There was a time when good characters wore white hats and bad characters, black. The growth of antiheroes has caused that line to fade into varying shades of gray. Even the actors who are playing the roles sometimes have a difficult time pinning them down.
Billy Bob Thornton, who has played a variety of antiheroes in his career, struggles with the definition for Billy McBride, his character in the new Amazon series, “Goliath.” He’s a lawyer who was once king of the courtroom, but these days he’s the guy who chases the ambulances that even the ambulance-chasers don’t want.
When a big case falls in his lap, the chance to rebuild his reputation is too tempting not to take it. He never expected the vicious and brutal blow-back he would get for that decision.
The question of whether his character is a good guy or a bad guy is tough for the actor to answer. Thornton describes the character as a guy whose sense of justice is not exactly what’s legal.
“It’s more what is fair, but he’s also got a bunch of flaws. Every human being has their flaws, and he’s not always right. And he also doesn’t always do things on the up and up,” Thornton says. “He’s kind of a guy who uses whatever means he has.
“This guy also has his really dark side, I suppose, for the piece is the hero.”
Thornton got a small taste of playing a lawyer with a cameo appearance in “The Judge.” He liked the similarities between lawyers and actors because both are putting on a show.
“When a lawyer gets in front of a jury, you have rehearsed your thing and you have to convince them of something,” Thornton says. “I always like the idea of playing a lawyer. I’ve always had a sense of justice and a frustration over what the legal system is opposed to vs. what is real. ”
Thornton is not clear if McBride is hero or antihero, but he’s sure that he’s not the villain. The character he played in “Fargo” was – without question – a very bad man.
Thornton doesn’t get much help defining his character from “Goliath” executive producer David E. Kelley, a man whose past productions based on the world of lawyers included “The Practice,” “Boston Legal,” “Ally McBeal” and “L.A. Law.” He prefers to let the audience make up its mind about McBride.
“With Billy McBride, played by Billy Bob, I wouldn’t necessarily say he’s a hero. I think every viewer is going to do their own math on that character. And I think some will come out saying there’s more good in him than bad, and then there will be others who say it’s kind of a coin flip there,” Kelley says.
This is the second television series for Thornton in the past two years. He’s made guest appearances on TV shows – including “The Big Bang Theory” – but before 2014’s “Fargo,” Thornton had not had a recurring role on a series since “Hearts Afire” in the mid-1990s.
Getting to play a lawyer in “Goliath” knocks one item off Thornton’s acting bucket list. He still wants to play a college professor and someone in World War II. He doesn’t care if they are heroes, villains or antiheroes.
His experiences on “Fargo” made Thornton want to be in another series.
“I loved doing ‘Fargo,’ and my only comparison to doing this is ‘Fargo.’ I didn’t know what I was going to do after ‘Fargo,’ but I knew if I was going to be able to do anything coming close to independent film, I would have to do it on a service like Amazon,” Thornton says. “The independent film business is pretty much gone.
“I don’t ever see myself doing network television, but this appeals to me because I can make series that are really eight to 10 small movies.”
Over the years, Thornton has appeared in big budget films (“Armageddon”) and smaller movies (“Sling Blade”). He finds online and streaming services are very welcoming to the good, the bad and the antiheroes.
12:01 a.m. Friday, Oct. 14, Amazon