Violent Night’s David Harbour On Preparing To Play A Kick-Ass Santa Claus [Exclusive Interview]

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Whether you go all the way back to his origins with the 4th century Greek Christian bishop Saint Nicholas or the more recent starting point of Coca-Cola ad illustrator Haddon Sundblom’s depiction of him in the 1930s, Santa Claus is one of the most popular and enduring mythological figures of all time. While Sundblom’s image of a hefty older man with snowy white beard, red suit, and cap with white trim and a reindeer-pulled sleigh has been associated with Santa since the early 20th century, the character has enjoyed numerous interpretations over the decades.

In a world where it may seem like there’s nothing new to say about Santa Claus on screen, the new film “Violent Night” comes rolling in with a twinkle in its eye and blood in its beard. Sure, there have been a ton of transgressive, violent characters dressed like Santa in the past, but “Violent Night” features Actual Santa kicking jolly amounts of henchman ass when a team of mercenaries hold a wealthy family and their little girl, Trudy (Leah Brady), hostage on Christmas Eve. David Harbour portrays this John McClane-esque Santa Claus, someone who not only takes a direct approach to his Naughty list but has a surprisingly unique pre-Santa history.

I was able to speak with Mr. Harbour prior to the release of “Violent Night,” and we talked about everything from his own personal history with Santa growing up to training for action sequences to how his favorite Christmas movie homage in the film is to 1947’s “Miracle on 34th Street.”

‘I Remember Just Being Blown Away That Santa Was In Our House’

I love that you’re joining a great, storied line of grumpy Santas throughout cinema history. One of my favorite things about the Santa character on screen is how they often have to fight to make people believe in them and in Christmas. I was wondering what your relationship to Santa Claus was growing up, and whether it informed your performance at all.

Yeah, at this point, in terms of looking at the character, I thought it was a fascinating thing to go back mythologically and look at St. Nicholas and all these different traditions and cultures, versions of this guy who’d come into your house.

As a kid, I remember we didn’t have a chimney and I was always talking to my mom, confused about how Santa got in the house, because he comes down the chimney. And she said, “Well, [we] leave the back door open and the reindeer come and they park on the ground there and he walks in the back door.”

Then I also remember as a kid, being so stunned at — we put cookies and carrots out and you come downstairs in the morning and the cookies were half eaten, there’s crumbs and the milk was drunk and the carrots were nibbled on, clearly by reindeer. But I remember just being blown away that Santa was in our house, something about the cookies and the milk was just, it just works on a kid’s mind. It’s so brilliant what we do as parents to kids, because there’s something about the cookies and the half-drunk milk that just made me believe that Santa was there! There’s no way my parents could’ve done that! [They] couldn’t have eaten those cookies! That was a man in a red suit. Yeah.

‘You Need Some Guy Who’s Seen Some S***’

You mentioned the real-life mythology, but there’s also this surprising backstory that Santa has in the film. Was part of your process researching the historical significance of the myth and the character? Did all of that make the idea of “Action Santa” easier to swallow?

Oh, absolutely. I mean, one of the fun things about it was you have in the beginning, this saccharine version of a 1930s Coca-Cola Santa. And then as he goes along, you start to uncover who he had been and that that guy’s really needed in the movie. I mean, he’s the guy who’s going to kill the bad guys, not this saccharine dopey guy with a big belly singing “ho, ho, ho.” You need some guy who’s seen some s***.

So I think that was really fun to investigate all these different mythologies of him and who he was. And we sort of crafted our own version of this guy who wasn’t always a nice jolly guy. I think that side of him, being appreciated by this little girl, being needed — this protector, this hero, this badass — being needed by this little girl as her Christmas present was kind of a really great thing and something that makes the movie make sense for my character. Absolutely.

A Miracle On Violent Night Street

There are so many great homages to prior Christmas movies in this. There are some obvious ones like “Die Hard” and “Home Alone,” and this might be a stretch, but I even saw a little bit of “Silent Night, Deadly Night.” Do you have a favorite homage?

Yeah, we play around with lots of different stuff. For me, the big one that I wanted to even draw more of, me and the relationship with the little girl that I wanted to develop, that we did develop I think very well so that it really has heart, was “Miracle on 34th Street.” The old original black-and-white “Miracle on 34th Street.”

In that movie, it’s a little bit different. [The Natalie Wood character] is a very square girl, and her mother doesn’t believe [in Santa]: “You shouldn’t lie to kids, and this is the truth.” And [Kris Kringle] is like, “Well, imagination.” And then at the end, there’s a house and there’s the guy’s cane, and she gets her wish and the parents even believe. And that’s something that we wanted to — that courses throughout the movie.

That to me is the biggest one, because in the midst of this action movie — “Home Alone” has already its own sort of fun wackiness to it. “Die Hard” certainly has its own fun wackiness to it. There’s something so straight ahead emotional about “Miracle on 34th Street,” something so straight ahead sincere about it, that I really wanted to bring to this. Because I think through all that action, through all that humor, you need to punch that heart pretty hard so that it resonates through that. And I think that was one of the most gratifying things, was that at the end of this movie, hopefully you’ll tear up a little bit, you’ll be crying a little bit, and you’ll be like, “Oh my god. Santa loves that little girl. He’s real.” That’s a beautiful thing.

I felt that way about all the characters in this. It’s not, “Oh, this is just that person, we don’t need to care about them” sort of thing. You really do care about them by the end.

Tommy [Wirkola] is a smart director and really knows how to take care of a story and take care of character. And that was really nice to watch, because there’d be a lot of other directors out there, you’re right, who wouldn’t think things were important, would just be focused [on other things]. But Tommy had a lot of attention to detail and character, which was terrific.

‘It’s Just Hard, Because I’m Not 25 Anymore’

I have to ask you about the action sequences in this. At this point in your career, from Hopper in “Stranger Things” to Red Guardian, you’re doing action choreography more and more. Is it second nature to you now or is it still tough? Are the training regiments different for each project? How do you feel your relationship is to it?

Yeah, it’s a little bit of both. It is getting easier, the language of it’s getting easier. I’m also getting more into it in my real life. When I started doing Red Guardian, I started boxing outside and I got into the boxing world and started boxing. But then in this, it’s more jujitsu, it’s more legs and things like that, which I’m not very good at, at all. So it becomes easier because you do it more and you have more facility with the language of it, but it becomes harder because as you get better with it, they expect you to do more. And the great thing about when actors can do choreography is that they can shoot your face while you’re doing it and it’s more exciting for the viewer. So they’ll try to get you to do more and more, which they’re trying to get me to do.

It’s just hard, because I’m not 25 anymore. I mean, it’s like, my knees and my shoulders are not what they once were. But I’ve come to certainly appreciate guys that can do it a lot more, and it’s something that I enjoy doing as I get into the art of it. And the great thing is, it’s not quite fighting because it has a visual element to it, but it’s almost like dance, because you’re dealing with a stunt guy and you’re really working with each other, they’re making you look good, and it becomes this interesting dance in the same way that acting is. You’re portraying something but trying to make it aesthetic. So yeah, it’s something that you get more facile with the language, but it’s always tiring.

The ‘Universe-Drop’ In The Upcoming Thunderbolts Movie

Is there anything we might be able to expect from Red Guardian in “Thunderbolts?” Can we say anything about that?

Yeah, I mean, they pitched me sort of the general arc of the story. I haven’t read a full script yet, although we do start shooting next year. Florence [Pugh, who plays Yelena Belova] and I as characters know each other, you’ve seen some of that relationship. You’ll see different variations on that relationship. The story’s really cool. It’s unexpected. As it ends a big phase of Marvel, there is a big bomb that we universe-drop in the movie that’s really cool.

Yeah, it’ll be really exciting just on that universe level to have that thing. But within it, the story itself is a great story about a bunch of losers. And I like stories like that. So I think it’s — yeah, I’m really excited to get to work on it.

“Violent Night” hits theaters on December 2, 2022.

Read this next: Breaking Down The Entire Stranger Things Timeline

The post Violent Night’s David Harbour on Preparing to Play a Kick-Ass Santa Claus [Exclusive Interview] appeared first on /Film.

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