The overblown celebrity ego is a delicate and tender thing, one which requires its own set of rules for proper care and handling. In some cases, famous figures are like characters from the movie Gremlins, and must be fed very specific things and placed in controlled environments, lest they morph into some sort of crazed demon. In other cases, these fragile creatures have tempers that operate on a hair-trigger, and can go off with no warning when someone says the wrong thing. Billy Bob Thornton falls into this latter category.
This morning, Thornton paid a visit to the folks at CBC’s own Q. He was accompanied by his band, jangly country-rock crew the Boxmasters, who are opening for Willie Nelson on a string of tour dates; the radio appearance was intended to promote their upcoming Canadian shows and plug the group’s new album. Although the majority of listeners – and heck, people in general – are likely more familiar with Thornton’s acting and directing work than his recent swerve into honky-tonk music, the guy’s publicity team reportedly instructed the Q team not to ask any questions about the aforementioned celebrated Hollywood career, under any circumstances. (On air, Thornton referred to these unmentionables as “all that s***.”)
While trying to maintain a modicum of journalistic integrity, the Q producers complied… for the most part. In host Jian Ghomeshi’s intro, however, he understandably alluded to Thornton’s pre-Boxmasters background, slipping in a brief mention of how the drummer and singer was also an Oscar-winning actor and director. Seems that’s when Thornton quietly and crazily lost it.
Ghomeshi began the interview with a series of totally standard music-oriented questions: When did the band form? What have you learned from [tourmate] Willie Nelson? In response, Thornton offered terse variations on the phrase “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” When asked what kind of music he listened to as a kid, Thornton embarked on a completely nonsensical interlude involving an old monster magazine and an advertisement that offered a chance to send away for a build-your-own monster model.
Faced with a loose cannon, Ghomeshi persevered and – to his credit – managed not only to maintain his composure, but also to wrest control back from his petulant subject. When Thornton snapped, “Would you ask Tom Petty that?” after the host asked about early influences, Ghomeshi quickly fired back, “You’re angry because I mentioned you’re an actor.” What followed was a tense, uncomfortable conversation wherein the interviewer played pseudo-therapist to Thornton’s misunderstood artist. In the end, the actor-director-musician grudgingly offered a handful of pouty responses, but refused to perform a Boxmasters cut with his bandmates, claiming he’d left his drum kit at home. (Curiously, he’d been happy to play with the group during their soundcheck.)
Since the debacle, many entertainment news outlets have jumped to mention Thornton’s freakout. Some commenters have compared the incident to Joaquin Phoenix’s infamous appearance on Letterman. While I agree that there are parallels between the antagonistic attitudes of both figures, Thornton’s meltdown feels like far more of a conscious choice. His deliberate, sulky behaviour was reminiscent of a kindergarten bully who can’t get a rise out of his teacher. I’m sympathetic to Thornton’s desire to be taken seriously as a musician – nobody wants to be seen as the latest coming of Keanu Reeves fronting Dogstar – but he’d have much more success in that endeavour if he started acting like a reasonable adult.