Billy Bob Thornton

Bad Santa

Interviewed by Anwar Brett

“I would tell Tony I was going to hit on his wife so he would get mad and we would get the scene ”

Character actor, director, writer and singer, Billy Bob Thornton has demonstrated his versatility across a range of disciplines. He co-wrote the sleeper hit One False Move in 1992, and four years later won the Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay on Sling Blade, which he also directed. He also directed All The Pretty Horses and Daddy And Them. Thornton's acting highlights include Primary Colors, A Simple Plan, Pushing Tin, The Man Who Wasn't There, Monster's Ball and now Terry Zwigoff's Bad Santa.

Your Bad Santa is very bad. Were there some who objected to even a department store Santa being depicted in this way?

Well here's the thing, when it came out in the States it was hugely successful. It was the most critically acclaimed comedy of the year, and I felt sure the critics would like it because they tend to like dark comedies. So we weren't surprised about that. What we were surprised about was that generally a movie is targeted toward a particular demographic and this one was all over the map, so there weren't particular ages or groups of people who were offended by it. We did get a few comments from some people on the religious right and my reply to them was: "as far as I know, Santa Claus is not in the Bible. I think you guys are talking about Jesus. It ain't Santa Claus." Maybe we should make a Bad Jesus.

You have sons aged 10 and 11 - have they seen it yet?

My ten-year-old desperately wants to. He's the wild one. They were on the set with me and saw me film some of it so they questioned me about it a little bit. They knew why they weren't going to be able to see it. But when they get to about 15 or 16 and are more like adults then they can see it, but not right now.

Was it uncomfortable wearing that Santa suit.

We shot the movie in the summer in LA and it's pretty hot in a Santa suit, so it got uncomfortable sometimes. But the worst thing was actually the beard. It was real scratchy. Initially Terry wanted me to wear the beard properly every time I was on, but this guy doesn't care. I said once the kid pulls it down why not leave it down for the rest of the movie? So we did.

Your young co-star Brett Kelly delivers a memorable performance doesn't he?

You know he is a very sweet kid, not a lot different from how he is in the movie. He's a very sweet kid and also kind of innocent like that. My kids would come to the set and play with him and his eyes would light up.

Was it hard to keep a straight face on the film?

With Brett it was hard sometimes because that kid's face, he's like the Campbell's soup kid. Sometimes when he was just sort of standing there looking at me it was a little funny. And working with my old buddy John Ritter, God rest his soul, he was one of my best friends. If you're standing in a scene with someone you know that you just talked to yesterday in your house and you're trying to be these odd characters it can get a little weird.

You also have a good rapport with Tony Cox, who plays Santa's elf and your key accomplice, don't you?

I would have trouble sometimes with Tony because he's such a nice guy, he couldn't get mad. He just doesn't have a bad bone in his body. In the beginning of the movie, in the first few scenes we shot, he wasn't getting it. 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 with her. So he would get mad and we would get the scene.

How does it feel to be approaching your 50th birthday - is it a big deal?

When you've lived my life, I felt 50 20 years ago. I'm not really that worried about it. Most of my success has taken place in my late 30s and 40s. So 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 that good. So I look upon it fondly, really.

Bad Santa is released in UK cinemas on Friday 5th November 2004.