Interview | Billy Bob Thornton on ‘Bad Santa 2’ and Staying Authentic in Hollywood

Thirteen years after Bad Santa, the 2003 cult hit directed by Terry Zwigoff, Billy Bob Thornton has  returned to play Willie Stokes, the depressive, alcoholic thieving asshole. In Bad Santa 2, now directed by Mark Waters, not much has changed in Willie’s life, and he spends the bulk of the film flirting with hope, but mostly indulging his darkest, basest impulses and saying whatever dirty, racist things pop into his head. It’s one of Thornton’s more celebrated roles.

Thornton recently say down with Crave to discuss what it was like to return to play Willie, the emotional baggage that comes with returning to a character that is so dark, and the Bad Santa phenomenon in general. Thornton also explains how he immerses himself into his roles, and how comfortable living in the Hollywood machine doesn’t necessarily take away your edge.

Broad Green Pictures

Broad Green Pictures

Crave: I really liked Jayne Mansfield’s Car.

Billy Bob Thornton: Oh yeah. That little movie never got a chance, you know?

I sensed a lot of Faulkner in there.

I’m influenced by Southern novelists, as well as Steinbeck and people like that. Erskine Caldwell. So I think I’m probably obsolete as a director in this day and time. Because I’m not sure that’s exactly what the studios want to make.

It’s been 13 years since the original Bad Santa. At what point did you realize that the love for Bad Santa was high enough to warrant a return?

When it first came out, it grew slowly, but it became successful very quickly. It was the most well-reviewed comedy of that year and it made a lot of money, so it was a huge success. But we didn’t really… and almost immediately, people were liking it. Everywhere I go. And to this day! But we didn’t really think about a sequel while we were making or in the months following. But pretty soon after, within a year or two. Because people in the public were asking “When is there going to be a Bad Santa 2?” It started to be all over the place. Different writers were asking me to make a sequel.

So, comedies lend themselves to sequels much better than dramas do. In dramas it’s like, “What are you going to do now?” And so we felt like we weren’t finished with Willie, and that there was some more to mine there. So we started talking about it. The studio was in transition. The studio was sold, then it came back, and we had to wait on all this stuff. On all the red tape. Once that was all sorted out, we took a lot of care looking for the right story and everything. We had several different ones written, and this was the one we settled on. Then we perfected it.

So that’s the explanation for the 13 years. In a lot of ways, that helped us. Because if we had put it out the next year, well that’s the same people just… and when you do it that quickly, you just have to make it broader. Make a broader comedy to make it different than the first. But in this case, Thurman is now 21 years old. So you really do get, not only a sequel, but you see these people later on in their lives. So it gave it a unique thing there. Also, this movie is a lot more emotional than the first one. This one is a lot more a Christmas movie than the first one, because you see where Willie came from.

Broad Green Pictures

Broad Green Pictures

The first Bad Santa is almost an anti-Christmas movie, and I think a lot of that came from director Terry Zwigoff, who tends to be misanthropic. This one is directed by Mark Waters, and may be more humane as a result. Was tone a concern? Was there an intentional movement away from the acid of the first?

I think the Kathy Bates character keeps the cynicism going. Willie is the one, this time, who is still cynical, still drunk and suicidal, but you can see in this one where he came from, and it makes sense to you. You can see that he’s an abused and neglected child who grew up as a carny or as a grifter. And he’s drunk all the time because he doesn’t – probably the bane of his existence is that he does have a little hope. If he had no hope, who cares? But since he does, he sees himself and this kid, Thurman Merman – Thurman never had a chance either! So that’s what makes it like the darker version of something like traditional Christmas movies like It’s a Wonderful Life or Miracle on 34th Street. It gives it more of a story than the first one had. An arc for the characters and different things like that.

Tonally, certainly me and Tony [Cox] and Brett [Kelly] are tones are pretty much the same, except toward the end of the movie, you begin to see there’s a little bit of a beating heart to it. So within that world there are rules. There are things… Willie just can’t do anything. And sometimes on the set with Mark and the writers, they would say “Willie does this or that,” and I would go “Nah, he wouldn’t do that.” They would say “He’s Bad Santa. He can say or do anything!” I would say “Not really.” Sure Willie will say anything to anybody, but it’s how and when and where he does it. And also, just in terms of the dialogue. When we first got the script, Willie talked too much. I said “Willie’s not a proactive guy. He’s not the aggressor.” He’s a reactor. So we changed that. Took a lot of my dialogue out.

So, yeah, we tried to keep the spirit of the first one, and yet elevate it in some way where we didn’t go too far outside the first one.

How much of the dialogue was you, and how much was rigidly scripted?

They were very good. I would talk to the screenwriters about it, and essentially if they had a speech that Willie had, I would look at it and say “Yeah, that’s the right idea, but here’s how Willie would say it.” And they would re-write it, and we’d do it that way. But sometimes on the set you just say whatever you feel like. [Laughs.]

Was there ever an attempt or a temptation to simply outdo or shock your co-stars?

I think Tony and Brett, for sure, wouldn’t ever be shocked because they had been through it before. And Kathy’s and old pro. She’s been around some shocking things. And Christina [Hendricks] seemed to flow right along with everything. So I don’t think there’s much I could have done. If there was a moment where I had shocked them, it was when I was NOT an asshole! [Laughs.]

Broad Green Pictures

Broad Green Pictures

The center of this movie is less the broad humor and more the relationship between the Kathy Bates character, Sunny, and Willie. How closely did the two of you work to develop that relationship and Willie’s past?

We had kind of talked about how they were kind of carnies or grifters. Kathy would have been the Fagin to my Artful Dodger. And that was really about it. We didn’t really get into a whole lot of it because, frankly, I’ve never been that kind of actor. The history I have for any character is my own history. I don’t take parts that I don’t already know about. I’m not saying I’ve never done it; I’ve never been the head of NASA.

Or Davy Crockett for that matter.

But Davy Crockett was… he was a character. He was an actor himself. And I read a lot of, I’m a history buff, so I read a lot about Davy Crockett, and also nobody knows what Davy Crockett was like anyway. If I was playing Margaret Thatcher, I’d have to study up on it. In other words, I think if you’re able to take your life experience, if you’ve had one – if you’ve had a crazy, eclectic life – then you’ve already done your homework as an actor. The most important thing is knowing when you’re the best guy for the job. Most of the movies I’ve ever done, I felt I was the best guy for the job when I took it.

Now, in Armageddon, or, I don’t know, Eagle Eye or one of those, maybe I gotta to talk to an FBI guy, or I gotta go talk to NASA astronauts. Because if I don’t know what I’m saying, then people will know that. If you’re just listing off words you’ve memorized, then people can tell.

The difference between acting and bullshitting.

Exactly. So I studied very hard to learn what all those technical things meant, so when I tell somebody to make sure cylinder’s in the X-14 before you launch it into the whatever-it-was, I wanted to look someone in the eye and know what that meant. All the other parts I play – all these poor creeps from A Simple Plan and The Man Who Wasn’t There and Monster’s Ball – I’ve been there.

With Willie, I’ve known Willies. And I’ve kinda been Willie. I spent a few years, when I first got out here, that I was pretty destitute. So it doesn’t really – in other words, Kathy and I “got it.” We knew what that was. So if you get into trying to talk out characters very much… I always compare it to this: If you look at a character as a mountain – over there – and you refer to the character by their name, “Well, Willie’s the kinds guy who…” then you’re separating yourself from the character instantly. You’re saying “there’s this thing over there that I’ve got to go to. This mountain I’ve got to go climb,” as opposed to just being you in that situation.

I’m myself in every role, even though they’ve been so different. It doesn’t matter if the characters are different. I always make sure they’re me, because then, you’re going to be authentic.

Broad Green Pictures

Broad Green Pictures

You’ve been living in the Hollywood system for years, however. Is it still possible to accrue more texture and experience when you’ve been living comfortably?

No. My life is so bizarre and strange and poor and anxiety-ridden. I’ve got all kinds of things like obsessive-compulsive disorder. I’m severely dyslexic and had trouble in school. Hung outwith every type of character you can imagine. Been in trouble. I’ve got plenty. In other words, I’ll never get to all of it. And believe it or not, once you are – as you said – living comfortably, it’s still not that comfortable. If you’re as insecure as I am, I don’t ever rest on my laurels. I think everything I do is going to be a failure.

One thing I will say – and I was saying this to another guy earlier – one thing that Hollywood has taught me after living here thing long is that I’ve got real good instincts about what’s going to happen. I can tell you – I won’t tell you, but I could tell you – exactly how this movie is going to be received, what I will get from it, and exactly what will happen, based on this questioning. I know exactly how it’s going to play out. I can even tell when I do an interview with someone who isn’t crazy about me, isn’t crazy about the movie, no matter how much they gush. And I can also tell when a guy is real dry and just sits there that he’s flipped over it. You learn it after a while.

This thing I just did for Amazon, Goliath. I know exactly how that’s going to go down. And it’s so not what people would expect. And I’ve already told all my representatives – and they have all these hopes for [both this film and Goliath] – and they have certain things they just know are going to happen. And I told them today “Here’s how this is going to down.” I told them exactly how it was going to work. And I’m hardly ever wrong.

After all these years, It’s gotten really easy to tell. It’s almost like a cop or an investigator who interviews criminals. You just read it. You just know. Any good FBI guy will tell you than when people are lying, they look up and to the left. Also just a general vibe.

What did I think of it?

Oh you’re good with it. Your review will be mixed. I think there’s a lot of it you really responded to, but I think there’s some things you were disappointed with.

I think you have me pegged.

Top Image: Jamie McCarthy/Getty Images

Witney Seibold is a longtime contributor to the CraveOnline Film Channel, and the co-host of The B-Movies Podcast and Canceled Too Soon. He also contributes to Legion of Leia and to Blumhouse. You can follow him on “The Twitter” at @WitneySeibold, where he is slowly losing his mind.