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How David Harbour went from 'anti-Christmas' guy to action hero Santa in 'Violent Night'

Jen Yamato, Los Angeles Times on

Published in Entertainment News

David Harbour wasn't always big on the holidays. Until the "Stranger Things" star had a family of his own, he says, the yuletide blues made him downright "anti-Christmas." Now the Emmy- and Golden Globe-nominated actor is embracing the spirit of the season in Universal's R-rated "Violent Night" as a Santa Claus with a dark past who takes on armed mercenaries on Christmas Eve.

The gory holiday action comedy, scripted by "Sonic the Hedgehog" duo Pat Casey and Josh Miller and directed by Norwegian helmer Tommy Wirkola ("Dead Snow," "Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters"), imagines a Santa who reluctantly takes up arms — and a giant hammer affectionately nicknamed the Skull Crusher — when a little girl (Leah Brady) and her family are taken hostage during his yearly rounds. Alex Hassell, Alexis Louder, John Leguizamo and Beverly D'Angelo, in a comical 180 from her "National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation" matriarch Ellen Griswold, also star.

Various Christmas mythologies offered a wealth of character inspiration, Harbour said, including who's nice, who's naughty and the possibility of redemption. "The Christian tradition of Old St. Nick comes from St. Nicholas, who was this patron saint of repentant sinners," he said. "I thought that was so interesting, this idea that you could turn it around and get on the 'nice' list."

The role also taught Harbour new action tricks under producers David Leitch, Kelly McCormick and Guy Danella's 87North Productions ("Atomic Blonde," "John Wick," "Nobody") — and, with an inventive Viking backstory, required him to find the inner warrior within a beloved figure best known for being jolly and kind.

To convey these complexities, Wirkola sought a Santa who could bring the right blend of humor and physicality to the role. "A key trait for our Santa is his pure and raw strength, and we felt that David had that in spades," he said in an email. "Somebody who, when he walks into a room, you'd feel like he could easily kick your a—. A menacing presence, so to speak."

But most importantly, this "Die Hard" Santa needed "a big beating heart underneath all of that rough exterior," said Wirkola. "We always should be able to feel that heartbeat, that warmth, despite all the craziness that surrounds both him and the story. David had all those things and more, and just as important, he knew how to expertly shift between those things as the story progressed."

 

Filmed last winter in Winnipeg, Manitoba, as the crew navigated subzero temperatures so cold the cameras wouldn't work ("Those were not the days that I was full of love for Christmas," Harbour laughed), "Violent Night" now enters the canon of Christmas movies that will be revisited every holiday season — much like "Home Alone," "Die Hard" and his own faves, "Miracle on 34th Street" and "It's a Wonderful Life." Harbour was still letting that sink in as he chatted from Budapest, Hungary, where he's filming the video game adaptation "Gran Turismo."

Q: So, David: Are you a Christmas person?

A: Not really. When I was a kid, of course. I don't know that there are many kids that aren't because it's a great time. You just get presents! But for most of my adult life, I've been a single guy, and that made holidays in general kind of hard and depressing. I'd get presents for people, friends and family, but I wasn't big on it for years and years. Now that I have a little family of my own, it feels more special. I'm excited about putting up the tree for them and things like that. But for most of my life, I was really an anti-Christmas guy. There is a lot of mental health stuff around Christmas, too, where people get depressed, and I was definitely one of those people.

Q: That's what makes the opening scene of "Violent Night" so relatable: We meet Santa, sitting at a bar, drinking on Christmas Eve.

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