Kal Penn on How Connection From Raunchy Comedy ‘Van Wilder’ Led to Part in Disney’s ‘The Santa Clauses’

After back-to-back turns in haunting projects like American Horror Story and Smile, Kal Penn hits the small screen in the family friendly holiday series The Santa Clauses opposite Tim Allen. In the (now streaming) Disney+ series, the entertainment industry vet plays a frustrated entrepreneur who is juggling ambitious business goals with the demands of being a father. The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Penn over Zoom to talk about how why he signed on, what it was like acting opposite young actors playing very old elves and who his character really is.

When this came your way, how familiar were you with The Santa Clause franchise?

Very familiar. The first Santa Clause movie came out when I was in high school, so I was a little older than the people who fully few up watching it. Meaning, I wasn’t eight years old playing Hungry Hungry Hippos but it did get added to the list of Christmas movies I watched growing up, like Home Alone, A Christmas Story and National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation. Jason Weiner is one of our executive producers and a director and we worked together years ago on a movie called [National Lampoon’s Van Wilder]. He emailed me and said, “Hey, I want to send you a script for a top secret holiday show. Let me know what you think. There may be a part in it for you.” As soon as I started reading it, I thought it could be a continuation of The Santa Clause movies. So yes, I knew that I wanted to be a part of it. I didn’t even need to read the other five episodes. I was super, super excited.

I love that the track from Van Wilder to a family holiday series about Santa Claus on Disney+…

I know, it’s quite a jump, right?

I don’t know that I’ve seen you play a father before. How was that experience?

It was cool. I like to joke about how confusing it is to prep for scenes because, for example, my character Simon has scenes with 20 elves who are 1,400 years old. In your head, you think I have a scene with a 1,400-year-old but then you show up to work and it’s a bunch of 10-year-olds who are obviously playing elves. But they’re brilliant and they’re so good. Our cast is amazing. But a creepy thing happens when they call a break and a big door slides open on the soundstage and suddenly, it’s 75-degrees outside with palm trees and all of these children with creepy, pointy ears and these disturbing elf shoes are walking around. Out of context it feels so strange. Put me back in the North Pole where everything is wholesome and magical and beautiful.

I’m out of time. Can you set the record straight on who you play? I know from watching the first few episodes that you are a father/entrepreneur but according to your credits on IMDb, it says “Simon/Santa Claus.” On your recent appearance on Live With Kelly and Ryan, you called your character a villain. So, who is Simon?

I would say that my character, Simon Choksi, is one of many people who Santa recruits to interview for the process of being the replacement Santa Claus when Tim Allen’s Santa decides that he’s going to retire. Simon happens to have the same initials, S.C., but I will leave it at that because his arc also reveals more about the relationship he has with his daughter and rediscovering the true meaning of Christmas.

Interview edited for length and clarity.

Kal Penn and Rupali Redd appear in a scene from Disney’s The Santa Clauses.

Disney/James Clark

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