Despite the sure-to-be-starting songs on the radio, ads everywhere and on television, a Christmas movie coming out this weekend and newly introduced Starbucks seasonal cups – complete with idiotic "controversy" – it's not the holiday season yet. After all, Thanksgiving still weeks away.
But while it may not Christmas quite yet, it's always a good time for "Elf," the rosy-cheeked 2003 surprise seasonal hit. For many, the Christmas movie – about a North Pole elf who discovers he's actually man and sets off for New York City to find his true father – is a new classic, featuring an iconically cheerful and lovable performance from Will Ferrell.
And now, it'll be actor Sam Hartley's job to fill those beloved curly-toed shoes in the touring rendition of "Elf: The Musical," arriving in Milwaukee for a five-day run at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts starting Tuesday, Nov. 22. Before he takes the stage, I chatted with the actor about taking on Ferrell's role, expanding the movie into a musical and his own favorite Christmas movie (take a wild guess).
OnMilwaukee: What’s it like taking on an iconic role, featuring – for many – an iconic performance?
Sam Hartley: Well, we were doing the math, and the movie came out 13 years ago – believe it or not. I was 15 when the movie came out, and I don’t think I ever thought in a million years that it would be a part of my life in this way. It’s one of those movies that, every time it’s on during the holiday season, you’ve got to watch it. No matter what part of the movie is on when you catch it on TV, you’ve got to finish it. It’s a holiday tradition to watch.
I’d seen the musical a couple of years back, and I don’t think it was ever on my radar as something that I was going to get a chance to do. The book of our musical – the script – is so well done that you have all of the moments that you want from the movie, plus some more. I get to do all of the things Will Ferrell made iconic in the movie, and then there are a couple of things that I get to do that are all my own. So we’re having a blast.
What do you think it was about the movie – and now the musical – that really speaks to people?
I think it’s some of Will Ferrell’s best work he’s ever done. He is so honest and simple and easy in the movie. He doesn’t have a character; he just is this honest, lovable, sincere guy. And I think that hits you no matter who you are, no matter where you’re from, no matter what you’ve been through. You have this adult – he’s supposed to be 30 years old – who acts with this sincerity and honesty of a child, because he’s never been affected by the rest of the world. He’s only ever been in the North Pole, which has only ever been happy-go-lucky. And suddenly, he’s thrust into this jaded world that we all live in.
The reason it still is so successful is that it hits home for everybody. It’s a story for every generation. Kids obviously enjoy it because it’s silly, but adults enjoy it because it speaks on a higher level.
How do you try to go about making this version of Buddy your own? Or were you thinking about what Will Ferrell did when you worked with the script?
The brilliant thing Will Ferrell did is you never once think he’s anything but an adult. His sort of shtick in the world is to be that simple, honest guy that you never once think, "He’s not a grown adult" – which is why it’s so funny. So the challenge for me was to make sure that I never came off as a child, because then you kind of lose the humor. The humor isn’t that this young person is going through this experience. The humor is that it’s an adult going through this experience and doesn’t know how to cope with the world around him. So the challenge for me was to make sure I was keeping that honesty and sincerity and earnestness but making sure that I was still reading to everyone as an adult and not as a child.
I think we found how that works for us. We are definitely going to deliver on everything Will Ferrell and the cast of the original movie helped to create. But what’s so brilliant in the movie – and speaks so well to becoming a musical – is that Buddy likes to sing. Buddy likes to randomly burst out singing, and he announces to the world, "I’m singing," right in the middle of a store. It already was a musical right there. So it speaks so well to adding elaborate costumes and this gorgeous set and musical numbers. That’s where we get to flex our muscles and show off what we do.
How do you guys expand on the movie for a Broadway-sized show?
We just get to know the characters a little more personally. The brilliant part of movies is, in one second, I can cut from one place to another – and you don’t have to think about it. We can go outside to inside, and everybody’s wearing different costumes before you know it – and we can do a lot of incredible things on stage, but we can’t exactly, in the blink of an eye, change costumes and appear in an entirely different place and time.
We instead get to have the time to get to know the characters a little bit more. We get to really hear from Michael and Emily, who are Buddy’s stepbrother and stepmom. They have so much heart in the musical – and they do in the movie as well, but we get to hear their points of view and Christmas wishes to be closer to Walter, Buddy’s father. It’s just really lovely. We hear from Josie; we get to hear her side of things as we go along, rather than everything coming from the point of view of Buddy.
We’re just allowed that opportunity to spend a little more time with people – and really hear them sing about it, which is really cool.
Do you have a personal favorite Christmas movie?
I would hate to be so cliché, but I think it might be "Elf"! Here’s why: "Elf" is written in a way that, of course, it’s easy to watch for any contemporary audience member, but it also has moments that feel straight out of "It’s a Wonderful Life" or "Miracle on 34th Street" or "A Christmas Story." There’s these little tiny moments that are kind of nods to those holiday classics. There’s no better way to spend the holiday season than to see something that encompasses all of that together.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.