Billy Bob Thornton doesn’t mind keeping busy. The Oscar-winning filmmaker and musician has two new movies already done – including Jayne Mansfield’s Car, his first as director in a dozen years – and four acting gigs still ahead of him. His band the Boxmasters have been in and out of the studio working up new songs, and on Friday, Thornton hosted “Under the Influence,” a night of music for friends and guests at the Morrison Hotel Gallery in West Hollywood, located in the lobby of the Sunset Marquis Hotel
At the invitation of photographer Timothy White, Thornton curated a small show at the gallery, focused on several areas of musical obsession, including the British Invasion, outlaw country, the blues, and provocateurs like Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart. On one wall hung White’s large, vivid portrait of the actor in a rhinestone-covered electric blue suit.
“My whole life revolves around Sixties rock & roll,” Thornton told Rolling Stone with a grin shortly before the opening, where bouffant-haired singer Lynda Kay also performed country torch songs and pop in the classic mode. “That’s all I’ve ever thought about. And I’m big into photography.”
As guests arrived at the gallery, Thornton relaxed outside with a cigarette in a leather jacket and snakeskin boots, and spoke of one surprising musical hero, shared memories of working with the late James Gandolfini, and explained why he and Robert Duvall can’t get enough of one another.
In 2001, you were in the Coen Brothers’ The Man Who Wasn’t There, which included a supporting role by James Gandolfini. Did you know him well?
We talked about six months ago about a project he had, and he wondered if I would like to be a part of it. It was the same old Jim. He was a very professional guy. When he showed up on the set, he was always prepared. We weren’t like hanging out pals because he lived over in New York and I live here, but we had a great time making that movie.
The Sopranos had only just started by then, so most people hadn’t caught on to his acting abilities. Could you see it back then?
Absolutely. Anytime you’re in a scene with an actor and you really disappear into that scene and you don’t think of them as who they are in real life, that’s a great sign. That’s what we try to achieve. And with Jim that’s the way it was. He would suck you right into the scene. He was a terrific actor.
I wasn’t a guy who really watched The Sopranos much – I don’t watch a lot of TV. So for me, when I worked with Jim, he was almost brand new. I was very impressed right away with him. An imposing presence, too.
In September, you have Jayne Mansfield’s Car coming, which you also wrote and directed.
It’s me and Robert Duvall, John Hurt, Kevin Bacon, Robert Patrick. It takes place in 1969 in Alabama, so it’s a hard sell. It’s very character oriented, and it includes both drama and very dark humor. It’s the kind of movie that 10 years ago would have been a $50 million movie, and now it’s a $10 million movie. We’re real proud of it.
Was there something about it that inspired you to get back into directing, or was it just the first one that came together?
Other than All the Pretty Horses, I’ve only directed stuff that I generated in some way. Being a director for hire is not of great interest – though I would do it for something really right. It’s the first idea I had in a long time. And after All the Pretty Horses [in 2000], with all the creepy stuff surrounding that, you go out and get your ass kicked, and you have to go back in the cave for a little while before you want to do it again.
You recently signed on to another movie with Robert Duvall, The Judge. It will be your 5th or 6th film with him.
We do it on purpose. He’s sort of my mentor. I’ve known him for 25 years. He’s been a real inspiration. He’s so authentic and honest as an actor. When I was coming up, that’s the guy I watched. Before that, I was influenced by Alec Guinness, Peter Sellers and Fredric March, Montgomery Clift. I loved those guys. They were so real in a time when the acting style wasn’t so realistic.
What are you doing musically these days?
We have been working on a couple of movie scores – one documentary and one feature. One way or the other, the Boxmasters are making a new record over at A&M [Henson Studios in Hollywood]. We’ll probably go on the road next year. I’ve been beating away at it since I was a kid. After four solo records and three released Boxmasters records, it’s starting to die down some that it’s “an actor” doing it. I used to get that a lot, and I understand, because there are actors who do it as a hobby, but it wasn’t a hobby for me. I started out as that, and I roadied for years. It’s changing a little now, and we have built up a nice following.
These pictures [at the Morrison Hotel] are what I grew up with. It’s the people who influenced me – not always musically. You don’t listen to my records and think Frank Zappa. But his humor influenced my humor in writing.
Do you see creating material for a film as different from what you do in music?
I look at it all as one thing. If you do a sculpture, a painting, a poem, a song and write a movie it’s all from the same mind. When I was growing up, there was more of that mentality. Nobody said Frank Sinatra shouldn’t be doing movies or Dean Martin or any of those guys. And back then they were dancers, singers, actors, jugglers – they did everything and it was accepted as the norm. Now everything is compartmentalized. It’s like when I was growing up, James Taylor and Black Sabbath on the same station. We didn’t have the separation of everything. That’s why it’s always absurd and shocking to me when people still say that.