The Academy Award winner-turned-author shares what finally convinced him to write his memoir, The Billy Bob Tapes: A Cave Full of Ghosts, and talks about life-changing events and his driving force.
Actor-writer Billy Bob Thornton
Tavis: Pleased to welcome Billy Bob Thornton to this program. The award-winning actor and writer has teamed up with another colorful son of the Southwest, Kinky Friedman, for a new book about his life and career, called “The Billy Bob Tapes: A Cave Full of Ghosts.” Ooh. (Laughter) Cave full of ghosts, Billy Bob?
Billy Bob Thornton: Yeah, well, it’s actually a song title of ours.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah.
Thornton: Yeah, I figure that’s a good way to say it when you’re talking about your past and whatnot. So it was – I never wanted to write a book, and people have asked me for years to do it, but what they want’s some gossipy celebrity book, and I just wouldn’t do that, but Kinky said, “Hey, why don’t you just tell some of those funny stories about growing up, and then give you a couple of chapters to gripe about how our society is crumbling, and we’ll go from there.”
Tavis: They wanted some gossipy, juicy stuff, which you – that’s not the way you’re wired.
Tavis: But you did get an introduction by Angelina Jolie.
Thornton: Yeah, yeah, she was very kind do to that, and yeah, they wanted me to get people who I’ve known and worked with for a lot of years, so they had a different perspective on it (unintelligible) should happen.
So we got her and Robert Duvall and Dwight Yoakum – people I’m real close to.
Tavis: For something that you didn’t want to do, did you find this in any way cathartic, therapeutic at all?
Thornton: I did, yeah, particularly stuff about growing up. That was nice. Also, the couple of chapters where I talk about the social network and how I think that’s kind of dehumanizing us and everything. That was –
Tavis: I’m going to get to that, too, I promise you. I really am fascinated. That was, for me, the more fascinating part of the book, your thoughts about – how might I put this – the decay of our civilization and the devolution of our culture. We’ll talk about your thoughts about that in a second.
But I want to start at the beginning. I am always fascinated by people’s parents. There’s so much, I think, to learn in the starting place for any real conversation about how humanity starts, I think, with our mother and our father.
I have a friend that says all the time that we are who we are because somebody loved us, and the older I get, I added to that, or didn’t. (Laughter)
Thornton: Yeah, that’s true.
Tavis: Somebody either loved us or didn’t, and that’s who we are, and that’s why we are who we are.
Thornton: That’s right.
Tavis: So you had a fascinating relationship with both your mother and your father. Let me take your mother first. Your mother was a psychic, pretty well known.
Thornton: Right, yeah.
Tavis: Sought out by people who really – legitimate people who really wanted her help trying to figure stuff out.
Tavis: But you were teased about your mother and this gift that she had. How’d you navigate that?
Thornton: Well, when you grow up in it, you don’t find it out of the ordinary, so I was shocked when the kids would say that. They used to call my mother a witch and stuff like that. I was just talking to her about that the other day, about how we’re glad that people finally quit calling us witches and warlocks. (Laughter)
But my mom is such a big supporter of mine. She still is, and always was. So I got the sort of encouragement from that side of the family. My dad was a little more hard-edged, you might say.
Tavis: Yeah, yeah. See, when I first read that, in my neighborhood, you call my mama a witch or anything close to it –
Thornton: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: – that’s like saying, “Your mama.”
Thornton: Oh, yeah.
Tavis: It’s on and popping then.
Thornton: Yeah, and it was. (Laughter) It was.
Tavis: Yeah, you can’t call my mama a witch.
Thornton: No, you don’t.
Thornton: No, I was responsible for a couple of broken noses over that, and they weren’t mine.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Did you – as a child – I hear your point about the fact that when you grow up with it, it doesn’t seem strange to you, but what did you make of your mother’s clairvoyance? How did you – what did you make, as a child, of living with a mother who was – how did you – yeah.
Thornton: Well, it wasn’t easy to sneak out of the house, I’ll put it that way.
Tavis: Yeah. (Laughter) Billy. Billy.
Thornton: Oh, yeah. So stuff like, “How many’d you have tonight?” I’m like, “Uh.” But it really, like I said, it wasn’t that spectacular to me, because we also were raised in kind of an Indian way. My mother’s family were part Indian, and so we were raised in kind of a more spiritual than religious way, you know what I mean?
We went to church, but we were taught kind of a lot of magical things by our great-grandmother and everything. So it never seemed extraordinary to me.
Tavis: How did you, in that particular area, that region – we’re talking about the Bible Belt here now – how did you juxtapose those two things, your mother and this clairvoyance and this psychic stuff with church and God and the Holy Spirit? Those two things don’t reside so easily together in the same house.
Thornton: That’s true. Well, we were – we kind of went to church just because people went to church, and my mother never has believed that they preclude each other, you know what I mean? I think that’s the word.
Here’s the thing. After a while, a lot of kids, when they go to church, they don’t really pay much attention to what they’re saying or whatever, and when I was a teenager, I read the bible cover-to-cover, and I found the Old Testament, it’s a pretty bloody history book.
Then there’s some other magical stuff in the bible, and then I started thinking about, well, prophets, what were prophets? So in other words, it’s okay to have prophets if they were way back then, but you can’t have any now. I thought, well, that’s a little odd.
I don’t think one thing knocks the other out, frankly. I think people can live a religious life and yet believe in things maybe outside the box a little bit.
Tavis: Okay, that’s your mother. Your father, couple of stories I found fascinating about your father. When you finally hit back, it stopped.
Thornton: Yes. It’s bizarre, because that was when I was around 16, I guess, somewhere in there, and he – it wasn’t his fault in so many ways, but when you’re a kid, you don’t think about stuff like, well, maybe he doesn’t have the capacity to be anything other than what he is, and if I’m the one who kind of gets things, maybe I can talk to him and come to him instead.
But instead of that, you grow up just in fear. Guys my age and in the area of the world where I grew up, that wasn’t uncommon, to have a father who was closed off and would hit you and stuff like that. It was kind of common, unfortunately.
But that’s the way they were raised, and the father before them was raised that way. So that whole sins of the father thing. When we did “Monster’s Ball,” I was playing a character very similar to my father, and I even looked like him in that movie, and kind of had his walk and mannerisms.
But in that movie, “Monster’s Ball,” it actually wasn’t my character at the end of the day was the bad guy, it was his father. I felt that way about my dad in a lot of ways, and once he died, when I was just turned 18, it was four days after my 18th birthday, and I’ll never forget.
I didn’t cry at my father’s funeral, and I felt guilty about that. Of course, he got sick not too long after he and I had had that final altercation, and I felt real guilty because of that, too. Then years later, one day, I was probably in my late twenties, early thirties, and I just broke down crying, because I finally got my father.
It’s like here’s a guy who was raised in this way, and I think he wanted to be more than he was, and I think it ate him up inside. A lot of the things that I started feeling when I grew up, I knew he felt them, but I was raised in a time when we do have talks about things, you know what I mean?
In other words, we’re more open these days. My dad and his friends and those guys in those days, they were very closed off, so feelings were something you bottled up. So I felt real bad for him, and I love my father to this day. You can’t help it. That’s your old man.
Tavis: Do you recall what transpired, what happened, or did it just happen that all of that emotion years later, after your father is now gone, given that you didn’t cry at his funeral, was there something that made that thing bubble up at that time, or it just happened?
Thornton: Well, part of it was – it was right around the time my brother died, and he died when he was 30, in 1988, and I had just had a bout where I went in the hospital and almost didn’t make it, and I think something about confronting mortality and everything, and thinking about how my father died when he was, like, I think he was 44 or something like that, he was a young man, which I didn’t look at it that way at that time, you know what I mean?
When you’re a kid, somebody’s mid-forties, you think they’re an old man. Then you grow up and it’s like, I was a kid.
So I guess the hardships that I went through coming out to California and everything, and just thinking about how hard life is and knowing how he had kids that he was trying to support and the pressure on him and not having a lot of money and everything, I think it all just kind of came together right there, and feeling emotional about what happened with me and with my brother
Tavis: As I get older, I realize that dance with mortality can open you up to a variety of things that you didn’t heretofore consider.
Tavis: You start dancing with mortality in that way.
Thornton: No doubt about it.
Tavis: How much did – and I ask this of you specifically because I find that whenever I talk to anybody who happens to be accomplished from Arkansas, there’s something about growing up in Arkansas, where Arkansas ends up being a character in the story.
In other words, just growing up in that state, growing up in that region, you talk about this in the book, and growing up in small-town Arkansas, and never being on a plane. You talk about your childhood in Arkansas.
How much does growing up in that state factor into who you are, those surroundings?
Thornton: Yeah, there’s something about it. Like the Deep South, Mississippi, Alabama, Louisiana, Georgia, has a slightly different vibe from Arkansas. Arkansas had that thing that those states don’t have, which is the actual hillbilly thing, which would be Arkansas, Tennessee, Kentucky, West Virginia.
So it was a little bit different there, and it was always known as a place, it would get joked about in hillbilly terms and all that kind of thing, and I think we always have a chip on our shoulder a little bit. (Laughter) There was a lot of great, magical stuff that came out of there, too, growing up there, some really smart people who were great artists and things like that.
I think some of us broke out of there because we did have that foundation of some real heavy great stuff, and the insecurity drove us, you know what I mean? I wouldn’t have had anything to write about, you know what I mean? I would have never become a writer or an actor or a musician or anything if it hadn’t been for that place.
Tavis: I’m fascinated by your phrase, because I feel similarly. A lot of folk don’t want to admit this, but I think it’s true, that insecurity drives us in so many ways. For you to admit that is pretty courageous. A lot of folk don’t want to acknowledge that. Tell me more about what you meant when you said that insecurity is what drove you, and more expressly, or more contemporarily, does insecurity still drive you?
Thornton: Absolutely. There’s no question about it.
Tavis: Then and now.
Thornton: Yes. I’ll be the first guy to tell you – and I might not have said this 10 years ago – but I will tell you that I have struggled with insecurity and in some stuff; insecurity is actually a word that we didn’t even use growing up. That’s more of a modern-day sort of new age way to put it, you know what I mean?
I’ve always been scared, and never thought I was as good as anybody else, and still don’t. I had this – in terms of what I do as an artist, I always had confidence in that. But I never believed that anybody would take anything I did seriously or care one way or the other about it, and I probably feel it as strongly now as I did when I was 20 years old.
Tavis: But you’re so much more accomplished now than you were then. It hasn’t dissipated?
Thornton: No. It’s probably getting worse in a lot of ways, and maybe – I had a period which was probably from about ’95 or ’96 through about 2003, maybe. Those were the days when I got out of it a little bit. I think it’s returned since the world has started changing drastically in terms of what they want from people like me.
You could call it age. I could put it off on well, I’m in my mid-fifties now, so maybe that’s it. Maybe now I feel the same insecurity getting older that I felt being younger and not knowing what I was up to or whatever.
But I don’t think it’s that simple. I think it’s more to do with here I am, a guy who grew up in the heyday of rock and roll, in the heyday of the type of movies that I think filmmakers aspire to and musicians aspire to those types of records from the, say, the mid-’50s through the mid-’70s.
That was really the great time, and that’s rapidly changing. So you start to feel less relevant, so it’s not age as much as it is we’re heading down a path that’s really destroying a lot of the magic in what we grew up with.
There was a time when I could walk down the street, Hollywood Boulevard or Beverly Drive, and somebody would come up to you and they would say, “Excuse me,” and you’d barely hear them, and you’d turn around and you’d say, “Yeah, how you doing?” and they’d say, “I’m really sorry to bother you, but my aunt is a big fan of yours, and would you mind terribly if you’d just sign this paper,” or whatever it is, and you’re happy to do that, and the people are pretty nice about it.
Now, you walk down those same streets, some guy with a camera comes up behind you and pokes you in the back and says, “Man, dude, that last movie you guys did sucked. What’d you do that for?” That’s the reverence they have now.
Now, I can’t imagine myself, I can’t imagine you, walking up to, say, Paul Newman, when we first got to town, and poking him in the back and being that irreverent about him, and I think a lot of the reason is is there’s too much access now.
People feel like – and especially since the power’s been given over to the audience. So basically there are no stars anymore. The audience is the star. So it’s finally the time when everybody that got their butt beat in school (laughter) –
Tavis: The revenge. The revenge of the nerds.
Thornton: It is revenge of the nerds.
Tavis: This is a real movie.
Thornton: I’m telling you, buddy. Because the only time we saw Paul Newman was in a movie. We didn’t see him scratching his rear end walking down the street on YouTube. (Laughter) Now that’s how they see people.
Tavis: When you say, “The audience is now the star,” I think I get that. What do you mean by that?
Thornton: Well, because of the social network, and if you think about it it’s pretty obvious how the system can spot people’s weaknesses and desires and play into that and make a lot of money off people by making the people feel important. They call it after the people. It’s YouTube, iPhone, MySpace –
Thornton: – Facebook, Me.com, whatever it is. So people think now we finally have the chance. Everybody can be somebody, but they don’t understand people are making billions of dollars off of selling them these gadgets, and I don’t see anything wrong with a cell phone.
That’s great. You have a flat tire in the middle of the night; it works better than digging in your pocket for a quarter and looking for a payphone eight miles down the road.
Then texting people, sometimes that could cut down on a lot of talking you don’t want to do on the phone. There’s nothing wrong with that. Nothing wrong with computer as things. They can work wonders in communications and business and medicine and everything else.
But once it becomes this forum, this platform for everybody in the world to voice their opinion, when you look at some opinions out there, they’re not very good.
Tavis: They’re not all created equal.
Tavis: Although we think they are.
Thornton: We think they are. I think the public has been lulled into this – or sort of hypnotized by this thing, I think it’s dehumanizing us and we’re losing the process of life. There’s so many reality shows.
Here’s a funny thing I was thinking about that the other day. I can say something stupid or do something stupid and it can affect my career in a negative way, and that goes for anybody who’s well-known in any facet – politicians or anybody. But reality shows are usually created by people doing and saying stupid things.
Tavis: And the more you do, the more successful you are.
Thornton: Exactly. So you can get famous for doing something stupid and empty, but you do something stupid and empty and you’re already famous, you lose your career. (Laughter) Now, what does that mean?
Tavis: I hadn’t thought about it like that, Billy Bob.
Thornton: How does that work?
Tavis: I hadn’t thought about it that way. It’s a powerful point. So all of this – back to something else you said a moment ago. That insecurity that you were speaking of a moment ago that is now connected with – my word, not yours – a certain uncertainty about what the world now expects of you, given all that you’ve just unpacked for me, how you going to figure that out, what the world expects of you when you’re in your mid-fifties, as an actor who –
Thornton: I don’t know. A lot of people are doing television now. Great, legendary actors are doing movies on cable and stuff now, and you can’t blame them, because they’re still doing adult dramas and adult comedies on those stations.
In the movie business, what used to be called movies are now this genre called the “adult drama.” Those are pretty much wiped out. So I probably couldn’t get “Sling Blade” made now, for instance. They do slip through the cracks sometimes and manage to find their way, but not very often.
Movies now, you can watch a trailer for a movie on TV now and you’re not sure if it’s a video game or a movie. You have to wait till the end of it to see, oh, I see, those actors are in it, so that one’s a movie. Oftentimes, it’s based on a video game.
So we are headed for a time when there won’t be anything but movies that are essentially made like video games, and actors will become obsolete, and then the big stars will be people who live in Brentwood or wherever it is, and they have a show called, I don’t know, “Pool Parties of Brentwood” or something like that. (Laughter)
How many more jobs are they going to put on TV? Now, I got nothing against aquariums, and these cats may be entertaining. They got two shows about cats that build aquariums. One seems like plenty. (Laughter) But they got two.
Then they’re going to have, like, cabinet maker wars, or (laughter) ditch-digger wars. They got 10 shows about making cakes. (Laughter)
Tavis: I got to say this right quick. (Laughter) Since you mentioned “Sling Blade,” there’s a wonderful piece in the book, because this is “The Billy Bob Tapes,” where it’s funny – not funny, but just arresting is a better word, how easily you can slip into character. That scene in here when you become Carl on these tapes?
Thornton: Oh, when I was talking to my boys out back in the alley, yeah.
Tavis: Oh, Lord. But you slid into that character so easily, and then you popped back out into Billy a few minutes later.
Thornton: Yeah, well, here’s the thing – it’s easy in the moment.
Thornton: The hard part was living a life where you met people like that and pieced them together to create that character. See, I’ve been doing that character for so long that it’s not that I can go into it just because it’s an acting exercise. It’s because I know the cat and have lived it.
So somebody asked me one time what was my process as an actor, and I think what they meant was do you go out in the hallway before a scene and gobble like a turkey or whatever it is people do, go out and start thinking about when somebody ran over your puppy when you were eight and all that stuff.
I say, well, you know what? My process started when I was born. The process is life experience. I believe that what makes you an artist, or at least an artist who can communicate the ideas that they want to get across, are people that have life experience.
If you can draw on that life experience, that’s where it happens. So it’s not that going into the character is that simple, it’s simple right there in the moment, but it took years and years and years of life experience to get there.
Tavis: I wish I had years and years and years of opportunity to talk to Billy Bob here. I would even settle for a few nights in a row. I’ve really just scratched the surface of this book.
What’s great about this conversation, though, is that it gives you a good sense of what the book is, so he and his boys are sitting around, they’ve got tape recorders going, and just like we got a TV camera going tonight, this is what you get and this is what the book is.
It’s about as authentic a memoir, in terms of framing and formulation, about as authentic a memoir as you’ll ever get out of somebody, because you get this guy shooting straight from the hip and from the lip, I guess – from the heart, more expressly.
The book is called “The Billy Bob Tapes.” It’s with Kinky Friedman. “A Cave Full of Ghosts,” with an introduction by Angelina Jolie and some other good friends in here, talking about their relationship with Billy. It’s a great, great text. I’m honored to have you on the program.
Thornton: Thank you.
Tavis: Never enough time to talk to you, man.
Thornton: I know, man.
Tavis: You got me thinking tonight, though, gee whiz. (Laughter) That’s our show for tonight. Until next time, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” Every community has a Martin Luther King Boulevard. It’s the cornerstone we all know. It’s not just a street or boulevard, but a place where Walmart stands together with your community to make every day better.
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.