Easily the first must-see film of 2007, The Astronaut Farmer is the cheerfully nutty story of an ordinary man, Charles Farmer (Billy Bob Thornton), whose dream of becoming an astronaut was derailed years earlier by a family emergency.  His dream never died, however, and Farmer, with the help of his loyal and loving wife (Virginia Madsen) and kids, decides to take matters into his own hands by building his own rocket in the barn out back in an effort to put himself into orbit.  This naturally arouses the suspicions of the government who insist that an ordinary person simply can’t do such a thing, and while battling those who would shut him down, Farmer inadvertently becomes a media sensation.  Soon, the eyes of the world are trained on the barn for his imminent blast-off.

The film is the latest work from Mark and Michael Polish, the creators of such haunting, if little-seen, indie gems as Twin Falls Idaho, Jackpot, and Northfork.  With this film, the brothers may be working on a larger canvas than in their previous films, but the end result is just as quirky and fascinating as ever.  The premise may sound like either a joke or an invitation for schmaltzy melodrama, but the final product turns out to be neither.  Instead, it is a funny and wildly unpredictable work that will impress fans of the Polish Brothers’ earlier efforts, while still playing straightforward enough to attract mainstream audiences as well.  


What was it about The Astronaut Farmer that convinced you to sign on for the project?

Virginia Madsen: For me, I liked that it was a story about this family, and it was a well-written story about a family.  It is unusual to find that in any script.  There are a lot of stories about dysfunction and dysfunctional families, and it just doesn’t seem as if they write these kinds of characters anymore, and this one really stood out because of that.

Billy Bob Thornton: Same thing.  I just loved the idea that you have this thing—the rocket—as the hook of the movie, and yet it is really about this family and this dream and how they have worked together as a team to do it.  I’ve wanted to do a movie like this—a triumphant and feel-good movie like Hoosiers or Field of Dreams.

Having played a good number of highly cynical characters in the last few years in films such as Bad Santa and The Bad News Bears, is it easier or harder as an actor to play a more straightforward and genuine person such as Charles Farmer?

Thornton: It is all kind of the same.  It is all easy in some ways.  When you go into something, you have to commit to whatever it is to make it good as an actor, and you don’t go outside the lines of whatever that is.  I think anytime someone gets too schmaltzy or too cynical or over-the-top or under-the top, it is just because they aren’t naturals at any of it.  It is just like talking to somebody—some people are great communicators, and some are not.  As an actor, you don’t think too much about going too far with it or whatever—you just do what feels natural, and if you have a director who gets that, that is usually when you get your best performances.  Sometimes, you’ll get a director who tries to direct you a lot, and if they really lean on you, you can see how it affects your performance if you do everything they say.  Years and years ago, I did something—fortunately, it was before I was very well-known—with a big director, and he directed me, and I listened, and it wasn’t very good.

Madsen: I think that the best directors cast you because you are the one that is absolutely right for the role—I think it was John Huston who said that 75% of directing is casting.  Then, a good director is going to let you go and gently guide you if you go astray and pull you back if you go too far.  It is done with a gentle hand.  These guys [the Polish Brothers] were really good at that, especially so with their own daughters, who play the daughters in the movie.  They really had to be careful not to tell them exactly what to do, because we wanted them to be themselves.

In recent years, the two of you have gone back and forth between larger-scale studio pictures and smaller, quirkier works such as this one.  Has this dichotomy been something toward which you have been consciously striving, or is it just a matter of following the material?


Madsen: With me, it is really the material.  I still experiment and read a lot of really small scripts.  They are starting to make movies for phones, and I’ll probably do one of those to see what that is like.  It is just trying to find good material that is most of the battle as an actor.

Thornton: Same for me—I’m always looking for good stuff.  I’m not saying that every now and then… Well, my manager long ago once said, “Every now and then, you have to have your face on a bus stop.”  I think if you are just an independent film actor and you always have been and you haven’t done something bigger, I don’t think it matters and that you don’t have some need to do it at some point in your career.  However, once you’ve done it, you kind of have to keep on doing it, because if you don’t pop up in a big movie every now and then where everyone sees you, the Hollywood community and the public begins to think that something is wrong and that you are only doing independent films because no one else wants you.  There are certain business things that go into it, but even when you have to do one of those every couple of years—when you do the big movie to make a little more money to take care of the things that you screwed up over the past couple of years—you try to pick a good one, and that is possible.  I am not an independent film snob who thinks there are no good big movies—there are good commercial movies out there, and you just try to pick one of those as often as possible.


Billy Bob, it has been a decade since Sling Blade, which you wrote and directed as well as starred in.  Since then, you have focused almost entirely on acting.  Do you have any plans to return to writing and directing at some point down the line?

Thornton: I do have one thing in particular that I want to direct and I have just been trying to get financing for it.  It is really hard right now to get certain movies financed, and this is a period drama, which is about the hardest thing to get financed.  I’m just talking to studios right now and trying to get someone to finance it.  It is something that I would direct but not write, because it is based on a true story—it would be an adaptation, and I’m not real good at that sort of thing: taking a book and really editing it.  That’s not my strong point—I want to put everything in.