Billy Bob Thornton on His 'Fargo' Character's 'Sick Sense of Humor' (and Terrible Haircut)

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  • Billy Bob Thornton
    Billy Bob Thornton
    American actor, filmmaker, singer, songwriter, and musician

Billy Bob Thornton's character in the new FX series "Fargo" — an enigmatic hitman named Lorne Malvo — is one terrifying individual. But then, it's hard to be terrified of a man sporting that haircut, isn't it?

An uneven, choppy cut that Thornton's manager said looks like he's "channeling the dark side of Ken Burns," Malvo's unfortunate 'do adds an extra level of weirdness to his inscrutable persona. And Thornton tells us his character's signature look came about entirely by accident.

"I got a bad haircut that was cut kind of wrong, with the intention of combing it over to one side," Thornton told Yahoo TV via phone from "Fargo's" Calgary set. "But it didn't quite work doing that. When you didn't do anything to it, the bangs just kind of hung there. And it was like, 'Hey, wait a minute. This is sick!'" Lo and behold, Lorne Malvo's haircut was born.

[Related: How to Master the 'Fargo' Accent in 7 Easy Steps]

Incidentally, this isn't the first time a trip to the barber ended up influencing one of Thornton's characters. During the filming of his Oscar-winning 1996 film "Sling Blade," the actor was discussing the look for his character Karl Childers with the film's makeup artist. They decided to stroll over to the local barbershop, he recalls, where they found the barber "asleep in the barber chair with a cigarette burning in the… you know the old barber chairs that had an ashtray on the arm? I woke him up, and I told him to give me 'the usual.' And that was 'the usual.' That's how that happened."

FX's "Fargo" (debuting this Tuesday) may be based on the revered Coen brothers film, but Thornton's Lorne Malvo is an entirely original creation for the series who doesn't quite line up with the bumbling criminals played by Steve Buscemi and Peter Stormare in the original. "Malvo is very sure of himself," Thornton says with a laugh. "There's not much about Malvo that you could call bumbling. He knows exactly what the deal is, and what he's headed towards. I think it's probably the only character I've ever played that has absolutely no conscience whatsoever."

A cold-blooded killer with a mischievous streak, Malvo shakes up the tranquil Minnesota town of Bemidji when he arrives, leaving murder and mayhem in his wake. And it's not all about the money; we see Malvo messing with people's lives just for the pure sport of it. "He's got a really dark, sick sense of humor," Thornton says. "And when he spots things that don't make sense to him, or people who are either stupid or weak, he likes to toy with them. To him, it's like going on a picnic or going snowboarding, you know?"

[Related: FX's 'Fargo' Cast Names Their Favorite Moments From the 'Fargo' Film]

One of the "weak" people that Malvo decides to toy with: Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman), a mild-mannered insurance salesman who's been pushed around and bullied by life for far too long. When Lester winds up sitting next to Malvo in a hospital waiting room, they strike up an idle conversation that eventually leads to Malvo pulling Lester into a very tangled web of criminal activity.

Malvo's otherworldly wickedness actually brings to mind another Coen brothers character: "No Country for Old Men's" coin-flipping killer Anton Chigurh, the role that won Javier Bardem an Oscar. But Thornton says he had never made that connection: "The only Coen brothers character that occurred to me was the one I played, Ed Crane in 'The Man Who Wasn't There.' Because of the stillness."

Thornton has a unique perspective on this project; he actually worked with the Coen brothers on a number of films, including 2001's "The Man Who Wasn't There" and 2003's "Intolerable Cruelty." So did those experiences make him more likely to sign on here? "I'd say it probably encouraged me more, yeah," Thornton says. "I love those guys. Anything they're attached to makes me happy."

[Related: Martin Freeman on Trading 'Sherlock' for 'Fargo' (and a Minnesota Accent)]

Thornton says he still talks to Joel and Ethan Coen "from time to time," but he didn't seek out their advice before signing onto "Fargo": "At the time, they were finishing up their movie ['Inside Llewyn Davis'] and it was awards season, and I didn't want to call them to bug them about this." But he did talk to Ethan just recently, and confirms the Coens are onboard with FX's version. (They're credited as executive producers on the project.) "Any time you get their stamp of approval, it's always a great thing," Thornton says.

And that stamp of approval is due in large part to the work of writer Noah Hawley ("Bones"), who penned all ten episodes of FX's "Fargo" and masterfully straddles the line between imitation and innovation. "He managed to capture the Coen brothers' tone and vibe without copying them, which was amazing," Thornton says. "He created his own animal, and yet kept true to the thing. I thought, what a great feat that was."

It must have been great to lure Thornton back to the small screen. "Fargo" is the actor's first regular TV gig since he co-starred on the John Ritter-Markie Post CBS sitcom "Hearts Afire" (remember that one?) from 1992 to 1995. Thornton admits when he first heard about "Fargo," a typical TV role wasn't on his radar: "I wasn't looking to get into a series that might last for six or seven years, because I've still got a lot of movies I want to make."

But "Fargo" is anything but typical. It's a 10-episode miniseries (FX is calling it a "limited drama series") with a clear beginning, middle, and end, which appealed to Thornton: "It's sort of like a 10-hour independent film, really, in a lot of ways." (If "Fargo" does return for a second season, it'll refresh in the style of "American Horror Story" and "True Detective," with new characters and a new true-crime case.)

[Photos: Check Out More Pics From FX's 'Fargo']

That's not to say that Thornton looks down his nose at television. A self-described "TV junkie" ("everything but reality shows, I watch"), he insists, "I've never been a person who put television down. You hear some film actors say, 'Oh, that's like TV acting.' I don't even know what that means. You can do exactly the same thing, if you want to."

And he marvels at how far TV has come since he started out in showbiz. "When I was coming up in the early '80s, TV was where you were either put out to pasture, or you were a young actor coming up. ... Now it's got a cache. People are clamoring to get great roles on television now." In fact, he says TV offers artists even more latitude these days than movies do: "You're not trying for the box office, so you don't have to do these certain things or cast these certain people. ... On TV, they don't care. It's been great. You can get away with whatever you want."

Even that haircut.

Watch the first 7 minutes of FX's "Fargo" right here:

"Fargo" premieres Tuesday at 10 p.m. on FX.