We’ve all seen a mall Santa in our day — an actor sweating it out in a red suit and beard to make some holiday magic. But the Beverly Center, a large shopping center in Los Angeles, may just have the most influential Saint Nick of them all.
Gregg Sulkin, who dons a red suit in A Cinderella Story: Christmas Wish, found inspiration for his own jolly Santa Claus in the mall’s iteration of the Christmas icon. “I did a lot of research at the one in the Beverly Center,” he quips to EW, before his costar Laura Marano jokingly adds, “Gregg is really an actor’s actor. He put the work in.”
The two former Disney Channel stars have an easy back-and-forth, a chemistry clearly visible in their modern takes on Cinderella and her prince. Christmas Wish marks the fifth installment of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment’s A Cinderella Story franchise, which began with a Hilary Duff movie in 2004. This latest musical update of the beloved fairy tale follows Katherine “Kat” Decker (Marano), who dreams of becoming a singer-songwriter but is limited by the demoralizing whims of her cruel stepfamily.
To make ends meet, Kat performs as a singing elf at billionaire Terrence Wintergarden’s Santa Land, where she starts to fall for the resident St. Nick (Sulkin), conveniently portrayed by a man also named Nick who is secretly the heir to the Wintergarden fortune. Kat and Nick have an instant connection, as evidenced by the exclusive clip above — but Kat has to overcome her stepfamily’s attempts to prevent her from attending the Wintergarden Christmas Gala, all with the help of her adorable dog, her BFF, and some holiday magic.
Ahead of the film’s debut (Oct. 15 on Digital and Oct. 29 on Blu-ray/DVD), we called up Marano and Sulkin to talk about filming a Christmas movie in March, dancing a duet as an elf and Santa, and how their Disney roots helped them tap into this contemporary take on a classic tale.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Because of timing, Christmas movies are almost never shot at Christmastime. When did you film this?
LAURA MARANO: It actually is the fastest movie to come together that I have ever done. We filmed in March. We filmed in Vancouver [Canada], when it was snowing, so it did feel really Christmasy.
GREGG SULKIN: On top of that, it is pretty special to film a Christmas movie not at Christmas because you get so excited for Christmas while you’re shooting it. I’ve literally now been looking forward to Christmas for way too long.
On a scale of 1 to 10, how uncomfortable were you having to dress up as Santa and an elf every day?
SULKIN: At first I was a little nervous to [think,] “How am I going to pull this off?” And then you just embrace it. There aren’t many opportunities in life where you get to dress up as Santa and get paid for it. Luckily, I just thought let’s commit to it, and the cast and crew were very supportive and liked my Santa look, which gave me a bit of confidence. Now I can always tell my future children I played Santa.
MARANO: Gregg was very nervous about his Santa impression. He was showing all the cast: “Is my Santa laugh okay? How is the deep voice?” He put a lot of work into his Santa impression, I was very impressed. Me as an elf was a lot easier than what you had to go through, Gregg.
SULKIN: Every actor has insecurities, and mine was playing Santa.
In essence, you’re playing versions of Cinderella and her prince. With your Disney roots, did you find it ironic or a fun twist to be taking on a fairy tale Disney made famous, but that has now received a modern update via Warner Bros.?
MARANO: I was maybe a little bit too much excited about it. It was a dream for me because not only am I playing a twist on the classic Cinderella, but it’s a Christmas movie, and I love Christmas. And [it’s] a musical! So it was all three of my favorite things in one.
SULKIN: We were given a platform at a young age and were able to work for the Disney brand. With that comes great responsibility, but also a huge fan base. It is pretty humbling to be part of a movie like this because there is fan base already there excited to watch whatever they’re about to put out.
MARANO: What’s really cool about this movie is it is a family movie. I absolutely love having a movie that I can have families watch and have parents come up to me saying they really, really liked the character and they love watching with their kids.
Laura, you sing a lot in this film, and you’ve always been as much a singer as an actress. How involved were you in the songwriting or the sound of the film?
MARANO: The incredible songwriters and producers for the film had worked on A Cinderella Story before this. This one we had a few more musical numbers and a few more songs, so it happened really, really quickly to when I got signed on. We recorded the music before filming so we could have something to lip-sync to and record to. And then after recording, before the film, I came back and we made sure it was the best possible music we were putting out. I did something I’ve never gotten to do: I had to overdub my voice singing, so be [it] in the dance move or whatever point I was visually, [I would] overdub some stuff vocally. I’d never done that before for anything I’ve had to sing to with acting or any kind of acting project that incorporated music. Overall I was loving the music. I’m a huge Christmas fan, huge Christmas music fan. All the songs we were just singing nonstop through shooting.
You two also have a great duet that you do in costume as elf and Santa. Can you tell us more about filming that, from choreography through to final version?
SULKIN: It was a lot of work. It was definitely rewarding at the end of the movie, but for me, this is the first time I’ve ever done anything with music or dancing, so this was definitely a challenge. There were many hours preparing and rehearsing. But it’s one of those where you push yourself and then at the end of it, you feel like, “Wow, I actually did it. I didn’t know I actually could.” But of course, there’s a massive team that helps you. Laura was the most incredible, supporting me the whole time.
MARANO: Gregg flipping rocked it. I know Gregg doesn’t have a musical background and a dance background, but, Gregg, you were crushing it so hard and rocked it so hard. “Santa Brought Me to You” is one of my favorite numbers in the film. We filmed it over two days. We were freezing cold, and at one point I broke a snow globe. So it was hectic.
Is breaking a snow globe some kind of holiday version of seven years’ bad luck?
MARANO: I don’t think so, because I’m very superstitious, so I feel like I would know if it was. I was very thankful that everyone was laughing and thought it was hilarious, because I was mortified. We had to do each vignette in one take. It’s one shot, so there was no editing around each part of the vignette. And so for that particular one, the choreography completely changed. We were supposed to be opening up presents, but we were on a bench instead and had completely new choreography. It took us a couple takes to really get it, and finally this one take, I felt really great about it, so I walk from the bench, crossing to go to the snow globe, feeling like hot stuff, feeling fantastic — and then I dropped the snow globe and it shattered everywhere.
SULKIN: I don’t think we actually got a better take. I think that was our best take.
What’s your favorite twist on the Cinderella fairy tale in this movie?
MARANO: I love that our Prince Charming is also in disguise. That’s something I haven’t seen before in a Cinderella retelling. Obviously, Cinderella gets her moment to shine and be someone else and something else, but to have the prince have the same aspect where he’s getting to be something else and in disguise, I thought that was fun.
SULKIN: Exactly the same experience, Laura. I feel like that’s what separates our version from the others. Each one is told in a great way, it’s always nice to see Cinderella get her moment, but the fact that the prince is in this version can get his moment too was a nice tie-in to the story.
Laura, you have both this adorable elf costume and then some amazing ballgowns. If you had to wear one for the rest of you life, which of those would you choose?
MARANO: The gown was a showstopping gown, and when I was in it, I felt like a million dollars. Everyone loved it, but it was just really complicated to go to the restroom in. Even to walk around, it was very tough and challenging. So the elf costume was really cute and way more low-maintenance, so I think I’d actually go with the elf costume.
SULKIN: I actually felt a little bit sorry for Laura. She’d come in with four people carrying her dress, struggling to get up the stairs. Laura was never late once to set, unless she was in that dress because she needed a team of people to help basically carry her.
MARANO: I knocked down a C-stand with the dress. I’m not even sure how I did it. The dress had its own personality.
What is your favorite holiday tradition?
SULKIN: I used to go midnight Mass with my mom when I was a young boy, so I thought that was really a special thing for me to do. I remember [another] tradition was foiled when my dad showed me a Santa Claus video of Santa coming in through the chimney and Santa Claus was wearing the same gold watch that my dad has on. That was the moment where my dreams were crushed. Christmas really is a very special time of the year, or holidays in general. It’s a time families come together. Hopefully, you look at the positives in life and you’re thankful for the little things that life gives you. I guess the perfect Christmas is all about feeling good and feeling happy. Hopefully, when people watch [Christmas Wish], they’ll be able to get in the spirit.
Marano: On Christmas Eve, my dad cooks this very intense Italian feast. And my mom and sister and I bake cookies and fudge and biscotti, and then we eat everything and watch Love, Actually. It’s my favorite day of the year. And Christmas films are such an important part of the holiday, so to be able to be in a Christmas film and holiday film that hopefully families are going to watch together is really cool and really special.