with a scythe known as a sling blade. Karl’s parents had hammered him with a distorted religious fundamentalism. “That’s a little lesson about what you teach your kids,” says Thornton, who is droll, easy company – but with an intense edge that glints angrily when he talks of Hollywood’s resistance to challenging work.
In 1981, Thornton left Malvern, Ark., for Los Angeles with boyhood friend Tom Epperson to find acting and writing jobs. Inspiration came from Elvis Presley movies and Thornton’s favorite, High Noon, directed by Fred Zinneman (1952). “It’s the perfect movie,” he says. “It’s like finding out at the end of the day who your friends are.” He did a stint as a rock drummer, then tried the acting circuit. He and Epperson co-wrote the 1992 cult hit One False Move, in which Thornton gave an acclaimed performance as a drug dealer. But the Karl character had long been brewing. Twelve years ago, as Thornton waited on a set to speak four lines for a crummy day job on a B movie, he started making faces in a mirror. “I was kind of looking at myself, and I came up with this guy,” he says. “I started doing this one-man show, and Karl was one of the characters. I’ve lived with him for a long time.”
Thornton wrote most of the Sling Blade script in longhand on the set of the sitcom Hearts Afire (he was a regular on the show alongside great buddy John Ritter, an acting revelation as Karl’s friend in Sling Blade). He finished the script one Christmas on his mom’s dining-room table. “Southern writing has humor and misery, happiness and sadness,” he says, “all entangled in such a way that it becomes to the people who live there just like breathing.”
Such fare is not what Hollywood likes inhaling, especially from an actor-writer-director unknown to the suits. Financing finally came from a Manhattan production company called the Shooting Gallery. “They’re the hobos – in the best sense of the word – of the business,” says Thornton, who hits the mainstream soon as a character who resembles former Clinton campaign manager James Carville, in Primary Colors, with John Travolta. Thornton claims to know Carville “not at all. I’ve watched a lot of videos and stuff, but I’m not going to imitate him – that’s cheesy.”
Thornton, 41, sticks close to home in Pacific Palisades, Calif., with his wife, Pietra, and their two sons. He’s still a rebel, but perhaps a less angry one. “I’m working in a profession where you play pretend, and in some instances you get paid a lot of money for it,” he says. “I’m just finding out about that part.”