Billy Bob Thornton stars in “Bad Santa 2” and talks about the skills required to be a great actor

By: Julian Blythe   November 27, 2016

Billy Bob Thornton plays Willie Soke, a degenerate with his life in a constant spiral. His criminal past drags him back into future crimes. Thornton speaks about his own mentors giving him advice on how to act, as well as advice for other actors.

bs2-05175_crop_rgbDo you think your character, Willie Soke, is more likeable because of Thurman? (Willie’s friend Thurman Merman is played by Brett Kelly)

Oh yeah, definitely. I think people see that Willie was really just a neglected abused kid, and he sees himself in Thurman because he sees that Thurman never had much of a chance either. I think Willie is the kind of guy who wishes he could be close to, but he’s afraid to because he thinks it will go down the shitter. I think that relationship and also the way Marcus and Willie have this weird friendship. It’s like in the first movie, he tries to kill me, and yet I go down to sit in a café with him. It’s like, “Alright, what do you want?” “I got a job,” and” Why would I do that? You tried to kill me.” “Well it’s for this amount of money.” “Alright.” They have this weird criminal relationship and there’s something sweet about it.

bs2-08049_rgbA film of this nature is a double edge sword. What do you think is the appeal of the comedy of Bad Santa 2?

You can hear a pin drop. There are a few things that go into it. The studio was in transition of couple of times. It was bought and then changed hands, and was back. We had to wait for all the red tape to be sorted out. That’s one thing. We always talked about doing a sequel, (since) the movie was made for a sequel. Dramas aren’t tailor-made for sequels but comedies are. I think one of the mistakes comedies make is that they do a sequel, and if it’s successful they do a sequel immediately. It’s the same people you just saw, so that in order to make it different, they go really far. They make it broader generally.

In fact, with this one, it has a little more of an independent feel. It’s of course because the rooms in Montreal were very small. It was very cold also. The other thing is that once we got to go ahead to do it we wanted to take great care. We thought, “Maybe we’ll never beat the first one.” We have diehard fans and critics who are predisposed to things like sequels. We wanted to make sure we got close to the first one.

What we wanted to do was keep the spirit of the first one, and in essence; make the first movie again, only make it different. It was like that with Fargo. You’re doing a revered movie, now you’re doing a 10-part series. You want to keep that part intact, which is a big thing to do. You have to give credit to the writers and they pull it off. We took three or four years looking through different versions of the script and different incarnations before we decided on this one. Those are the reasons.

In a lot of ways it helped us because you do have that distance. Also Thurman is 21 and so you get to see a different guy, as opposed to the kid again, immediately. To me it’s funny that Willie is still alive [laughs]. Not only is he more alive, he’s more suicidal. Automatically that makes it funny to me. The movie doesn’t apologize for anything, and yet the new one is more emotional than the previous. It brings it closer to an actual Christmas movie.

We see where Willie came from, and you understand more of why he is the way he is. You also see his love for the kid, which he can’t really admit, but you know he has it. Even the raunchy stuff, we pushed that a little further. Not in terms of – I mean, there’s more cursing than the first one – but more descriptive.

bs2-16682_r_rgbWhat was the chemistry like between you and Kathy (Bates, plays Willie’s mother Sunny Soke)?

Kathy is from Memphis (Tennessee), and I’m from across the river in Arkansas. We had not only similar backgrounds in many ways, but we had sort of parallel careers. We didn’t become movie stars because we were Calvin Klein models when we were 20-years-old. We became movie star types by playing certain characters, and having the understanding of when you play a character you can’t play it 70% of the way; if you’re playing a character you’ve got to go all the way.

I was telling somebody yesterday, “If you’re playing Pat Boone, you got to play Pat Boone.” You can’t say, “Well can’t I be a little more edgy?” No you got to play Pat Boone. If you’re playing Charles Manson, you can’t say, “I don’t want to look bad.” You got to look bad. I think that, that alone when you’re an actor is why Kathy and I came up. We were taught that by the people we revered. Those are the reasons we liked those people, because they went all the way in. You can’t manufacture chemistry.

We had worked to together 20 years ago in Primary Colors. We only had one scene together or something. It was really good to be around her on a regular basis every day. It’s funny because she’s one of the sweetest women in the world, and yet for some reason because she plays some kind of characters and because I’ve played some of the characters I have. Sometimes people meet the both of us like, “Oh you’re so nice” [laughs]. It’s shocking. People hide around the corner. The fact of the matter is it’s very easy to fall in here.

bs2-05271_r_rgbHow does it feel to have the original Thurman Merman?

I got to say that originally the producers and studios didn’t want Tony (Cox, plays Willie’s accomplice Marcus Skidmore) or Brett. They wanted two other actors. They said, “You got to see these guys.” Tony I knew from a couple of things. (To Tony) The one you did with Jim Carrey.

They wanted another actor, a very trained actor, a really good actor. Here’s the thing, Tony is just funny. We pushed that through and, when I saw Brett, he had chicken pox originally. He couldn’t come back down there. When he made his way back down there, within two seconds I was like, “Are you kidding me?” This was the Marlon Brando of Thurman Merman.

When we first started doing the second movie and Mark (Waters, director) was just hopping on, across the board all people were saying was all they needed was me. “We don’t have to have the kid. How do we figure him back in and how do we get Tony back? He tried to kill you”. I said, “You got to understand something. This is like going to see ZZ Top and Dusty Hill is the only one left, the guitarist is Steve Vai, and the drummer is Tommy Lee.” You got to have the trio. That’s what people want to see. They don’t just want to see Bad Santa; they want to see those three together. We’re glad it worked out. We were very adamant about that, and we’re really glad it worked out into equal parts.

bs2-02657-02659_r_comp_rgbBilly, what do you admire most about Kathy?

I think it’s one of the things that Robert Duvall, my mentor, said to me years ago that has stuck with me forever. There’s a common misconception that – and this is just about the acting part – (but) subtle is great. In fact, Duvall said to me one time, in his way, “There’s a very thin line between subtle and boring.” So in other words, when you see this very posy perfected (breathy mumbling) voice thing, that’s not necessarily good. What a good actor should do is: whatever that person is, is what you should be.

In real life people are hyperactive, they’re loud, and sometimes they’re quiet. Sometimes they’re pensive; whatever it is. That’s your job as an actor, to take whatever situation it is and make those movements real. You don’t develop some kind of style that – I’m not naming names – over the years (and) their whole thing has just been (breathy mumbling), you know – that!

You can’t do that if you’re playing Woody Woodpecker. Kathy knows that. She has the instinct. Whatever the part calls for, like if you’re the person who just stares at the napkin, that’s what she does. If it calls for Woody Woodpecker, then she can do that. That’s what I admire about her. First and foremost, she’s truthful as a person and an actor. You don’t have a moment where you think she’s bullshitting you. That’s what I’d say the main thing about her is.

bs2-17181-17185_comp_rgbWhat was the significance of having the mother instead of the father play a role in this movie?

I can’t remember who it was now, but someone mentioned it. We were trying to crack the idea of the father. The problem with the father was that you kind of had two Willies; which by the way, I do. So that was the problem with it. If you had another man play my father doing kind of what I’m doing, then it’s too close. Somebody said, “Well hey, how about it’s the mother?” All of us said, “That’s brilliant.” Then somebody said, “How about Kathy Bates” and that’s brilliant too.

That’s how it happened; it was very quick and easy. To make that maternal thing a part of it as opposed to the father thing. The original idea was Jack Nicholson or Bruce Dern or somebody like that. They would’ve been astoundingly good at something like that, but story-wise it seems like the same character playing off each other, just one slightly older than the other.

bs2-11946_crop_rgbCan you shake off the character afterwards, and in order to insult each other did you have to know each other or was it just natural?

With Tony, as with Mark said, Tony is literally the nicest guy I’ve ever met. On the first movie, it’s astounding how good he is at insulting and cussing me out when he’s so nice. In the first movie, there’s this one scene, and you might remember this (to Tony) where you beat me up on the chair. So to Terry (Zwigoff, Bad Santa director) goes, “Tony I really want you to get up there on him” and Tony doesn’t have that part in him that makes him want to beat me up, because we were buddies. I told him one day that his wife had been flirting with me.

Terry says is there anything you can do? So I just went to Tony and in all seriousness said, “Dude, I don’t know what it is with your wife but she is (unintelligible).” So he starts slapping me in the face. The next take was perfect. After that I said, “I was just messing with you.” Anyways, he does have an amazing knack for – it’s an attribute to an actor – that he can be a genuinely good human being and then be that bastard. It’s pretty great.

bs2-11053-11055_r2_comp_rgbWhat did you come agree upon to improve your performance in the film?

The idea that I was sort of the Artful Dodger and she was Fagin. I grew up with what she says in there, is that she’d sell me out to do stuff for her all the time. We’re grifters in a way. It’s not like Willie doesn’t have an understanding of what she does or why she’s that way or why I am the way I am. We grew up rough in a weird kind of business. That was mainly it. You can see the mother son relationship.

You know how when you’re watching a movie and someone starts making out? I get so embarrassed. I’ll never forget when my mom called me once and she told me she’d seen my movie. I was like, “What movie?” She’d just gone to see Monster’s Ball with her best friend. I said, “Why would you do that? How could you do that to me?” She said, “I thought you did a real good job.”

Anyways, I’m still that way. I’ve never said the F-word around my mother and she’s 83. There is the scene where Kathy has the dildo and you can see the kid and the mother in the scene. It’s like, “Golly, don’t do that.” I think we had that part too. You could see a mother and son in there. When he was 10 and she was 16. I think we felt it. We did talk about it to a degree, but it came naturally.

Bad Santa 2 is currently in theaters