Who wouldn’t love to find Anna Kendrick dressed as Santa coming down their chimney on Christmas eve?
Director Marc Lawrence clearly agrees, casting her as Kris Kringle’s daughter, Noelle, in the Disney+ holiday comedy of the same name. When Noelle’s brother Nick (Bill Hader) crumbles beneath the pressure of taking over the family business and disappears, our heroine is left scrambling to find him while fending off her cousin Gabriel (Billy Eichner), who plans to turn Santa’s workshop into an online delivery service.
Swamped by all her responsibilities, Noelle turns to her childhood nanny, Elf Polly, portrayed by the inimitable Shirley MacLaine.
When FilmInk caught up with this irresistible cast at the North Pole – OK, it was a Vancouver studio, but it was snowing and the halls were most definitely decked with holly – MacLaine, 85, slips out of her elf costume to share some holiday words of wisdom.
Elf Polly may be described as being 250-years old, but Warren Beatty’s big sister can certainly rival those years in terms of experience.
Having been on a spiritual journey for half her life, shunning Hollywood in exchange for New Mexico’s Santa Fe, she refuses to buy into the commercialisation of Christmas.
“Because I travel so much, I’ve celebrated Christmas all over the world. These days I’m really looking at the problems we’re having because of materialism, which is what, to me, Christmas has become. So, it means very little to me, except to make sure I get my presents sent out in time,” says MacLaine who won the Best Actress Oscar for Terms of Endearment.
A lifelong feminist, she’s happy to see a female Santa. “It’s coming at exactly the right time with all of the pink attitudes and what’s happening with women raising their voices about equality in every way.”
That being said, she’s not so sure that anything has substantially improved for actresses at the box office. “I don’t think it’s gotten better because I mean, look at the old days when I was in the golden times with Bette [Davis] and Joan [Crawford] and all those wonderful people. They were the ones who got a picture made. And that’s very rare now. Those women made or broke a studio. You don’t find that today. Well, you barely find a studio anymore. We’re all watching in the living room, so we’ll see what happens with the public in relation to what drives them into a theatre.”
If streaming services like Disney + – which is where Noelle is aired – have been hailed as saviors to many an older actress, then MacLaine is not so sure. “All the good programming simply means they’re all gonna stay home and watch Netflix. We all know it,” she argues.
Throughout the shoot, MacLaine’s trailer door has been open for anyone who dares knock. “I don’t think any of these talented young folk need my advice. But, more than that, they wanna know what it was like back then,” says the actress whose career spans more than six decades.
“A lot of them couldn’t remember half the movies I was in – and neither can I,” she laughs. “But they were fascinated with the magic of it all because there’s nothing like Hollywood, or show business, in the world.
“So, I made it clear that I’m open to anyone who wants to stop by my trailer and ask questions. In many ways I wish there was more. You know, they’re a little bit trepidatious. They don’t wanna take up my time but, come on, I don’t wanna forget it either. Those were the days. And I think about it quite often when someone asks me a really direct question.”
MacLaine makes the interesting point that streaming services and TV have removed much of the shine off what it once used to mean to be a Hollywood star. “Because they weren’t allowed in the living rooms, there was this existential sort of separation and they were literally stars. Knowing a lot of them, which I did, they all treated me like this little baby and helped me. Bette Davis particularly. She was funny and very… Joan Crawford was very interesting….”
Although MacLaine doesn’t add herself to the star category, she’s certainly a legend, featuring in The Apartment, Steel Magnolias and Sweet Charity.
“The attitude about talent was also different back then. There was more equality in female and male money. But remember, I go much further back than a lot of these people complain about or can remember. Back then, these women brought in a lot of profit for the studios,” she says.
Talking with Bill Hader, he’s a little concerned about his potential future status with his kids, playing the guy who walks away from Christmas.
For the moment, he says, everything is OK at home. “I don’t lie to them. One of my daughters was like, ‘So, you’re going to Santa Claus’ house?’ And I go, ‘Well, they built Santa Claus’ house.’ And she went, ‘So, they had to go to his house and measure it? That’s so cool’.”
As Nick, his character tries to find himself by going on a yoga retreat, something Hader doesn’t personally find that enticing. “I’ve done a little yoga, but not like the people you see in this movie; those people are doing like crazy handstands on top of each other. I can’t do that. I’m not that flexible. But, it’s great when I do it. It’s like anything. Like, you do it and you’re like, ‘This is wonderful. I’m gonna do this every day’. And then that’s the last day I do it.”
Catching up with Kendrick, 34, dressed in Santa’s red and white, she describes Noelle as spoilt and bored, still waited upon by Elf Polly, even though she’s a grown-up. “He just flits around and does whatever she wants, and I’ll be honest, she’s loving life. Her brother is a very reluctant Santa Claus-in-training although Noelle thinks she can whip him into shape in time. But, when he disappears, things happen…” teases the actress, beloved for roles in Pitch Perfect and Up in the Air, although she first came to notice in a small role in The Twilight franchise.
Admittedly a sucker for the holidays, she enjoys that Noelle’s world of Santa comes with certain rules. “Having a little mythology for a movie is always nice. It also answers a lot of the questions that I think all children ask when they find out about Santa. Like, how does Santa fit down the chimney if it’s not wide enough and, of course, we have a magical candy cane that expands the chimney. Also, Santa can speak every language.”
More than anything, she says that Noelle goes on a journey of self-discovery. “If she’s been quite selfish up until this point, then she’s discovering she has lots of fun magical powers and also a kind of warm quality. It’s subtle in the movie but there’s just something that she has where people want to talk to her and open up to her, kind of like a bartender,” she laughs. “Ok, perhaps not the most family friendly analogy but, you know, that kind of therapist quality where people find themselves opening up and not knowing why. Noelle wants to just make people happy.
“She has a lot more compassion than she realises. But, as she begins to find purpose, she learns she has a much greater capacity for her heart to allow all these people in.”
In Christmas paradise for much of the movie, Kendrick admittedly ruined a lot of takes.
“The sleigh was so much fun, attached to this big gimbal with a guy across the room holding a remote and just throwing it around. We had to do so many takes because I couldn’t stop smiling, because it really felt like you’re on like a personalised roller coaster. I simply could not contain how happy it made me, whereas I was actually supposed to feel really scared.”
She hopes audiences enjoy Noelle as much as she did making it. “I love Christmas movies. I think that’s basically my litmus test for whether or not I want to do a movie, is, like, would I want to watch this? And this was so much fun, the answer was yes.”
Noelle streams on Disney Plus from November 19, 2019