If you believe the early reviews of Jayne Mansfield’s Car — a new film directed and co-written by Billy Bob Thornton, available now on VOD and in theaters September 13 — you probably assume it’s a slow-moving art-house flick. And sure, it’s kinda that. It’s about a family in rural Alabama, circa 1969, who do a lot of talking and emoting. It’s got a cast of heavy hitters like Robert Duvall, John Hurt, and Kevin Bacon, who are all great at talking and emoting. But Jayne Mansfield’s Car has more giddy irreverence than critics give it credit for.
One of the highlights is when Skip (played by Thornton) drunkenly propositions his British step-sister. Skip’s not looking for sex; he wants her to “get naked and talk English and recite something, I don’t know, and just let me beat off to you.” It should be creepy, but the way Thornton delivers his lines, it has a vulnerable “aw shucks” sweetness. You find yourself actually rooting for a guy who wants to masturbate in front of a relative.
I called Thornton to talk about his new movie, his first as a writer/director in over a decade. We also talked about 19th-century British war poetry and his Ukrainian fan base. Because obviously.
We’ve all heard how doing a movie sex scene can be uncomfortable and awkward.
But what about a scene where you’re miming masturbation while a very naked Frances O’Connor writhes on a sports car and recites “Charge of the Light Brigade”?
Is that as awkward?
Or a whole new stratosphere of awkward?
I’ve never really been uncomfortable doing stuff like that.
Sex scenes in general. Or anything where you’re in an awkward situation. When we did Bad Santa, people would ask me, “Did you feel weird saying all those horrible things to kids?” I never thought about it. That was the job.
It’s why they hired you.
Right. After the first couple of days, I did apologize to Brett Kelly, who played the main kid.
But no apology to Frances for what she had to watch you do in Jayne Mansfield’s Car?
No. I guess in a way it was awkward having the crew there. I knew all those guys. So doing a scene where I’m pretending to jerk off, that probably made it more uncomfortable. I would’ve felt less awkward if the crew had been a bunch of strangers.
Your character, Skip, has a very distinctive orgasm face.
Was that an acting choice?
As opposed to?
It’s not an expression you’d personally make while having an orgasm, right?
Oh God no.
Because it kinda looked like you were having a stroke.
I was biting my lip. If you look closely, in the corner of my mouth there’s a little blood coming out.
Your actual blood?
No, no. It could have been, if I’d tried harder. If I had been really doing it, it might have been real blood. [Laughs] For Skip, it had probably been a while.
Long enough that he couldn’t do it without some lip-bleeding?
I just wanted there to be blood. Blood figures into this whole idea of tragedy and war and Jayne Mansfield and the horror of things. I wanted that scene to not only be funny and odd, but almost like a horror scene.
It was weirdly erotic.
Not you masturbating. The naked British woman on a car reciting 19th-century war poetry. It was like a very confusing Whitesnake video.
I know what you’re saying. To a degree, it was supposed to be erotic. And also sort of sad. And lonely. And funny. It’s supposed to be all those things.
Why “Charge of the Light Brigade”? Why that poem specifically and not something else?
[Co-writer] Tom [Epperson] suggested it, which I thought was brilliant. I came up with the idea for the scene, and then we sat around discussing what she should recite. Because it’s not just about her being naked.
Skip wants to hear the accent.
Right, it’s all about the accent.
Which apparently makes him “hornier than Frank Sinatra.”
Did you try any other poems? Just to see what had the right amount of ridiculous?
No, it was always “Charge of the Light Brigade.” It’s the first one Tom mentioned. He had a copy of it, and read it out loud, and we both knew it was perfect.
Skip has some of the best lines in the movie. At one point he tells his step-sister, apropos of nothing, about a girl with a hairlip he used to bang out in the forest, who had a “$900 ass and goddamn could take it right up to the gills without so much as a hiccup.”
I’ve actually been holding onto that line for a while. Tom and I had an old friend who was a homicide detective in L.A., and he’d say things like, “Yeah, this woman started working down at the station and she’s got a $900 ass and a rack like a” whatever. I just always found “$900 ass” funny.
Is it supposed to be a compliment?
I don’t know. If you think about it, it’s like a discount ass.
Asses are usually more expensive?
It’s not a million-dollar ass, it’s a $900 ass.
It’s under a grand.
Exactly. It’s a discount ass. It’s affordable.
Does that happen a lot, where you’ll cherry-pick the odd things people say and put them in a script?
I’ve used things that my father or grandfather or grandmother said. In Sling Blade, Karl calls the mental institution “the nervous hospital.” That’s what my grandmother called it.
Seriously. She never saw the bad in people, only the good. So when somebody was crazy she would say, “Oh, bless his heart, he’s just nervous.”
Holy crap, I love your grandmother.
I did, too.
One of the things I found fascinating about Jayne Mansfield’s Car is that it’s simultaneously nostalgic for the ’60s and at the same time kind of cynical about it. How do you feel about the decade?
I was a child of the ’60s, so I am in some ways nostalgic for it. All the music I listen to is from the ’60s. In a lot of ways it’s my favorite era. But at the same time, it was a real time of turmoil and change in the country. So I see both sides. I have fond memories of being a hippie.
You were a hippie?
Well, I was a hippie in the early ’70s. When Woodstock happened, I was only 14.
But at some point in your life, you identified yourself as a hippie?
I did. I had that mentality even back when I was 14. But we had a dress code at school, so I couldn’t do what I wanted. Plus, I had a hotheaded Irish father who wouldn’t let me. I didn’t really become a full-on hippie until I left home. I tell stories about how great it was smoking pot and having long hair and the music was amazing. But I also remember being terrified 24 hours a day of rednecks and the police. I was just nervous all the time.
Did you have strong opinions about the Vietnam War?
I was little confused about it. Kevin Bacon says something [in Jayne Mansfield’s Car] about the war. He says, “I saw the cover of this magazine and those guys had their shirts off and their guns, and it just looks so rock ‘n’ roll.” I remember thinking that.
About the soldiers overseas?
Yeah. Because it was sort of the rock ‘n’ roll war. We associated it with all of the protest songs and Crosby, Stills & Nash or whoever. I didn’t really fully understand everything that was happening over there, the horrific nature of it, until much later.
I read some reviews of Jayne Mansfield’s Car after it premiered earlier this year at the Berlin Film Festival.
They seemed confused by it.
Well by the title, for one thing.
Some of them were legitimately upset that it’s not a movie about Jayne Mansfield’s car.
I have journalists asking me about the title all the time. And I’m like, “It’s a metaphor, dude.” Why is this confusing?
Reservoir Dogs was not a movie about dogs in a lake.
Exactly! There’s a movie called They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? They didn’t call it Marathon Dance Night. And I wasn’t going to call my movie Wreck on the Highway or Family Troubles.
Or Two Generations Fight About Stuff.
Not a chance! So in other words, this is the kind of movie that nobody is going to see.
I don’t know, it could find its audience. I actually really liked it.
Thank you. See, here’s the thing that makes it hard to be optimistic. The guys who financed this movie are from Russia.
I’m not kidding. It’s pitiful that I couldn’t get anybody in the United States to finance it. They had a screening in the Ukraine and there was a 1,000-seat theater full of young Ukrainians who just went wild for the movie. Maybe that’s my demographic. [Laughs]
Sure, why not. Take what you can get.
It’s weird, because we showed the movie at Berlin and Toronto and Mill Valley and Austin, and the audiences just went crazy for it. But there were always like two or three bloggers with their backpacks who would leave halfway through. And they just blasted us in their reviews. Certain people are out for you. It just happens.
You think it was personal? They had a vendetta against you or something?
I don’t know, probably. They just hate you because you said something once about their friend or whatever. We made the movie we wanted to make and we just hope and pray that the right people find it.
This is kind of off-topic, but since we were talking about nostalgia before, it’s at least semi-relevant. A few years ago, you did a bizarre interview with a Canadian radio station where you mentioned Famous Monsters of Filmland.
Okay, here’s the thing about that. On YouTube, you don’t see what really happened. We’d asked them to do us a favor and not single me out in the beginning. We wanted to be introduced as a band. We told them, “After we talk about the music, you can do anything you want. You can ask me about movies or Academy Awards or whatever. But let’s not start that way, out of respect for my band mates.”
That seems reasonable.
The guy looked me right in the eye and did the introduction, “We have an Academy Award-winning actor.” He did exactly what we asked him not to do. Once they boldly said fk you, instead of screaming and jumping over the table, I just decided not to answer the questions he asked. “What’s it like touring with Willie Nelson?” I wouldn’t have a clue, I don’t know the guy.
You were consciously trying to be a prick?
I was giving them a taste of their own medicine. And then the video got onto YouTube, and it got a billion hits or whatever, and people were saying I was on drugs or I’d lost my mind. Nobody thought I might be messing with the guy.
That isn’t the reason I brought it up.
I sincerely want to ask you about Famous Monsters of Filmland.
[Laughs] Please do.
You said during the interview that you’d entered a “build your own monster” contest sponsored by the magazine. They never let you finish the story.
He wanted to talk about music.
But that’s a fascinating conversational detour! You made your own monster as a kid? I want details, man.
I made a couple. There was a robot in the desert with a bunch of cactuses. And a Dracula model with some other creepy stuff around it. I wasn’t that good at it. The guys who won those contests? They were good. I was nerdy, but I wasn’t quite nerdy enough to be that meticulous about it.
But you were nerdy enough to have more than just a casual interest in monsters?
Oh, yeah. I watched all the old horror movies. I was really into those Hammer Films.
Hammer Films? Those were all the classics with Frankenstein and Dracula and the Mummy, right?
Everything starred either Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing?
Or both. Anything that had Christopher Lee as Dracula, I went to see it.
He scared the shit out of me.
Oh, yeah, me, too. Remember that film, I think it was called… Curse of Dracula?
It sounds familiar.
Dracula is frozen in ice in the mountains and comes to life.
Yeah, yeah, I saw that one.
I can still remember every scene.
I might be forgetting something, but I don’t think you’ve ever done a monster or horror movie.
Not really. I did a campy one in the early ’90s, called Chopper Chicks in Zombietown. It’s not on the resumé anymore, it was early in my career. It was about a bunch of zombies and female bikers.
Clearly I need to see this.
You can look it up, you’ll get a kick out of it.
Have you ever been tempted to do an actual horror movie? Something less campy?
There are two things on my list of movies I’d like to make some day. I’d like to play a college professor and do a real college drama. Even though they’ve done some good college comedies, like Animal House or whatever, I just don’t think they’ve ever truly captured that feeling of college in a movie.
And the second on your movie to-do list?
I’d like to do a ghost story. I love ghost stories. I would love to do a good haunting movie like Poltergeist or the original The Haunting. Do you remember the movie Ghost Story?
The one with Fred Astaire?
Yeah. And John Houseman, I think. I’d like to do something like that.
There were rumors going around the Internet that you might be Freddy Krueger in a Nightmare on Elm Street remake.
Yeah, that rumor was out there for quite a while. I never heard one word about it from any of my representatives. Somebody just made it up.
But if the role was offered to you, would you consider it?
Because you aren’t interested, or you didn’t like the original films?
Here’s the main reason — it sounds kind of shallow, and it is — I just wouldn’t want to spend that long in make-up.
If I had to sit in a chair all morning, having somebody put all that Freddy Krueger make-up on my face, I’d want to kill myself. I’d want to jump off a building.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, on Esquire.com.)