Earlier this week, I got a chance to swing by the set of D.J. Caruso's upcoming espionage thriller Eagle Eye. An early plot synopsis made the film sound like a psychological drama with little action and a lot of dialogue. But once we stepped foot into the DHL packaging center in Riverside, California where a major action set piece was being filmed, it became quite obvious that the opposite was true. I am told that this is a non-stop chase in the vein of such eighties classics as Gotcha! and Run with a more realistic approach.
The film stars Shia LaBeouf as a young man whose overachieving twin brother has mysteriously turned up dead. When he returns home for the funeral, he learns that he has been framed as a terrorist. He suddenly finds himself becoming the member of a terrorist cell with plans to carry out a political assassination. He must work together with Rachael, a single mother played by Michelle Monahan, to extricate himself.
Billy Bob Thornton plays the FBI Agent in hot pursuit of LaBeouf and Monahan. His character has been described as a rougher, tougher Sam Gerard. When we first walked into the shipping and receiving area of the DLH center, we saw Thornton up above us on a catwalk, eagerly awaiting his turn on the mail sorting conveyer belt. He was playing tag with his stunt double, a slightly larger man named Mikey that looked identical to Thornton. Both were sporting black suits and a shock of white hair.
The scene being shot was directly out of a Mario Brothers game. It is set up a lot like the droid factory scene out of Star Wars: Episode II - Attack Of The Clones. Or maybe the pie factory pursuit from Chicken Run.
As the double approaches, Michelle gets up on her knees and swings the brief case. It hits the white-haired man square in the chin. He gives perfect smack-face before flailing backwards. Shia comes scurrying out of the background like a little spider. He crawls over the downed stuntman, hitting close to Michelle. Quick as a flip, the stunt double is back on his feet and after LaBeouf. The man leaps across the moving conveyer belt, bringing his elbow down into the square of the young man's spine. The two collapse on the box strap. Cut is called.
Thornton is brought in to replace his doppelganger. He reenacts the scene, running up on Shia after being hit in the face with the briefcase. Shia is heard screaming, "Ouch!" It is a shot of pain not captured on camera. When LaBeouf comes back into frame, he has Thornton by the neck. The grip looks real. The two actors seem to be levitating off the belt. One of the technicians on set screams, "Watch your heads!"
Cut is called. The scene is reset.
An hour later, Billy Bob Thornton meets us in the lunch wagon for an interview. He is off the clock and in his civilian clothes, though he still wears his FBI Agent jacket. There is a red handprint on his neck where Shia grabbed him. It's hard to tell if it is a real rash or a bit of make-up. Around his neck are three dogtags with BM on them. They are for his new band The Box Masters. Each dogtag has the name of one of their songs on the back of it. He is eager to discuss his upcoming album, but fields questions about the movie he is currently working on first.
Billy Bob Thornton: I would shake your hand, but I just got a wound (he shows us the massive hole in the palm of his hand that has been covered with a less than effective band-aid). You don't want my blood. It's got every disease in the world.
Did you hurt your hand while shooting a scene?
Billy Bob Thornton: I don't remember when it was.
Can you talk about your role in Eagle Eye? Who are you playing?
Billy Bob Thornton: I play Thomas Morgan. He is head of the Anti-Terrorist Task force for the FBI. It is one of those movies where I run around the airport, and through factories, and various other buildings chasing Shia.
We saw your stunt double jumping on to the conveyer belt.
Billy Bob Thornton: Yeah, my turn came later. We overlap the stunts. My double will do it for a while, and then I will come and take it from the middle. Sometimes I will do all of the stunt. Sometimes I will just do part of it. The part where they will see my face. I have always done my own stunts. My guy, Mikey, is a really good double. They can shoot a lot with him. The older you get the happier you are about that.
How long have you and Mikey been working together?
Billy Bob Thornton: We have done several movies together. I can't remember what the first one was. I think it might have been Bad Santa. I think I might have done five with Mikey. I had another guy before him for years. But he got hurt all the time.
Do you ever find yourself getting a little carried away with the fight scenes?
Billy Bob Thornton: No. I try to be as realistic as possible. Without hurting anybody. Or getting hurt myself. I have been hurt on movies a lot of times. People always ask if I do my own stunts. And I say, "Not on purpose." I guess the worst one was five or six years ago. I got six broken ribs and a broken collarbone. A cracked pelvis and a concussion. This all happened on the set of one movie a long time ago. I probably shouldn't have been doing the thing I was doing. But I did it anyway. Fight scenes? You learn ways to do it that look very real. Some of it is. Some of it is not. Some young actors will feel a lot of bravado. They will say, "Go ahead and hit me, man. It's alright." And I say, "Well, alright." Then they don't like it. I used to do that too. I did a TV show back in the eighties. There was this girl that was supposed to slap me. She was supposed to slap me twice. I told her, "Ah, it's okay. Slap me as hard as you can." She was doing it kind of weak, and I knew it wasn't going to look real. I told her, "It's okay. I can take it." And finally, she knocked the piss out of me. My cheek swelled up and the make-up people had to put some stuff on it. So, that is what you get for acting like that. You just learn ways to do it that are as close to real as you can get without hurting anyone. When you are doing movies with legitimate film companies, they have pretty good stunt coordinators. They are pretty good about keeping everybody safe.
You seem to be playing a character type. Do you find a real person to emulate, or do you do a lot of research?
Billy Bob Thornton: It all depends on the role. There are some roles where you don't need to do any research. I tend to only take roles that I am right for. I think that is important for an actor. Some actors will take anything. That's why they get a British guy doing a part that he has no right to be doing. They have an Irish man doing a hillbilly accent. You know? This is an FBI guy. A lot of FBI agents are from Texas. Or Mississippi, like I am. I didn't have to learn to be from the Bronx, or anything like that. With all of the technical stuff, the dialogue is written. What is important for me is, when I am talking about stuff I have an understanding of what it is I am talking about. When I am doing a lot of technical speak, I like to know what I am saying as opposed to just saying it. When you are just saying it, it is a list of stuff. If you know what it means, then it sounds like you actually know what you are talking about. For Pushing Tin, this movie I did with Cusack a couple of years back about air traffic controllers, me and him actually went to air traffic school. I'm glad they sent us through that. That was a monster to learn that stuff. When you looked through the scope, you could see the planes that were coming in. You had to know what there numbers they were and what headings they were on. You could see it on the screen. Also, you don't have to do this, because most of the movie going public doesn't know what that means. But there will be air traffic controls watching the movie. And there will be FBI agents watching the movie. You know? Personally, I want to make sure that none of them see me over at Safeway one day and decide to tell me, "Hey, I really liked your movie but that is bullshit." Or whatever. So, I try to get it right.
Have you ever had someone do that to you? Where they come up to you in a supermarket and say, "You got this role totally wrong."
Billy Bob Thornton: I don't think so. Not so far. I don't do a lot of movies that require that sort of realism. Maybe Armageddon and this one. Pushing Tin. No one knew what Davey Crocket said to anybody.
Was there something specific in this movie that you had to learn about?
Billy Bob Thornton: Yeah, quite a bit. The dialogue? I did have to lean what it all meant. The guy we had as a technical advisor on this movie actually did the job I do in the movie. That was his actual job. He knows all about that. Tom. He is a great guy. He is on the set a lot. He will tell me little things that I would have never thought about. Even when I am chasing Shia with a gun, he will say something about the way I am holding it. I have used guns a lot. And shot them a lot. But, he tells me little things about where I would have my gun while I am standing by a corner. There are specific reasons. That stuff is always great to know. Usually, in an action movie, the people that go and see them? The larger part of the public? This one is pretty realistic here. But there are some that you watch, and you have to forget the realism because it is just horseshit. Those movies are not very good. But it's the guy sitting there eating Cheetos going, "look at that! He killed him!" They don't really care about realism. Our director, D.J., he pays a lot of attention to detail. So, I usually have a lot of help.
Do you have a lot of interaction with Shia and Michelle in the actual film? Or are you simply pursuing them?
Billy Bob Thornton: I have hardly any interaction with Michelle. I do with Shia because in the beginning of the movie we have him in custody. At the beginning of the film there is a big interrogation scene between Shia and myself. It is one of the bigger dialogue scenes in the movie actually. He and I have quite a bit of stuff. And at the end we are seen together. Once I discover that it's not just about him. In a lot of ways its like Harrison Ford and Tommy Lee Jones in The Fugitive. After a while, I realize that I smell a rat. At the beginning, my character is kind of odd. Even though I am the FBI, I start out as the bad guy in a way. Because the hero of the movie is someone I am chasing and trying to get. Even thought people shouldn't think that way, because this guy is just doing his job, in the beginning, you don't want me to get him. Because you know it wasn't him. Whatever. Then it ends up that I am just doing my job. I know that and he knows that. So it works out okay. With Michelle, as close as I get to her is just running after her. She pops me in the face with a briefcase at one point. Other than that, I don't interact with her much.
What do you have coming up next?
Billy Bob Thornton: I have a lot of stuff coming up. Its funny, because I haven't been working much before this. People say, "God, you are working all the time." But it only seems like that because of the way movies come out. You guys know that. You are always asking me why I did one movie after I did another one. I have to say, "I didn't. I did that movie three years ago." I guess The Astronaut Farmer was the one I did before this one. I did The Informers. We did it just before this one. Its one of those movies like Love Actually where I played the president of the United States. Its kind of like a cameo role. But in a way its not, because all of the actors kind of have a cameo. It is a bunch of different stories that all have a thread through them. They are linked in a certain way. The Informers is one of those. Kim Basinger and Winona Ryder are in it. A bunch of young actors are in it. I can't remember them, but they are supposed to be well known. I know Brad Renfro, God rest his soul, is in it. I didn't have any scenes with him, but I knew Brad from way back. He read for me for All The Pretty Horses. And I was supposed to direct Cinderella Man. But I remember not wanting to do it at the time. I think I met with him about that. I knew him over the years. I only found out after he passed away that he was in The Informers. I didn't know that, because it was such a compartmentalized movie. I just had my own bit, and these other people had theirs. I worked predominantly with Kim Basinger and Winona Ryder. But, off the subject of that, in the last two years I have made a record and a half. I had one finished last year, and we toured in September and August. I also play music. I have my whole life. I sort of exist in the Americana music world, which I guess you could say is underground. So, now it is sort of coming to the forefront more. We just became the face of Dell Lounge. It's like Dell's version of Itunes. But it will be more than that. We will have documentary footage and tons of backstage stuff. Our band The Boxmasters has become the cover for that (to check out Boxmasters on myspace, CLICK HERE).
Do you think your passion for music will surpass your passion for acting?
Billy Bob Thornton: Not for acting, but for making movies. I grew up as a starving musician and a starving roadie. I was a roadie for a lot of famous bands when I was in my twenties. I grew up in the music world. I really came to L.A. to do that. Or acting, or whatever didn't constitute shoveling asphalt for the highway department. I just went with what happened first. I love acting. And I stress acting. Making movies? Not as much. I love making small movies. I'll tell you what I love. I love Monster's Ball, A Simple Plan, The Man Who Wasn't There, Sling Blade, Bad Santa. I actually loved making The Astronaut Farmer and Bandits. Its those movies. I enjoy making this movie because the crew and the people I am working with are great. They are so wonderful. I think it is going to be a great movie. This isn't the genre that I usually like to work in.
Are you the only one chasing Shia?
Billy Bob Thornton: You see different people working with the FBI, and other agencies too. But they want they want the movie star guy to be on the screen most of the time. So there is a lot of just me chasing him.
Eagle Eye opens this summer, August 8th, 2008. We will have more with the cast and crew of Eagle Eye in the very near future. Look for an interview with both stars Shia LaBeouf and Michelle Monahan in the next day or to.