Two things about Billy Bob Thornton that aren't true: He's a trick-shot artist with a pool cue. And his cousins are famous pro wrestlers.

“It's the Internet,” gripes Thornton. “These Web sites have so much misinformation. Everywhere I go now, if I'm in a bar and there's a pool table, somebody's going to challenge me. I play OK, but just like a regular guy would. I have no idea where that came from … and the other one is that I'm related to the Funk Brothers – I've never heard of these guys in my life, and all of a sudden they're my cousins.”

Thornton, a laid-back fellow known for, among other things, playing a low-IQ killer ( Sling Blade ) and a misanthropic yuletide clown ( Bad Santa ) and carrying a vial of blood belonging to his wife (now ex-, Angelina Jolie), shrugs it off. He's got bigger fish to fry.

The biggest right now is The Astronaut Farmer , about a Texas rancher who's building a rocket in his barn to launch himself into orbit. It's one of those follow-your-dream dramas – but with “edge,” Thornton says, courtesy of the identical-twin writing and directing team of Mark and Michael Polish.

Thornton has spent a lot of time lately playing dark, cynical jerks ( Bad Santa , School for Scoundrels ) and coaches ( Bad News Bears , Friday Night Lights ). In the forthcoming Mr. Woodcock , he's a dark, cynical jerk and a coach. But when his agent sent him the Polishes' script, Thornton knew it was time to change up.

“You have certain types of movies you want to do in a career,” says Thornton. “I'd always wanted to do a kind of Jimmy Stewart/Frank Capra movie, like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington . This was one of those ... it's also the classic story of the common man against the system. The Polish brothers were able to sneak in enough to make it hip.”

At the same time, The Astronaut Farmer is as American as Capra corn: Thornton's Charles Farmer may have mortgaged the ranch to finance his dream, but he's a family man, enlisting the help of his teenage son and young daughters (played by the Polishes' real-life girls) and staying true to his wife (Virginia Madsen).

With three albums to his credit and another due in May, Thornton is also serious about his music, and about music, period. Warren Zevon, the late singer-songwriter, was a close friend. Johnny Cash, says Thornton, was like an uncle – which is why he can't bring himself to watch the Oscar-winning biopic Walk the Line .

Thornton has an Oscar himself. In 1997, he nabbed the coveted trophy for his screenplay about a dim-witted Southerner with a haunted past. The film, Sling Blade , also landed him a best-actor nomination.

Thornton directed the film, too.

“I'd written a movie a few years earlier, One False Move , and that was a pretty good movie,” he says. “With Sling Blade , I thought critics would like it and a few people would see it. ... Instead, it became this phenomenon, and kind of iconic.”

These days, Thornton is trying to find funding for what would be his fourth directing turn. After Sling Blade , he steered Matt Damon and Penelope Cruz through an adaptation of Cormac McCarthy's All the Pretty Horses . A year later he directed and starred in Daddy and Them .

This time, the subject is serious. The story is that of Floyd Collins, a famous cave explorer who got trapped in a cave – for 13 days.

“It was the biggest media event of its time. The media was starved for news, and here was this poor schmuck trapped in a cave. It was a huge deal.”

And the reason Thornton, no stranger to media circuses, wants to tell this tale?

“It's a statement on human nature, how we like to watch other people suffer for our own entertainment,” he says. “The media wouldn't be what it is if the people didn't want it. If people only wanted to see good or important stuff, then that's all that would be covered.”

© 2007, The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Distributed by McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

The Astronaut Farmer is currently in theaters.