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'The Santa Clauses' Star Kal Penn Pulls Back the Curtain on His Journey as Tim Allen's Potential Successor and the Magic of Holiday TV

'This seems to be an example of real representation,' the actor says of Santa potentially becoming a person of color.

Danielle Turchiano
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Kal Penn and Rupali Redd in 'The Santa Clauses'

Disney+

Santa Claus' boots are big ones to fill. Tim Allen as Santa Claus is also a tough act to follow. But that is what Kal Penn is dealing with on Disney+'s limited series The Santa Clauses.

OK it's not official that Penn's character, Simon Choksi, is officially going to become Scott Calvin's successor when the latter starts to consider retirement in the series follow up to The Santa Clause film franchise, but all signs seem to point to that, including the fact that the tech businessman and single father has the right initials (S.C.).

When the story begins, Simon is seeing some hardships at work because of delivery delays, keeping the hottest new item from getting to homes in time for the holidays. He has to answer for these delays during a televised interview which doesn't go well, but after too much disaster is averted (by his colleague shorting out the electrical in the interview space), he catches a glimpse of Santa's sleigh in the sky and inspiration strikes.

Meanwhile, up in the North Pole, as Santa ponders retirement, his elves are gathering a new kind of list — a potential successor's list — and turning up unannounced and unexpected in those men's homes to whisk them away for the most important interview of their lives. And this starts with Simon (and his daughter, played by Rupali Redd).

Here, Penn talks to Metacritic about Simon's challenges in potentially taking up the mantle of Santa Claus and how he kept the holiday magic alive on set day after day.

If Simon gets the gig, Santa will be a person of color, which can be a hot topic because there is a contingent of the audience that feel very strongly the Coca-Cola created image of Santa is the only one that should exist. What conversations did you have with the writers, producers, and directors about how to approach that?

It's always funny to me what parts of a story people gravitate towards and what parts of the fiction they're willing to overlook. It's similar to — if I can make a stretch of comparison — when we did Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. To me, this is a testament to the fact that we did it right, but there's a number of fans from the New York, New Jersey, tri-state area whose biggest beef with that movie is that apparently there's a White Castle, like, 15 minutes from where the movie began. They believe we rode a cheetah, that we went hang gliding; that was a non-issue. The issue was the geography!?

Frankly, I always find myself gravitating towards projects that continue to build on incredible stories. Especially iconic characters and iconic stories that either have been presented in a particular way, adapting to the changing demographics of people watching. But I didn't actually have any conversations about the idea of diversity in that sense.

Jason Winer, who's our EP and director, reached out to me, and he and I have known each other since we both did Van Wilder together with Ryan Reynolds. He sent me the first two episodes, and I think he presented it as a top secret holiday movie, and I read it, and I was like, "I know what this is! This is The Santa Clause, this is awesome!" But our conversations were just about the arc of the character, not about demographics or identity or anything else.

All of the writing was so deeply grounded in who these people are. I probably hadn't really thought about it until you asked this question, but that's what you want, right?

It does feel like it's better if the show doesn't bring it up, because then it leads by example that you don't need to question that Santa can be a person of color.

I think, oftentimes, Hollywood mistakes tokenization for representation. And this seems to be an example of real representation. Characters need to be grounded, and so, there's no reason why the characters can't reflect what what we all look like today, in the America of 2022.

In the original film, Scott didn't believe in what was happening, saying he was going to go to the doctor when he woke up from his so-called dream in the morning, for one thing. Yet, when Simon looks up into the sky and sees Santa's sleigh, he sees inspiration and opportunity. Where does that come from and how much child-like belief does he have in him?

Simon's background is that he's this tech bro who built a delivery systems platform from scratch. So, he's clearly very quirky — you know that immediately from the first episode — but you also get the impression he's very competitive, he's clearly very money and business focused, but he's also very ambitious. And I think that ambition is tied into the fact that he created this company from the ground up. So, he's not Type A in the sense that he just became the CEO of a pre-existing company; there's that passion there and there's a sort of magic to the fact that he thought of that crazy idea to begin with to take it to the next level.

There are plenty of delivery platforms — and he talks about this in that investor meeting — but none of them are using drones with AI. That's his big idea. So the magic that he believes in — I think he clearly can't believe he's seeing Santa in the sky, but he knows he sees something. And the real arc in the remaining four episodes is that dynamic and the relationship he has with his daughter.

How does that relationship evolve in the episodes, meaning how much does he begin to make decisions about how to handle the potential Santa job based on what it will do to her life versus his?

She comes with him everywhere he goes; you saw that at the at the end of Episode 2 when the elf comes to take them to the North Pole and the last thing he says is, "I don't go anywhere without my daughter." And that goes for business stuff, too: She's almost a muse, but more than a muse — a real support system for him. He doesn't talk to her like she's an 8-year-old child; he talks to her as if they're on the same level, even when it comes to Googling whether Santa is real and she she comes into his pitch meeting for investors.

They've got this relationship that's pretty straightforward, and you meet the mom in a couple of flashback scenes and you get the sense that she was taken from them early; they're not divorced. So, he really looks looks out for her. And then I don't think I'm giving away too much here, but like any good Christmas franchise, it's always the kids that remind the adults about the magic of Christmas. And that's definitely the case here: Simon really loses his way over the course of the first season, and it's really his daughter that brings him back down to remembering the importance of family, but then also really embracing the magic of Christmas.

When you talk about Simon losing his way, on a scale of one to Jack Frost in the third film, how much does he become antagonistic?

[Laughs] I think what's interesting is he's not a one-note character; it's not like he's a nemesis. In fact, his whole motivation is that he thinks he can make Christmas better by virtue of his whole business model and his understanding of delivery systems. And it seems like that's probably why he is being brought to the North Pole in the first place. The whole list of people have something to bring to the role [of Santa].

When I say he loses his way, it's not that he sets out to overtake or destroy or do anything negative in that respect. It's much more complex, which actually gives a lot more of a dynamic to play with in terms of Simon and his daughter, Santa, and all of that.

You mentioned that it's always the kid that reminds you what Christmas means in the movies, but how do you hold onto the meaning of the holidays when you're on a set where you're doing everything multiples times and maybe it loses a little bit of the magic?

Not at all! It's so easy. You're driving to work at 7 in the morning in LA, somebody's flipping you off on the freeway, you pull into your parking spot, and then you walk into North Pole. How can you possibly have a bad day? It was wonderful. It was three months in the North Pole and full of Christmas. It didn't get old.

So then what was the piece that really made you personally feel the magic of the season?

This is gonna sound very hokey, but I'll try to explain what I mean. The whole package. Because of COVID, our first rehearsals were over Zoom and there was nothing in person, so you meet the cast over Zoom, and then the first time I met Tim in real life, he was already in the Santa outfit because he'd had a couple of scenes before I came in for the day. And that was surreal because the kid in me was, "That's Santa, you better be on your best behavior!" And then you look around at the sets, and there were two primary sets: one was a couple of stages on the Fox lot and then there was the Volume Stage on the Disney lot, and that's a very 2022 special effects thing I'd never worked with before — The Mandalorian sort of thing with super awesome, geeky tech people who are making the magic happen.

So, the thing that really made the magic was that whole thing: Getting an understanding of what goes into creating the North Pole or updating it for what the technology can give you was awesome.

I will also say, what's kind of insane is I'll get the script and see that I've got eight pages today working with elves and these elves are 1,400 years old. So I'm at home prepping for the scenes, and then I show up to work the next day, and it's me and 40 9-year-olds because it's children playing elves. They're wonderful and all so good and so talented, and you're in the zone, and there's nothing more magical about being in that space. But the second they call a break and that massive soundstage door slides open, it's 85-degrees outside and you see palm trees, and then all of a sudden they're just children with creepy pointy ears. And out of context it's phenomenally disturbing. But then you go back again after the break is over and it's right back to being magical.


The Santa Clauses streams new episodes Wednesdays

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Get to know Kal Penn:
Penn has had a career in politics and is an author, but he is probably best known for his titular role in the Harold & Kumar franchise, which began in 2004 with Harold & Kumar Go to White Castle (Metascore: 64) and also includes Harold & Kumar Escape From Guantanamo Bay (57), Harold & Kumar Go to Amsterdam, and A Very Harold & Kumar Christmas (61). However, on television he is known for roles in House (75), How I Met Your Mother (69), Designated Survivor (71), and, currently, American Horror Story: NYC.