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‘Goliath’s’ Billy Bob Thornton: ‘Fargo’ and the Decline of Indie Film Convinced Him to Do More TV

The Oscar winner signed on for the Amazon series because cable and streaming is "where independent film is now."

Billy Bob Thornton


It’s the last day of June, and Billy Bob Thornton and co-star Nina Arianda are standing outside of Los Angeles City Hall, braving the summer heat to shoot a scene for their new Amazon series “Goliath.” It’s the show’s penultimate episode, and IndieWire is spending the day with the cast as they prepare to wrap Season 1.

Written by the Emmy-winning David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro (“The Practice”), “Goliath” stars Thornton as lawyer Billy McBride, whose alcoholism ruined his marriage and got him booted from his own company by his former partner Donald Cooperman (William Hurt).  Billy’s apathetic lifestyle changes when low rent practitioner Patty Solis-Papagian (Nina Arianda) enlists his help for what seems like a straightforward wrongful death case. Instead, it pits him against his old company.

READ MORE: ‘Goliath’ Executive Producer David E. Kelley on Billy Bob Thornton and Amazon – IndieWire’s TURN IT ON Podcast

During a break in shooting, Thornton and Arianda gather in a trailer to cool off and field questions from IndieWire. Check out their conversation below:

Why was this show compelling for you to join?

Thornton: I liked the character. I always wanted to play a lawyer. I got to play one in “The Judge” with Robert Downey Jr., but it was kind of a big cameo and I thought, “Yeah, I’d like to try that.” So, this came along and when they asked me to do it, I read the original pilot and I liked the story and the character very, very much. That type of story, the down and out guy. Originally they make references to “The Verdict” with Paul Newman. They don’t anymore. That was just sort of a jumping-off place, down and out lawyer, alcoholic who gets onto a case that turns out to be much more than he thought it was going to be. People always like stories about the little guy fighting the big guy. So I thought that that’s the kind of story I’d like to do.

I had a great experience on “Fargo,” which is my only experience in doing this kind of thing and so, I thought, “Well this will be like that.” The idea of doing something like this [was] because the independent film business is pretty much over. Independent films now, they want to give you $2 million to make it, 21 days to shoot it and they want 10 movie stars in it. We thought the whole point of independent film was that you don’t know who everybody is, but that changed a long time ago. So now, if you want to do realistic, kind of heavier acting stuff, you do it on Amazon or Netflix or whatever or HBO. So that was the idea behind me doing it. That was the initial reason for doing it, was that I wanted to do another “extended independent film” like I did with “Fargo.”

Billy Bob Thornton on "Fargo"

Billy Bob Thornton on “Fargo”

Chris Large/FX

I was going to ask you about that, if doing “Fargo” gave you a taste for doing that type of thing again.

Thornton: “Fargo” was so well-written, such a tightly run ship, the people were amazing. It was just one of those, I guess they call it, perfect storms. Everything came together perfectly on that thing and so, not only did that give me a taste for it, but I realized that this is where independent film is now. It’s on those things. It’s not in theaters. I mean, you get some crummy little distributor and nobody ever sees it and it goes on Netflix anyway.

READ MORE: David E. Kelley Has Given Up on Broadcast Networks, Partly Because His Last Show ‘Wasn’t Very Good’

Your character in “Fargo,” Malvo, had extreme bangs. Is there something, not even physical, maybe something else quirky about Billy that you love?

Thornton: I actually probably have many, many more quirks than this character has, personally, but I guess it’s really more in the setup that I really liked about this character, the origin of it. The guy with nothing, a guy who used to be somebody and now he’s not and he’s making his way back. That really appealed to me… Most of what’s in there in terms of what you might call quirky is stuff that we do in our own behavior.

Speaking of that, Nina, your character, Patty, how does she come into the picture to work with this quirky guy? She also has her own thing.

Arianda: She’s known of Billy because of his reputation previously as lawyer and she has this case. Where’d she see him?

Thornton: I’m over at the Van Nuys Courthouse.

Arianda: So I see him working with another client and kind of tracking down and propose for him to take this case on me and get a cut of the money. She thinks is going to be an easier settlement than it turns out to be.

Nina Arianda on "Goliath"

Nina Arianda on “Goliath”

Amazon Prime Studios

And is being the David in the David and Goliath match-up important to each of your characters?

Thornton: It just exists. We don’t want to be David.

You don’t want to be the underdog?

Thornton: Well, no, we don’t mind being the underdog so much as the circumstances are just…that’s who we are. Neither one of us have anything so we have no choice. I don’t think anybody chooses to be an underdog. But we also don’t want to be the other side either.

Yeah, talk about the other side, Cooperman. There’s a history there. So how does Billy feel about going up against his old partner?

Thornton: I think there’s something appealing about it. He thinks if he can beat his old firm, obviously that’s something that would satisfy him. To tell you the truth, I don’t ever talk about characters as separate from myself. Every character I play is me, always has been. So for an actor to say, “Who is Billy McBride?” Then that, as an actor, automatically creates a ravine between you and the character. It’s like, if you look at a character as a mountain over there that you have to climb, then I think you’ve lost 50 percent of the air. I played myself in everything. Obviously, I played a lot of different kinds of characters, but…

Arianda: It’s a version of you.

Thornton: It’s a version of me, exactly. I’ve led a very eclectic life.

William Hurt on "Goliath"

William Hurt on “Goliath”

Amazon Prime Studios

So going up against a former partner, that appeals to you?

Thornton: I don’t know about that. In this case, it appeals. Within the writing, that’s what the idea is. But there are things that change along the way. We used to have this old love for each other as men or whatever, as old partners and that kind of stuff, but once I get into it, it’s like, “Eh, not really.” I don’t like the son of a bitch.

Maybe back in the past?

Thornton: I don’t even know if I liked him then.

Just as a partner then. Nina, what do you like about Patty? What did you find appealing?

Arianda: She’s very courageous, and there’s a relentlessness about her that stems from trying to prove herself I think. And she’s a hard worker. She doesn’t take no for an answer and I think that’s something that is fun to play because you don’t get to do that every day.

Can you talk a little bit about the writing? David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro, there’s a lot of history there with the legal trial aspect.

Arianda: Well, it’s cool to do their — I mean, am I wrong? — their first out-of-primetime network show. So that’s very exciting, I think it’s a huge honor that in itself.

Thornton: You hear all your life what a genius David Kelley is and here we are working for him, so it’s something else.

Do you think that this show reflects the world accurately as far as the trial and how people are? The characters especially.

Thornton: We’re not lawyers so you have to learn a lot about the law in order to make this work. We can’t just show up and say the words, at all. That’s not what we do. You have to really know what you’re saying and you have to…those guys are lawyers and so, they’re the ones who know this stuff inside and out about the law. Not only law shows, but from actually experienced being lawyers. So, we have to come here and make sure that we know the law and that we know what this script is and what means and then make it our own.



Amazon Prime Studios

Have you learned from this? Does that color the way you look at things now?

Thornton: We’ve learned so much.

Arianda: Yep. And just with the scripts, there’s a lot of Googling that I have to do. I don’t know what — was it res ipsa loquitur? — so I’d have to have the pronunciation thing pop up every time so I could come to work and not look stupid.

Do Patty and Billy trust each other? They’re working on this case together.

Thornton: I think we have naturally grown into a fondness for each other’s characters. It starts as a sort of combative relationship.

Arianda: They’re smelling each other and trying to feel it out.

Thornton: Exactly, exactly. Every time she’s up to something, I can smell it. Every time I want to argue, she doesn’t argue. She won’t give me the satisfaction.

Arianda: No, she doesn’t argue.

Thornton: As time goes on, they realize they’re all they’ve got — each other. We show up to the set and we look at each other in the eye and it’s like, “You’re my ally. You’re the only ally I have.” So, they eventually grow together.

Billy Bob Thornton on "Goliath"

Billy Bob Thornton on “Goliath”

Amazon Prime Studios

I assume production can be like that too. This was like an independent film in that it shoots really intensely for a short period of time. Do you prefer that? 

Thornton: I tend to like to move on. I don’t sit around and dwell on things much. I may miss one a bit because it’s taken a lot of time and effort to know. Here’s the thing, you never know what an audience is going to think about something. The ones that the audience doesn’t get, I tend to let them go. I don’t like to dwell on them too much. It’s like, “Okay, I feel we did our job, but we can’t force it down people’s throats.” And then the ones that work out really and ones that become something to the audience, those are the most important people. The audience, that’s who we care about. So if something really strikes a chord with an audience, if it pops on TV, I don’t mind watching it for a few minutes.

READ MORE: ‘Goliath’ Video: Billy Bob Thornton Is Creeped Out by Lawyers Even Though He Plays One Himself

Do you watch TV? What’re some of your favorite shows?

Arianda: I get really into shows, but then I have my brain shut off time, so I’m not going to lie, I love me some “Housewives” as a shutdown method…I watch so much television, it’s embarrassing. And I get emotionally involved with things I should not be. What do I care about yachting in the Mediterranean? But I do every Tuesday. Deeply, deeply.

Billy, you said you actually checked out some of your own shows if it happens to be on.

Thornton: I’m saying that there are certain ones where I remember this or that. Last night, I watched part of “Bad Santa” in Spanish. I wanted to see what it sounded like.  It was pretty funny. They actually got a guy who wasn’t too far apart. Sometimes it can be horrible. They were pretty on the money with this.

Arianda: In Poland, they still have your voice under and then the other guy’s is over. I saw “Coming to America” with his voice and some Polish guy over who was absolutely sans emotion. It was fantastic.

Thornton: Yeah I watch sports on TV and also my daughter’s going to be 12 in September. I spend a lot of time with her and I watch a lot of the stuff she likes to watch. I’m not a TV junkie outside of sports and history really and stuff like that.

All eight episodes of “Goliath” are available to stream now on Amazon.

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