“I don’t comment on politics, because it doesn’t matter what you say, there will be a way for someone to spin it into something negative,” said Billy Bob Thornton, days after the election, at the tail end of an endless barrage of interviews for his comedy sequel Bad Santa 2. “And these days it means your career. You can say one wrong thing that may not even be wrong, and that’s just the way it’s perceived.”
It wasn’t always so for Thornton, the writer-turned-actor-turned-director, Oscar-nominee, and musician. “I used to give very open interviews,” he admitted. “These days, you can’t. I want to, because it cheats the journalist, it cheats me, and it cheats the audience. People, I think, more than ever, want to see failure, and that’s really sad to me.”
“I don’t think everybody does,” he added. “But there’s a huge faction of our country that likes to see people fail. They love to see bad things happen to people.”
This cautiously reserved Thornton is a far cry from the lewd, crude misanthrope he plays in Bad Santa 2, back onscreen as career criminal Willie Soke, the guy who in 2003’s hit Bad Santa proudly declared himself “an eating, drinking, shitting, fucking Santy Claus.” This time around he goes from sticking his head in an oven to banging Christina Hendricks in an alley while suppressing his Achilles heel soft spot for the now-grown Thurman Merman (Brett Kelly), who still idolizes him.
Older and still miserable, Willie hits bottom in the arguably darker sequel before teaming up with the diminutive ex-partner who tried to kill him (Tony Cox) and his even more degenerate estranged mother (Kathy Bates) to rip off a children’s charity at Christmas. Thornton sees it as a more family-oriented film than the original, which was directed by Terry Zwigoff and grossed $76 million when it hit theaters this week 13 years ago.
“I think for a lot of people the commerciality of Christmas is too much for them,” said Thornton. “People are putting Jesus and Santa Claus out there as figureheads selling them a bunch of stuff, and people that can’t really afford it feel guilted into buying their kids a jillion things that they can’t afford.”
“Willie is the kind of guy who says the kinds of things we’d all like to say sometimes, even in the grocery store line,” he smiled. “And it gives people a little thrill to live vicariously through Willie when he tells people to fuck off.”
A week ahead of the film’s release, before the R-rated Christmas comedy would get buried by negative reviews, he was already steeling himself against the wrath of critics who just won’t get it. “This is a sequel, so critics will say, ‘It’s a sequel’ and who knows, will shit on it because of that,” he predicted.
“Bad Santa is easy to latch onto as a profane movie,” he continued, unflustered. “If you look deeper, especially at the sequel, you’ll see that this movie is about a wounded, broken, abused child who just drinks himself to death because the one bad thing for him is that he still has a little hope. If he didn’t have any hope, it would probably be fine. But he does, and he sees it in this kid here, and he sees himself in this kid who also doesn’t have a chance.”
“Profane” is an understatement. Cox, a devout Christian who’s uttered some of the franchise’s hardest-R zingers, “will say some of the nastiest stuff in the world,” laughed Thornton, “but he won’t say ‘Jesus’ or ‘Jesus Christ.’”
“People would talk about Bad Santa being so shocking, but Bad Santa is nothing compared to this stuff on the internet—or the real world,” he said. “The internet and comedy networks on cable have some of the nastiest stuff you’ll ever run into. And people talk about each other on the internet like dogs. But those same people who do that on the internet, if a celebrity says something like that they’re vilified. And that never made sense to me.”
Thornton, 61, doesn’t seem shy so much as he is cautious these days about what he says in public—a lesson learned, perhaps, from being married to, and then divorced from, one of the most famous women on the planet. It’s lucky for him, then, that he’s not on the press trail for a movie like Our Brand Is Crisis, the political satire he was promoting this time last year playing a canny political consultant opposite Sandra Bullock.
Wary or not, Thornton admitted this election has shaken him up. As we spoke, sitting down to chat in a swanky Beverly Hills hotel, several consecutive days of anti-Trump protests across the country continued to dominate the news media. The lifelong Democrat, born in Arkansas, described the shock and surprise this presidential battle has wrought as it illuminated how alienated Americans are from one another.
“It has definitely been a circus,” he said. “I’ve never seen anything like it in my lifetime—from the beginning, when there were still like 17 Republicans running for the nomination. When I was born Eisenhower was the President, so I’ve seen a few, and I’ve played a president. And I’ve gotta tell you, it’s been really wild.”
“What’s surprising to me is that in this day and time the country’s still this divided—and almost down the middle. I’m originally from Arkansas, and then Texas, but I’ve been in California for 36 years. We are seriously divided. It’s a weird time. I feel like we could create a self-fulfilling prophecy if we get too upset right now. Violence can be created by us, too. And if people want it, we could have a really bad time out there right now.”
With a politically untested business mogul and reality TV personality moving into the White House and social media so heavily to blame for fostering information, misinformation, and distraction this election cycle, entertainment and politics have never felt so intertwined. You aren’t likely to see Thornton get in on the action as those worlds continue to collide—even if his famous friends do.
“I grew up Democratic. I’ve always voted Democratic. And I’m a liberal person. That’s just who I am naturally,” he said. “[As a parent] you wonder about your kid’s future and all that. But to tell you the truth, I don’t talk about politics publicly because I think, I’m in the entertainment business—who cares what I have to say? I think they only care in a curiosity sense. I think they want you to comment on politics, because then they can hand your ass to you.”
He did have one winking observation on the subject to share: “Hollywood always gets in on elections,” he said. “You always see stars going to rallies and fundraisers. But I think Hollywood could help more by offering acting lessons to candidates,” he said with a grin.
But there’s no doubt that celebrities who use their platforms to sound off on politics, world events, and even support deserving causes, put themselves in the bullseye in doing so—and that’s what keeps Thornton much quieter than some of his counterparts. The last time he got fed up with the media, during his band’s 2009 interview with Jian Ghomeshi, the controversial Canadian CBC Radio who would later stand trial for unrelated sexual assault charges, the awkward interview went viral when Thornton became displeased with the line of questioning and stonewalled his flustered host.
“I have close friends who have done so much for the world,” Thornton said, appreciatively. “I mean, touring the world, helping kids, setting up foundations, and yet people in the media still talk about them and put them down for it. ‘Oh, here he goes again,’ or ‘Here she goes again.’”
Of course ex-wife Angelina Jolie, an Oscar-winner, humanitarian, conservationist, and Special Envoy to the United Nations Refugee Agency, is one of the most high-profile targets for schadenfreude on the planet. “And I defend her to the death,” said Thornton, who remarried in 2014 and has a daughter with wife Connie Angland.
“She’s done so much! Yet people still slam her left and right and say, ‘Here she goes again,’ or whatever,” he said of Jolie, whose charitable works and filmmaking career have once again become overshadowed by the offscreen drama of her personal life. Instead of hating on the people trying to do good in the world, Thornton suggested, why don’t we celebrate? “I just think it’s ridiculous. If somebody’s going to try and do something with their lives, tip your hat to them.”