PASADENA, Calif. - Billy Bob Thornton has seen some pretty wild and crazy things in his day, but wasn't prepared for what he saw last November in Calgary.
The Oscar winner, in Alberta shooting the upcoming series based on the hit Coen brothers' movie "Fargo," was attending a CFL playoff game.
"I gotta tell you something," Thornton said Monday night at a Fox Network evening event during the Television Critics Association press tour. "Those Roughrider fans are insane."
He was expecting Canadian football fans "to be a little bit more reserved." Instead, he was surrounded by folks "with no clothes on painted green and they had watermelons on their heads. They're tailgating in sub-zero temperatures with no clothes on!"
The colder-than-usual winter has proven challenging for Arkansas native Thornton and other U.S.-born "Fargo" cast members. The 58-year-old actor stars along with Colin Hanks, Martin Freeman ("The Hobbit"), Bob Odenkirk and Kate Walsh in the 10-episode, limited run drama, which is currently in production in Calgary.
It is scheduled to premiere in the U.S. on April 15 on FX and the same day in Canada on the new specialty network FXX.
"One night, it went down to 40 below and they wouldn't allow us to work," he says. "You figure if a Canadian says it's too dangerous to go out there, it probably is too dangerous to go out."
Contrary to the impression he left after a 2009 CBC radio interview where he sparred with host Jian Ghomeshi, Thornton could not have been more charming, straightforward or accommodating than he was at press tour.
His career has taken him "all over Canada," he says.
"I love Saskatoon, and I think Calgary seems more like the kind of people I grew up around more than any other place in Canada. I feel real comfortable there."
One of three movies he has coming out this year, "Cut Bank" (co-starring Liam Hemsworth and John Malkovich), was shot in Edmonton. The other movies are "The Judge," with Robert Downey, Jr. and Robert Duvall, and "London Fields."
Thornton says he's shot six movies with Duvall and considers him one of his mentors. He's never worked with Jack Nicholson but that would be on his bucket list, although, "the first thing on my bucket list is to not have a bucket list just yet."
Thornton is one of several movie stars — Matthew McConaughey being another in HBO's "True Detective" — embracing the new trend toward limited TV series work.
"When I was coming up in the '80s, if you did television, that means that there was something wrong," he says. "Now if you do television, it means something's right."
Thornton likes that the limited series means he's through with "Fargo" after these 10 episodes and can easily return to features. FX network CEO John Landgraf told critics Tuesday that if the series returns, it will be as an anthology, with a different cast and characters each season.
Thornton feels a bit squeezed out of the kind of smart, intimate independent feature films he specializes in since they just aren't being made for cinemas any more. "I'm not the guy who stars in 'Spider-Man' and things like that. I'm also not a 25-year-old model who's a vampire."
So when executive producers Joel and Ethan Coen — who cast Thornton as the lead in their 2001 feature "The Man Who Wasn't There" — approached him to be part of the TV version of "Fargo," the actor jumped at the opportunity.
He praised series writer Noah Hawley for finding just the right voice for the series. "If you didn't know the Coen brothers didn't write it you would think that they did."
Set in snowy North Dakota, the TV version of "Fargo" features different characters than the 1996 film. Freeman plays a down-on-his-luck insurance salesman whose life is changed when he meets Thornton's character.
"When you see it, you'll understand when I say there's no real way I can describe my character," says Thornton. The series "reveals things so slowly, so darkly humorous and in such a sinister way that there's very little you could say. I put it to you this way — I'm the mysterious stranger from out of town."
Bill Brioux is a freelance TV columnist based in Brampton, Ont.