‘Fargo’ Star Billy Bob Thornton on Playing Malevolent Lorne Malvo
Something wicked this way comes — and it wears the face of Billy Bob Thornton.
The Oscar nominee stars on FX’s Fargo as Lorne Malvo, less of a man and more of a malevolent force of nature. In the pilot episode alone, Malvo racks up enough lies, murders and unnecessary confidence schemes to put him on the path of some of television’s most sinister characters. But unlike Walter White or Tony Soprano, who tried to justify their various villainous deeds for “the good of the family,” Malvo’s agenda is more enigmatic, and therefore terrifying.
“He just fucks with people for no apparent reason,” Thornton told Spinoff Online. “He doesn’t need a reason. It’s just, well, they’re there. ‘I don’t like the way they look, so I’m going to mess with them.’”
“He doesn’t suffer fools gladly,” he added.
Malvo’s mean streak makes itself known in an early scene at a motel. Upon checking in, the low-life criminal learns from the manager that tenants are charged for having pets in their room — a rule Malvo simply doesn’t understand.
“When this woman starts talking about charging for pets, Malvo starts saying the things we all want to say,” Thornton said. “So what? I have a poodle! It’s not taking up any more room. How do you determine how much you charge for a room? What if I had a fish? Would you charge me for a fish?”
It’s not a fight worth picking for most mere mortals. But Malvo is less a mere mortal, and more of a tornado of chaos. When he finishes checking into the room, he convinces one of the motel’s employees — a teenager who clearly despises the clerk — to urinate in his boss’ car. Moments later, Malvo rats out the employee, and watches the ensuing mayhem from a distance, with a big smile on his face.
“It’s his only form of social activity,” Thornton said. “He’s a loner. While he’s in front people, even if he considers them all victims or things he can use some day — while he’s there, he may as well get a little fun out of it, you know? He’s got a little devil in him.”
The little devil comes out in an even bigger way when Malvo meets Lester Nygaard, the small-town insurance salesman played by Martin Freeman. The two run into each other in an emergency room, shortly after Nygaard’s been beaten up by a high school bully he hadn’t seen in years — the same one who fooled around with Nygaard’s wife back in the day.
“When he sees Lester, and he hears all of this stuff — that this guy got a hand job from your wife, beat you up, used to roll you in a barrel, his kids are teasing you all of these years later — it’s like, you’re 40 years old,” Thornton laughed. “It just pushes a button in him and he says, ‘Look, you gotta go do this. And if you’re not going to do it, I’ll do it for you.’”
Indeed, Malvo takes it upon himself to take care of Nygaard’s problem, stemming from Nygaard’s own ambiguous approval. In taking on Lester’s burden, it seems that Malvo is taking a far detour off of his own path. But Thornton doesn’t see it that way.
“In the back of his head, all the time, he views these people he runs into, like Lester, as someone who can help him and be instrumental in his plan,” he said, likening helping Lester to acquiring a survival kit for his car. “Why not put this guy in my arsenal? I may be able to use him. He’s always thinking about not only ridding people of their weaknesses, but there’s some enjoyment he gets out of watching them man up. And he views them as people who can be potential helpers in any scheme he might have.”
How does a man like Malvo come to exist? What kind of horrible trauma must there be in this man’s past, to make him so crooked and chaotic? Thornton doesn’t know, and doesn’t think that information is necessary to enjoy the character.
“I doubt Malvo ever thinks about his past,” he said. “As an actor, if I had come up with some kind of thing in my head — he was abused as a child, or his parents abandoned him, or whatever — I’m afraid some sentimentality would creep in and it could affect my performance. I’d rather keep him an enigma, even to himself.”
Instead, Thornton views Malvo as “an alligator” who “comes more from the animal kingdom than anything else.” It’s a philosophy that falls in line with Fargo writer Noah Hawley’s own outlook on Nygaard and Malvo’s collision — an idea he refers to as “civilization meets the wilderness.”
“He’s kind of an apparition in some ways,” added Thornton. “He’s kind of a ghost. He just appears sometimes. I wanted to keep as much mystery about him as I possibly can, even to myself.”
But that doesn’t mean Malvo is all bad intentions, all of the time. For example, Thornton believes that Malvo can be helpful at times, depending on how you look at the man.
“If you really stretch it — if you really want to go way, way out there — you can almost say that Malvo, in a way, is helping these people,” he said. “It would be like somebody who sold his soul to the devil in order to get people on the right road. Something like that. It’s like [some higher-power saying], ‘Look, you’re going to be a dark fuck here. You’re going to do bad things. You’re going to have people do bad things. But somehow, along the way, there will be people you set on the right track.’ That comes into play a couple of times.”
Thornton was the first actor to sign on to Fargo, and he credits that decision to Hawley’s writing. “He just captured that Coen brothers tone and kept true to the spirit of their movie without imitating or copying them,” he said. And Thornton would know a thing or two about “Coenesque” writing, having worked with the brothers and co-directors on multiple movies.
“This was an opportunity to do [a Coen brothers project] on an extended basis, for 10 episodes,” he said. “It really felt like doing a ten-hour independent film.”
Although the Coen brothers aren’t intimately involved with the Fargo series, both have seen the pilot. Thornton recalled asking Ethan Coen what he thought of what he saw.
“He liked it. He saw the pilot and he thought it was good,” said the actor. “And if the Coen brothers think something is good, that’s like you or me saying it’s fantastic. They’re not exactly forthcoming with their feelings sometimes, those guys. They’re very funny cats.”
Fargo premieres April 15 at 10 p.m. ET/PT on FX.