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Dialogue: Billy Bob Thornton on His Insecurities, Revisiting ‘Bad Santa’ and Constantly Searching for the Old Days

Looking at his eclectic filmography, not to mention the legion of interviews where he’s said and done so many unpredictable things, it’s easy to assume that Billy Bob Thornton is an eccentric, and more than that, intimidating guy. Sitting down with him at the Los Angeles press day for Puss in Boots, however, Thornton exuded charm, intelligence and gentility, even when he talked about his insecurities and personal ambitions. But then again, after playing dozens of tough guys, oddballs and unsavory types, perhaps it was fun to send up some of his screen personas and play a villain who elicited more laughs from the audience than legitimate menace. spoke to Thornton last week about his participation in Puss in Boots, where he plays Jack, half of a pair of human thieves who will stop at nothing to recover a handful of magic beans before Puss can. In addition to talking about the technical and artistic challenges involved in bringing an animated character to life, Thornton discussed the prospect of playing similar roles in different films, and honestly assessed his continued interest and enthusiasm in acting and moviemaking. How does the challenge of playing an animated character differ from other acting work? Is it more fun, or is it more difficult?

Billy Bob Thornton: It was easy because of Chris [Miller]. He really knew what he wanted, so it wasn’t so hard to do. What was challenging for me is, you wouldn’t know it because with the press and red carpets and stuff I’m a pretty friendly, open guy, but the fact of the matter is that I’m pretty shy. And just like a lot of stand-up comics, you meet them in person and they’re nothing like maybe [they are on stage], and it’s really hard for me to be on a stage there, or in a little room, and be acting in front of a few people. I’m good in big crowds – I’m very bad one-on-one and with small groups of people; I usually tend to be a wallflower more. So you feel like you look silly doing it, in other words, you know what I mean? It’s kind of like when you’re a kid and your mom, something that you did, let’s say you drew pictures or played drums or whatever – and in my case that was it – and some friends come over and she would say, “why don’t you play the drums for your Aunt So-and-so,” and you’re just mortified. That’s a little bit the way I feel doing this. Do you worry at all about making sure that each role you take on is different than others you’ve done? After having done Bad Santa which became so iconic, do you see the character in this or Bad News Bears or Mr. Woodcock as totally different, or is it okay that they may be perceived by audiences to be within a similar wheelhouse?

Billy Bob Thornton: Well, fortunately in some ways and unfortunately in some ways, those roles you mentioned, they were all kind of at once. Woodcock and Bad News Bears and Bad Santa were in the same period of time, but the good news is that I did Friday Night Lights and The Alamo and some of those [roles] right around the same time, so I was still kind of doing my thing there. But yes, you’re right – it’s a concern. I purposely have not done one of those in a while now, and after Bad Santa, of course everybody in the world wanted me to do that again, and that’s how Bad News Bears and Mr. Woodcock came about. Because as you know, Hollywood can be very narrow-minded and unimaginative sometimes; they see something work, and they want to do it again.

And I would say out of the three of those, Bad Santa has become iconic, and I would say that’s the one that I’m probably the proudest of because it has become kind of a household movie in a weird way (laughs). So we’re actually right on the verge of doing a sequel to that, and I’ve never done a sequel to any movie I’ve done, and I think that one begs for it in a way – so I’m okay with doing that. More than likely, that will be the last time I will try to do a character very close to that one, when we do that sequel. How does your next project, Jayne Mansfield’s Car, fit into this spate of roles or films? And how do you see the other films you’ve done concurrently with those?

Billy Bob Thornton: Jayne Mansfield’s Car more goes back to the Monster’s Ball, Sling Blade, A Simple Plan world more, which is where I feel the most comfortable and where I’ve had my success outside Bad Santa. And every now and again, you drop in Eagle Eye, Armageddon, movies like that; one of my favorite movies I ever did, which came out at an unfortunate time around 9/11, was Bandits that I did with Bruce Willis and Cate Blanchett. It was more of a traditional sort of romantic comedy, but with the crime element and everything. I really loved doing that movie, and I hope to get to do another one of those someday, because that character was probably closer to me than Woodcock and stuff like that – a guy who has a bunch of phobias and stuff like that and is nervous, kind of (laughs). Back when you were doing press for Eagle Eye, you talked very seriously about your music and that being your priority. Given that you’re writing, directing and starring in Jayne Mansfield’s Car, have you rekindled your interest in film work, or is it the same as always?

Billy Bob Thornton: Well, it’s so funny because I look at it all as kind of one thing. Like there used to be guys – today it’s frowned upon to do music, and I think I said when we talked about it at the time, when you’re an actor making a record, then everybody gets on your ass about it. But there was a time when that didn’t exist; that was actually a good thing. Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin and Robert Mitchum, there was a time when artists were artists, and it didn’t matter what you did. I mean, even Elvis Presley, I know his movies weren’t what you would call critically acclaimed or anything, but at the time they were a part of our pop culture.

I love to watch Viva Las Vegas or whatever, and Elvis did a couple of legitimate movies – King Creole, for one. But I look at it all as one thing. I would say this: I purposely decided to for a couple of years just to focus on music, and a lot of it was designed to maybe get the critics off my ass about it a little bit. It’s like, look – these are good records. There are bands that are bad or good who don’t have anything to do with movies. There are actors who are good or bad and don’t have anything to do with music. It doesn’t really matter. Is there a corollary in that for your film work?

Billy Bob Thornton: I would say that movies in that world that I mentioned – Monster’s Ball, The Man Who Wasn’t There, A Simple Plan, Sling Blade – that along with making records that are not intended to sell ten million records, they’re more meant to be like the records that I love myself, you know, the Allman Brothers or The Band or Steve Earle. I’m not trying to make a pop record that makes me a lot of money, but just do the music I love. That’s it. So my love of acting is as strong as ever. I think when things are going badly in the world of those things – in other words, when the stuff out there is making you ill, you may want to go in a different direction for a while just to get away from it. And that’s why I made Jayne Mansfield; movies now are all about models with swords, you know, so I’m never going to be in one of those, so I’ve got to be in my own movie. And then music, it gets to a point where it’s like, wow – it’s all just sort of these fashion statements – so then maybe I want to get away from that for a while. So it’s just constantly searching for the old days for me, I think.

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