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Bad Santa - You've got to mess with people a little bit, it's how you get the most out of them



Feature by: Jack Foley

DRUNKENESS, foul language and incontinence are not usually things associated with Father Christmas, so anyone who sees Bad Santa is in for a rude awakening.

Terry Zwigoff's outrageous comedy finds Billy Bob Thornton as Willie T Stokes, an alcoholic loser who poses as a department store Santa each Christmas, so that he can rob it with the help of his black midget assistant, Marcus (played by Tony Cox).

Hence, the very bad Santa in question is not averse to swearing at kids, or disappearing into the changing rooms for a little extra-curricular activity.

Yet, as unlikely as it seems, the concept makes for one of the most hilarious films of the year, particularly as there seems to be no end to how far Thornton's Stokes is prepared to stoop.

The actor flew in for a chat about the movie during the London Film Festival and even though he confessed to being a little 'nervous' about some of the material, he chose to adopt a very professional outlook on it.

"Once we got there, those kids were so nonplussed, they couldn't care less about cursing.

"Today, kids are more exposed to things. They watch South Park and stuff like that.

"If we'd made it 20 years ago, it would probably have been a little bit different.

"But also, if you're playing a character, if you're playing a killer - I've traditionally played really extreme characters and characters you really have to go into - and even in a comedy, if you're gonna play a guy like this, you can't be sort of drunk, you know?

"And I wasn't sort of drunk. You just have to go completely into it and you just have to forget that stuff.

"I love children, I'm crazy about them, but I had to ignore that fact and play the part. If you're playing a killer and you got a knife in someone, you gotta twist it from time to time."

Bad Santa was actually released in America last Christmas, when it performed very well at the Box Office, and attracted a number of positive reviews.

Yet there were one or two who found the material offensive and protested about much of the content.

Thornton was equally reticent about both issues when I spoke to him.

"Well, here's the thing. It was the most critically acclaimed comedy of the year; it was insane, we couldn't believe it.

"My guess was the journalists were gonna like it because they tend to like dark comedies. Normally, if you see a bad review on a Christmas movie it's on some real syrupy, schmaltzy one.

"So we weren't surprised about that. What we were surprised about was that generally a movie is targeted towards a particular audience and this one was sort of all over the map.

"There would be teenagers there, and 80-year-old women, and, as a result, it made a lot of money.

"So in other words, there weren't any particular ages or groups of people offended by it.

"It was just more individuals or people from the religious right. And we did get a few comments from some of them and my reply to them is: as far as I know, Santa Claus is not in the Bible!

"I think you guys are talking about Jesus. It's not Santa Claus. Maybe we should make a Bad Jesus."

As a father of three himself, Thornton admits to being as sentimental about Christmas as the next person, but the opportunity of working on Zwigoff's movie was too good to miss, especially since he confessed to enjoying winding people up a bit.

"You've got to mess with people a little bit, it's how you get the most out of them," he stated, with a wry smile. "You know, every now and then you mess with a journalist or two..."

Part of this messing also extended to 'little person' co-star, Cox, whom Thornton warmly describes as 'one of the greatest people you could ever meet'.

"But he couldn't get mad," he explained, which is in stark contrast to his character in the film.

"He just doesn't have a bad bone in his body, so in the beginning of the movie, in the first few scenes, he wasn't getting up to speed, so I came up with this plan where his wife would be on the set sometimes ­ and his wife is a regular-sized gal ­ and I would hit on her.

"And I would tell him I was gonna hit on her and sometimes I would tell him what I was gonna do to her and he would get mad and we would do the scene.

"But he and I always had a good laugh about it, you know."

Bad Santa marks another memorable addition to Thornton's acting CV, and one which justifiably has earned him more plaudits.

Yet, another recent role, that of Davy Crockett in the big-budget remake of The Alamo, didn't prove as popular with viewers earlier this year, making it one of the costliest flops at the Box Office in recent years.

For Thornton, The Alamo represents a mixture of emotions.

"I thought it was a great movie and those guys worked really hard on that and they told a historically accurate version of it.

"The tricky thing is, it's an event in history that's not largely known about outside of the United States, maybe even outside Texas.

"To them, it's like a huge deal, so you want to satisfy those people.

"But you also want to tell a story that people can grasp, so you have to tell it in a historically accurate way and you gotta set it up.

"Well American audiences, for the most part, want the shooting to start right away. They don't want to wait around for 13 days while guys are talking about the history of the country. They want gunfire now.

"Here's a movie where the gunfire comes half way through. Well most of it. And the big battle is three quarters of the way through. And to top it off, after the climax, you've got a whole other little movie about what happened after it.

"Well, after Davey Crockett dies, Americans don't care. I got some of the best reviews of my life for Davey Crockett, but the movie didn't do so well so you can't really celebrate it, because the team didn¹t win.

"There was some talk from Texas that Davey Crockett died like a coward, but he died in the movie the way it was described in the journals that were found. Which was he was executed.

"But he wasn't executed going down crying. He was executed telling them they could kiss his ass.

"But I think [it's failure] had to do more with studio politics. The New York Times and LA Times were writing bad articles about Disney movies before they would even come out.

"I think the failure of any Disney movie at that period in time was a result of the articles written about these things before they even knew what the movies were."

That said, Thornton is clearly an actor who likes to take risks and who refuses to beome pigeon-holed into any one genre.

His career highlights include such diverse roles as Bill Paxton's backwards brother in Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan, to a racist prison warden who is forced to confront his prejudices in Halle Berry's Oscar-winner, Monster's Ball.

As one journalist pointed out, 'there is no such thing as Billy Bob Thornton on-screen', so what does he look for in terms of characters?

"I find that training has very little to do with acting. If you think about it logically, how could you teach someone to do something creative?

"In school, I always wondered, how can you have a creative writing course. You can have a writing course, maybe, but a creative writing course?

"It's like having a teacher who says, 'today, we're going to be creative'. I never did that stuff. I went through the theatre. My early roles were in theatre in high school and when I went to LA, I did nothing but plays for four or five years and I was in acting classes and stuff like that, but it's really just something I did as a kid.

"When I was in school, I used to do impressions of my friends at school and stuff like that. I really work from the inside out.

"There are some people who start with the look and that dictates who they will be.

"You can do it either way, but I choose to do it the other way.

"When I read a script, I know what a character looks like just from reading it. It's like reading a novel, you have this image in your head of what everyone looks like. That's sort of the way I read a screenplay.

"What does throw you sometimes is that I know what I look like, but when they cast other actors, that wasn't at all who I thought they would be. So you sometimes have to adjust to that."

And how does the star feel about turning 50 and becoming a father once more?

"When you've lived my life, I felt 50 20 years ago, so I'm not that worried about it.

"I was the same when I approached 40. And, frankly, I think what's great is that most of my success has taken place in my late 30s and 40s. I have always looked at this time as the good days.

"I don't sit around and think I wish I was 27, because when I was 27 it was not good. So I look at it fondly.

"As for fatherhood, it's been a while since I've had an infant and I did wonder if I was going to remember how to be a dad.

"Also, this is a girl, which is a different feel.

"My girfriend has never had a baby, this is her first, and it was weird - a 49-year-old guy telling his girlfirend, 'honey, here's how you do this'.

"So I felt proud of myself as a dad a little bit. But I think also, I felt different about the peace you can have.

"You don't get hysterical. When my boys were born, I was always hysterical when they'd cry. I thought it was always something horrible.

"With Bella, my daughter, I have a certain calm about me. When she cries, Connie freaks out and I'm like, 'don't worry, it's just gas, she'll be over it in a minute'.

"It's amazing how kids can give you peace. It's like animal lovers.

"Some animal lovers can hold a dog and their blood pressure will go down. For me, it's the same with kids.

"I get home at night, I'm stressed out ­ in my life there's always some nightmare to deal with ­ so I get home, sit in the rocking chair, start watching the baseball game and have the baby there, and it totally puts me in a different place. So it's pretty cool."

Bad Santa opens on November 5.


 

 

 

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