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Billy Bob Thornton on Tina Fey, 'Bad Santa 2' and disliking 'The Searchers'

The Oscar-nominee has a stream-of-consciousness chat with us ostensibly about the war dramedy "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot."

“I’m a stream of consciousness guy,” Billy Bob Thornton tells us. We’re talking about “Whiskey Tango Foxtrot,” the new war dramedy starring Tina Fey as a correspondent in Afghanistan, featuring the Oscar-nominated actor, 60, in a small part as an ornery general. But the conversation drifts all over the place — from what he doesn’t like about dramas these days to TV to the upcoming sequel to “Bad Santa,” which he was just shooting in Montreal, to his dislike of John Ford’s classic Western “The Searchers.” Here’s the highlights:

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On Tina Fey’s funny but realistic performance in the film: “Tina didn’t telegraph her emotions. She just let it happen. She didn’t overdo it, which some people tend to do. I call it ‘The Actor Face.’ The ‘Actor Face’ is usually on the posters. It’s this slightly bewildered and horrified look. We don’t usually do those in the movies. That face is just for the poster.”

The film’s mix of comedy and drama: “There’s this trend in criticism of movies where they say, ‘This movie couldn’t figure out what it is. Is it a comedy or a drama?’ That’s a new thing. When I was coming up nobody said that. You could look back through history at the great films and there was always humor in them. Life is humor and drama. And with [“Whiskey Tango Foxtrot”], if you’re over there in these situations, some of it’s going to be absurdly funny.”

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His beef with movies today (or one of them): “These days dramas are over-earnest. Every moment is like a soap opera. And comedies don’t have heart. They just make them broad and funny to appeal to a broad audience. I love the mixture of drama and humor in movies.”

Speaking of which, what to expect from “Bad Santa 2”: “Some of the nasty stuff is even nastier, but this one has more heart — even compared to the heart of the first one, which did have a beating heart. It went to both extremes a little more. We have a couple scenes that you could put in ‘On the Waterfront.’”

How TV can be better than movies: “I did a movie several years ago when I was playing a heroin addict. They said to me, ‘We don’t want to see the needle go into the skin.’ And then they told me I couldn’t smoke. I was like, ‘Wait, I can do heroin but I can’t smoke?’ It seems there are more restrictions in feature films than on some of these premium TV networks. Because they don’t have to rely on ratings; it’s by subscription. People do whatever they want to do and it’s proven the audience likes that.”

Wanting to do more TV after doing “Fargo”: “TV is where I go to get my fix that’s replacing what I used to be able to do. I came up in the heyday of independent film. Now premium cable networks have taken over what independent film was for a lot of us. Actors are clamoring to get on TV now. I’m absolutely planning to do more. I’ve even toyed with creating a show, not necessarily for myself but as a writer-creator.”

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His dislike of John Ford’s “The Searchers”: “The story is wonderful. What I didn’t like was how uneven it was. You had some performances that were actually grounded and really good. Then there were others that were so over-the-top it was like they were in a Yosemite Sam cartoon. But I find that in John Ford movies in general: There’s always an unevenness in the acting. This is an example of where mixing drama and comedy didn’t work, because they could become goofy. You’d have a Vaudeville moment then an Elia Kazan moment. You don’t want to spread them that far apart. I’m not saying I don’t like John Ford. He could really bring a tear to your eye and make it look great, when he went to the deserts and the sunsets.”

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Disliking high praise: “Years ago a guy said to me, ‘I really loved what you did, you took so many chances.’ No. I’m an actor. I don’t take chances. Taking a chance would be seeing a mugger beating a woman up and taking her purse, and you go over there knowing you might get stabbed. That’s taking a chance. Doing a movie is not taking a chance. You might get your feelings hurt by the critics, but that’s all that’s going to happen to you.”

But liking some praise: “I can tell you, as an actor, we need our assess kissed every now and then, just so we can keep going.”

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge
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