Billy Bob Thornton
Gets on Base with Bad News Bears
By Brad Balfour
Lately actor/director Billy Bob Thorton has been grabbing the spotlight for films that aren’t obviously styled as the mature dramatic hits he starred in before—films such as the hard-hitting and provocative (and award-winning) Monster’s Ball and Sling Blade (for which he won a screenwriting Oscar). Yet, having played the curmudgeonly crook in Bad Santa, the tough coach in Friday Night Lights, and now, a revision of the classic Bad News Bears, the Arkansas born actor has made working with kids another benchmark in his career. And that’s something better than being known as the former Mr. Angelina Jolie.
When the original Bad News Bears came out in 1976, it was quite subversive as a statement on the nasty side of kids, sports and competition. is it possible for this film to have that same subversive quality now?
When we were growing up, we weren’t exposed to as much as kids are now. Kids pretty much know everything now. I don’t think you can show much that is going to shock them—other than maybe somebody being kind. I don’t really know if it would have the same impact in that sense. I think what’s good about it—and it’s really the reason we made the movie — is because the message of the movie is pretty good, and kids might need to hear that now. So, as it opposed to being a shocking and subversive thing for this time, I think it will be a pretty decent message for kids to hear, which is that all this obsession with winning and being the best and everything versus being a loser or a misfit, you don’t have to be that. If you just go up there and try and find your own group of people—that you can live in society and not have to feel so bad about yourself—I that’s a pretty decent message for [kids today]. As to why we remade the movie, I’ve never been that crazy about remakes, but this one, because of that message, and the state of affairs these days, I thought it would be a nice thing to remake. Kids tend not to watch older movies; at least we’ve told them they shouldn’t watch black and white movies for some reason. I have no idea because some of them are the best ever, but since we’ve updated it, they’ll go see this and that might make them watch the other movie. I hope that they do.
Taking over a Walter Matthau role [who played coach Morris Buttermaker in the original] can be a big responsibility. Did you feel that?
You always do. Anytime you’re playing either a real person or a part that somebody has made iconic, it makes you a little nervous. But I was a big fan of Walter Matthau’s [version] and the original movie. He was great. So I would never even pretend that I would be as good or as funny as he is, so I didn’t even try. I just kind of did my thing, and I purposely didn’t watch the old movie before we did this. I’d seen it years ago, but I didn’t watch it so I wouldn’t pick up any of his mannerisms because I didn’t want to imitate him or anything. But, it always makes you a little nervous. I mean at least Davy Crockett’s not around [who he played in The Alamo], so nobody knows what he was like.
Can you do a Walter Matthau impression?
Not really [laughs]. I’m not a good impressionist. But I can do Robert Duvall. That’s about it.
Are you the cinema’s new Grumpy Old Man?
[Laughs] Hey, just call me grumpy. I’m not 50…yet [August 4th is his birthday.]
You’re on a roll right now with the success of Friday Night Lights and Bad Santa is this like an unofficial sequel to those movies—like Bad Santa goes to little league?
Yeah, I feel like everything’s good right now. I feel real lucky, and I’ve gotten really good scripts and been working with good people, so I feel pretty fortunate right now. In terms of the Bad Santa thing, the guy curses and drinks beer so I guess there’s a similarity there — and curses at children — so I was prepared for people to draw comparisons. I guess it’s not a bad comparison to draw. If it had been a movie which made like $30, maybe they’d say, “Oh no, not all.” But from the very beginning, we kind of thought, Yeah, this might be a kind of, not really, a sequel [obviously it’s different people and everything] but a nice way to be able to play a character like that, because people for some reason seem to like that type of person.
Do you have a favorite Little League memory?
Well I loved Little League; so all the memories are pretty fond but I broke my thumb. That wasn’t a lot of fun. I think probably the first time I pitched [I started out as a first baseman] and the first game I pitched in Little League, I struck out 10 batters. I had a curve ball a little early [laughs]. You’re not really supposed to have one when you’re 12, but I did, so I first game I struck out 10 batters. That’s possibly my fondest memory.
In an alternative universe, would you have pursued a career in professional sports?
Well, I was a baseball player and that’s what I would have done definitely. When I was growing up, I had no idea I would be an actor. I really wanted to pitch for the St. Louis Cardinals, which was all I wanted to do. I played all the way through high school and through [minor] league and did pretty well. And actually had a try-out with the Kansas City Royals and had my collarbone broken in their camp. But I was a [junk] pitcher, pretty good one, so I guess I would have liked to have been a pitcher for the Cardinals or maybe a curling coach.
What sports do you follow now?
I’m a big sports fan, period. I follow pro football, college football, college basketball, but mainly I’m a baseball guy, and in terms of curling, when I was making Pushing Tin up in Canada, the only sports they had on there was curling. I watched it all the time, and I still don’t know what they’re doing. I have no idea. I don’t know any of the rules. When I was growing up in Arkansas and Texas, we didn’t have hockey or any kind of ice type thing, and my kids are in a hockey league out in Malibu, and when I go to their hockey matches, I have to watch the other parents to see when they cheer because I don’t know the rules to it. I know when our gang puts the puck in the net, that it’s a good thing. Other than that, I have no clue. But one of the things I got hooked on this year was NCAA women’s softball. I got obsessed with it. My team is the Texas Longhorns and they have this pitcher, named Cat Osterman, and she’s like 20 years old or something. She’s 6’2″ and I don’t know — I’m afraid of them. I don’t know if I’d ever want to meet any of them. I’m afraid of women softball players – but I sure like watching them on TV.
Coach Morris Buttermaker gets to be decidedly un-PC with the kids—was that a concern while shooting?
Well, after Bad Santa, I’m really not afraid of too much around kids, but this one’s pretty tame compared to a lot of things, so I never really worried about it too much, and the kids — they love it. When they get the opportunity to curse in a movie, it’s like magic to them. So every now and then they thought that because I was behaving that way in the movie, it was okay for them to do it when we weren’t working, so they would try to tell me some nasty little thing. I’d say, “No you can’t do it,” because I had to be kind of like be a father to them in a way. I wouldn’t want them to curse when we weren’t shooting.
If Little League is an extension of parents’ egos and how nobody is allowed to lose — where everyone is given a trophy — is America becoming a nation of crybabies in which the lessons of life are not being learned through sports?
I agree that it’s a little soft nowadays. We didn’t have it like that when I was growing up. You have to be balanced. You have to be good to kids when they are playing sports. I don’t believe in the crazy insulting Marine Sergeant type of thing. But I don’t think [the game] should be handed to them because that’s the point. You’re supposed to strive to be better in competition and in the best world, in the idea world, athletics is supposed to be an example or analogy for the rest of your life. Hopefully, you’re supposed to learn from it. So, I agree that the whole thing nowadays that everyone gets a trophy kind of makes people lazy.
Who is this movie is appropriate for?
Well, in terms of movies I’ve made, it’s really right for a broader audience than my stuff normally is. It’s pretty much an all-ages film. [director Richard] Linklater did a great job of not making a big goofy comedy where somebody gets hit on the head with a skillet all the time, so maybe young kids, aside from any language—it might be a little subtle for them. There is some baseball and everything, but in terms of the language, kids see South Park and Family Guy and stuff like that. They see way worse on television than what’s in this movie, although there is a scene with Marcia Gay Harden and myself in a restaurant that if you saw the original scene, they wouldn’t be able to see that. That was the first thing the studio said [something about trimming]. But there’s really not anything in there that bad for kids.
Will that scene be on DVD?
Knowing Rick, it will be. It’s just a continuation of the scene, once she talks to me about how she never really liked the dangerous type until she met me, and I ask her to help me out with something under the table. I dropped my napkin. But anyway, and this is something that’s always puzzled me, I’m not sure why it’s okay for kids to go to movies where people get their heads cut off, but they can’t hear somebody say, dammit, or whatever. So it’s a little backwards. I’d rather my kids curse than hack people to pieces with a machete, frankly.
What are Richard Linklater’s strengths as a director?
Well, I think of his strengths, one of the things that makes me the happiest, is that he really thinks more like an independent filmmaker, so even when he’s doing a big film, he still has that sensibility. As I said earlier, this the film could have turned into one of those big splashy goofy studio comedies, but he kept the tone of the original movie. So no matter what he’s making, he thinks like an independent filmmaker. Plus he’s a laid-back guy. On the set, he’s not a really intense sort of screaming director guy. He takes things as they come, which thrills me, and I looked at his other film about the music kids, the Jack Black movie, School Of Rock. I liked that one and also Dazed And Confused. He had an animated film that he showed me when we were on the set [Waking Life]. It’s really great. I was surprised by that film. I didn’t know what I was going to see, a Daffy Duck cartoon or something. I had no idea.
Have your kids seen your movies?
They were on the set of Bad Santa but I tried to keep the headphones away from them. My kids have seen Sling Blade, they’ve seen Armageddon, Bandits and Friday Night Lights. They have not seen Monster’s Ball, nor will they ever, even when they’re sixty [laughter]. I will leave it in my will that they can never see it.
As a dad are you strict or not?
I’m like the least strict dad in the world. My boys’ mom, she’s fairly strict with them. She’s a good disciplinarian. I just let ’em have whatever they want. It’s stupid. Anything they want to do — I mean within reason, you know. And then my little girl’s only nine months old, so she’s not able to do a whole lot yet, but — no, I’m the dad where… when the boys are with me, it’s like, “Oh, we’re going over to the Rock House?” Rock And Roll House, I should say. Rock House is something else, right?
Did you get in trouble as a kid?
I was pretty innocent kid until I got in high school. I was kind of like Ernie Douglas on My Three Sons. Then I got in high school and was in a band and I was playing baseball and stuff and I got more popular, and I think with popularity came trouble. And that’s never stopped [laughs].
You have a studio at home — are you working on an album?
You don’t want to know what goes on in that studio [laughter]. It’s actually pretty tame. I just finished a new record actually and we’re putting it out in September. We’re going to tour in the fall kind of between movies, and it’s more of a singer-songwriter kind of moody album. I’m really proud of it. I think it’s my best one so far, and we’re going to put it out in September, so we’ve been hard at work down there, and a part of Warren’s Zevon’s last record was actually recorded there. He actually cut the song, “Knocking On Heaven’s Door” down there in the studio, and Warren has a very wry sense of humor and when he first told me, he wanted to cut my song down there, I thought he was joking, and I learned pretty quickly he wasn’t, and it was a pretty emotional night. But Jewel has cut some demos down there and sometimes my friends show up and will do it. And we’ve got stuff recorded, just more friends and I jamming in the middle of the night, so we keep pretty busy down there. It’s also where I write. I go down there to write a lot. It’s called “Hobo.”
What music are you listening to?
I’m a record collector so I listen to everything. Right now, I’m listening to new collections of Bobby Darin and Dean Martin. With Darin, it was just such a tragedy that he died too young. He had the same heart condition as my brother who died. So I feel some kind of closeness there. I’m also listening to Dwight Yoakam’s new album and an album by John Prine, called Fair And Square. It’s fantastic. You’ve got to hear it. There’s a track on there called “Long Monday,” it’s a live song, that’s fantastic. There’s another song called “The Other Side of Town.” He’s on tour this year, go and see him. He’s beaten cancer and everything. He’s happier than everything in his shows, he’s like a little kid up there, he just lights up. That’s mostly what I’m listening to, plus, as usual, like Frank Zappa.
What movies do you have coming up and are there plans to direct again?
I’m supposed to be going off pretty soon, as soon as they make a deal on it, the next movie I’m supposed to do is called Fadeout. It’s written by Michael Christofer and directed by him also that would star myself and Milla Jovovich. It’s a movie about a schizophrenic screenwriter — so well [laughs] there you go — who’s married to an actress.
Is it autobiographical?
Not really. I’m sure it’s autobiographical about someone, but that’s a more sort of independent film which is nice for me because I’ve done two or three bigger movies and comedies. I just finished Mr. Woodcock for New Line with Susan Sarandon and Sean William Scott — a very dark comedy that is going to be a good one. I’ve done a lot of comedy lately which I’m not accustomed to and have had a great time doing it, but this one is more of a psychological drama. I’m happy to get back to my roots. After that, I’ve got five movies I’ve been offered that I want to do every one of them, but can’t, so I’m trying to figure out what top do — which is pretty rare. Normally you’re lucky to find one you want to do. But there happen to be a few scripts out there that they’ve offered me that I just love. Mostly dramas; there’s one comedy. And I’m just trying to figure out now how to arrange it where I can do them and they’re all with cool directors, so I’m pretty happy with that, and I finally found something I want to direct, and it looks like I’m going to direct it next spring which is kind of big news for me because I haven’t directed in several years And wait till you see my contract this time. It’s going to be as tall as this ceiling here.
Do you want to make more kids movies?
I would like to make a full-on kids movie like a Dean Jones movie from the 1960s. I would love to do that someday. It really just depends on the script. People say: “Hey, do you like playing coaches?” It just so happens that those scripts came along at the time and they were the best ones at the time. But I would love to do an actually kids movie, so my kids could see me in that.
Can you describe some of experiences working with kids on the movie?
The script was really great. They did a wonderful job and we really didn’t have to do much to add to it but I just couldn’t help myself. The thing about improvisation is that it can be amazing if people are good at it and the worst thing in the world if people aren’t good at it. For example, I was in a movie a few years ago — not with children but with “professional trained actors” — and I winged a whole scene and this guy went along with me. When it was over, he came up to me and said: “That was cool man, let’s do that again in the next take. What were you saying? And I said: “Well that’s kind of the point; you don’t write it down and learn it.” These kids [in Bad News Bears] don’t know that kind of thing, they’re pretty innocent. So if you say something to them, they just start yapping. Ever so often you’d get one who was like a deer stuck in headlights and you’d have to start all over again.
Speaking of kids, how do you feel about your ex-wife Angelina [Jolie] going to Africa to adopt a baby girl?
I think it’s great. I know she wanted to. She wanted to for quite a while, and I’m really happy for her about that, and I left her a message a couple of days ago about it, and gosh, she’s been so amazing in these last few years, and I’m so proud of her and just happy for her, because I know happy it makes her to have this baby, and she loves Maddox more than life, so I’m really happy for her.
Copyright ©2005 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: July 29, 2005.
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