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THE SKINNY ON BILLY BOB THORNTON BEHIND ALL THE TABLOID HEADLINES, THERE'S A DEDICATED ACTOR DOING WHAT IT TAKES FOR THE ROLE.

Byline: Bob Strauss Film Writer

Billy Bob Thornton is at it again.

That is, registering more interesting movie performances in one season (in ``Intolerable Cruelty,'' ``Love Actually'' and ``Bad Santa'') than some actors manage in a decade's worth of work (he made a similar triple play around this time two years ago, when ``Bandits,'' ``The Man Who Wasn't There'' and ``Monster's Ball'' all came out within months of each other).

Also again, the lanky Arkansan finds himself amid swirling controversies. Only this time, the issues revolve around his current and future films rather than his eventful romantic life, his much-discussed eccentricities or his unusual phobias.

``People stir up controversy most of the time,'' Thornton, 48, reckons. ``But if you just put a movie out there and let people see it and don't hint to them that there may be controversy, there usually is not any.''

Perhaps Thornton should be grateful for the ruckus that some conservative pundits tried to raise in the days leading up to the Thanksgiving release of ``Bad Santa.'' One of the blackest Christmas satires ever made, the R-rated comedy stars Thornton as Willie T. Stokes, a foul-mouthed, alcoholic, sex-crazed and child-hating department store St. Nick whose only real skill in life is his expertise at safe-cracking.

Conceived by the congenitally subversive Coen brothers (who made ``Intolerable'' and ``Man Who Wasn't There'') and directed by unrepentant curmudgeon Terry Zwigoff (``Ghost World,'' ``Crumb''), the modestly budgeted and marketed ``Santa'' received widespread critical acclaim and grossed an impressive $16.8 million over the five-day family holiday span, good for a surprising fifth-place box-office race ranking and besting such geometrically more expensive productions as ``The Missing'' and ``Timeline.''

``I'm sure there are going to be plenty of, like, 83-year-old women who are president of the quilting club at the Presbyterian church who are not going to think this is their favorite movie of all time,'' Thornton drolly concedes. ``But pretty much everybody from teenagers through 75-year-olds who like funny stuff are, I think, gonna like it.''

This Nick's no saint

What makes this essentially one-joke Scroogefest so likable is its carefully consistent sourpuss tone, coupled with a pitch-perfect delivery of wanton, wasted Willie by Thornton at his orneriest.

``The trick with this movie was to stay in that same tone the whole way through,'' says Thornton, himself a sometime film director (``Sling Blade,'' which also earned him a screenplay Academy Award, and ``All the Pretty Horses''). ``If we had ever become over-sentimental or my character had changed too much, then it wouldn't have worked as well, so that was really the thing that we had to keep aware of. The other thing is, I never wanted to get caught up in commercial comedy timing. I wanted to keep it real, so I did it the way I would do any other part.''

Thornton's semi-improvisational approach certainly impressed co-star Lauren Graham, who plays a barmaid, Sue, with a probably unhealthy but extremely gratifying fetish for guys who wear Santa suits.

``It really is an accomplishment for Billy,'' the star of TV's ``Gilmore Girls'' gushes. ``You see him growing just a little bit, so you can wait for the payoff longer. And that, to not tip your hand as an actor, takes incredible restraint.''

For his part, Thornton was most impressed with the restraint displayed by many of the child actors and extras (and their parents) whose characters Willie consistently cusses out, berates and otherwise demolishes the benevolent Kris Kringle image for.

``Nobody ever got upset,'' he reports. ``The parents were actually real cool about it, and the kids were, too. It was surprisingly easy around the kids. And the little boy, Brett Kelly, who was with me all the time - gosh, he was fine with it. I mean, in the beginning, I would apologize to him every now and then, but after a while I stopped because he would just say, 'OK, it's fine by me.' I guess he was smart enough to know that he signed on for the job, and you've gotta commit to it.''

President Billy Bob

This is a motto Thornton the actor tries to live by. It comes up again in discussions of the oversweetened British romantic romp ``Love Actually,'' to which he contributes some much-needed vinegar as a U.S. president who exhibits the worst behavioral aspects of Bill Clinton and George W. Bush during a state visit to the new prime minister played by Hugh Grant.

``When you take a job as an actor, you've gotta go in and do your job,'' Thornton points out. ``Somebody's gotta play the killer, somebody's gotta play the bad guy, somebody's gotta play the good guy. Once I sign on to do these things, I look at 'em as interesting parts. I don't go, 'No, I can't play that part because I don't believe that,' or whatever. It's a job that I do, and I like exploring people that aren't me sometimes.''

Asked if his less-than-flattering references to the current commander in chief have led to any complaints on this side of the Atlantic, Thornton said no.

``For the most part, people tell me that when I come on the screen it's cool, they love it,'' he explains. ``I don't think they take it that seriously. I told Richard Curtis, the director, that I'm just gonna take a couple U.S. presidents and put 'em together. I just went in there and acted presidential, maybe the way I would be if I were a president, in terms of personality anyway. But, politically, I didn't think about it much, 'cause I try not to think about politics that much.''

Texas-size controversy

There have been numerous, loud complaints, however, about ``The Alamo,'' Disney's lavish screen revisit to the famous battle between Texas separatists and the Mexican army. Recently reslotted from a year-end release to next April, the film has drawn sight-unseen fire for dramatizing the revisionist notion that Davy Crockett, whom Thornton plays, was captured alive at the supposed fight-to-the-last-man, then executed on Gen. Santa Anna's orders.

``The thing about it is, the controversy over how Crockett is portrayed is a controversy in history, not really because of this movie,'' Thornton notes, hoping to set the record straight. ``The fact of the matter is that diaries were found that said how Crockett was killed: He was executed. There's no scene of me begging for my life. There's also no scene of me fighting off 200 Mexicans with one rifle. That's not true in history, and it's not true in the movie. The diaries that were found said that Crockett died with dignity and was well-behaved; those are the exact words of the Mexican lieutenant who wrote them.

``As I said before, people like to stir up some kind of controversy,'' he adds, segueing into the other tempest surrounding ``The Alamo.'' ``Like you can't put a movie out later than you were going to without people saying, 'Oh, something must be wrong.' We didn't finish shooting 'The Alamo' until the end of June. They were saying they were gonna put it out Christmas Day back then, and I remember telling a couple of the producers, 'That's pretty ambitious to put a movie that big out that soon.' I think that they wanted to get it out in time for the awards season. But in the end, I think that they decided that awards weren't as important as letting the director take his time and cut the movie properly. So that's what that's all about.''

The marrying kind

Obviously, Thornton takes complaints about his movies very seriously. Still, that must be preferable to constant commentary about him personally. Of course, Thornton does have the kind of colorful life - married and divorced five times, numerous tattoos, extreme weight fluctuations at times, mother's a psychic, etc. - that can draw more attention than even the best creative work.

His most recent marriage, to his equal in unconventionalism Angelina Jolie, brought more scrutiny than even he was used to. Tabloids and Barbara Walters exalted in reports the lovers wore vials of one another's blood around their necks and kept an electric chair in their home.

Since their breakup last year, both parties have exhibited behavior even more unusual: respect for their former spouse.

``We just became these very, very different individuals - which I think happens to a lot of people, or they don't grow,'' Jolie told U last summer. ``I'm grateful that we did. If you're in any relationship, you have to keep growing. Sometimes, you try to reach out and grow together and share with each other, and that's wonderful when that happens. And if it doesn't, you have to keep growing.''

``It was nothing spectacular, I'm sure, like people wish,'' Thornton says, concurring with his actress ex. ``It's what happens to everybody when people grow apart. And just because you're famous people doesn't mean you have some spectacular breakup. I mean, if she and I were plumbers over in Encino, nobody would care.

``I hope she's happy, and I always will hope she's happy and will always consider her a friend,'' he adds.

As for the Cambodian orphan, Maddox, whom Jolie adopted while they were still a couple, Thornton says, ``Well, I'll always be there. That's the way it is. He's a very sweet kid, really is. He's a pretty amazing kid. And then I've got my boys who are 9 and 10. They're taking guitar lessons right now.''

But they're not being taken to ``Bad Santa'' anytime soon.

``I took my kids to see 'Elf,' and they loved it,'' says Thornton, adding that he felt the much-gentler Will Ferrell holiday hit was pretty cute himself. ``I'm not taking them to see 'Bad Santa,' not yet. They should wait a little while on that one.''

In fact, Thornton says, the wild and weird characters he can get into on screen - not to mention the oddball Ozark artiste he's presumed to be in real life - could not be further from the actual Billy Bob.

At this time of year, anyway.

``It's not that I haven't been around guys like that, there's no doubt about it,'' he says of the likes of Willie T. Stokes. ``But it's actually the opposite of the way I am about Christmas. I'm a very sentimental person about Christmas and Thanksgiving and everything.

``I'm very close with my kids, and we have a pretty traditional Christmas around here. So I'm totally the opposite in terms of the bah-humbug quotient.''

Bob Strauss, (818) 713-3670

bob.strauss(at)dailynews.com

CAPTION(S):

2 photos

Photo:

(1 -- cover -- color) Who's bad?

Billy Bob Thornton isn't as nasty as his Santa

(2) Above: Billy Bob Thornton, left, and Tony Cox in ``Bad Santa''
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Dec 5, 2003
Words:1788
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