It is late in the day and the temperature is falling at the North Pole. If the snow sprinkled on the ground was real, it would be covered with an icy crust.
Fred Claus director David Dobkin is sitting behind a monitor tucked away in the corner of a town square. The troupe of elves is engaged in background activity, skating hither and thither, as they scoot about their daily business. Everyone is awaiting the arrival of Nick (aka Santa) Claus.
A few moments later, his arrival heralded by plenty of huffing and puffing, Santa finally appears. This Santa is played by Paul Giamatti, the star of fine indie fare such as American Splendor and Sideways, and he is struggling under the enormous weight of his hefty, red and white fat suit.
As he slumps into a chair to regain his breath, a smile flashes across his bearded face. “It’s a lot to wear one of these suits,” he beams. “In fact, it’s quite intense. I thought this suit would be good for keeping me warm, but it’s sweltering in here. Now will somebody help me get up? My centre of gravity is totally off.”
Watching Santa struggle from his chair offers an amusing sight. “The suit I wore in Planet of the Apes was easier to deal with than this,” Giamatti jokes.
Santa Claus has always been represented as a little on the stout side, although in the movie the writers have ascribed this to a mild case of neurosis. Just as feeling very much the disregarded son afflicts Fred Claus (Vince Vaughn), the younger Nick also struggles, finding it difficult to handle the pressure of running the North Pole and delivering toys all over the world in a single night.
For his wife, Mrs Claus, played by Miranda Richardson, Santa is a tricky man to handle.
“This Santa is a little neurotic,” explains Giamatti, “a bit like an over-pressured CEO. He is compulsive. And the big joke is that Santa is trying to be jolly and happy all the time, and it slips a little once in while. He gets tired of being relentlessly jolly!”
Giamatti notes that while most people have a fixed idea of what Santa should look like and how he should behave, the enjoyable part of his character lies in the fact that he has his own problems. “Santa has something to learn here too,” says the actor, “and I think this story has come up with something that really hasn’t been done before. Santa has this very black or white morality, and he’s a bit rigid: everyone’s either naughty or nice. So, he does get to change a little bit.”
With cracks appearing in Santa’s jolly veneer, Giamatti says he and Vaughn had to rein in their humour every once in a while. “Also,” he adds, “there’s the fact that, as a person, I’m not really a jolly guy. David Dobkin has to keep reminding me to be jolly and once in a while he’ll have to yell at me, ‘Jolly! You’ve got to be jolly here!’ So, in some ways, I guess I can relate to Santa’s problem – the idea of having to be ‘on’ all the time.”
And as to whether his own son, Samuel, was pleased to find that his father is playing Santa, Giamatti just laughs. “My son’s six now, and while I think he pretty much gets what I do, I think he found me playing Santa pretty weird, because I am rather fat in this suit! When he came on set, he just kept punching me in the stomach and kicking me in the behind!” Giamatti says.