David Krumholtz Returns to Bernard the Elf in The Santa Clauses

Spoilers ahead for The Santa Clauses Chapter 5: Across the Yule-verse

In the new Disney+ series The Santa Clauses, Tim Allen’s Santa Claus (né Scott Calvin) is on the brink of retirement. After 28 years of making his list and checking it twice, he has lost his Christmas magic and is looking for a successor. Unfortunately, Scott’s hand-picked replacement, fledgling tech bro and toy maker Simon Choksi (Kal Penn), is wreaking havoc in the North Pole by making the holiday all about getting instead of giving. In the fifth episode of The Santa Clauses, streaming now, Bernard the (former) Head Elf (played by David Krumholtz) shows up to teach Scott the true meaning of Christmas by taking a trip through the Yule-verse. (Think Marvel’s multiverse, but with way more Santa Clauses.)

For Krumholtz, who was 16-years-old when he made 1994’s The Santa Clause, the cameo was a walk down memory lane. It’s been 20 years since the 44-year-old last played Bernard in The Santa Clause 2—and his return to the holiday franchise wouldn’t have happened without the fans. “From what Tim Allen told me, the Internet reaction was so violent for me to return, or for Bernard to return, that they couldn’t not have me back,” Krumholtz tells TIME ahead of his Santa Clauses appearance. “So truly it is a thing that the fans made happen. I have that on good authority from Santa Claus himself.”

The decision to play Bernard again after skipping 2006’s The Santa Clause 3: The Escape Clause (for reasons he explains below) was easy. “I knew how much people wanted it,” he says. “To this day, it’s what I get recognized for most. I’m super grateful for it. I feel like I owe the universe a debt of gratitude for the privilege of being popular for anything.”

Below, Krumholtz, now starring on Broadway in Tom Stoppard’s Leopoldstadt, talked about his Santa Clauses return, Bernard’s ever-changing wig, and finding joy in his most iconic role.

It’s been 20 years since you last played Santa’s head elf Bernard in The Santa Clause 2. How did you get back into character?

Honestly, I had to just get over myself a little bit. For the longest time, my ego wouldn’t allow me to be associated with the character. I’ll admit I resented [The Santa Clause] for a good portion of my 20s and 30s, but only having recently had children myself, I thought, there’s something sort of worth emulating about Bernard. I wish I could be Bernard in a way.

How so?

He’s a good guy who is trying his best to save Christmas and do the right thing. I thought that’s something I could be again. That said, on the first day [of shooting The Santa Clauses], putting on the costume—which, by the way, is the exact same costume from The Santa Clause 2. It still fit, which made me feel really good because I’m vain—I was a little embarrassed. The first couple of takes, it wasn’t there. I went off into a corner and got real with myself and thought, “Who are you doing this for? You’re not doing it for yourself. You’re doing it for children who believe in the spirit of Christmas.” It took a couple takes, but then he was there.

You got to wear Bernard’s original costume, but was that the original wig?

Oddly, the hair and makeup department on The Santa Clauses had been under the assumption that that was my hair. When I got to the makeup and hair test for it, I said, “Where’s the wig?” And they didn’t have it and had to go out and get one. The wig is different in each incarnation. The first one was dreadlocks, which wasn’t a wig, but extensions that they put in my hair. The second one was a wig that was attached to the hat and was a bit more curly. This one is as close to, I guess you could say, a Jheri curl. Internet shaming is inevitable. That was my first thought, honestly, when I put on the wig: “Oh boy, I’m gonna get slammed for this.” But whatever, bring it on. I’m ready to face all of it.

I don’t think you have to worry—the Internet is full of love for Bernard, who many fans consider their first crush. What does that mean to you?

It took me a while to understand it. I thought I was really ugly for a really long time. I felt very awkward because he’s a Christmas elf and I’m not Captain America, you know? But I’ve heard everything, from Bernard is a queer icon to a trans icon to first crush. Bernard is safe, loving, kind and, I guess, kind of cute. It’ll never not be funny, being sort of lusted after, but I don’t avoid it anymore. I think it’s wonderful.

You play a pivotal role in the series, helping Santa regain his Christmas spirit. What was it like reteaming with Tim Allen after all these years?

We didn’t miss a step. The first time I was on set, I kind of played a prank on Tim. I just sat in a chair with my sunglasses and KN95 mask on with my hood over my head looking kind of scary. Tim walked in and just looked at me like the Grim Reaper had arrived. Then I revealed myself and he couldn’t have been happier to see me. Tim is an incredibly funny human being, and he always has been, that’s never changed. I was just happy to be back laughing as hard as I did around him.

The mystery of what Bernard has been up to for the last 20 years is finally solved in The Santa Clauses. We learn he gave up his eternal youth for love. Were you surprised that Bernard is such a romantic?

Not at all. He’s a soulful guy who put in the time. He had a right to retire. Who wouldn’t want to be married to the great Vanessa Redgrave?

I do love that Bernard reveals he’s now married to Academy Award-winning actress Vanessa Redgrave. Where did that joke come from?

I have no idea, but I didn’t question it. When I read that in the script, I was sitting in Jon & Vinny’s Pizzeria on Fairfax Avenue in L.A. and I literally screamed out laughing. It was such an irreverent choice. I got some weird looks in the restaurant, but [the joke] was a little stroke of brilliance that was fun to play.

You told Vulture last year that part of the reason you didn’t appear in The Santa Clause 3 was because you felt Bernard had been “devalued.” Recently, Tim Allen admitted that they “overshot the runway” with the third movie. Does his comment feel like justice for Bernard?

What Tim said was that there was a bit of a money grab attitude in making the third one. What I said about my character being quote-unquote “devalued” was not so much about how my character was written in the movie. When you do a trilogy that’s a hit you hope that the third movie brings in a nice payday. Part of me not doing that movie was also that Disney just didn’t feel that the character warranted, that I warranted, a chunk of money. I was really busy at the time doing [the TV show] Numbers and it was going to be really impossible to do both. They made my offer really late and it was just an insulting offer that I couldn’t bring myself to do given the circumstances. I was going to be working 20-hour days and burning the candle at both ends, and I was surprised by the economics behind the film at the time.

What was Bernard’s role in The Santa Clause 3?

David Krumholtz Returns to Bernard the Elf in The Santa Clauses

The script was weird. There was originally a scene in it where Tim becomes Scott Calvin again, and he goes to a mall and he sees a mall Santa and the mall Santa’s elf is me. He comes up to me and he is like, “Bernard, what are you doing here?” And I’m like, “Dude, my name’s Randy. Like, I’m not Bernard.” I thought that would scare the living hell out of children. That was another reason I thought, “I’m gonna skip this one.” But it always broke my heart to not do the third movie because I wanted to be part of that. It’s really nice that I get to be a little part of this.

You’ve mentioned in the past that you have some regrets in regard to The Santa Clause. Did playing Bernard again allow you to work through any unresolved feelings related to the role?

Absolutely. I had this one thing that happened back then that I haven’t really talked about. I was invited to the Walt Disney World Christmas Day Parade [in 2002] in promotion for the second Santa Clause movie. I showed up thinking that they just wanted me, but instead they wanted me in full regalia doing a dance with Hilary Duff to the song she did for Santa Clause 2. I said, “No, I don’t make public appearances as Bernard.” Later in life, I realized that was a dumb business move because I probably pissed Disney off. I also just felt bad, like, who am I? I was young, I was 25, and the ego was massive. Getting to do this again and put all that aside and do it for all the right reasons felt good. I only shot two or three days [on The Santa Clauses] and in those days, the shooting in Uvalde occurred. The morning after that shooting, we were working with a little child on set, a seven-year-old who is playing young Scott Calvin in a flashback. It weighed on Tim and I quite heavily. Suddenly this was not about some vanity project or some silly little nostalgia thing. The story of Santa Claus is of an unconditionally giving man and the elves, who work really hard to help make that giving happen. I realized my funny little storyline could actually be healing. That was all the closure I needed right there.

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