Interview | Kathy Bates on ‘Bad Santa 2’ and Biker Chicks

In Mark Waters’ Bad Santa 2, Academy Award-winning actree Kathy Bates – arguably one of the best actresses of her generation – plays Sunny, the hard-fighting, hard-drinking biker-tough mother to Willie, he equally despicable title character. She has a hate-hate relationship with her son, and the emotional core of the movie comes from who she is and her relationship with him.

Bates recently sat down with Crave to discuss what it was like to create a character like Sunny, where a biker chick gets her moxie, and the struggles of creating an awkward relationship on camera organically. Crave also had the nerve to bring up Rat Race, which, it turns out, Bates kinda loves.

Broad Green Pictures

Broad Green Pictures

Crave: You may cuss, should the urge strike.

Kathy Bates: Oh good! I probably would have anyway! [laugh] Thank you for telling me, though.

It’s intimidating to be in the same room as you.

Oh come on. Get outta here. As my friends would say “Shut the front door!”

It’s just I’ve been watching your movies since I was a kid, and you’ve always been impressive. Even when you turn up in a film like Rat Race.

I love Rat Race! I love that little scene of the squirrel lady!

I’d like to know about the creation of Sunny from the ground up. I sensed you were responsible for much of how she looked and who she was more than what was in the script.

I think she just sprung fully formed like Aphrodite… No, it wasn’t Aphrodite who sprung out of Zeus’ head. It was something horrible I think.

It was Athena.

It was Athena! There you go! I think it just, she just was there. And I think it must have come from conversations with Mark Waters. I’m sure, but I’ve blocked it out of my mind. So I’m accepting all the kudos, that I thought of this thing by myself. But I think we must have discussed the fact that we wanted her to be a biker chick. And then I knew I wanted a mohawk. I knew I wanted tats. I knew I wanted all that stuff. Because those roles are usually given to sexy young chicks. So I really wanted to, at my age, be able to play a chick like that.

So I started Googling photos of old biker chicks, to see what they look like. Like miles of bad road. I just thought about what it must be like. Now think about this: They probably rode holding onto a man. But think about what that meant, though. What about their own individuality? What about their own sense of freedom? How tied are they to this guy? Did they allow themselves to lose their own identity in this guy? Sunny? No.

In the limited ways I’ve scraped up against biker culture, it seems the women are indeed secondary. Did you get into biker culture to play Sunny?

A lot of it was from my own imagination. But in this moment while we were talking, I realized that makes a lot of sense about Sunny. That she’s probably fallen off that bike too many times.

Broad Green Pictures

Broad Green Pictures

Sunny provides the relationship that allows the movie to have its emotional core. Her relationship with Willie is the core of the movie. How did you and Mr. Thornton create that relationship?

She’s the protagonist. Or the antagonist. The antagonist. We did the bar scene the very first day, the first thing in the morning. And I remember during pre-production “Really? Do you hate me?” He said, “What are you talking about? I really love you!” “No, you don’t. Why did you put scene 31 first?” [mock dumbness] “Well it’s just two people talking in a bar.” I said “Okay, dude.”

Anyway, up until that time, I think I was pretty intimidated by Billy Bob. I just felt a little shy around him, a little nervous around him. And that morning he was very quiet, and I thought “This feels like the dynamic.” I didn’t say anything to him, but his coldness. Because he was right at the bar. He was drinking and everything. And I find that, even when they’re setting up, I’m in it. I’m doing what Sunny would do. Pulling her pants up, coming in and checking everybody out or whatever.

When I’m on set – especially on a location like that – I’m always listening, always watching everything before the scene even starts. So part of that was him and his distance from me. His anger. He was in it. So that to me, that’s when all that stuff starts to happen. Because otherwise it’s just in your head. And, as I always say, there’s no substitute for reality. When you’re in it, it’s real, and when you’re in the scene, breathing in the same space as another human being, everything becomes really clear.

And so I felt that was very valuable to that scene. Because why wouldn’t they be nervous around each other? And why wouldn’t Sunny may be “Hm. Okay. Can I pull this off?” And I think the more nervous she is, the more bravura she has. The more brave she is. She’s like “Okay! Alright!” Because that’s when she’s at her most insecure. So that worked alright.

Broad Green Pictures

Broad Green Pictures

Forgive me is this is a naïve question, but when creating a character that is made to be perhaps laughed at, as well as laughed with, where do you find the balance between emotional honesty and broad comedy?

That’s not my job. That was probably more Mark’s job. Because my job is only… I remember Ulu Grosbard, a wonderful director way back when I was in my 20s took me out to lunch once, and told me “There’s two different kids of actors: natural and real.” There are some people who are just good at being – and I think Billy Bob alluded to that this morning – there are people who are really good about being natural to the camera. And that’s all they can do. From part to part to part to part. When you’re being realistic, you have to fulfill all the ups and downs, whether you’re being quiet, or fulfilling this or that.

So that is my job. There are a lot of things I thought we did which I felt were too serious for the character. And I was worried about them. There was a whole subplot over me having cancer. And when I left, I was saying to Billy Bob “I’m worried, I’m worried.” Now Mark got rid of that stuff. That’s his job to balance it out. Because he’s the orchestrator. He’s the conductor. I’m just one of the orchestra. In this case, probably the bassoon player. [Laughs.]

A key player nonetheless. What was the first record you bought with your own money?

It was probably the first album of The Beatles. That’s probably dating me. Meet the Beatles.

Top Image: Noam Galai/WireImage

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.