Anna Kendrick on Becoming the First Female Santa Claus in 'Noelle' (Set Visit)

Anna Kendrick, Noelle
Courtesy of Walt Disney Studios

On the set of Disney+'s Christmas comedy, Kendrick talks working with Shirley MacLaine and her holiday traditions.

Anna Kendrick is breaking the glass ceiling of the North Pole. In Disney+'s Christmas comedy, Noelle, she stars as the titular Kringle, the daughter of the late, great Kris and sister to Nick (Bill Hader), who is set to inherit the mantle of Santa. But when the pressures of the new gig become too much to bear, Nick goes AWOL and Noelle sets out on an epic odyssey to Arizona to bring him home and save Christmas. But the whole ordeal will lead her to a bigger realization: Why can't she be the first female Santa Claus?

But on the snowy Vancouver set of Noelle, the generally holly and jolly Kendrick was fretting about something else: the production's upcoming move outdoors to film scenes in Santa's village. "I'm always cold -- I'm one of those people that's always cold -- so not going to love shooting outside," she said, having bundled up in a parka over her costume pajamas. "I have a feeling I'll be in a worse mood." Between takes, Kendrick sits down to discuss infusing the holiday season with a much-needed dose of feminism, Shirley MacLaine's inspiring take-no-sh*t attitude and when she found out the truth about Santa.

Tell us who Noelle is when the film starts.

Anna Kendrick: Noelle is a spoiled, very bored young lady. She gets waited on hand and foot -- even though she insists she can do everything by herself -- by Shirley MacLaine, who's this amazing 250-year-old magical elf creature. She just flits around and does whatever she wants and she's kind of loving it, I'll be honest. She's loving life. And her brother is in training to be Santa Claus and he's very reluctant, but Noelle thinks that she can, like, whip him into shape in time. And then he disappears... And things happen!

Noelle embodies Christmas more than her brother does. What are the special qualities that she has?

There are some concrete magic things, which are always fun. Having a little mythology for a movie is always nice, to have a certain set of rules for Santa. It's those questions that all children ask about Santa when they find out about Santa. Like, "How does Santa fit down the chimney if it's not wide enough?" and we have a magical candy cane that expands the chimney. And Santa can speak every language, so Santa can ask any child what he or she wants for Christmas. There are lots of fun magical powers that she is discovering she has.

But also, just a warm quality. It's subtle in the movie, but there's just something that she has where people want to talk to her and open up to her, kind of like a bartender. That's not very family-friendly, but she has that therapist quality where people find themselves opening up and not knowing why. And Noelle wants to make people happy and she has a lot more compassion than she realizes. She has lived being bored and spoiled and now that she is finding purpose, she has a much greater capacity for her heart to allow all these people in, as it were.

Is that part of what drew you to the character and doing this movie?

Honestly, I just think it's funny and I love Christmas movies. Basically, my litmus test for whether I want to do a movie is like, "Would I want to watch this?" And I love Christmas movies and I think the script is really funny and there are lots of fun set pieces in it. I don't usually dive all that deep into the character, in terms of the decision-making. It's just like, "This looks like a fun movie and I would want to see this." So I was into it.

Has there been a set or a scene that's been particularly special for you?

I mean, all of them. The production design on this is bonkers. It is so exciting. The Kringle cottage, where the Kringles live, is incredible. And what's crazy is this is where the Kringle cottage was, and now it's something completely different. They build these sets and then fold them up and then build new amazing sets. The mall was pretty cool because it was a mall and I was like, "These sunglasses are cute. Who gets to keep these?" The sleigh is also really fun. It's on this big gimbal and there's a guy across the room holding a remote and he just throws you around. We had to do a lot of takes of those because I couldn't stop smiling. It really feels like you're on a personalized roller coaster, so I ruined a lot of takes because I could not contain how happy it made me and I was supposed to be, like, really scared.

Along those lines, you're working with some incredibly funny people in Bill Hader and Billy Eichner [as Noelle's tech-loving cousin Gabe]. Is breaking a problem?

Breaking is a big problem for me. But, luckily, Bill describes himself as a soft touch, so if I break, he breaks. So I can be like, "He started it!"

Do you consider this a feminist movie because Noelle is breaking the glass ceiling and becoming the first female Santa Claus?

Yeah. I mean, the scene we're doing right now, it's obviously a fantasy film and it's a heightened version of systems that are in place. There's this line that's thrown away about like, "Well, it's just this thing we've been doing for a thousand years. I don't know, these things happen. We all just assumed women couldn't do it..." So I do think that there's some big, heightened metaphors about feminism, but at the same time, I think there are elements of Santa Claus that, for children in the audience, will just be about Santa Claus.

And there are elements that are about the spirit of charity that happen at Christmas. Something like A Christmas Carol is a total classic, but I watched The Muppets Christmas Carol recently -- because I watch it every year -- and it really gets me every time, the idea of holding Christmas in your heart year-round. Because there is something nice that happens at Christmas where you feel more connected to people that you don't know, and people do a lot of charitable giving at Christmas. In some ways, there are elements of metaphor about that spirit in Noelle, in what Santa represents in the movie.

A lot of Christmas movies that we've seen are very white. This one seems to be way more inclusive and representative of different people of all different sizes, shapes, races.

I hope so. And let me tell you, we have this newcomer who plays Jake -- who's arguably the second lead -- who is my first friend that I manage to make, much to his chagrin, in the real world, as it were. He's a private detective and he's played by Kingsley Ben-Adir and he is so phenomenal. I feel like we're sitting on this big secret, you know what I mean? He's going to totally explode and I'm like, "We got you first!" He's done other work but, you know what I mean when you're like, "You're going to be big, man."

What surprised you the most about getting to work with Shirley?

I'm going to say it was surprising but it kind of shouldn't have been, just the feistiness in that woman. She has all these amazing stories and she is stubborn and opinionated and she's not here for anybody's sh*t and it's the best thing. It's so amazing. I don't know if it's a surprise but just what a badass she is.

Did you learn anything from working with her?

I mean, I learned a lot of things I can't tell you guys! [Laughs] Let me tell you... But there are definitely times where I think, "Maybe I should be more agreeable to make fewer waves," because I'm stubborn and I'm opinionated. But I want to be working when I'm 83 and looking at her is really inspiring, because it seems like she hasn't taken sh*t from anybody at any point in her life.

You get to sing an original song in this. Is it Christmassy or--?

It's Christmassy. It's just for the soundtrack and honestly, when Marc [Lawrence], our director, said, "My son wrote a song and my daughter is singing the demo and we want to play it for you and see if you want to sing it," I was really preparing myself to, like, let him down easy. I heard the song and I was like, "If anybody else sings that, I'm going to throw a fit," because it was so beautiful and I was definitely like, "I'm sorry, these are your children? How is that possible?" So I'm really excited about that.

Has it made it easier to tap into the Christmas spirit of it all, shooting so late in the year instead of in the middle of the summer?

Believe me, it would've been really annoying if we were shooting this in June, but especially this morning, I woke up and it was snowing out and I had Christmas music on. It's pretty hard to get me sick of Christmas -- I actually am one of those people that loves Christmas music and doesn't mind when it's playing in stores all the time -- so this has been really great. Everybody at the beginning of the shoot was like, "You're going to be so sick of Christmas clothes and Christmas music," and I was like, "Oh yeah? Watch me!" But it's very nice that it's happening late in the year because my friends seeing pictures of me online and stuff would have a lot of funny comments that I would not appreciate.

You're probably thrilled you get to come back after Christmas and keep filming, then.

I wonder if that'll be weird? Because we're coming back for two weeks in January, and there's always something really creepy about having your Christmas tree still up in January. So I wonder if that'll feel like, "Guys, what are we doing?" Like we're in a relationship that's gone bad, but we're just staying together.

Growing up, what were your Christmases like?

White. I grew up in Maine, so white in the sense of snow, and I guess also white in every sense because it is Maine. I love Maine but, you know, let's be real. We had snowy Christmases and there's a pond near my house that I would hobble over to and skate. And I had to skate for this movie, actually, and was like, "Well, I have skated on a little pond when I was a kid, so I'm sure it'll be like riding a bike." It was not like riding a bike. I definitely looked like Bambi learning to walk, the first couple of lessons, but now I miss it because I could just skate over to the director and ask a question and then skate back. It's a much more efficient form of transportation, really.

You're going to be wearing rollerblades on all future sets?

Yes! [Laughs]

Do you remember who first told you there was no Santa?

My older brother. I think younger siblings always get told by their older siblings.

How old were you?

I don't remember. I have absolutely no idea. But for a while, I kind of knew but I didn't want to know. So I told my mom that I knew Santa wasn't real but I thought Saint Nicholas was real. I was being very technical about it to try to hold on to the fantasy.

What are your favorite Christmas traditions?

My dad and I have a weird tradition where we play the Nutcracker Suite music and watch football with the sound down because one year the "Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies" matched up perfectly with a touchdown, so we try to recreate it every year.

Has it ever been recreated?

No. But we try it every year.

Do you have any nephews or nieces or little kids in your life that you're particularly excited to see this?

My cousin has a 2-year-old right now, so I think she'll be old enough to see this when it comes out and hopefully, she'll like it. But I'm definitely newly experiencing that thing that everybody has talked about where when there's a baby at Christmas, it's so much easier because it's all about the baby and you don't have to deal with your uncle's weird politics. It's just like, "Look at the baby, look! She likes the wrapping paper better than the present!" So last Christmas was great and this Christmas is going to be great because it's just all about the baby.

Noelle premieres on Disney+ on Nov. 12.