Imagine Die Hard except John McClane is Santa Claus and Nakatomi Plaza is a New England mansion. You’ve just described Violent Night, a hugely entertaining R-rated holiday action film that hits theaters on December 2. In it, Stranger Things star David Harbour plays Jolly Ol’ Saint Nick, who is feeling pretty dejected this Christmas Eve. That is until he drops in on a house that is being robbed and its residents held hostage. What will Santa do? Kick some fucking ass, that’s what.
But how do you make one of the most kid-friendly, recognizable characters in the world someone who looks as comfortable feeding reindeer as he does swinging a sledgehammer? io9 spoke with Harbour on the occasion of the film about his new version of Santa, giving the character a dynamic backstory, and some of his favorite Christmas films. Read all about it below.
Germain Lussier, io9: Playing Santa Claus is kind of a big responsibility. It’s something that could potentially stick with you throughout your whole career. Did that come to mind at all when you decided to take on the role?
David Harbour: Worried of being typecast as Santa. [Laughs] Just being like, “We don’t want him for this or that, but if you’ve got a Santa in your movie call David Harbour.” No [but] it’s a concern that I’m retroactively thinking about now, that it was a terrible idea to play his role. But I actually did not think about that. Because the thing is, he’s such a unique Santa. He starts off as the sort of guy with the glasses and the “Ho ho ho.” But then as the movie progresses, he’s such his own beast that it never really crossed my mind that I would be typecast as Santa Claus. But now I’m worried. So thank you.
io9: Well I don’t exactly mean typecast, it’s just that these movies, holiday movies, have the potential to become something more. Like an Elf or a Home Alone. A perennial thing. So are you ready to potentially talk about this role for the rest of your life?
Harbour: [Laughs] I mean, Will Ferrell only did one Elf, didn’t he?
io9: But I don’t think he likes talking about it now. I think he’s sick of it.
Harbour: I’m okay. We can talk about it for the rest of my life. I’m fine.
io9: The press notes mentioned that you had a lot of input into the early development of the character. What are some of the specific things you kind of added to it?
Harbour: Well, I wanted him to go on a journey. The big thing about a character is you want them to have an arc and to develop, right? And there was something in the original script where there was less of that development. He was kind of a badass throughout the whole thing. And what I wanted was [for] him to start off as the saccharine Santa from the Coca-Cola ads of the ‘30s who had rosy cheeks and little glasses and a smile, “Ho ho ho.” And then to see how much that sickened him, that he had become this thing, and that greed was all it was about. And it was about this saccharine belly and the sweets, and, like, being jolly. And he was just like, “I created this monster... but what I really am about in my core is justice.” I thought that’s where he becomes a badass is by shedding this skin and it requires the little girl to say to him, “We need somebody different.” And he’s like, “I am that guy.” So my contribution was much more about the arc of the piece and the arc of the character, which I was very interested in and I thought was a little undeveloped at the start. It was more just like, “Oh, he’s an action hero.” And I wanted to see him be this guy who was not an action hero [but] who had to spring into it. Then you saw the history underneath come forward from that.
io9: Yeah, that was a pleasant surprise that we actually got to see some of Santa’s backstory and origin, which I read was even more prevalent at one point. How much did that inform your performance, knowing about the character’s epic origin?
Harbour: Yeah, it was fun. It is interesting. There was more that we shot, and then in the final film, we wanted to be more mysterious what that was. But I was really fascinated by all the mythology, all the different cultural mythology around Santa Claus. I mean, one of the things we even posited early on was, I think, he calls himself Nikolaas the Red in this. But at one point he was Saint Nicholas in Christian mythology, he’s Weihnachtsmann in German, there are all these different iterations of him. And so I wanted to flesh out who this guy was. At one point too, I looked up Saint Nicholas, who’s the Christian saint who Santa Claus is based on and was a saint of repentant sinners. So I was very interested in this idea of him [forgiving]. He says to John [Leguizamo]’s character at several points, like, “Give it up. I will take you back. You can get on the nice list.” It’s people that are determined to be naughty that really have to get the axe. So there are all these different character elements that came out of that backstory.
io9: Yeah, that’s so cool. I think that’s obviously the meat of the story, but on an upper level, it’s so directly influenced by Die Hard movies. Then there’s also Beverly D’Angelo from Christmas Vacation, and the Home Alone scene. So, what is your favorite wink this movie makes to another holiday movie? And what are some of the movies that you revisit that holiday season, besides Violent Night of course?
Harbour: Yeah, I mean, I love the Home Alone sequence. I think it’s extremely well done. The fact that she’s bringing it up at the beginning and then it comes out at the end. The Die Hard references are all terrific as well too. It has the shape of the whole thing around Die Hard. For me personally, the movie that I stayed closest to and was most important to me was Miracle on 34th Street, which is basically this little girl who doesn’t believe in Santa Claus [at first] and at the end of the movie believes. It’s not quite the same arc, but to me the emotional core of that story, of a little girl who needs something because of her crumbling family structure, who needs something to believe in [is important here]. Here’s this guy who now not only will protect her physically but who she can believe in as this source of generosity and justice and kindness. And that very Miracle on 34th Street to me.
io9: Oh, absolutely. That’s a classic. Now I’m going to come back to Violent Night. But just so I don’t miss this—at D23 this year, Marvel announced that your character is coming back for Thunderbolts. How much do you know about that film and are you excited to get back into the MCU?
Harbour: Yes, I’m very excited. They’ve told me the arc of the movie and how it functions. I haven’t seen a script yet. I’ve talked to designers and things like that. And it’s super cool. The idea is really cool. Jake [Schreier], the director is a really interesting, fresh mind to this universe. What he wants to do with Florence [Pugh]’s character is very interesting and how I factor into how we develop our relationship is very interesting. I’ve loved Wyatt [Russell] and Sebastian [Stan] and Julia [Louis-Dreyfuss]’s characters throughout the universe and to throw these characters together feels very random. And then when you see what Jake and Eric Pearson, the writer, is trying to fashion it’s really clever and there’s an interesting thing that we’re going to introduce to the universe that’s profound. So you have this movie that’s, you know, kind of ragtag. It’ll be funny, it’ll be weird, it’ll be action. And then we also are going to drop a bomb, which is cool.
io9: Wow, I’m excited too. Now, I imagine most Christmas movies don’t have weapons training. This one obviously did. Was there anything unique about training this time and did the swordplay from Stranger Things season four become helpful at all?
Harbour: [Laughs] No, this is far more complex than the swordplay from Stranger Things. The swordplay in Stranger Things was like me picking a sword, the Duffer Brothers and I. It looks super cool. I mean, we did some great stuff in that sequence, but it wasn’t very trained. This, there was a lot of training. The hammer stuff, I did a lot of training with. And then the actual fighting was jiu-jitsu and Greco-Roman wrestling. The stunt team on this have done all the John Wick movies and even, like, the new Matrix and Nobody. Crazy kung fu type movies. And so this was a Greco-Roman version of that, but there was a lot of training and it was very intense. I was very exhausted the entire shoot.
io9: This movie makes a weapon of basically every kind of Christmas decoration there is. What is your favorite and what was the most fun to kind of work with?
Harbour: Hmm. I mean, I’ve got to say that candy cane was pretty fun. It’s established pretty early that he’s just sucking on a candy cane, and you’re like, “Oh, why would he be, oh, no, there’s a reason.” Because it makes a better shank. That was pretty wild. I like a candy cane shank.
io9: Yeah, absolutely. So this is my last question first, but I have to say I love this movie and it’s so much fun. Without spoiling any of that though, Santa is pretty resilient in this movie. If this movie is a hit, and I think it can be, would you jump back into the sleigh again?
Harbour: Yeah, I’d be happy to do more of this. It’s a great idea. Again, you get to do a fun action movie and also hopefully make people feel Christmas spirit and Christmas joy. So that is really fun to do. So yeah, if people enjoy it, I’d be happy to do more.
io9: Awesome. Well, I think they will.
Violent Night is in theaters December 2.
Want more io9 news? Check out when to expect the latest Marvel, Star Wars, and Star Trek releases, what’s next for the DC Universe on film and TV, and everything you need to know about James Cameron’s Avatar: The Way of Water.