With good reason, Billy Bob Thornton hasn't done much cartoon voiceover work. The cantankerous Southern drawl that worked in Bad Santa doesn't easily lend itself to the sunnier characters and scenarios in family-friendly animation. But in the new film Puss In Boots, Thornton finds a cartoon he can play: Jack, a villain who's after some magic beans and is only too happy to skin a cat. Boxoffice sat down with Thornton as he defended his dastardly character, dissed '70s animation and smiled that it's nice to be in a movie that puts big billboards up all over the place.
When you're just providing the voice of a character, do you do the same work developing him as you would if he were flesh and blood?
Really, it's a question of coming up with the voice you're going to use and being consistent with it. That's really the big trick of it, because frankly, as fun as it can be, and the group that made this movie were terrific people and just so easy to work with, they had to lead me through it because I don't do this. It's not the same, it's just not. I mean, if you're playing a WWII soldier in battle and you're going to your commander to get your ass chewed out or whatever, and you're on the set and in the uniform, that's different. You have the environment—and with this, there is no environment. The environment is a room with a carpet and a microphone and some people behind a booth.
So how did you get into character?
You have to visualize your surroundings, and what's funny about it is you really don't know what those surroundings are yet. You're shown some drawings of what your character is going to look like, and in my case, it's a big fat dude. So I just thought my voice should be deeper and a little raspy or something like that, and once you get the voice, I just listened to Chris Miller. I did what he told me, whereas Salma and Antonio, they have bigger parts—I've got a small part in the movie, so it wasn't that big a deal—but for them, they talked about improvisation and stuff like that. With me, my lines were all sort of to do with what's happening there, there's no sense in improvising. So I didn't have to dig very deep. I just listened to Chris.
Jack is the villain, but he has all of these interesting little details, like he wants to start a family.
No, that's a good point. The fact that he had some of those lines about wanting to have kids and stuff like that changes you completely when you do the character, because if they were just the people with the beans and they were the bad guys and all of that stuff, I think I would have been meaner. And as it turns out, he's just kind of funny. I mean, a lot of the questions in the TV interviews were, "You guys were so despicable" and "You were evil" and stuff like that, and those questions are kind of funny, because they really don't seem that evil to me. They seem kind of just kind of bumbling. You know the bumbling bad guys of the old movies? They seem more like that to me, and I think that did color our performances slightly, because it does give you a place to go. So I didn't just scream all of the time, in other words, which maybe I would have if they'd been just straight bad guys.
What was most surprising about the end result?
I think the most surprising thing to me was the movement of the characters. Because I don't know about current-day animation—I'm sort of one of those holdouts—and I'm not a computer-generation guy. And as a matter of fact, I'm sort of on a soapbox to a degree, so I start thinking, "Am I being a hypocrite here?" And I think, "Well, no, because Walt Disney made these things way back, so the fact that they're animated movies, I certainly can't be opposed to that." I think that the early cartoons, the animation was great. And I think it's great again, but I think there in the middle when they started to be robots in a way, when they first started to do what they're doing now, it was pretty awful—in the ‘70s and ‘80s, it was not so good. So I was really shocked at the realism, the way the characters moved. Not particularly mine—I didn't move that much, and he was too big to move. But just watching how good these guys are at making the characters move, sometimes you forget you're watching a cartoon, you know what I mean? There will be an action sequence, or like the whole dancing sequence, and you start watching it as an audience member.
Do you like to watch your own movies? And it is easier when it's a cartoon?
Usually in a movie, I try to separate myself enough from it to be an audience member and really watch it as a movie and not think about me being in it. And I've been lucky enough to be in a few like that, and in this one, you can totally do that. I don't think of it being me, because it doesn't look like me. So that was a great thing to see. The only other time I've done this is in a Japanese movie called Princess Mononoke, which was a big Japanese movie, and we re-voiced it for the English-speaking world. But that was different, because we were doing a movie that had already been made, so it was like looping, it was like ADR—even though it was in Japanese, you had to be close to the mouth movements. That was a very different process for me, and not as fun because it was so hard, so technical. But I'm just so new at it, that I was actually honored to be asked, because you see these huge posters around town and these big ads for these kinds of movies, and you know, other than a few times, I'm more known as sort of an independent film guy, or something in between independent film and big movies. So to be asked to be in one of these movies was quite a thrill and an honor.