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Actor taps in to his struggles

(ran GB edition)

Billy Bob Thornton left Arkansas long ago, but Arkansas never left Billy Bob Thornton. It's here with him today, when he walks into a meeting room at a posh hotel, looking more like a road-weary trucker than an Oscar-winning writer-director-actor. He's sporting a baseball cap, scuffed jeans and checkered shirt with sleeves rolled up midbiceps, to better show off the tattoos that cover his arms.

He sits down and begins to talk, warm but guarded, in a slow, good ol' boy drawl as thick and comfortable as Grandma's quilt.

He reminisces about growing up poor in the backwoods of Alpine, Ark., population 100 ("It wasn't that horrible, because you didn't know any better"); about being captivated by movies as a child ("When The Ghost and Mr. Chicken came out with Don Knotts, I saw it 15 or 16 times. I just loved it"); about the illusions of celebrity ("People think actors are a lot richer than they really are"); about how much hell he went through to get where he is.

He must be about the unlikeliest star in Hollywood.

And that just might be why he's such a star.

Take his performance in A Simple Plan, the gothic thriller in theaters now. Thornton plays Jacob, the older and less fortunate of two brothers who stumble upon $4-million in drug money in the Minnesota hinterland. Hank (Bill Paxton), the younger brother, got a college education and the girl (Bridget Fonda), has a nice home and a baby on the way. He achieved the Great American Dream, and he is content.

Jacob never went to college, never got married, never saw any of his modest dreams fulfilled. In his town, he is a joke: innocuous, easy to ignore, even easier to tease. He is slow-witted, which makes people underestimate him, but he is not dumb. And although he doesn't talk about it much, he is also achingly, devastatingly lonely.

The brothers don't tell anyone about the money they found, for different reasons. Hank is seduced by the idea of never working again, of upgrading his lifestyle, of moving away for good from their small, dull town.

To Jacob, the $4-million represents something much more important. "I've never even kissed a girl before," he confesses to his brother in a moment of heartbreaking honesty. "If being rich will change that, then I don't care."

In that scene, Jacob is transformed from simple bumpkin into great tragic figure. Thornton's performance in A Simple Plan is so beautifully underplayed, with such natural understanding and grace, that you assume that the actor is more than a little familiar with Jacob's pain.

This he does not deny. "If I were playing a banker or a military colonel, I would have to make some stuff up, because I haven't had those experiences," Thornton, 43, says. "But when I'm playing these kind of characters . . . well, I've been called ugly. I've been an outcast. I was never one of the popular kids in school. Coming up as an actor in L.A., I was an outcast for years.

"I think we've all felt like that at one time or another, except for a chosen few. All these things that accumulate over your life, you just let them be there with you when you're acting. The trick is to not think about them too much, because then you overdo it. You just have to let yourself be who you are in the scene."

Thornton is capable of a lot more, of course. He was just as convincing in Primary Colors as a savvy political spin doctor (based, none too subtly, on James Carville). In the box-office hit Armageddon, he was the fast-thinking NASA chief who masterminded Bruce Willis' mission into outer space.

But these are not the kinds of roles that are dearest to him ("Armageddon was not really my kind of thing," he says with a sheepish grin). Thornton is at his most affecting _ and his most comfortable _ when playing simpler men. His screenplay for Sling Blade, about a man released from a mental institution 20 years after murdering his mother, won him an Oscar last year. But it was his performance as the mentally retarded Karl, with his instantly memorable guttural drawl ("I reckon, mmmmm-hmmmm"), that made the world take notice of Thornton the actor.

The break was a long time coming. After two semesters at Henderson State University in Arkadelphia as a psychology major, Thornton dropped out to pursue his dreams. "I loved Elvis movies," he says. "I'd always go see those, Viva Las Vegas and stuff like that. I knew I wanted to be in show business somehow, like Elvis: He was in movies, he was a singer, he did all of it. I was in bands all through high school, and I really thought I was going to be a rock 'n' roll star."

At 22, Thornton struck out for New York with his childhood friend Tom Epperson, who had become his writing partner, armed with nothing but a general vision of glory. "I told everyone I was leaving forever, and I spent 10 hours there before I came back," he says, chuckling. "Everyone back home laughed at me."

The grimy bustle of Manhattan terrified Thornton, who had always lived in towns more like Manhattan, Kan. He and Epperson went home and caught their breath and decided to try L.A.

There, they peddled movie scripts by day; Thornton sought work as a singer and drummer with area rock bands at night. Neither strategy was very successful, so Thornton tried acting, taking classes and hitting every audition he could get to.

Still nothing. The low point came in 1984, when Thornton suffered heart failure brought on by malnutrition: For weeks, he had been eating nothing but potatoes.

"It was terrible," he says of those lean years. "If I had known how far away I really was, I would've never left home. But I was ignorant. I was always thinking, "Tomorrow's the day.' "

His first roles were small and insignificant, in movies like Chopper Chicks in Zombietown and Hunter's Blood. He worked his way onto TV shows _ Matlock, The Outsiders. It was when he and Epperson got a script produced _ 1992's acclaimed One False Move, in which Thornton also acted _ that the worm finally turned.

Today, Thornton has plenty of work. He has returned to Arkansas to star in Daddy and Them, a low-budget comedy that he wrote and directed. Next year, he'll direct an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's novel All the Pretty Horses, starring Matt Damon. And there is already talk that Thornton is guaranteed his second Oscar, as best supporting actor, for his work in A Simple Plan.

Thornton is quick to point out that despite his hard road to the top, he bears no resentment toward those who rejected him, who refused to give him his first Hollywood kiss.

"I understand why that happened," he says with a grin. "The niche that I was in is really difficult, because I wasn't bizarre-looking enough to obviously be a character actor, but I wasn't a typical leading man, either. When you're in between, you get overlooked. That's why you have to go in with more ammunition. You have to know how to play characters and do something different to get people to notice you. So that's what I did."