Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates do some mother/son bonding over shots in 'Bad Santa 2.' (Credit: Jan Thijs - Broad Green Pictures / Miramax)
Director Mark Waters brought the mean in Mean Girls. Kathy Bates has been bringing the mean in American Horror Story. Billy Bob Thornton brought the mean in Bad Santa. The three meanies have now teamed up for Bad Santa 2. Thornton reprises his role as the greedy, whiskey-soaked anti-hero, Willie Soke. Bates joined the second go round as Soke’s horror story of a mother, Sunny.
“The first movie has become iconic,” says Billy Bob Thornton, a Golden Globe nominee for his portrayal of Willie Soke. “You have a feeling when you’re doing it that there are certain moments that are classic— when you have something like that, you have a tall order when you’re going to do a sequel because it has infiltrated the culture in some way.”
Director Mark Waters referenced the “bizarre chemistry” of the first movie, which drew his interest in directing a follow-up film. “I loved the movie when I saw it, and tried to turn my friends on to seeing it,” he recalls. “It got laughs where you gasp first, and then laugh, but somehow it works as comedy.”
Waters says, “the fact that Billy Bob was doing this sequel made it intriguing for me. I’m a huge admirer of that guy’s talent.
“The thing that was most attractive about it,” Waters continues, “was that we could make this really raunchy Christmas movie while sneakily making an actual Christmas movie.”
Billy Bob Thornton was adamant that there had to be both a demand and the right elements in place to make the follow-up film work. “Some movies shouldn’t have a sequel and some should,” says Thornton. “This was a movie that people loved and there are a lot who are fanatics about it, so we thought it deserved a sequel.”
One of Bad Santa’s biggest fans was Kathy Bates. “Bad Santa is one of my favorites. I just loved it, and oddly enough, had seen it again last summer before I had been invited to do the part, so it was even more exciting when I got the news. It was ‘Hot damn, yep, I’m in there.’ Any of my friends that I told I was going to do it said, ‘Oh my god, it’s perfect.’”
“I immediately thought of Kathy Bates for the part of Sunny,” says Waters. “As far as casting goes, she’s a fastball down the middle for this role. She’s a formidable talent…a really intelligent person who’s able to be really crass. She, Billy and Tony Cox, who plays Marcus, are all from the South and they shared a sensibility that really worked.”
“I hope people enjoy it,” says Bates. “Adding a woman into the mix was a great idea—not just because I get to play the part, but it’s a different kind of energy to put that female energy in there with those guys.”
“She’s a lovely woman, I love Kathy,” says Thornton. “We did a movie in ‘96 together [probably referring to 1998’s Primary Colors] and she’s a consummate actor. She fits the part perfectly.”
Working with Waters, Bates and Thornton hashed out their characters’ relationship. “They’re very much alike,” says Bates. “We talked about having them do things the same way or at the same time, but Billy Bob and I both felt that we didn’t want to do anything too obvious. We wanted to pick things that were less obvious, but they’re definitely from the same tree. He picked up all those words from her and from his dad, I’m sure.”
Recalls Waters, “There was a moment where we considered having Willie and his dad in this story, but it makes much more sense this way. With a mom, there’s always that yearning for emotional connection. Willie is as cynical as they come, but Sunny manages to sneak in and make him care again…which I don’t think would play the same way with a dad.”
Bates was impressed by Thornton’s honesty in playing Willie. “Working with him, I was telling someone else today, is like working with a child, because he’s so truthful and it’s scary when you work with an actor who’s very truthful. I’ve worked with Jessica Lange and Sarah Paulson on American Horror Story and they’re that truthful.”
Bates and Thornton worked on their characters’ backstory together. “I had the idea that they were carny people,” recalls Bates – something she’s familiar with from, you guessed it, American Horror Story. “Billy Bob said the same thing to me when we got together, so it fit that they were pretty rough people, they were on the road a lot and she had the same kind of scam going, only Willie was the elf and she was Mrs. Santa Claus. They got caught and she let him go to a reform school rather than her going to jail, which tells you right away who she is and how she felt about being with a kid.”
“She’s pretty rough, although this is a comedy,” says Bates. “Billy Bob and I, as we‘ve gone along in the shooting, we’ve really investigated the mother-son relationship: the good side, the bad side, the memories good and bad, all of those things. This film is a lot more complex than the first one was—to have a relationship that inserts itself in between Marcus and Willie, then there’s this kid, Thurman, who is now 10-plus years older and not part of Sunny’s plan at all…”
The movie’s climax and major chase scene takes place during SantaCon, an annual event that involves people dressing like Santa and going on a massive, drunken bar crawl. What started as a small event has grown, and now fills city streets with hundreds of blind-drunk Santas once a year. In short, it doesn’t really get any more Bad Santa than SantaCon.
“There were 175, maybe 200 Santas, the first night,” recalls Kathy Bates. “Then I heard there were 300 or 400 the second night. The set was absolutely wonderful and it was fun for me to do an action scene. I had a wonderful stand-in, Marie-Laurence Paquin, who was doing my stunts for me and it was a lot of fun. The last night was hard. Billy Bob had to be on the ice lying down, it was one of those scenes where you can’t move your mouth because it just feels so cold.”
“You’re going to have some signposts along the way that remind you of the first movie and you’re going to have some new stuff,” says Thornton, “but if you don’t elevate it, then you’re not doing your job. What we’re trying to do here is elevate it emotionally and comedically. If people go with that idea in mind, then they’re okay.”
“There’s a part of Willie Soke in everyone,” says Waters. “We appreciate someone who has no filter and watching him be his true self. He has zero pretensions, so audiences love him.”
Thornton believes that it’s the mix of the salty with the sweet that makes Bad Santa 2 work so well. “These days it seems that movies have to be one thing or the other,” says Thornton. “If you have a drama it has to be earnest and if you have a comedy it has to be completely wacky. The great movies that we loved growing up were always a culmination of all those things. “This is a profane comedy at times and it’s a lighthearted comedy at times. It’s got a plot, but not too heavy a plot, and it’s got a beating heart and some actual emotion.”
Bad Santa 2 opens in theaters November 23rd.