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Billy Bob Thornton on Lorne Malvo – Fargo’s Dark Monster

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Fargo’s Lorne Malvo is a fearsome Boogeyman.  He wanders the country looking for opportunities to change lives for the worse, interfere with people’s psyches or snuff them out altogether.  We know nothing about his background, why he does what he does, which is uncomfortably mystifying.

His intense relationship with Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) exists only because they share deadly secrets and he pursues him relentlessly.  Nygaard seems transfixed, unable to move in Malvo’s dark presence.  Their cat-and-mouse game continued throughout Fargo until last night when it ended and apparently Malvo did too.

But is it the end?  Billy Bob Thornton’s character may outwit us all yet.

Monsters and Critics spoke with Thornton about his incredible and unsettling performance.

Monsters and Critics: If Lester had walked away, do you think Malvo would have left him alone, or do you think he would eventually come after him anyway? 

Billy Bob Thornton: I think Malvo is kind of like a cat with a mouse.  I’m not sure—I think the temptation would have probably been too great.  I’m not sure he could have left him alone.  It is, “Are you kidding me here?  We are in the same place in Las Vegas; I’ve got to do something about this.”  Plus this whole thing is more like a—Malvo is almost like God and the devil wrapped into one and I think these things were just going to happen.  Do you know what I mean?  I think a lot of this is about faith.  You always think about if I’d only gotten on my motorcycle two minutes later, then I wouldn’t have hit that deer or whatever it is.   Malvo is kind of the spirit that makes all those things happen, sort of lines up people’s faith for them.

Monsters and Critics: Why did Malvo take precious time to terrorize those children who live in Lester’s old house?

Billy Bob Thornton: Malvo does have fun messing with people and more than messing with the kids, he was really messing with the father.  I think Malvo was probably pretty pissed that he didn’t find Lester yet, so who’s the nearest person I can poke with a stick?  It’s like Lester is not here, so you bought Lester’s house.  You’re not the guy I wanted, but let me just leave you with this little tidbit.  Malvo definitely likes to mess with people and I think particularly people that are too cheery and that guy was just a little too friendly in the beginning and he thought he’d leave him a little something more serious to think about.

Monsters and Critics: Malvo is as sinister as he is mysterious.  There is no back story, how was that for you?

Billy Bob Thornton: I think it’s probably the only character I’ve ever played, frankly, that has no—not only a conscious, but he has no back story in the story.  So I chose to not think about that because Malvo, he’s an animal and animals are eating machines.  I thought if I come up with a back story and it’s like his father locked him in a shed when he was little or something that might cause too much emotion for the character.  It might give me too many reasons to do things and I didn’t want to do that, so it’s the first time I’ve ever not had a back story in my head or otherwise.  Malvo is all about he has a job to do and whatever he has to do to do it, that’s what he does and he has supreme confidence.  He doesn’t think about failure and he’s not afraid of anything and I was afraid that a back story might mess with that a little bit.

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Monsters and Critics: In some shots Malvo recalls Nosferatu; it’s a big part of his menace.

Billy Bob Thornton: After years and years of injuries and weighing 140 pounds, I look like Homer Simpson’s boss to start with, my physicality, so some of it is just natural.  But I did choose to be very sort of slinky and sort of—I just sort of appear from places.  I did choose to be very quiet, but not like purposely menacing like the guy who twirls his moustache.  Malvo even acts like he’s a pal to people sometimes, especially Lester.  That was conscious to make him not the typical bad guy, who screams a lot and grits his teeth and grabs people by the collar.  That was a conscious choice.

Monsters and Critics: Malvo just appears and disappears in various places.  He’s unpredictable and that makes him even more frightening.

Billy Bob Thornton: Because my guy doesn’t really know any of these people, I think that made it seem very realistic for me that I just stepped into the lives of different people throughout the series.  I think you do have a different feeling than you would have if you were playing, say, the husband of one of the lead actresses or something or you’re the guy who’s lived in the town forever.  You then have to think about your relationship and your history with these people, but my guy, he’s from nowhere.  It’s kind of like Clint Eastwood in the old spaghetti westerns, like he was the man with no name.  Malvo is kind of the man from nowhere.  I found it very interesting to be able to do that and I didn’t have to know anything about these people, and I could look at them as if I just met them all the time.  I don’t know.  I enjoyed that aspect of it.

Monsters and Critics: What do you think if the meaning of Malvo’s journey?

Billy Bob Thornton: People say he’s like the devil.  I think he’s more like God and the devil.  I think it’s almost as if whether he knows it or not, Malvo is there to facilitate people’s true selves.  It’s like he brings out in people who they really are.  He’s very impatient with people who are stupid or if they’re ridiculous.  Malvo likes to get to the root o of what everything is about and sometimes he has to mess with people in order to do that.  But I think Malvo symbolizes that sort of spirit in the world that ultimately brings to the surface who people really are, and I think that’s probably the best way I could put it.

Monsters and Critics: When an actor plays a very dark role or there are dark forces at work, is there any point at which you really have to protect yourself from it?

Billy Bob Thornton: It depends on the actor and I think it depends on how fragile that actor’s constitution is.  I’ve never had a real problem with it I don’t think.  I’m pretty able to just go home and have an omelet.  I’m not really the type to let it permeate my life.  Maybe when I was doing Bad Santa to a degree, I think maybe I probably drank a little more beer during that time than I normally have in my life because I’m kind of a lightweight.

For the most part I don’t let it creep into my regular life.  It was really interesting playing a character like this that had no conscience, though.  I’ve never done that.  When I played odd characters or whatever, they usually had their softer side, but Malvo is pretty straight ahead.  He doesn’t, as I say he just kicks a** and takes names.  He’s not worried about the consequences.

Monsters and Critics: Everybody wants to survive and people will do sinister things to survive, and can you relate to that line or idea at all in your career or otherwise?

Billy Bob Thornton It’s certainly hard to survive in Hollywood, so that’s one place where I’d probably put that as a practice.  Also I grew up poor and in a rough way, so I think I’ve had to be a chameleon at some points in my life, both in my career and as a person.  I always had a knack for if I’m hanging around English people, I think I probably get a little fancier.  If I’m hanging out with the folks back home, it’s easier to fall in with that vibe.  So I’ve always been very aware of who I need to be in a certain situation and it’ll get you out of a knifing sometimes.  I’ll tell you that much.

Monsters and Critics: Were you surprised by the ending?

Billy Bob Thornton: We kind of have known all along that I’m the devil in it and it’s kind of the way Hitchcock did things.  He always thought it was scarier when you knew from the opening frame that’s the bad guy. That way the audience is afraid every time he’s around, so it’s not like the butler did it.  Each character does have an arc and an A, B, and C.

Monsters and Critics: What was it like shooting in Calgary, Canada in the dead of winter?

Billy Bob Thornton: I live in Los Angeles, so yes, I definitely came home and defrosted, there’s no question about it.  We really loved shooting in Calgary.  It’s a great city and the people are terrific there.  The crew was great and the people in western Canada really remind me of home folks a lot, so it’s very comfortable.  The weather however was miserable.  Even the Canadian crew said that was the worst winter they’d had in years and years.

What was funny about it sometimes is the fact that the Canadian crew sometimes when we’d get to work and they would all be happy because it was four.  And we said no, no, you don’t understand something that’s winter to us, so four doesn’t mean anything to us.

Award-winning writer and reporter Anne Brodie has covered film and...read more

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