Billy Bob Thornton And The Appeal Of The Imperfect Christmas Hero

"Bad Santa 2" is all too aware of life's comic darkness.

The last we heard from Willie Soke, he had narrowly escaped jail time after he and his partner mostly pulled off a department store robbery at the end of a Christmas con as a seasonal Santa and his elf. Willie had the promising start of a relationship and even cared for the odd curly-haired kid who wouldn’t leave him alone.

The Willie we meet in “Bad Santa 2” has put that happy ending far behind him (and, keeping in character, is seen peeing on a wholesome photo representing his long-ago bliss). If the breakaway success of his first on-screen appearance in 2003 is any indication, that’s just what audiences want to watch.

Thirteen years after the original, “Bad Santa 2” returns to taint our collective cherished holiday memories once more. Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie is every bit the rock-bottom-hitting smartass with a heart of gold (if that’s too bold, perhaps another, smaller organ of gold) you remember snort-laughing along with in a college dorm.

“We could keep the spirit of the first one because there was time in between,” Thornton explained to The Huffington Post in a recent phone conversation. “We did attempt to elevate it some, with more emotion. There’s more of a story, and it’s more of actually a Christmas movie this time.”

Kathy Bates’ wild portrayal of Willie’s mom helps usher in that extra emotion, with a hearty helping of her own bawdiness. Her ironically named character, Sunny, is just the opposite, a hardened criminal herself who only comes back into her son’s life to take advantage of his safecracking skills. Given Sunny’s life path, it’s not a huge leap to the mess Willie’s own existence has become. He’s not a jerk in a vacuum; through Sunny, we see that Willie’s many transgressions (and there are many) have an origin story. Case in point: She refers to her son as “Shitstick” throughout the film.

“He does have kind of a ray of hope that he’s not totally lost,” Thornton explained, noting his character’s strong ties with the socially awkward Thurman Merman, played by Brett Kelly. “He’s a broken, neglected abused kid himself and he sees this kid never had a chance.”

The dark turns of Willie’s life that play out in “Bad Santa 2” eventually do come to a heartwarming resolution, the kind that feels more poignant in its sheep’s clothing of dick jokes and back-alley sex. The sequel hits some of the same notes and gross-out jokes that defined the original, and it’s clear it was written with a heterosexual male gaze in mind — cue the lingering shot that plays off of Tony Cox’s short stature, which puts his eyeline at the level of a female security guard’s butt. Still, in a year that many have already written off as being one of the worst on record, there’s some comfort in watching a film that is cognizant of life’s low spots.

We caught up with Thornton to see what it was like to put on the Santa suit after all these years, the appeal of turning a beloved character on its head, and whether ol’ Thurman Merman has ever actually fixed him a sandwich.

How does it feel to come back to this character after 13 years?

Oh, it feels great. It fit just like a pair of nice, old shoes. One of the main things for me was that we did something that wasn’t just throwing a sequel out there right away to capitalize on the success of the other one. You know, a lot of years went in between, so we were able to really think about it and get the right story. It felt so good to be back with Brett [Kelly] and Tony [Cox, both stars of the original “Bad Santa”]. Without those guys, I’m nothing. 

Did you guys just kind of fall into the same comedic groove? 

Oh, yeah. Absolutely. The other people kind of jumped on a moving train. They did a wonderful job, but Tony and Brett — it was kind of like old home week, it was like we’d never left. Tony cracks me up, I just — sometimes I forgot what I was supposed to do, just wrapped up in listening to him. Sometimes in a scene, I would just watch him like I was watching a movie. I love being cussed out by him. 

How did you know this was the right moment to pursue a sequel?

We had to wait for years of red tape, so once all the studio politics were solved and everybody got on the right page about it. It took us another three or four years because of scheduling, and finding the right writer. The script went through several incarnations and different stories and setups. This one was the one that made the most sense to us and then we perfected it.

In a lot of ways [the time gap] helped us, I think, ‘cause now the kid’s 21, and you really do feel like you followed this journey because you saw the first one and then now, years later, here’s where they are, and here’s how it goes down. I think that’s more interesting than doing it the next year with the same setting, same people. In that case, usually what comedies do with the sequel is they just go broader, to be different. We didn’t have to do that. We could keep the spirit of the first one because there was time in between. We did attempt to elevate it some, with more emotion. There’s more of a story, and it’s more of actually a Christmas movie this time.

You see the character of my mother, who’s really not nice. You kind of get to see why Willie’s the way he is, where he’s from. He does have kind of a ray of hope that he’s not totally lost. He’s a broken, neglected, abused kid himself and he sees this kid [Thurman Merman] never had a chance. So you get to see a beating heart in Willie.

Had you envisioned any of Willie’s backstory in the first film?

In the first film, there is a glimmer of Willie’s emotional side when he gets the elephant for the kid and then the cops shoot him down and he doesn’t understand why Tony just cares about the loot. There’s a glimmer of it there, and we thought that there was more, that Willie wasn’t done yet. So we always had kind of wanted to do that. 

Did you have to change the humor to fit 2016?

Well, the first was kind of the first of its kind. “Bad Santa” kind of started the whole dark humor, edgy kind of really profane humor of movies. It kind of created a sub-genre of comedy. So we’d already gone further than anybody had at that point.

Now, just like action movies have to be bigger, faster, louder than each one [before], we didn’t shy away from being even a little nastier, too. We pushed the envelope in both directions: more emotion, but also more raunchiness. I think, before, there was a lot of profanity. This time, the profanity has, like, details to it. We got a little more specific and descriptive. [Laughs]

Do you think there’s something audiences really like about having a wholesome character like Santa turned on its head?

Yeah. I think people see the irony of that, but also, people have to remember, for anyone who says, “Well, you ruined the name of Santa Claus!” or whatever —it’s like, I’m not really playing Santa Claus. I’m just playing a criminal, an alcoholic safecracker who dresses like Santa to get away with it. Just like in the movies where they wear Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan masks to rob a bank — they’re not playing Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. They’re just bank robbers. The Santa suit’s just a mask.

I think people want an alternative to the very super sweet Christmas movies, and they also want an alternative to the wacky, broader comedies at Christmas. So, I think this one has its own slot in there. 

Do you think it brings in people because it represents a very dysfunctional family, and shows Willie being able to choose his own family?

He’s got a family, all right — but it’s not exactly your good old Midwestern family. I think some people get tired of the commerciality of Christmas, how companies try to shove buying stuff down your throat. Christmas is a fun and wonderful time — I actually happen to love it — but it’s also a time when businesses really capitalize on people’s emotions and sentimentality, and I think some people see through that. Some people don’t have a good time with their families at Christmas.

Has Brett Kelly ever actually made you a sandwich? 

No. There’s a good reason for it: I can’t eat bread. I’m a vegan, but I’m also really allergic to wheat, so he would’ve had to have gone out and found some spelt bread or whatever. Probably wouldn’t actually want to go through that much trouble. He ordered me a drink once, though. That’s odd. I knew him when he was 8 years old, you know? Now I’m at a bar, he’s saying, “What’re you drinking?” I’m like, “Wow, this is weird.”

This interview has been edited and condensed. “Bad Santa 2” hits theaters Wednesday.