BIlly Bob Thornton

Billy Bob Thornton plays contract killer Lorne Malvo in FX's "Fargo." (Matthias Clamer/FX / January 11, 2014)

Billy Bob Thornton has played his share of wonderfully wacky characters. His latest might be the most bizarre, menacing and poorly coiffed.

Thornton stars as dangerous drifter Lorne Malvo in FX's "Fargo," a 10-episode limited series debuting April 15 that's a spinoff of the Coen brothers' beloved 1996 cult hit. Malvo, with his goofy hairdo and penchant for messing with people, does just that to milquetoast insurance salesman Lester Nygaard (Martin Freeman) in snow-covered Minnesota.

During a conference call last week, Thornton talked about Malvo's almost-bowl cut, why the killer likes his job, and how Thornton found his inner Malvo.

Was there anything about this character that you added to the role that wasn't already really scripted for you?
A weird haircut, which was actually a mistake. I got a bad haircut and we had planned on dyeing my hair and a dark beard and all that kind of thing, but I didn't plan on having bangs. ... It wouldn't do right, so I didn't fix it, because I looked at myself in the mirror and I thought, hang on a second here, this is like 1967 L.A. rock. I could be the bass player of the Buffalo Springfield. This is good. Or, Ken Burns, the dark side of Ken Burns.

And bangs are normally associated with innocence and I thought that juxtaposition was pretty great, so that was added. So, really just the look and Noah Hawley's script was so tightly written, so good, that all I kind of had to do was show up, really.

You described Lorne Malvo as conscience-less. How did you find that within yourself?
Usually when you're playing a character you think a lot about their backstory and that kind of thing. In this instance I didn't want to do that because I doubt Malvo thinks much about his past anyway, so even the character, the guy himself, probably wouldn't think much about it.
It was so well-written that I didn't have to really do much in order to portray the character. I think what really attracted me to it was not as much that he didn't have a conscience as he has this bizarre sense of humor where he likes to mess with people. ... He just thinks of the moment and "how do I get the job done?"

How exactly do you convey menace?
I worked in a prison years and years ago on a movie and ... there were all these ... big, muscled guys and this one guy told me, "Do you see that little skinny guy over there in the corner? ... That's the guy you don't want to mess with." And I talked to the guy ultimately and I could tell that he meant what he said. So, those are the people you want to watch out for. And it's like maybe I can break this guy in half, but he would hunt me down, he would crawl until his fingers were bloody on the asphalt to get me. So, those are the ones.

I look at Malvo as a type of snake charmer, you know? Once he looks at you, you're under some sort of spell.

You make Malvo both really scary and weirdly likeable. Is that balance of humor and menace hard to bring off?
That's kind of been my wheelhouse ... sort of intense characters who have a certain sympathetic streak and also a sense of humor. And I'll have 10-year-olds come up to me and say, "Oh, Bad Santa, I just love you." It's like, what? So, yeah, I don't know what it is, but maybe it's that Malvo senses weakness in people, or stupidity or whatever.

He's got this sort of animal instinct and he just smells people out, and I think a lot of times, especially these days and times when the world is going kind of crazy, I think we're all frustrated and want to just shake people a little bit. And so maybe through Malvo you get a chance to slap somebody around a little bit, I don't know. Maybe that's it.

Your character says to Lester, "You're problem is you spend your life thinking there are rules and there aren't." What do you think that Malvo's problem is?
His problem? What I think his problem is is very different than what he thinks his problem is. I don't think he has a problem. Do you know what I mean? He's an animal. In other words, he exists in the animal kingdom more than anything else. He goes by an animalistic instinct, and so people like that don't ever consider themselves having a problem and they also think they're invincible.

As this character you do things that you're not able to do in regular society. Was there any one particular scene or act that you did that you got to kind of tick off your bucket list of some naughty act?
Well, certainly not the killing parts, but just when [Lorne] would mess with people about stuff. Like every now and then you go someplace -- to the cleaners or wherever it is -- and the people will be so incompetent or just don't understand what you're up to. It's like, "I told you, you don't starch T-shirts. How could you have a dry cleaner or laundromat and you don't know that you don't starch T-shirts?" Malvo does that kind of stuff. He really calls people on their BS. And so, I have to say I did enjoy any time I got to mess with somebody..

Is there one scene as Malvo that is your favorite?
Well, in the first two episodes I really enjoyed the scene in the hospital with Lester, just when I first meet him, and a total stranger asking for a drink of his soda pop and just immediately knowing that this guy is weak. This guy is unsure of himself, so I can use him and also I've got to give this guy a lesson in life here.

Malvo almost takes his victims as students in a way, too. And that was the first scene we shot and I really enjoyed doing that with him, especially since we were just starting and it didn't turn into an experiment. It just naturally happened because we're so different. Normally you're trying to get a chemistry with an actor, but in this case, it was the opposite. We're total strangers and I'm just going to mess with this guy, so it was almost like you needed to come into it cold.

How was working with Martin Freeman?
Well, first of all, it was a pleasure working with him. He's so easy to work with and a terrific guy and a terrific actor. And the scenes I did with him were so easy to do and I think a lot of that is because we're such opposites that we're not playing buddies or anything. So, I just sit down and do what I do and he does what he does and that's the way it would happen in real life and all of that.

There's such an interesting contrast between yours and Martin's characters. Lester is a man who can't control his own destiny and Lorne is almost perfectly in control of his own destiny. Could you talk about that contrast a little bit and playing that in a role?
Malvo smells weakness in people; he smells nervousness, weakness, fear, anything like that and has an abundance of confidence in himself. I don't think he ever considers losing, whereas Lester is just a nervous ball of mess. And I do like when you see two characters at the opposite end of the spectrum together. They end up being kind of strange bedfellows and it was a really interesting dynamic.

We didn't really have to work on it. It just naturally happened. And Martin himself seems to be a very confident person, so I think he probably maybe had to downgrade his confidence a little bit. And me, by nature, I'm a very nervous, worrisome person, so I had to drop that a little. So, I think both of us had to definitely shed some of our real life stuff in order to play the characters.

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