I Was Thurman Merman in ‘Bad Santa’
Like a lot of kids, Brett Kelly grew up loving Christmas. “It was always big in our family,” he tells me. “Big family celebrations.” Of course, it’s always a delicate time in a child’s life when he realizes Santa is made up, and it sounds like Kelly was no different in terms of dealing with suddenly starting to question Kris Kringle’s existence. “I was a savvy kid,” he says, “but at the same time, I never was the kid where it was like, ‘Oh, I know Santa’s not real.’ I was half in, half out. I believed in Santa, but then when we went to the mall, I knew, ‘This isn’t Santa. This is just some dude in a beard. But the real Santa is out there somewhere.’”
Most 29-year-olds don’t spend their time talking about Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick. But most people aren’t Kelly, who’s been an actor since he was very young. He’s done plenty of films and TV shows — including his co-starring role on the Canadian drama Family Law (which began airing on the CW in October) — but he’s still perhaps best known for his work as Thurman Merman, the endearingly dopey kid who annoys the hell out of Billy Bob Thornton’s Willie in Bad Santa, which hit theaters November 26, 2003. “It’s the busy time of year,” Kelly says, acknowledging the annual influx of journalists who want to talk to him about that holiday classic. Christmas has always been important to his family, but Bad Santa has made this time of year different for him for nearly two decades now. He doesn’t just celebrate the holiday season — in a sense, he’s a part of it because of that dark comedy.
For those who have forgotten, Thurman is an overweight, seemingly dim boy who befriends Willie, a thief who gets hired as a mall Santa every yuletide in order to rob the place after hours. Thurman radiates a sweet innocence — he thinks Willie really is Santa — which creates a nice comedic tension opposite Thornton’s unrepentant surliness. Bad Santa was hardly the first film to cast a dim light on the season of giving, but its R-rated humor, full of vulgarity and sexual innuendo, made it a hit among audiences who wanted a little snotty irreverence mixed in with their Christmas cheer. You could argue the film even helped launch a whole subgenre of “people behaving badly” comedies, like Bad Teacher and Bad Moms. After all, who wanted to see characters being nice all the time?
Speaking from Vancouver, where he was raised, Kelly says that he was auditioning for roles before he was old enough to know that he was. His first major gig happened by accident. His parents had brought his younger sister to a casting call for a Huggies commercial, and Kelly went along because, as he puts it, “There was no babysitter for me. My mom has told me this story: I was filthy, I was playing in dirt in the backyard and (she said,) ‘You’re coming with us.’” He laughs. “I guess they were looking for a filthy child, and they asked if I wanted to audition, and I got it.”
Kelly has no memory of any of that. But he still vividly recalls a later commercial: It was for a Canadian pharmacy, and the ad took place, appropriately enough, during Christmas. “The whole concept was the dad did all the Christmas shopping at the lingerie store, so it’s me wearing the negligee,” he says. “That was the first time I really ever recall seeing myself on TV and thinking, ‘Oh, that’s weird — that’s not a mirror. That’s weird looking at the TV and seeing me on there.’”
Kelly is a modest guy who doesn’t take himself too seriously, admitting that, nowadays, he doesn’t really like to watch himself in stuff. “It’s just doing the work, just being on set,” he says when I ask what it is about acting that he loves. “When I was a kid, a lot of the appeal was getting to miss school and getting to travel when I started doing Bad Santa. Being in something was the most rewarding and exciting part for me.”
When the chance to audition for Bad Santa came up, Kelly was only given a few scenes. The raunchy dialogue didn’t throw him, even though he didn’t turn 10 until about a month after the film opened. “I was no stranger to swearing,” he says. “My entire extended family had very colorful vocabulary — the one thing was my parents always tried to tone down the swearing, so I never really heard my parents swear a huge amount.” His dad had no choice, though, when he ran lines with his son, playing the foulmouthed Willie. “That was very odd,” Kelly says, chuckling. “It was more just me laughing and not being able to take seriously that it was him saying all these horrible things.”
It was a long audition process, requiring Kelly to fly back and forth between Vancouver and L.A. He was too young to really think about “process” or “research” in terms of “shaping” his portrayal of the picked-on Thurman. “When kids are acting, the director picks a kid who’s closest to the character and you let them be themselves. My look when I was eight years old, I think it was the look that really fit the character, but personality-wise I was nothing like that.”
Still, Kelly had some ideas about what made this lonely, openhearted character tick. “I knew that it was a very oblivious kid. The one thing that I always remembered is that he has no real idea of what anyone’s talking about. As a kid, I was fairly savvy — I was older for my age and talking to adults. I got along talking to adults a lot more than talking to kids my own age — I was one of those kinds of kids. So I knew, ‘Oh, I can carry on a normal conversation with an adult, and this kid can’t. This kid doesn’t know how to talk to people normally.’”
Kelly has a tendency to downplay anything that might make him sound too actorly — “I don’t have notebooks of notes I was making at that age,” he says with a laugh — but when you watch Bad Santa, you do see that there’s a method to his portrayal. It’s not just that Thurman is oblivious, it’s that he seems confused about the world around him, not really picking up on how much Willie despises him. Thurman is terrorized by bullies and endlessly ridiculed by Willie, but he lets it all bounce off him. Is the kid dumb or just an unbridled optimist, constantly asking Willie if he’d like Thurman to fix him some sandwiches? Willie can’t figure it out, and neither can the audience, which makes it so funny.
There are parts of the audition process Kelly has never forgotten. Another kid he was up against for the role apparently broke down in tears during a screen test with Thornton, who started swearing at him (in character). “I was like, ‘Okay, that’s not going to happen to me, because I know this is all make-believe.’” Then there was the time he thought he had booked the job, only to get chicken pox, which Thornton had never been exposed to. Kelly was told he couldn’t be hired. “I remember sitting in L.A, me and my mom, in the hotel room,” Kelly tells me. “We were both just crying because we had that feeling from the very beginning that’s like, ‘I’m a perfect fit for this. Everyone seems to like me. It’s going well…’ That day was not a lot of fun.”
But once Kelly’s chicken pox passed, things worked out. It wasn’t as if he knew Thornton’s work, like Sling Blade or Monster’s Ball, or that of director Terry Zwigoff, who had previously made the brilliantly prickly documentary Crumb about legendary comics artist Robert Crumb. But Kelly will always be appreciative — albeit slightly amused — that these adults were so protective of him on set. “Terry and Billy, because of the subject matter of the movie, I think they both felt almost, in vain, a need to shelter me to whatever degree they could,” he says fondly. “I mean, at that point it’s like you’re already soaking wet, don’t spray them with the hose. It was always a thing to try and make me feel as comfortable as I could, because you never really know how a kid’s going to react.”
He’s not sure if he’d seen “a huge amount” of R-rated movies by that point, but it doesn’t sound like Bad Santa’s gleefully lewd comedy had any negative effect on him. That said once the film was released, it definitely had an impact on those around him. “I went to Catholic school,” he explains, “and there were some people at the school who I don’t think were all that impressed with it. I don’t think the principal of my school was too thrilled.” Undeterred, he took a group of his friends to the film. “My parents were rolling into this R-rated movie with, like, six or seven nine- and 10-year-olds. There may have been a bit of (an aftereffect) of some nasty language at school that they might have picked up from the movie. Yeah, it didn’t really marry with the whole Catholic school thing too well.”
But the funny thing about being a young kid starring in an R-rated movie is that not many of Kelly’s friends could go to Bad Santa. He noticed that adults responded to the film, however, and wanted to engage him about it. “Some of my friends’ parents thought it was cool,” he says. Others? Less so. After the film was released, Kelly says there were a couple occasions when aghast strangers would approach him in public with his parents, asking, “Did your mom and dad make you do these awful things, these despicable things?” Kelly was very happy to respond, “No, I enjoyed it quite a lot.” He finds the whole idea of him somehow being “corrupted” by making Bad Santa hilarious: “I’ve probably been corrupted in some way, but I don’t think Bad Santa had anything to do with it. There were years of corruption that took place after that.”
I was curious if there was any downside to playing Thurman, this human punching bag whose life is sad and empty. Did Kelly get picked on the way the character does? “If anyone thought I was like him, I talked to them for two minutes,” he replies. “The first time I opened my mouth, it’s like, ‘Oh, he’s not Thurman.’ It was nice that the character was so far in that one direction of obliviousness — it wasn’t like there was a blurred line at any point afterwards. I never really had any struggle with that.”
Kelly kept working — including landing a role in another Christmas comedy, the far more lighthearted Unaccompanied Minors — but eventually he decided to go to business school. “I wanted to have some sort of groundwork laid that, if acting didn’t work out, I didn’t have to be going to university and starting that whole process in my mid-20s.” Plus, he wanted to take a break from acting for a little while. “I always loved it,” he tells me, “but I just felt like some time away was probably the good thing to do. What I’ve noticed is most actors who acted as a kid, and can carry it on as a career when they’re an adult, there seems to be a period where they just go away and just don’t do anything for a while. That awkward growing-up phase.”
The thing was, he quickly realized business school wasn’t for him. “I got probably about halfway through and I was like, ‘These aren’t my kind of people, I got to get back to the acting thing. Those are my kind of people.’” When Kelly graduated, he figured maybe he’d move to L.A., do auditions, get the ball rolling again. He didn’t have to: Shortly after finishing his last exam, his phone rang. Hollywood wanted a Bad Santa 2.
The 2003 film had never been a huge smash, but it turned a tidy profit against a fairly low budget. And, as Kelly notes, “It’s on TV every Christmas, there’s no escaping from it. Every channel seems to have it on at some point.” Like other delayed holiday staples, such as A Christmas Story, Bad Santa slowly developed a loyal following over time, prompting the decision to make a sequel. Zwigoff didn’t return for Bad Santa 2, but “as long as Billy was there, that was the real linchpin that brought it all together for me,” says Kelly. They had seen each once since filming Bad Santa when Thornton’s band came through Vancouver in the late aughts. But now Kelly was an adult, which initially bewildered Thornton. “It was nice to see him, but I think he was surprised,” Kelly says of their first meeting for Bad Santa 2. “It was like seeing a ghost: ‘Oh my god, you’re all grown up.’ I think it was more of a shock for him.”
Bad Santa 2 was Kelly’s first film in six years, and he enjoyed reprising his role as Thurman, who’s older — physically, anyway. Temperamentally, however, the character had retained that sense of childlike wonder. Kelly had more experience as an actor by that point, and perhaps in some ways was able to appreciate filming the sequel even more than the original, simply because he was old enough now to retain it all. But although he was always grateful to be very different from Thurman, that doesn’t mean he wants to join in on the tormenting of the poor guy. The way Kelly sees it, Thurman’s smarter than we might initially suspect.
“Even when he should be concerned that everything’s going to shit around him, it just never reads on his face,” he says. “Inside, he might have some inkling that things are going wrong — and he usually does. In both movies, you see at the end where he knows more than he’s letting on — it’s this world he’s built for himself to insulate him from the shitty life around him. It’s a blissful, willful ignorance of sorts.” That aspect of Thurman was something that hadn’t really dawned on eight-year-old Kelly. But as a grownup, he realized, “That’s the most important thing about him: He’s not dumb, he knows.” After all, in the original Bad Santa, Thurman understands that the drunken, miserable Willie isn’t really Santa. “He’s a savvy kid, but he just doesn’t want to acknowledge it,” Kelly says. “He doesn’t let on to anyone else that he knows more than he does. It’s just he’s trying to create something good for himself.”
The first film was a fluky sensation, a feat not duplicated by Bad Santa 2, which received bad reviews and stiffed at the box office. “I don’t think there was any illusions that anyone thought it was going to live up to or exceed the original,” admits Kelly. “I struggle to think of any sequel that has really done that. I think there was almost a built-in tempered expectations, and then once you realize it’s not hitting the way you were hoping to, it’s out of your control. You could sit and fret: ‘Is it my fault? Is it this? Is it that?’ It’s just these things happen sometimes, and on to the next one.”
That “next one” is Family Law, a legal drama featuring Jewel Staite, Victor Garber and Lauren Holly. I ask Kelly about his character Cecil. “He’s really one of those people where he’s very good at his job, very competent and smart, but things go over his head. He’s smart — he’s never someone you would call dumb — but on the social side, he’s a little slow to pick up some cues, puts his foot in his mouth a lot.”
If that sounds a little like Thurman, well, Kelly wouldn’t disagree. Like the characters he plays, Kelly radiates an unassuming warmth. “I’m generally a fairly gregarious person, so I think that comes across a lot,” he says. “I tend to play good people — I haven’t had a lot of opportunity to play nasty, mean people. Cecil does have a similarity to Thurman where they’re just good people at heart — this one just happens to sometimes say the wrong thing at the wrong time.”
Around the holidays, Kelly sometimes gets recognized for his Bad Santa role. “I don’t get it as much anymore. But whenever I have my hair longer and curlier and it’s Christmas, that is the recipe for I’m going to probably get a lot of people coming up to me.” At the height of Bad Santa’s notoriety, “It was almost exclusively guys between the age of 25 and 35” who would approach him. “It would be people yelling lines out on the street,” he says. “People rolling down the car window as they drive by.”
What line would they scream at him the most? “‘Fix you some sandwiches’ was the one. I’m going to be hearing that to the day I die probably.”
It must make it pretty hard to eat a sandwich out in public, I say.
“I stick it in the bag and I wait until I get home,” Kelly replies, jokingly.