Billy Bob Thornton blasts off 

Stranger things have taken flight in Hollywood, but the pairing of eccentric twins known for taking big filmmaking risks and an Oscar winner revered for his intense roles could be enough to fuel a big box office hit.

Here’s to a stellar orbit for "The Astronaut Farmer," written by Mark and Michael Polish ("Twin Falls Idaho," "Norfolk"), which stars Billy Bob Thornton.

Opening Friday, the film, about a former astronaut cum renegade farmer, is all about dreaming big.

"The movie had the feeling of ‘Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,’" Thornton says. "I always liked the guy who, on the surface, appears to be less than he is and at the end of the day, you find out he really knew what he was doing."

That would be Charles Farmer in the movie, which Michael Polish also directs. After missing a chance to head to the moon years ago, the beleaguered astronaut comes to his senses by doing something that doesn’t make much sense — he builds a rocket ship in his barn. Using old blueprints, he culls the mental talents of his teenage son — "ground control" — and sets his sights on a 24-hour orbit around Earth. Although the idea flies with his family — Virginia Madsen plays Thornton’s wife — government officials only want to ground it.

"The Astronaut Farmer" had been gestating in the psyches of the Polish brothers for some time. Originally from Sacramento, the brothers’ father lived on the creative edge. He built "tons" of things, and even taught them how to fly.

"I thought it would be neat for a guy to build a rocket in a barn," Mark Polish says. "That was the very simple seed for the movie. And it’s very inspiring, because you go, ‘Well, what would that be like to personalize space travel, to actually do it yourself?’"

The brothers Polish used blueprints of the Mercury Atlas from the ’60s to construct their own rocket, the lower part of which was nestled 30 feet into the New Mexican soil so that they could build a barn around it.

"That capsule was very tiny," Thornton says. "I wouldjust stay in it in between takes. You’re crammed in this little thing, in this suit, and I had to think about other things while I was in there so as to keep my mind off of the heat."

Thornton is no stranger to acting challenges. After tackling deeply emotional roles ("Sling Blade," "Monster’s Ball"), he waded through dark comedy waters ("Bad Santa") before deciding to "lighten" it up a bit with roles like Charles Farmer.

"When I was growing up, the idea was to be different," Thornton says of the characters he’s taken on lately, "to show this unique take on something.

"Johnny Cash told me, ‘Well, you are the artist, you are the one that’s trying to say something, so say it in your way. You can nod your head and agree every now and then, but at the end of the day, it’s your ass up there, so do it your way.’ I know that sounds pretty simplistic, but it’s really an important thing. I think a vision, an artist’s vision, should be very clear and confident for the best thing to come out of it."

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Staff Report

Staff Report

A daily newspaper covering San Francisco, San Mateo County and serving Alameda, Marin and Santa Clara counties.
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