Kathy Bates on Playing Bad Santa’s Mom: ‘I’m Going to Horrify Some People’

The Oscar-winning actress talks playing the monstrous mother in Bad Santa 2, American Horror Story and more...

Kathy Bates is curled up on a couch in a hotel room in Los Angeles, where she is doing interviews for Bad Santa 2, and radiates genuine friendliness and warmth as soon as someone sits down opposite her. Yet this is the same actress who has played such terrifying, tormented or intimidating figures as Annie Wilkes in Misery (for which she won an Oscar for Best Actress), Dolores Claiborne in the film of the same name, Helen Kushnick in the TV movie The Late Shift and the frightening Madame LaLaurie on American Horror Story‘s third season (for which she won an Emmy).

In Bad Santa 2, she plays Sunny, the estranged biker mother of Billy Bob Thornton’s eternally down on his luck Willie. While her offspring may still have a hint of humanity buried inside him that occasionally peeks out, there is no such glimmer inside Sunny. She is Willie on steroids, a raunchy force of nature with no shred of decency, and her existence helps us understand a little better just how Willie went bad.

We spoke with Bates about bringing Sunny to life, working with the Bad Santa team, and her ongoing run in American Horror Story, for which she just finished her fourth season.

Kathy Bates: What is your magazine or…?

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Den of Geek: It’s a website called Den of Geek.

I read you guys.

Do you really?

Yeah, I do. Tell them to say nice things about me.

From this point on, always.

I’m always interested to read what you guys say.

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That’s great to hear. I understand you were a fan of the first movie.

You bet.

What did you like about it, and then when they called you about this movie, were you just like “I’m in”?

It was Billy Bob and Tony for the first. I just want to hang out with those two guys. Then it was also when I go back and I think about the moments in the movie that I really love, it was when Bernie Mac is with the kid who’s trying to steal a video game, or whatever he’s doing, and the way he deals with it. There’s a moment where John Ritter is in the office with Bernie Mac, and Bernie’s saying something about fat women and Billy Bob having sex with a fat woman, and there’s this expression that John Ritter makes…he just doesn’t want to look at it.

When I’m watching TV or something, and we’re going through the guide, when I see that’s it’s on, even if it’s in the middle, I’ll turn it on and I’ll go, “Oh wait a minute, I’ll just wait until this next part and then I’ll go do something else.” I just love this movie so much. Oddly enough, I had seen it twice earlier this year, last year, before they even asked me to do it. I said, “Absolutely.” Then I read the script, and there were a couple of things that I was like, “Mm, I don’t know if I want to sit on a toilet really. Do we really have to do that?”

That’s why I wanted to do it, it was because of the spirit of the first film, the fun of the first film. It’s unexpected. As many times as I’ve seen it, it’s just an unexpected pleasure.

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I’m looking through your filmography, and you haven’t really done this kind of raunchy type of comedy.

Nope, never, ever, ever. I think I’m going to horrify some people. I can feel my mother turning over in her grave going, “Oh, didn’t we raise you to be better than this?”

But as an actor, part of it is you want to do as many different things as you can.

Oh, sure! Especially being a character actor. You know you just want to let it all hang out and play those kind of…I mean when do you get a chance, especially a woman my age, to play a biker chick? I loved getting in all that gear.

Now you and Billy Bob were in Primary Colors together, but didn’t have a lot of screen time together. Did you run into each other over the years?

Well, there was one moment where the Oprah Show was doing a thing where they wanted actors to interview each other. They asked him, and he said he wanted to interview me, so he came to my house, and we did an interview. It was kind of weird, you’re going to the front door, and I would say, “Hi! Welcome Billy Bob!” I’ve always admired him. We did grow up across the river from each other. I remember seeing him somewhere, I don’t know if it was an awards thing or something. He was talking to me, and he looked around and he said, “This is weird,” and I said, “Yeah, it’s weird.” Because we came to it in our middle lives. It’s not that we were part of Hollywood while we were growing up.

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Tony (Cox, who plays Willie’s partner in crime Marcus) is from the South too. Is there something about being from the South together that creates a little more chemistry?

Yeah, and being Southerners, no one’s a stranger. I think there’s an openness and familiarity, it’s sort of a short hand. I think we’re great storytellers … Don’t all of us feel more comfortable when we’re around people where we were from?

What do you think bringing Sunny into the picture added to the Bad Santa mythos?

It’s unexpected. I certainly don’t think you expect to see…well except for all the publicity we’re doing now, you wouldn’t think of him having a mother. This is probably more horrifying than you could ever imagine that his mother would be like this. I hope it fits in and doesn’t upset the apple cart with the chemistry with everything that’s going on. I also think it shows a different side of Willie at moments, you know when he goes and buys her the cough syrup. There are a lot of unspoken things that Willie does in the film that shows his love for people, including Thurman.

Billy Bob told me that in some early concepts for the movie, it was going to be Willie’s father, but there’s something different about a mom and her boy, isn’t there?

There’s something about the father/daughter relationship that is very poignant and profound, and I think in the same way the mother/son relationship is too. I think there’s part of Sunny that’s actually proud of Willie, even though he’s crazy, and derelict, and an alcoholic, and all of these things. In a perverse way, I mean I just think she’s…maybe not even perverse, I shouldn’t say that. It’s like when you have a friend who’s crazy like that, but they’re so authentically crazy like that, you wouldn’t have it any other way. I think that’s how she is with her son, getting back together with him because she hasn’t seen him in years. He’s a great safecracker.

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She is using him. I think she’s toward the end of her life. There was actually a big scene, which I’m glad they took out, where it got too heavy. That was what I was always worried about, coming aboard, because I have a bit of gravitas as we say. That would have tipped the movie, and Mark (Waters, director) did a great job with that.

Did you have a lot of input into her look?

Oh, I’m going to claim credit for it (laughs). I think I did, because I remember saying, “I want her to have a mohawk, and …” Mark wanted it to be pretty severe, and we talked about the tats. When Mario (Davignon, costume designer) came down he had some ideas, and I think Mark and I must have talked about it with him. I’m taking credit for it though.

I imagine for a long time a lot of people would come up to you on the street and want to talk to you about Annie Wilkes and Misery. Do you find that there’s a new generation of people who want to talk with you about American Horror Story?

Oh, absolutely. I’m doing this new show called Disjointed. The kids that are in the ensemble with me are 20 years old. It’s wonderful for an older actor like myself to be able to — I use this word I hate, demographic, to have a younger audience, and to make them laugh.

Did you do a lot of research into the character of Thomasin this past season?

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Yes, I did. There’s a book, and I can’t remember the name of the woman, called Seasons of Misery. It’s an excellent book in which she takes the writings from the time, and she interprets them differently than other historians. For example, I won’t take up too much time doing this, previous historians had called this contact between Western Europeans and Native Americans a “contact zone”. She renamed it a “chaos zone”. She goes through not only Roanoke, but also up in Massachusetts, I think, and down in Barbados. She talks about the horrors, really, that these people experienced on both sides. It was very, very helpful to me.

It was very helpful for me to realize that they got there, a lot of people were like, “Come live here! It’s going to be great!” because London was crowded at the time. They wanted to get rid of a lot of undesirables. They were people who didn’t know how to raise crops. They were really really thrown ashore. They were there because they wanted to get the gold from the Spanish who were raiding up and down. It was the worst place for them to land because of the shoals around North Carolina.

Do you see sort of a connection in terms of the psychology of playing someone like her as opposed to someone like Madame LaLaurie?

Yes, actually Madame LaLaurie was interesting to me. I didn’t realize this until after I’d gotten the role, and I started to research her. My great-great grandfather came from Dublin. He was a doctor. He landed in New Orleans in the 1830s, and he became the personal physician to Andrew Jackson. Their plantations were right next to each other. When I read that in the book, I was like, “Holy crap!” I wonder if he knew LaLaurie, because he was there. I think everything was revealed in a fire in 1834 at their house. They found the slaves up in the slave quarters that were chained up, and tortured, and everything. They were hiding this from everyone. I thought, “Oh wow, I wonder if my grandfather knew her.”

Has Ryan Murphy (American Horror Story creator and showrunner) said anything to you about season seven yet?

Oh no, but I’ve had so much fun working with him. I did a little cameo on Feud (Murphy’s upcoming show about the ongoing battle between screen legends Bette Davis and Joan Crawford). I played Joan Blondell, one of the talking heads who tells the story of what’s going on. Ryan plays everything so close to the chest. I love working with him. I really do.

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Are you up for another season of AHS if he were to call?

Well, I’m working now. I’m doing this sitcom for Chuck Lorre called Disjointed, and so we just had our first audience on Wednesday night. I’m doing nineteen more episodes of that. That starts in July, for Netflix. If there’s time in between I would love to come back for American Horror Story. I love working for him.

Bad Santa 2 is out in theaters today (November 23). 

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