Billy Bob Thornton for “Friday Night Lights”

Billy Bob Thornton looks relaxed and in good humor when he met the press to promote the new football drama Friday Night Lights. Some 15 years after making an impact with Sling Blade, Thornton laughingly admits that he finally has a new generation of fans thanks to two very different recent films.

“I have guys who never particularly liked my movies until Bad Santa and now I’m like God to them,” Thornton says amidst peals of laughter. “And since Monsters Ball I’m every black guy in America’s hero, you know what I mean? I can’t go through the airport without, without at least one security guy saying ‘Billy Bob. Hey man. Halle, Halle Berry, man’ and I’m like ‘That’s right!’ Its like I gotta a whole new fan base and with Bad Santa, every ass hole in the world loves me right?”

But it’s Thornton’s ability at hiding behind a variety of diverse men that as made him an almost improbable success story in Hollywood. That can be further cemented in his quietly understated portrayal of a high school football coach in a small Texan town, in “Friday Night Lights,” which opens this Friday. As intrinsically American as this film is, with its energetic exploration of the religious fervor that is high school football, Thornton denies that you have to be a fan of football to appreciate a film such as this.

“You really don’t because at the end of the day, the movie is about people’s hopes and dreams becoming obsession and so narrow, that you have no future if something happens to that, which I think is a pretty universal theme. Also I think sports’ movies inherently are made for cinema, because you have built in drama, a ticking clock of some sort, and to see a sporting event as a backdrop to a movie, you’re seeing two things because you’re seeing the sporting event and movie at the same time, just when you go see a football game, it’s almost like you’re watching a movie. So I think those 2 are a pretty good marriage, which is why I think sports’ movies tend to do ok.”

Friday Night Lights takes the idealistic sports film and turns it on his ear. Based on the book about high school football by Pulitzer-prize winner H.G. Bissinger, Friday Night Lights chronicles the entire 1988 season of the Permian High Panthers of Odessa, Texas, with football players, coaches, mothers, fathers, boosters, fans and families struggling with ongoing personal conflicts while the team fights for a state championship.

In depicting the daily grind of coach Gary Gaines’ (Thornton) winning team and the potential destinies of its individual players, the story paints a vivid portrait of Odessa (and places like it all across America) where, once a week during the autumn, the town and its dreams come alive beneath those dizzying Friday night lights, when the Panthers take to the field. Thornton agrees that the film depicts both the glorious high school experience, as well as being a tragedy about people who peak too soon.

“For some people, it turns out ok and some it doesn’t and shows the potential for either thing. In other words, you take a poor kid who has no chance of an education, of a scholarship, or to make a decent living. Through sports, they have that opportunity, but also if that’s all they have, then if something happens to that, with one twist of a knee, your future’s gone. It’s also about politics in small town America. I grew up in a town where they’re obsessed with this, and the football team wasn’t like some high school group like the Glee Club, but it was really like the social life and cornerstone of the town. Some people who see this movie say: Surely they’re not THAT crazy, right? But they are, believe me! My dad was a coach and I’ve seen him break his knuckles, but not on me fortunately.”

No wonder Thornton didn’t have a problem identifying with the movie, as there was no escape from him being a fan of the game for most of his life, he smilingly recalls. “I grew up in Arkansas and that’s the law. My dad was a high school basketball coach, so I was raised as a coach’s son and I was a baseball player back in Arkansas. I also lived in Texas, so I was always surrounded by sports.”

In fact it was professional sports that young Billy Bob was initially drawn to. “I was going to do pitch for the St Louis Cardinals, having had no idea I was going to be an actor. So I got my collar bone broken in the Kansas City Royals training camp, and once I got hurt I started doing other things for a while. But I definitely was able to draw on my life growing up and my dad. It wasn’t shocking to me when I read the script because it’s really like that and so it did make it a heck of a lot easier for me to play the part having grown up with a father who was a coach, having been an athlete myself and having the pressure of that.”

As harshly realistic as “Friday Night Lights” is, Thornton says that that are lessons to be gleaned from the movie and the game it so viciously explores. “Ideally, what athletics are supposed to teach you, at least back in my day, were to be a better human being. It teaches you discipline, and competition, because when you get out into the world, there’ll be competition you’re going to have to compete with in some way. So a good program is supposed to teach you about how to get out there in the world and live. If that’s the way it is put to you and if that’s what is exercised by these teachers, because the coach should be a teacher, then it’s ok.”

The actor says that today’s professional sports teams should take note of the high school experience. “I don’t watch as much pro-sports these days as I do college, because college sports is still more about the team which is one of the things they’re supposed to teach you; pro-sports are much more about the individual these days. Once obsession gets too intense, I don’t think it is good and I don’t think it is good for parents to push their kids into playing sports if they don’t want to. In the south, most kids want to, but them some of them wanted to go to Vietnam too,” he dryly adds.

Sports will continue to emerge as a theme in the actor’s career, as he takes on the lead in the remake of the sports classic “The Bad News Bears”. “We’re starting in November and I’m the Walter Matthau grizzly.” Thornton says that there’s bound to be plenty of cursing, as it’s being written by the pair that penned Thornton’s “Bad Santa”. He says he won’t even be trying to impersonate Matthau. “I’m just gonna try and be myself, you know, as much as I can. It should be interesting.”