Collisions of cars, cultures fascinate Thornton

Billy Bob Thornton makes a belated return to the director’s chair for his new film, the 1969-set “Jayne Mansfield’s Car.”

Featuring a splendid cast including Robert Duvall, Kevin Bacon, John Hurt, Katherine LaNasa and Frances O’Connor, “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” is a rich ensemble piece containing autobiographical elements plucked from actor-writer-director Thornton’s Arkansas childhood.

His father, like Jim Caldwell, the movie’s loath-to-express emotion Alabama patriarch (Duvall), had a fascination for automobile accidents. The elder Thornton started hauling Billy Bob to car wrecks when the boy was 4 years old.

“That was my life, so I didn’t know much better,” the 58-year-old actor said from London, where he’s cast in “London Fields,” a crime-thriller based a novel by Martin Amis.

“These days I’m a vegan, so it’s kind of odd that I grew up eating possum and squirrels,” Thornton reflected. “But when you’re a kid, that’s what’s in front of you.”

The other memories of his pre-Hollywood, Southern life in “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” — opening Friday at AMC Elmwood Palace 20 and available from cable TV video on demand services — include visiting a traveling exhibit of the car that Jayne Mansfield was killed in. The 34-year-old actress died in a horrific 1967 accident in Slidell.

“They brought the car to our town and I saw it,” Thornton said. “I always wanted to put that in a movie, and it works perfectly in this movie as a metaphor for the romanticism of tragedy.”

Mansfield’s car figures in only one scene in “Jayne Mansfield’s Car.” The film spends most of its time with two families, one Alabaman, one British, brought awkwardly together by the death Jim Caldwell’s free-spirited ex-wife, Naomi. She abruptly left her husband and four children many years before to marry an Englishman.

“I’m really fascinated with culture clashes,” Thornton said.

The relationships the three middle-aged Caldwell sons in “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” have with Jim Caldwell is very much like the relationships Thornton and his two brothers had with their father. The Thornton siblings didn’t have a sister, so Thornton invented one, Donna, for his script.

“I had cousins and aunts who were very similar to the character that Katherine LaNasa plays,” Thornton said.

With LaNasa (“The Campaign,” TV’s “Deception” and “Longmire”), Thornton cast an authentic Southern girl born in New Orleans and raised in Baton Rouge to play Donna.

“An actress has to have an understanding of that woman or she can’t play her,” the writer-director said. “You have to have lived around a woman like that, with one or be one. Katherine has all three. She was ideal and a real dandy. We all love her.”

Shawnee Smith plays the Caldwell brothers’ sister-in-law, Vicky.

“I’ve have run across people who were very much like Vicky,” Thornton said. “Sort of pinch-faced and, on the surface, religious, but more as a control thing. When you get right down to it, at night she slugs down half-a-bottle of bourbon.”

The characters for “Jayne Mansfield’s Car” began with the traumatized World War II vet that Thornton plays, Skip, and Duvall’s Caldwell. Thornton and Duvall have worked together in six films, including the Duvall-directed “The Apostle,” Thornton’s commercial and artistic breakthrough, “Sling Blade,” and a drama to be released next year, “The Judge.”

“He’s one of the guys who I’ve admired and emulated,” Thornton said. “He’s a great actor and he’s been a great mentor to me.”

Thornton’s upcoming projects include a 10-part FX Network series based on Joel and Ethan Coen’s 1996 comedy-crime hit, “Fargo.”

“TV is the place to be for actors these days,” he mused. “Because the studios are only making movies for young audiences, there are a lot of superhero movies and vampire models. It’s always amazing to me that entire towns are inhabited only by models. I’ve never been in that town, but I guess it works for 14-year-olds.”