For Mark Hamill, who first found fame in the original “Star Wars” films, being part of the NBC film “Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas” (premiering at 7 p.m. Tuesday, WMAQ-Channel 5) continues the actor’s lifelong love of all things yuletide.
Calling from his California home the other day, Hamill said “it was a huge thrill” to be one of the voice talents in “Elf,” based on both the hugely popular Will Ferrell film and the subsequent Broadway musical.
“These kinds of holiday specials are such a part of the fabric of American life,” said Hamill. “You really associate these kinds of things with the holidays. How can you have Thanksgiving without the Macy’s Parade? My earliest memories were of watching ‘Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol,’ or ‘Charlie Brown Christmas.’ In this case it was very reminiscent of the Rankin/Bass musicals — ‘Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” and so forth.”
Rankin/Bass developed a reputation for seasonal TV specials using stop-motion animation, which is employed in “Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas.” For Hamill, being part of this new production was “like going back into a time machine — back to the ’60s. It’s so retro-cool. I love how stylized it was with the puppets and stop-motion approach. The fact that they are even doing stop-frame animation anymore, instead of just doing computer-generated animation imagery, is quite thrilling.”
Hamill doubted he personally would have the patience to work behind the camera on a stop-motion film. “It’s 22 frames per second. They end up with like five seconds of finished footage a day. Talk about patience! I can’t comprehend that skill. That’s how specialized it is.”
For “Elf: Buddy’s Musical Christmas,” the actor voices the dad character, Walter. “He’s sort of the Scrooge of the piece, because he doesn’t have the Christmas spirit. But, of course, he does have that arc and he changes. He starts out cynical about Christmas, and I think that’s a relatable attitude for people that get fed up with all the Christmas hoopla, or think it’s overly commercialized or whatnot.”
While Hamill totally loved making the film, he joked about one aspect of it — a frequent downside of making almost all animated films. “People will come up to me now and say, ‘What’s [fellow voice talent] Jim Parsons [who voices Buddy] or Gilbert Gottfried like?’ Or they’ll ask me about working with Fred Armisen, or how was Jay Leno to work with.
“Of course, as often happens with these things, I didn’t work with those people. We recorded our parts separately. For the scenes I had with Gilbert, where we’re talking back and forth, they may have done Gilbert in New York for all I know!”
Asked about his own favorite Christmas traditions, Hamill recalled a special custom dating back to his childhood.
After putting out the eggnog and cookies for Santa on Christmas Eve, and the carrots for his reindeer, “we’d turn out all the lights and look out the window and try to spot elves. I also did it when our own kids were small. The whole trick is, the older brothers and sisters would slip away in the dark and go across the street and have jingle bells — staying just far enough away that you’d see a figure darting between houses. But I have to tell you we would just scream, we were so excited!
“Of course, when you got old enough not to believe in Santa anymore, you’d be enlisted into the Elf Squad, being told by our parents and older brothers and sisters, ‘Don’t make it too obvious. Don’t give it away.’ You’d be hunched over — usually with a laundry bag over your shoulder, wearing some kind of cap and, of course, carrying those jingle bells. It really worked on the kids who were 6 and younger.”
Hamill shared advice he got from his older siblings when he got to the age where he began to doubt the reality of St. Nick. “My brothers and sisters would tell us, ‘The minute you admit you don’t believe in Santa Claus, your presents are going to go from being toys to being clothes and school supplies.’
Of course, I couldn’t let Hamill get away without asking him about being involved in the much-anticipated reboot of “Star Wars” for the big screen. “It’s certainly unexpected, that’s for sure. I thought even if they went on, I wouldn’t be involved. We had a beginning, a middle and an end. That was it.”
The biggest change from Hamill’s first “Star Wars” experience in the 1970s is the existence of the Internet and social media, forcing the film’s team to really go stealth. “The whole idea is not that we’re trying to play games with people,” said Hamill. “It’s just that they are hoping audiences can enjoy it at the movies instead having it spoiled on the Internet. We’re living in such a different age now. It’s like a competition to see who can leak information faster than the next guy. I don’t get it. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that they don’t get a copy of the script and leak the whole thing on the Internet.”
The actor shared a story about what it’s like on the set of “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” opening next December.
“It’s the first time I’ve ever been on a movie set where if you go from your trailer to a soundstage, you have to put on an enormous robe with a hood that hangs down over your head. I asked one of the production assistants, ‘What’s this all about.’ They told me, ‘Oh, it’s because of the drones,’ flying overhead, taking photographs of people walking to the soundstage.
“Really, it’s come to that? In the old days, the studio was like a sanctuary. You were protected from the outside world. You could relax. Not anymore!”