Billy Bob Thornton on Aging, Overcoming Dyslexia, and the Value of Religion

Billy Bob Thornton
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The Goliath star on the best advice he’s received, the virtue of ignorance, and marrying out of self-defense.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
Johnny Cash told me one time, “If you know you have it, if you know you know something, don’t listen to anybody.”

What drove you as a kid?
I was severely dyslexic, so I was just kind of known around school as a moron. Nobody really encouraged me. Dyslexia drives you, because you’re trying to overcome this thing. They’ve found that a lot of people with dyslexia and OCD, which I also have, are high achievers in things like the arts, or writing, or whatever, because you compensate in other ways.

You also suffered terrible abuse by your father. How did you get past it?
It wasn’t that out of the ordinary to get your ass beat by your dad when I was growing up. But the thing is that I loved my dad. One thing I have always had is the capacity for forgiveness—there are only three or four people on this planet that I would never forgive, but he’s not one of them.

You struggled for years as an actor and didn’t get your big break until you were in your 40s. What was that like?
I think my biggest strength was ignorance. I just didn’t know any better. I always thought, “Tomorrow’s the day.”

Do you ever wonder what it would have been like if you’d got your break in Hollywood as a young guy?
If I had made it when I was in my 20s, I think I would have grabbed everything I could. And there’s no telling where I would have ended up.

You’re also a singer-songwriter. What’s more satisfying: acting or music?
You can’t really compare them—the feeling you get from them is so different. There’s a feeling you get when you do a great scene, but it’s nothing like when you’ve really been on in a concert, and you come offstage—it’s this high. With music, you immediately know. It’s kind of like stand-up comedy—if they start laughing, you know you’re funny.

I read somewhere that your mother worked as a psychic.
I grew up in the South in the ’60s. Once, a KKK guy came over to our house and threatened my mom, because evidently she was working with the devil or something. She helped the police sometimes. She told me things that nobody in the world could possibly know, because they were only in my head, so I’ve got to believe in it.

What role does religion play in your life?
I’m not what you’d call a traditional religious person. We went to the Methodist church—every Sunday you put on your little creepy suit with your clip-on tie and went to church. But it wasn’t like I paid any attention. Hardcore Christians and atheists—they both say they know exactly what the deal is. Anybody who says, “I know what happens,” I don’t believe them. That’s kind of my religion.

How should a person handle getting older?
I look at every day like I’m still 19 and I’m looking for my break. I think you have to keep that spirit about you. One of the hardest things about being successful is that you’ve kind of realized your dreams—it can make you sit on your ass too much.

You’ve been divorced a bunch of times. What has that taught you about relationships?
I don’t think I was meant for marriage at the times when I did get married, but the people were really cool, and they were good to me in one way or another, and good for me in one way or another. They kind of wanted to get married, and I thought, “Well, that’s what they want to do.” I remember getting married one time because I didn’t want anybody else to have her. It was like in self-defense.

What advice would you give to the younger you?
Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me. I’d say: Really follow that.

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