Monday, September 18, 2006

Billy Bob Thornton: School for Scoundrels (Q & A)

Last Friday, I participated in the rounds for School for Scoundrels press junket at the Four Seasons during which I sat with the film's director Todd Phillips (Old School, Starsky & Hutch and Road Trip), Jon Heder (Napoleon Dynamite and Bench Warmers), Jacinda Barrett (Ladder 49, The Human Stain and The Last Kiss) and the Oscar winning Mr. Bad Santa himself, Billy Bob Thornton. Here's what took place during Thornton's session:

Q: What's going on, man?

Billy Bob Thornton: Nothin' much.

Q: You've gotten a little tan going on there.

BT: Oh yeah, well I've been off for a little while, so...

Q: Were you on vacation?

BT: I went to San Diego, I don't go very far. I don't like to do that. [laughs]

Q: So, did you get to do any preparation for the role of Dr. P, tag along with any teachers/ professors or anything?

BT: Not really, I mean unless there's some kind of highly technical stuff, I usually don't do research. I mean, this is just people you know -- I would do research on something like when I played the head of NASA in Armageddon you've got to know what all that junk means, you can't just go say it. When I did Pushing Tin, I actually trained as an air traffic controller for a few weeks, so if you ever fly into Newark, I know how to land ya. [laughs] But other than that this is just really, to put it very simply, when you do press all I've got to do is just sit back for maybe five minutes and I know [what] all the questions are [going to be] and one of them is obviously going to be 'oh, he's such a hard-ass, he's an asshole. Does this work?' -- that sort of stuff. Instead of trying to be slick, here's the deal: why did I do this movie? I did this movie because they offered it to me. I liked the script, I like Todd Phillips, he's a good kid and I liked Napoleon Dynamite. It's fun to do comedies. Every since I did Bad Santa, they call me up when they need an asshole. [laughter]

Q: --y ou mean you've never played the asshole before? [more laughter]

BT: -- I mean, it's kind of that simple. If Bad Santa hadn't been successful, that wouldn't be the case. Because it was -- you know how the imagination in this business has gotten narrower, so the difference between this character and Bad Santa and the guy in The Bad News Bears is that those two guys really operated more from their heart, even though they were kind of crusty on the outside. [Mr. P] is operating more from his head and I would say that that's the major difference. And for me it's a good challenge, it's fun to play somebody like that. I mean in real life you don't get to boss people around like that, so, why not?

Q: You know any guys like that?

BT: I've known some teachers and coaches that were like that -- pretty close to that kind of guy.

Q: Would you ever reprise the Santa role, like in: "Willie Gets Out of Jail?"

BT: [laughs] You know, I'll tell you, if I were ever going to do a sequel to a movie, I would probably say that would be right at the top of the list. I would, absolutely, if they ever wanted to do a sequel, I would do it.

Q: Didn't they talk about it?

BT: You know what, there's always talks about a lot of stuff in the papers and on the internet -- I would say the internet is the biggest thorn in my know, I don't want to lie to you and we all know that for many years there have been things that have been said...It always starts out like that and I can remember coming in here before and someone was like "so, I hear you're don't the movie 'blah-blah-blah" and I'd never heard of it. So, that's the way that stuff starts -- there's never been any talks about doing a sequel to Bad Santa or Sling Blade or anything else. In Sling Blade, I guess, you can't really do a sequel.

Q: -- that was an incredible film, an incredible performance --

BT: -- thank you, and you can kind of see how you would want to leave it -- you don't want a sequel. Bad Santa, on the other hand, because it's a comedy who cares? It's not like you're trying to preserve some sort of dignity or anything like that --

Q: -- but it did have it's own integrity --

BT: -- it did, it absolutely did. Bad Santa actually had a pretty decent message in it but I would absolutely do a sequel to that -- I loved doing that movie. Other than that, I couldn't think of any other sequels I'd do.

Q: You think the internet is more of a Wild, Wild West than any of the tabloids are? Because you can't control the internet at all.

BT: You can't because anybody can be a critic, anybody can be a gossip monger it's not confined to being regulated [by] any sort of professionals. I mean, even if there's gossip in the papers or whatever, at least these are people that get paid to do it. Now it could just be, like, your neighbor: "he's a bastard." [laughs]

Q: Do you ever check out the stories on the internet about you?

BT: Oh gosh, no. Hell no, I don't even know how to run a computer. I don't even know how to turn it on, my girlfriend has one but I don't know anything about it. The only reason I hear about stuff is because people bring it up to me, they'll say "hey, did you see what's on the internet about Jack Johnson?" and I'm like 'no, what?' , "it turns out he hit George Clooney in the knee with a pipe" and I'm like 'I don't know.' [laughter] I went to do a TV show the other day and they said 'listen, we're running about a half hour behind, you know Whitney Houston filed for divorce, so we've got to cover it right now' and I was like "okay, I'll be over here." [laughter]

Q: You still have reporters waiting outside your house looking for your comments on certain issues?

BT: Not really. Every once in a while, you know, I'm not really that popular -- I mean I'm known more as an actor than as a celebrity. A lot of the reason is because I don't go anywhere, I don't really go to parties and I don't go to the events or anything, so...and I'm not in the celebrity marriage or relationships...I'm not really good cannon fodder.

Q: So it changed a lot when you got out of the celebrity marriage with Angelina?

BT: Absolutely, there's no question. The only time I'm really visible is when I've got a movie out, that's really about it. What's really a shame to me is that the movie's not enough. That, right now, I think the really big thing about this movie is going to be [that] I have a line in there about "the next thing you know, you guys will be adopting a Chinese baby." [laughter] Honest to God, that line was in the script, it was perfectly natural for that to be in there -- that's a big thing, adopting Chinese babies, is a big thing. This guy is saying, in the movie, [Roger, Jon Heder's character] says "oh, she and I are so tight and everything" and the joke is: yeah, I'm sure, the next thing you know, you guys are going to be doing this. It had nothing to do with anything in my life, you know what I mean? Nothing at all. It's just a line that's in a script and it's perfectly natural, it's a comedy bit that if anybody else had said it, nobody else would think anything about it. But the fact of the matter is, if somebody wants to write something negative about that, somebody out of their own ignorance, then they're bringing that on themselves. Because, first of all, Angie never adopted a Chinese baby in her life and if you want to be a racist and say "all Asians are the same," well okay but she adopted a child from Cambodia which is a different country than China. And also, an African baby -- very different from China, so it had nothing to do with that. And now I've got to deal with it. Like every stinkin' time I talk to somebody now I've got to deal with it and that was on the internet -- that started on the internet. You know, she and I are friends --

Q: -- you're still amicable?

BT: Absolutely, I mean she laughs about that [internet conjecture], she doesn't think [the adoptions are] weird but it's just so funny that people would say that. That they would want to put some negative spin on it and try to dirty our friendship which is very clean.

Q: You've always taken the high road about everything that's happened in regards to your past and that's hard to do in this business.

BT: I've had two or three relationships, in my life, that were public and I've never said a word about anybody. And I've had a couple of those relationships where I got talked about in a huge way -- I just choose to not say anything. It doesn't do anybody any good. Sometimes you suffer for it and if you don't defend yourself then somebody at K-Mart in Souix City, Iowa reads this in the grocery store -- all they have to go on it that. They don't see me defending myself, so...but you know what, I'd rather do it that way. It's just plain and simple.

Q: So, do you see yourself, since you take the high road in real life, channeling all of that anger out in the characters that you play?

BT: Probably. [laughs] Yeah, yeah, exactly. Every now and then you've got to play an asshole just to grease the machine a little bit.

Q: So, is Mr. Woodcock also an asshole?

BT: Yeah, but Woodcock's a different kind of asshole. Woodcock is probably closer to Bad Santa than Mr. P. It's very darkly funny. I would say Woodcock is not as broad a comedy as School for Scoundrels. It's dark, I mean it's a commercial comedy but it has elements of an independent film in it and Scoundrels has a broader appeal, it's a slicker commercial comedy.

Q: You do an improvising with the lines that end up in the final cut?

BT: Pretty much everything was in the script -- we did very little improvisation. Some of the other guys, maybe, because they were in a lot of scenes with each other which I wasn't, so I can't speak for them. Especially when you have guys like Horatio Sanz from Saturday Night Live who are used to that. I generally improvise a lot but I didn't in this.

Q: Did you see the original version that this was based on just before shooting?

BT: I saw it years ago, I loved Terry Thomas, I thought it was great. What I did see the other night was Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World and I thought he was great in that. I hadn't seen [the original in years]. I tend to not -- if I'm doing anything that has to do with an older version, like The Bad News Bears, I didn't watch that one before we did it either. I'd seen it, obviously, before but if you watch stuff just before you're about to do [a remake] it can influence you a little bit -- even if you don't mean for it to, it can kind of sneak in there, so I purposefully didn't watch it.

Q: You play music, right? What instrument?

BT: Well I grew up as a drummer and I still play, we're making a new record right now as a matter of fact, I was in the studio last night and it's pretty good.

Q: How would you describe your music?

BT: Because everything's so categorized now, you sort of have to say what it is. I mean when I was growing up radio stations would play a Deep Purple and a Black Sabbath song and a James Taylor song, all at the same station. But now everythings real compartmentalized, my stuff would probably fit into the Americana category like Steve Earle, people like that -- that's where the songs that we've had have been on the radio. Like, the Americana stations and as a result, not a whole lot of people know about my music simply because it's not on a lot of the stations.

Q: You plan on touring again?

BT: We will -- I really want to tour Europe again, too. I haven't been there in a long time...I had a great time...We were in Hamburg for three days, it's always nice to have days off in a cool place. Sometimes -- I think we had three days off (between shows) in Topeka, Kansas [laughter]...I mean I love Topeka, I love Kansas, that's kind of where I grew up in and near places like that and you can only hit a Wal-Mart so many times. [laughter] On my last two albums it's just been me and one other guy, me and my guitar player -- we do everything.

Q: You ever think about bringing on guests?

BT: On our second record we did but actually I haven't [thought about it]. Actually, on the new record, Randy Scruggs plays guitar and co-wrote one of the songs with me but other than that it's just me and the guitarist...I don't know what it's going to be called. I don't like to always name it after one of the songs but in the end, you kind of have to, I don't really know. There is a song on the new record called "I Got to Grow Up, " maybe I should name it that. [laughter]

Q: Did you do your own stunts in the movie?

BT: I think there's only one thing -- I think where he actually tackles me and we hit the tennis court, my stunt double, Mickey, did the actual fall on that because [Jon Heder] drilled [Dr. P] into the cement there but all of the being whacked with a racket and the ball shooting out of the machine, that was all real.

Q: What's with the Astronaut Farmer? That's with Virginia Madsen, right?

BT: She's terrific. The Astronaut Farmer is like a Jimmy Stewart movie, really. [As an actor] there are a few things you want to do in your career, one of those things is you want to play one of those guys in the '40s, like Bogart or, in my case, Montgomery Clift -- I've always wanted to play those parts. I got to do that with The Man Who Wasn't There by the Coen brothers. I got to play Davey Crockett and I was in Tombstone, so you always want to do a western. And I think that this was one of those things that's on most actor's lists -- I want to do that Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, It's a Wonderful Life, they want to do that movie at some point in their career and, for me, this is the one.

Q: It's a feel good movie?

BT: Yeah, it is. This is my first more commercial movie, more accessible movie and when you get to know these guys, they really have a lot of heart and this movie does. And I've got to say, it's going to go on the list of my top three or four movies that I've ever done. I've seen it, I mean, it'll make you laugh and cry -- the whole thing. You know what's great about it? It's like an all-American, patriotic kind of movie and yet very subversive -- in other words, it's like real patriotism, not toward our current government which actually are opposed to that kind of message. It's about dreamers and how this society has started to kill dreamers. It's really, really good.

Q:You're going through a pretty good phase in your career. There's ups and down but how do you feel?

BT: I feel that I hit a stride when -- One False Move is the film that got me kicked off within the business, when [the press] and people in the business knew it. And Sling Blade is the one that got me out there to the public and then I did Armageddon and Primary Colors and I still wasn't really the guy carrying the movies. I think I hit a stride with A Simple Plan and I think from then on it's been pretty steady. I wouldn't say -- I mean, I'll probably stay about where I am for my whole career because I'm not the matinee idol type who's going to have this huge thing, where I have movies that gross 500 million dollars and stuff like that but when you look at it this way, I made Bad Santa for like 17 or 18 million dollars and it makes 70 -- percentage-wise, that's what my movies have been doing. If you looked at it that way, I don't have the huge-grossing movies but the ones that I have that are successful will always be successful within the world that I'm in now which I'm happy with. I mean, I don't really require that much. As long as I keep a good fan base and you guys like the movies okay and I do a good job in them, that's really as far as I want to go. So, I think I'm on a pretty steady path, it doesn't necessarily climb that high but it stays where it is which I think is a very good place, you know.

Q: Would you ever write a comedy?

BT: Yeah, I'd like to. I really would like to write a comedy at some time.

Q: Like a School for Scoundrels or what?

BT: I think it'd be a little more darker. I think it would be more along the lines of somewhere between the Coen brothers and Jim Jarmusch. [laughter]

Q: I've got to ask you this, for the copy. What do you think the underlying message to Schools for Scoundrels is?

BT: Well, I think that the double-message here is, that yeah, it's probably better to be yourself and be honest to your life but you should never let honesty and being yourself become a weakness. I think if Dr. P has a message, it's be strong. But he puts it out the wrong way. And Heder's character, he just needed to be stronger. So, Dr. P, in that sense, was right but he wasn't necessarily trying to help as much as for his own selfish reasons.

Q: Didn't you just have a baby?

BT: Yeah, well, she'll be two next month.

Q: Did you get married?

BT: Uh, no. [The baby's] name is Bella and she's just a doll. I mean, she's a great kid.

Q: Well, congratulations.

BT: Thank you.

Q: Have you met Shiloh [Angelina's baby] yet?

BT: No, no I haven't. Well every since [Brad Pitt and Jolie] did that, they've been gone, you know. And when they got back here, I was gone, so that's the problem. We don't get to see each other very often because she's all over the world. The only time I see her is on the news, really. [laughter] But we saw each other months and months ago when she was back in L.A. for a little bit but it was before the adoption and everything...

Just like the time I sat with Angelina Jolie, the media myth belied the energy of the actual person. To me, dude seemed to be at ease with everything and the lore of the crusty wild man, writer/ actor guy was laid to rest...oh yeah, the movie's funny too, yo...

School for Scoundrels opens nationally September 29th.


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