When you think about the term, “family-friendly,” Billy Eichner’s name isn’t necessarily what you would picture. While the comedian is best known for his brash, confrontational type of comedy, earlier this year he joined the Disney family by voicing one of the most beloved characters in The Lion King, Timon. Now, with the launch of Disney +, Eichner once again switches genres in one of Disney+’s first original films, the Christmas movie, Noelle.
Eichner plays Gabe, the cousin of Nick (Bill Hader) and Noelle Kringle (Anna Kendrick). After his uncle, Chris Kringle dies, Nick is being prepped to become the next Santa. However, the pressure gets to be too much for Nick and Gabe steps in to create a more tech-savvy, streamlined, Google/Amazon-esque North Pole. Noelle does not agree with how Gabe is changing things, and she sets off to find her brother, and bring him home before Gabe destroys Christmas forever.
Two years ago, we visited the magical set in a snow covered Vancouver. We got to sit down with Eichner and talk about wearing a man-bun for his role, being obsessed with Christmas even as a Jewish kid, and working with Shirley MacLaine and Julie Hagerty.
Collider: Tell us a little bit about your character.
BILLY EICHNER: I play Gabe Kringle and he’s the first cousin to Noelle and Nick. At some point, without giving too much away, I become the next in line to be Santa Claus and I’m this shy, tech obsessed, geek guy when it starts but then I go on this power trip of sorts when I become Santa. And this [man bun] is part of that. I think it’s fun. I mean, I wouldn’t have one in my normal existence. But I think it’s funny that at one point in the movie, I become Santa Claus but I’m trying to make Santa Claus relevant but in a desperate, kind of, silly, stupid way. Part of that is that I sort of fashion his wig into a man bun, which if nothing else, we’ve never seen before, so there’s that. He’s trying to be cool but in all the wrong ways, basically.
Tell me all the reasons why he’s wrong.
EICHNER: Why is he wrong? Well as an actor approaching the character, it’s funny because I wouldn’t say there are no villains in the movie, but Gabe is probably the closest thing to an antagonist of Nick and Noelle, and certainly of Mrs. Claus. They completely disagree on what Christmas is about. Gabe in his defense, just wants Christmas to look like the way our world looks now, which is very Googlized and it’s very high tech. It’s all about having the gifts delivered by Amazon or using a streaming platform, using a delivery service, making things faster and making things more efficient in the way that people have gotten used to. The only time that we don’t do that is when the Christmas spirit comes into play because it works against what Christmas is supposed to be about. So Gabe is just trying to bring Christmas into the 21st Century. Is he wrong to do that? Depends on what your perspective is, I guess.
Are there North Pole specific versions of like Google and Amazon Prime?
EICHNER: I don’t know how much we’re supposed to give away. What’s fun about it is that once Gabe takes over and becomes Santa Claus, he does make the North Pole more tech savvy, more sleeker, that’s not English, sorry. We have late nights here. He makes everything more efficient, more technologically advanced, and he does create a bit of a Google type of office atmosphere in the North Pole. He converts the Elves Workshop into something that’s more efficient. He introduces the North Pole to modern technology and, I don’t want to give every joke away but you can imagine where that goes, and everyone’s on their phone a lot more. Everyone’s on their iPad a lot more and he’s looking to team up with some sort of Amazon like delivery service to deliver the gifts as opposed to Santa delivering a billion gifts, which does seem impractical when you think about it.
What is this role allowing you to do that you’ve never gotten to do before?
EICHNER: I guess I’m known for more irreverent edgy types of comedy, certainly known for being confrontational. Gabe does have confrontational moments as the movie goes on but it’s certainly a new genre for me. I’m working on two Disney Movies right now that both come out in 2019. I’m doing this and I’m doing The Lion King, and that’s a voice, this is live action. These are new genres for me to try to bring my comedic voice into something that is more, for lack of a better term, family friendly. I’m used to cursing a lot and being able to do that and going crazy but I really love the challenge of not being able to do that and to not lean on that as a crutch.
How much did the character change from the first script that you got through your conversations with the director till now?
EICHNER: One of the conversations I had with Mark is originally, he offered me the part. I read the script and I thought it was really great, and I’m actually a Jewish kid from New York, who was always obsessed with Christmas, like most Jewish kids. That’s probably problematic but who cares? I’ll be dead when this comes out so I can say whatever I want in this interview. Maybe we’ll all be dead the way things are going. But I’m a sucker for Christmas and for Christmas movies and for Christmas in New York, and the whole thing. When I was younger, we didn’t have a Christmas Tree because we were Jewish, and I always was so jealous of all of my friends who had a Christmas Tree. I won’t say all Jewish kids feel like that but I know a lot that do cause Chanukah’s great but it’s just not the same. There aren’t many Chanukah windows at Saks. So I loved the idea of doing this big, somewhat old fashioned, but from a modern point of view, type of Christmas movie. I also come from a background of being able to improvise a lot and ad lib and write my own jokes and all of that, and Mark was very open to all of that as long as it obviously stayed within the voice of the movie. It’s not the “Billy Eichner Show.” But that’s been great and I have added a lot. I don’t know how much will end up in the movie of what I added but he’s allowed us to do that. Bill Hader, Anna Kendrick, we’re comedy folks so we like to get in there and improvise with each other and sometimes that’s when the best idea, or at least, the funniest things happen.
Which Christmas movie does it seem closest to?
EICHNER: Requiem For a Dream. Is that not a Christmas movie? Jennifer Connolly looks like she’s having a good time, if I remember correctly. What movie is it closest to? I mean, all Christmas movies share a lot in common, I would say. This does take place on the North Pole, it does involve Santa and his family. This is controversial but for me, it does not get better than Elf. Elf is so funny, it really holds up, and it’s very heartfelt. I wouldn’t say this is borrowing from it in any way, and it’s from a female point of view. One of the angles of the movie is that we’re dealing with the idea of the first female Santa Claus and in that way, you can’t compare it to anything. I don’t think we’ve ever seen that and that’s very cool. It is this old fashioned, heartfelt, funny, Hollywood movie but from a very new perspective, which is what I felt was cool about it. I think that’ll be cool for everyone to see but particularly young girls, because they don’t have any other movies where a girl becomes Santa Claus.
As a Pop Culture aficionado, what’s it been like to work with Shirley MacLaine and Julie Hagerty?
EICHNER:It’s amazing and Shirley MacLaine is another reason why I had to do the movie because it’s Shirley MacLaine. She’s incredible. I don’t like to bother her too much cause I don’t want to be annoying. We had a great cast dinner the first night where Shirley was just telling us all these stories that I cannot repeat. I know she’s written many books but some of these are not in her book. She’s talking about movies I grew up worshipping, Terms of Endearment, The Apartment, Being There, and I told her, ‘I’m sorry, Shirley, we have to talk about Steel Magnolias for 5 minutes. I’m really sorry but we do.’ She was happy about that. I mean, come on, Sweet Charity, the list goes on and on, I mean, it’s insane. She’s literally talking about Hitchcock and she means it. She’s talking about working with Hitchcock and she’s talking from experience. She’s not talking because she read something in Wikipedia, you know what I mean? There aren’t that many around like that anymore. She’s a real legend and so down to earth and so easy to talk to. Just a real pro. She just watched Darren Anofsky’s mother!, she’s watching all her screeners, and it’s just great to get her perspective on it.
And Julie Hagerty, I really freaked out. I found out that she was in the movie just a few days before I came up to start working on it and, honest to God, there was no movies I watched more as a child on HBO than Airplane and Airplane II. I freaked out when I found out she was gonna be in it because she’s a real icon to me and so hilarious and she also happens to be, literally, the nicest person. If you haven’t spoken to her, she’s the nicest person you’ve ever met to the point where you’re like, is there something wrong because you’re so nice. They’re both incredible, it’s really amazing to just be sitting around chatting with them. It’s pretty awesome and they must feel the same about me. Sure, I had two scenes in Neighbors II so Shirley had a lot of questions.
Noelle is now playing exclusively on Disney+