Talking Humor and Tragedy With Billy Bob Thornton
The Arkansas native actor returns to directing in this fall’s “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” and shares his thoughts on writing movies about the South.
(Scroll down for the interview.)
Soft spoken and maintaining his Southern drawl, Billy Bob Thornton exudes charm, even if it’s just over the phone. He’s promoting his new movie, in theaters this Friday, but wants to know how things are going in South Louisiana and chat about SEC football and his home team’s chances for the season. He also has plenty to say about the South, whether it’s on books, film or how to write and direct a movie that celebrates the region’s characters and long history of storytelling.
Born in Hot Springs, Arkansas, Thornton moved to Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. He wanted to pursue an acting career and teamed up with Tom Epperson, who became his writing partner. Having a hard time landing acting jobs, he worked as film director and screenwriter for Billy Wilder, famous for “The Apartment” and “Sunset Boulevard.” Thornton later became a cast member on the CBS sitcom “Hearts Afire” and had some small film roles before writing, directing and starring in “Sling Blade” in 1996. It’s the story of Karl Childers, a man who has been hospitalized since he murdered his mother and her lover and is released to start life over in a small Arkansas town. The movie earned Thornton an Academy Award for his screenplay, nomination for Best Actor and several other awards and nominations.
His latest film, “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” is out in theaters on Friday (viewable on demand now) and is a return to directing for Thornton. He also co-wrote the script with writing partner Epperson and stars in the movie. Set in Alabama but filmed in Georgia, “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” pits two families against each other – one Southern and the other British. Thornton’s character, Skip, belongs to the Caldwell family, which has lost their estranged mother. Upon her death, she requested that her ashes be returned home for burial. Her British husband, Kingsley, played by John Hurt, travels with his daughter and son to Alabama for the funeral.
The year is 1969, and war permeates everything. Skip and his brother, Carroll, played by Kevin Bacon, fought in World War II and returned home as heroes, but they haven’t done much since. Their father, Jim Caldwell, played by Robert Duvall, doesn’t understand them and would rather be poking around the scene of the latest car accident in town than home trying to talk to his sons.
When the two families meet, it’s a clash of cultures and when Kingsley passes out at the funeral and the foreign guests have to stay a few days more, tension between both fathers and sons rises to the surface. Men raised not to express their feelings share memories, flirtations bloom, rivalries explode and a few laughs are shared as these families struggle to connect with themselves and each other.
With an all-star cast that gets comic relief from the inclusion of Katherine LaNasa, who was born in New Orleans and stars as former beauty queen and sister Donna, and her husband, played by Ron White, “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” is both humorous and tragic. According to Thornton’s director’s statement, the movie had been in his head for a long time and combines his fascination with culture clashes with a morbid streak his father – who he is named after – had when he was a child. Just as Robert Duvall’s character is obsessed with car accidents on the local highway, Thornton’s own father would take he and his brothers to see the aftermath of car crashes when they were children.
Duvall has described the film as “putting Tennessee Williams in the back seat.” Below, Thornton talks more about his inspiration for “Jayne Mansfield’s Car,” how he develops his Southern characters, why he knew Robert Duvall had to play the father role and how Tennessee Williams fits into the mix.
On keeping Southern movies from becoming cliche or stereotypical …
Thornton: I grew up around a lot of characters, and you either know the South inside out or you don’t. I love the characters down there. I like to treat them with respect. Even if we have somebody who’s crazy or whatever it is, we embrace our crazy people. We don’t look at it as a bad thing necessarily. Sometimes dramas are over earnest, you know, and don’t have enough humor in them, and then a lot of times comedies have no heart. Growing up in the South, especially, humor and tragedy are so closely related to each other. It was in our literature, in the storytelling and everything. That’s how this movie comes about. The reason the tone is the way it is is because that was the tone of my life growing up down there. It’s dramatic and darkly humorous.
Is Tennessee Williams an inspiration?
Thornton: Absolutely, no question about it. I love Tennessee Williams’ stuff. To read Tennessee Williams to me is better than seeing the movies, because those movies weren’t necessarily made by Southerners and they weren’t acted by Southerners. When I watch “Cat on a Hot Tin Roof,” I just hear a bunch of bad accents. Most of those things that Tennessee Williams did that were made into movies, they were a little over the top. But you know Southerners, we love “Gone With the Wind,” but we also know it’s not very authentic.
On casting Robert Duvall as his father …
Thorton: Duvall plays Southerners very well and understands them, and he’s the right age and he’s my hero. I wrote it for him. I didn’t write the movie and then sort of think, hey, maybe Duvall. I wrote it with him in mind. The two people that had to be those characters from the beginning were me and him. I wrote it for us.
Can “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” be compared to “Sling Blade?”
Thornton: It’s not like “Sling Blade” in a lot of ways. There’s no murder or anything like that, but it is shot the same, it’s done in the same tone. “Sling Blade” is essentially a drama with dark humor. There are differences, but you can tell it’s made by the same folks.
“I thought a lot about Lucas Black [who plays the character of Karl’s friend Frank Wheatley] in “Sling Blade.” Donna is completely unashamed of who she is. That’s a big quality in Lucas’s performance in “Sling Blade.” I love his accent, and I think I thought about that a little bit.” – Katherine LaNasa
What were you trying to leave the viewer with at the end of the movie?
Thornton: The movie’s about the romanticism of tragedy and about different generations and how they view war and how it manifests itself in the family. We still haven’t learned those lessons in a lot of ways. In 1969, I remember it being a very attractive thing to see some of those guys over there with their shirts off and holding rifles and stuff, and you hear The Rolling Stones and it’s like rock ‘n’ roll war. If you’re stuck in this little town, you’re like, well at least if I do that, I’ve done something. Maybe I’ll get a medal too or it’ll be more excitement than this dead end. In other words, we’re left with a father realizing in that moment he has not taught his son.
On choosing the title …
Thornton: It’s better than calling it “Trouble in the Family” or “Dysfunction.” I like provocative titles. If somebody said, hey, I went and saw this movie and it says Jayne Mansfield’s Car and it wasn’t even about Jayne Mansfield, well that’s the wrong person to be watching this movie. So, the title is a metaphor for the romanticism of tragedy.
Thoughts on this year’s SEC football season and the Razorbacks …
Thornton: I’m actually watching the replay of last year’s LSU-Alabama game on TV right now. I’m a big SEC guy so I’m very excited for the season and hopefully the Razorbacks will do better than 5 and 7 this year. We’re usually really good. It’s like, last year, our coach decided to go off with that girl on the motorcycle and we fall apart, but we got a new coach now so we have high hopes.
More Fun Facts About “Jayne Mansfield’s Car”
- Hitchcock leading lady Tippi Hedren has a film credit for the dead mother, but her scene got cut during the editing process.
- Billy Bob Thornton shares credits with Robert Duvall for “The Stars Fell on Henrietta,” “A Family Thing” and “The Apostle,” and Duvall also played Thornton’s father in “Sling Blade.” Read an interview with the two of them where they talk about their friendship and shared love of the South here.
- The movie was filmed in and around Cedartown, LaGrange and Decatur, Georgia, at locations including the Bailey-Tebault House, Glenridge Hall, High Falls State Park and Lackey & Sons Funeral Home.
- Katherine LaNasa (pictured on the right) channeled her South Louisiana aunt, who still washes, dries and sets her hair every day, for her role as former beauty queen Donna. She says the role is one of the greatest experiences of her life. “It really changed me to get to work with Kevin Bacon and Billy Bob and Robert Duvall every day and have such a sympatico with them.”
- Jayne Mansfield died in a car accident in 1967 on her way from Biloxi to New Orleans on Louisiana Highway 90. The car was a 1966 Buick Electra.
Photo Credit: All photos by Van Redin.
“Jayne Mansfield’s Car” is currently available On Demand and opens in theaters on Friday, September 13. Check your local theater for listings. For more movies about or filmed in the South coming up soon, see our Fall 2013 Movie Preview.