The boys are back in BAD SANTA 2, but this time they’ve got company in the form of Kathy Bates.
When we last saw everyone’s favorite Christmas bad boys in BAD SANTA, con man Willie Soke and his partner in crime Marcus Skidmore were pulling off a sure-fire Christmas con playing Santa and his helper elf with the idea being to rip-off the department stores and make themselves some quick Christmas cash. Needless to say, the job didn’t go as planned, quite possibly due to Willie’s depression and his befriending of a young misfit boy named Thurman Merman, which sent Willie into an even greater depressive alcoholic tailspin and landed Marcus in the joint.
Fast forward thirteen years. Marcus is now out of the joint, Willie is still a depressed alcoholic, and Thurman Merman is all grown up and still caring about Willie. So what does one do if you’re Willie and your former partner (who, by the way, did try and kill you) comes around with a new get-rich-quick scheme which requires your top-notch safe cracking skills? You say yes, of course. But what happens when you find out the scheme is the brainchild of your own mother whom you haven’t seen in decades (seems she let you take the rap in your youth for crimes she committed), but now you’ve got to team up with her again just to make a cool one-third of two million in cash? You still say yes. And then you have Thurman Merman showing up looking for some Santa love. The result is lewd, crude, rude, raucous, riotous, laugh-out loud, over the top hilarity filled with heart.
With “Mean Girls” director Mark Waters taking over the directorial reins from “Bad Santa’s” Terry Zwigoff, and script by Johnny Rosenthal and Shauna Cross, the remaining key to BAD SANTA 2 is the cast. Thankfully, Billy Bob Thornton, Tony Cox and Brett Kelly are all back as Willie, Marcus and Thurman, but the added spice to this sequel is Kathy Bates as Willie’s mother, Sunny Soke.
An acting legend, Kathy Bates’ whose resume reads like a Who’s Who in film. As Molly Brown she survived the sinking of the “Titanic”. In “Misery”, her Annie Wilkes was Paul Sheldon’s “biggest fan”. As Mama Boucher she finally cheered on her son, “The Waterboy”. Why Kathy Bates has even voiced a cow in “Charlotte’s Web”. And on television she has made us laugh with her antics on “The Office” and “Two and A Half Men” while piquing morbid curiosity as Agnes Winstead in “American Horror Story.” And that’s not even the tip of the iceberg. In BAD SANTA 2, as Sunny Soke, this is a Kathy Bates performance the likes of which we have never seen. Covered in tats and piercings and sporting a mohawk, wearing leather biker garb and hanging out in biker bars, just the sight of Bates in character is jaw-dropping enough to have you in stitches. But then the performance unfolds with nuance, and laughter, and heart, and BAD SANTA 2 takes on another unexpected layer.
I sat down with Kathy Bates during the recent Los Angeles press tour for BAD SANTA 2 and with lots of laughter between us thanks to her rapier sense of humor, talked not only about BAD SANTA 2, but some of her life experiences, chatting about everything from good vodka to flexible tripods, Zoom recorders, family, and of course, her passion – acting.
This part of Sunny Soke is something we haven’t seen from you – ever. And I must say it is a far cry from playing Mother Claus in “Fred Claus”.
[LAUGHING] Truly. Truly.
As you look back at the careers of so many actors and actresses, everybody seems to do a Christmas- themed movie. What is the appeal as an actor for these Christmas-themed movies?
I don’t think I did either of those movies because they were Christmas movies. And certainly, I did this movie because of Billy Bob [Thornton]. When he was talking today, you were in that conference, when he was talking about making the sequel, if Tony [Cox] and Brett [Kelly] hadn’t been in it, I don’t think I would have done it; as much as I love Billy Bob. I might have depending on the script or whatever, but let’s just say it this way – with these guys it was a no brainer. If it had been just Billy Bob, although I love working with him, I really would have had to read the script and say, “Okay, I want to do it. Let’s talk about this and really think about it.” Because as I said today, just seeing those guys, it’s just magic! It’s a magic chemistry that they share and you really do just want to hang out with them. And as an actor, as a performer, that’s gold.
The chemistry is amazing. But you fit right in. Of course, you’ve worked with Billy Bob before in “Primary Colors”.
Isn’t that brilliantly written? Elaine May. And Billy Bob! That scene! Don’t you love the scene, the bear shitting in the woods? Ohhhhh my God! That’s my favorite scene. [laughing hysterically]
Something that I noticed that is particularly appealing to me with BAD SANTA 2, is when you look beyond all the comedy and the lewdness, crudeness, raucousness and the laughter, there is so much heart here. And that heart comes with this great parental dynamic going on between Sunny and Willie, Willie and Thurman. Did that surprise you about the script, to see the heart that comes through? Willie does buy, or rather, steals, Sunny a bottle of cough medicine.
[laughing] I know. Wasn’t that sweet? I thought about that today. I don’t want to give away the ending, but the ending is so tender, but it’s in character. When he leaves his little gifts, they’re in character. I saw the heart that you just referred to when I went to the screening. I had to have a screening so I could talk to you about this and I didn’t realize when [Thurman] sings, I just got chills.
And with the Christmas pageant scene in which Thurman sings his Christmas solo, Mark [Waters] moves the camera up to the balcony and you’ve got Willie standing there in tears. Was that something that really surprised you about this film? The level of heart in it?
It was so unexpected. Never expected it. And also how seamlessly Mark guided that. Just as you said, when he put the camera there, but even with the plot moving along, it seamlessly fit in there. It wasn’t like, all of a jump to let’s get fuzzy here. It came through the rest of the flow of the film. You leave feeling hopeful. Let’s face it. Everybody’s different. I remember a couple of friends of mine. They’re gay. They had a surrogate pregnancy and they had twins. They went up to a state kind of known for their rough and tumble redneck people. They got on the plane and his partner was across with one baby and he was there with the other. And there was this guy sitting next to him who really looked like a redneck truck driver. So my friend was, “Oh God. Oh God. Here we go.” And he was nervous having the baby in his lap and everything. Finally when they got in the air, this guy turned to him and said, “Are you nervous?” And Steve said, “Yeah.” And the guy said, “You guys’ll be alright.” You just never know. Until you take the time to really look at somebody, really look in their eyes and really talk to them. . .and I think now that’s the message [of BAD SANTA 2]. I hope people just go and laugh their rear ends off at this movie, first of all. But I hope it shows people that there’s a heart in each one of us and you don’t know where it’s gonna come from.
You leave this film with that Christmasy feeling. You really do. And we haven’t seen that with any of the “Christmas” films so far this year. This gives you more of a Christmas feeling than the others have, which is very surprising.
Yeah. I think so, too. I’m so glad. I didn’t know how it would turn out. As I said earlier, this chemistry between Billy Bob and Tony; I just revered it so. I remember the first time I met with all of them. We were at Billy Bob’s house and I think I did have a glass of vodka [laughing]. He said, “Oh, you want some?” And I said, “Yes! Do we have any vodka in the house?”, because I was a little nervous. We all sat down and I said, “Guys, I just have to tell you, I’m just so honored to be here, to be having this opportunity to do this with you.” And I just wanted to make sure I didn’t upset the apple cart. I didn’t want [Sunny] to have the wrong tone. I didn’t want her to be too serious, too dark, whatever. I really applaud Mark [Waters] for managing all that.
So, I have to ask, how fun was it to be part of Santa Con?
That was wild! When I went to the set and I saw how all of them were dressed so differently! I didn’t realize that was a real thing. I said, “Are you shitting me? There really is a Santa Con?” They said, “Oh yeah! They’re all over the place.” It was hysterical.
And you got to do an action sequence!
I know! Right! Right! And with a gun! We had an armory guy there!
Something I find striking is that you’ve done your share of directing with various television projects. “Ambulance Girl” telemovie and then some episodics. When you look at scripts now, or when you are working on a project, does the little director’s hat ever come into play as you’re looking at something, as to how you might be interpreting it from a directorial standpoint?
No. And the reason I say that emphatically is that I was trained that you can only think about one thing at a time. I think in this day of people saying, “Oh, I can multitask”, I’d say, “Uh, not really.” Also, because acting really is playing pretend and the word play is always there for me. So when I’m an actor, I feel like, “Okay. That’s somebody else’s job! [laughing] I can just play. I can just think.” And also because I always want to be there as the character with the other characters. I won’t say who, but years ago I remember doing a play with someone who did have that mentality, who did think “I’m a director and that’s what I can do.” I could feel him pull out of the scenes with me and watch what I was doing instead of being in the scene with me. I never wanted to do that. It’s somebody else’s job to do that and I can just play like a kid. It’s so much fun.
Do you want to go back and do some more directing?
You know, someone asked me about that recently. The reason I stopped was because I got sick with ovarian cancer in 2003 and I had chemo and that kind of knocked the stuffing out of me for awhile. Then I had to work and make money and at that time I couldn’t make a lot of money as a director so I kept doing my craft as an actor. Now recently, I had a double mastectomy five years ago, but I’m feeling so good and so healthy, and I’ve lost weight and I feel like I have a lot of energy, and I’m considering maybe doing an episode here or there of something. But I wouldn’t certainly have the cache that Mark has and the time, because you really are tied to one project for a year or so. I’m more mercurial than that! [laughing]
Your career is storied. It is long. It is iconic at this point with the roles and the characters that you have played. What is the greatest gift that acting has given you, that keeps you going?
Hmmm [long pause]. A passion for living, that’s for sure. A reason to live, that’s for sure. When I worked with Jessica Tandy in “Fried Green Tomatoes” years ago, it was as though she was 16. But she was 84. And I was tired. I had been on a tour to Japan for “Misery” and I had lost my focus. I knocked on her trailer one day and she opened it and she took one look at my face and she said, “You want to talk to the wise woman?” [laughing] I said, “Yes! I do!” She advised me to go back to the theatre, which I didn’t do. I should have. But oddly enough, I have gone back to the theatre and now with this sitcom that I’m doing for Chuck Lorre called “Disjointed”. . . I feel like this is my play with Chuck. And I love being back at Warner Bros. and working for Peter Roth. I think I’m just gonna stay here, I hope, for a few years. We’re gonna do it for NetFlix. It’s gonna be a binger. . . We had our first big audience and we just shot it on Wednesday night. Of course being in front of the audience and being able to do a comedy was wonderful in that give and take in the feel of it. But also, I found a little seat in back because I wanted to be sure I had my lines right. And it reminded me of when I first started out in the theatre in Santa Maria, California when I was very young. 1969. I would lie down in the vomitory and I would just look up at them on stage and I would watch the thing over and over and over again. I’d be in the dark all by myself. I found that same feeling when I was sitting in this little chair and I would hear them doing the other scenes. I just though “I’m home.” And I just feel so grateful. I feel grateful to be alive. I feel grateful to be working and to be challenged and to keep doing what I love to do and giving other people pleasure. And now being right there in the middle where I can feel them laughing and getting the pleasure, I don’t know how to say thank you enough.