Billy Bob Thornton Is Happily Stuck in the ’60s With ‘Jayne Mansfield’s Car’

Movie Talk
Billy Bob Thornton
Billy Bob Thornton

It's been more than 10 years since Billy Bob Thornton has written and directed a feature length film. Lest we forget, he won an Oscar for writing 1996's "Sling Blade," in which he starred and also directed. So what's been the hold up?

"You get busy as an actor," the 57-year-old tells Yahoo! Movies. "And that's predominately what I am is an actor." Thornton also says that he only directs things that are close to him. "Those kinds of things are fewer and further between. …You don't want to do it until you have something that you really want to do that is personal to you."

Thornton's upcoming '60s-era, multi-generational family tale, "Jayne Mansfield's Car," is precisely that — personal to Thornton — on multiple levels. And yes, like with "Sling Blade," Thornton writes, directs, and stars in it.

Watch the Exclusive Trailer Debut of 'Jayne Mansfield's Car':

First of all, the film's title (which presages scenes of a traveling sideshow featuring the alleged car wreckage of the late '50s screen siren) is taken straight out of Thornton's childhood. "My father took me to see [Jayne Mansfield's car]. They brought it around to our town, you paid about 50 cents to go inside," he recalls, adding that similar exhibitions for Bonnie and Clyde's bullet hole-riddled car and even one for a five-legged cow would breeze through his Arkansas town when he was growing up.

Thornton, who also appears in JFK assassination drama "Parkland" (in theaters September 20), admits he is wholly preoccupied with the era. After all, he explains, "Those were my formative years." And he remembers all the cultural tumult of those times vividly: "I wanted it to take place in '69 because this movie is really about how different generations view war."

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And that '60s music. "That's essentially what I listen to," he admits, explaining that his favorite music is from the late '50s up to about 1975. "I came up during the heyday of rock 'n roll. … It was a very rich time."

The '60s had a sense of community that just doesn't exist anymore, Thornton says. He has his gripes about the current state of American culture — including the pitfalls of social media. But hey, "every type of medium has had its bad and good," he says, pointing back to the early days of television, which initially brought families together, but eventually turned into "a tool to babysit your kids."

But Thornton concedes he recently experienced the plus side of sites including Facebook and Twitter: when he was able to monitor the latest details about a close friend (whom he didn't name) who had been seriously injured in an accident. "In a case like that it works very well. But then at the same time it's really really reduced the attention span of people and I'm firmly convinced that we're all going to be blind in 10 years [laughs]."

Thornton, also a prolific singer-songwriter, currently in the country-rockabilly group The Boxmasters, doesn't really think of himself as a Renaissance man. "When I was growing up no one ever said, 'What the hell is Frank Sinatra doing in a movie?'" But these days, he says, there seems to be a "stigma" attached to his interdisciplinary artistic ethic. "I'm not sure why," he confesses.

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Aside from the '60s, what else inspires Thornton? His mother, psychic Virginia Roberta, and his children, he says — "The same stuff that's always inspired me."

Thornton is also heartened by a new crop of young filmmakers who, he says, are ardently studying the history of film. "It excites me that it's not dying — because a couple of years ago I thought it was."

Will we have to wait another 10 years for Thornton to direct? He says it's entirely possible. "It won't be until I see something else that I know is worth it to me to take out that much time, and something I think I could do a good job at."

"Jayne Mansfield's Car," also starring Kevin Bacon, Robert Duvall, John Hurt, and Frances O'Connor, opens in limited release starting September 13.