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Hillary Atkin

Is Billy Bob Thornton Really ‘Goliath’s’ Billy McBride? The Actor Takes Us Inside the Character

Jun 15, 2018

When audiences last saw Billy Bob Thornton’s character Billy McBride at the conclusion of the first season of Amazon’s “Goliath,” the lawyer was sitting pretty as a result of a large settlement he won in a hard-fought court battle against a vicious and powerful enemy.

Well, pretty in the sense of living and working in a dive motel, the Ocean Lodge, located across the parking lot of an even dive-ier bar, Chez Jay, on Santa Monica’s Ocean Ave., two of the last vestiges of a once-seedy stretch of street just a stone’s throw from the beach.

The locations are real — just try to get in to Chez Jay these days — and brought to life in the noir-ish cinematic style used in “Goliath,” which was created by a couple of guys who really know their way around legal dramas, David E. Kelley and Jonathan Shapiro.

Thornton won a Golden Globe for his portrayal of McBride, a brilliant lawyer whose career and family life were laid to waste as his alcoholism deepened. McBride is often seen rolling out of bed and straight into the bar for a liquid breakfast, or late at night on the beach, drinking out of a bottle in a paper bag.

Still, he’s keenly moved by unfairness and injustice, which makes him a formidable foe and a loyal friend. Whatever has driven him to despair makes him even more dogged and tenacious.

“The show is also about institutional corruption and how an individual deals with that,” says showrunner/executive producer Lawrence Trilling, who has also directed a number of episodes. “Season one was more straight-ahead courtroom drama. Season two takes Billy out of the courtroom and acting as more of a personal investigator and sleuth, uncovering layers of a deep conspiracy.”

The new eight-episode season begins with the murder arrest of the son of Chez Jay employee Oscar Suarez, played by Lou Diamond Phillips. Without giving away more spoilers, other Suarez family members have been involved in apparent gang-related activities.

As the story unfolds, a couple of new characters become key. Ana de la Reguera plays Marisol Solis, a Los Angeles mayoral candidate seemingly modeled on Antonio Villaraigosa. Mark Duplass portrays one of her ultra-wealthy advisers, intent on getting her into office at any cost.

“I love Marisol as a character,” Trilling says. “To me she represents the price of ambition and anyone faced with moral hurdles trying to get to the next level. When we are ambitious, we often make compromises and justify them. She starts off intending to be a good person, but each compromise is bigger than the next, and she finds herself on the wrong end of a moral equation.”

There are many other women in McBride’s life, including the returning characters played by Tania Raymonde, Nina Arianda and Julie Brister. His wiser-than-her-years daughter is portrayed by Diana Hopper.

“He has a network of supportive, wonderful, intelligent women around him who recognize his flaws,” says Trilling. Patty [Arianda, as his co-counsel] is the most effervescent and an antidote to his intensity. She’s so energetic and he’s so dry and it makes for wonderful chemistry. As a character, she has a real doggedness that’s different than his. It annoys him but he’s grateful for her. They would each never admit it, but they love each other. Denise [Hopper] is the redemptive person. She knows that he has to keep himself together, and ultimately that’s the most important thing, I would argue.”

The city of Los Angeles is also a character, from its courthouses to the opulent law offices of downtown to the rehabbed Victorians in Venice — and the down and out near the beach.

“We really want to capture L.A. in a contemporary noir vocabulary like ‘Chinatown’ or ‘The Long Goodbye,’ but wanted to contrast the gleaming high-end with the more gritty,” says Trilling. “Even though Santa Monica is no longer gritty, where Billy hangs out is the last holdout. Billy is old school. He never really adapted to the new world.”

Thornton says he’s much like his character, which is less frightening than being told he’s like Lorne Malvo, the assassin he played in FX’s 2014 season of “Fargo,” for which he won a Critics’ Choice Award and was Emmy-nominated.

He told us that during a phone interview this week, in which we also discussed McBride’s classic Mustang, the inner elements of his character and his relationship with Marisol.

TVWeek: We could talk about the best bartenders at Chez Jay, but let’s dig deep inside the character of Billy McBride. What is his essence and what do you enjoy most about playing him?

Billy Bob Thornton: I feel like him a lot. I think my sense of justice and fairness is the same. He’s trying to reconcile whether what‘s in the law and what’s fair and just is the same thing. They don’t make a perfect marriage but he wants to figure out a way to make it not the Wild West, but to make the law work for people. In my real life I feel the same way. He’s a guy that’s got his demons and flaws and wants to be a better person, but his own insecurities hold him back. He’s a complicated guy. When I made some money it didn’t really change me. I’m still like I was when I was 19, except when I look in the mirror.

TVWeek: What do you think it is about him that makes him such a powerful legal mind?

Thornton: He doesn’t only think from books. He knows the law inside and out but he also knows how to use it from the streets. He doesn’t just have a college degree, he has a degree from life, and that’s what makes him good. He knows people. He’s a great observer and student of psychology. He’s not afraid to take on anybody — he relishes it, probably to prove himself. He’s still a fighter after all this time, every day trying to prove himself and find his place in the world.

TVWeek: Let’s talk about Billy’s new relationship with Marisol.

Thornton: When they meet, that’s kinda cool with her being a mayoral candidate — that’s not bad for the ego. We had instant chemistry. We had never met or worked together until the first read-through. I can name a couple other actresses and she fits in that category. We had extra scenes that we didn’t need because the chemistry was so obvious. When she looks you in the eye, you know you’ve been looked at. Billy could maybe stay out of his own way. You never know what happens. In terms of working with Ana, it’s a really good experience. Billy is really drawn to Marisol.

TVWeek: What did you take forward from season one into season two?

Thornton: With his daughter, it’s obvious in the second season he’s got to stop letting her be the parent. With Patty, they’ve been around each other enough now, like a brother and sister, and they like each other a lot more than they would admit. I think at the end of the day their fears and insecurities match up well, and they might have common ground.

In the first season, we had a lot of different directors. In the second season there are only a few. It’s good for it. Larry Trilling is really terrific. He gets the vibe of show, and it’s good having one person around who really has an overview and keeps it consistent. This is for the long haul. You need some main people. One of hardest things to get used to is going from one director to the next. All were wonderful but had different approaches. Not having come from TV, I learned if we do have different people, I need to keep myself in the center.

TVWeek: I love the classic red Mustang Billy drives. Please tell us we’ll never see him get in an Uber.

Thornton: He’s pretty much stuck back in the ’60s. He loves ’60s muscle cars, the Beatles, the Birds and the Animals, which is pretty much in line with me. I have a ‘67 Chevelle.

TVWeek: What is it like for you working on a streaming show? Was there a difference between doing “Goliath” and doing “Fargo” for FX?

Thornton: It’s like the new independent film and they both felt great. “Fargo” was an amazing experience and I’m glad it kicked me off in this world. I love it. You don’t want to label it as TV, as it was in the ’70s and ’80s. I think the best stuff is being done there. The studios pretty much make bigger event films and “Fargo” and “Goliath” are like making independent film. As a writer and director, asked if I would ever do it again, definitely. As an actor, I know this is what I like — and it lets you have your freedom.

TVWeek: What’s different for you working in television as opposed to film?

Thornton: I don’t know how much difference there is in terms of being an actor. There’s more pressure in a film of a couple hours. You have one shot opening weekend and if it fails, that‘s it. In this you can really build to where you get it where you want it, and it gives you confidence. You can build a character in months — or years. If you’re doing something you love … I thought it would be boring, but it’s not. It feels like making a movie but longer and without the pressure of demographics and foreign sales. But obviously we’re nervous about making sure people see our show — but you’ve got a better chance of them seeing it [on TV].

(“Goliath” Season 2 premieres on Amazon Prime Video June 15.)

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