Kurt Russell

Kurt Russell still believes in Santa Claus. Nothing unusual about that, of course (you get struck off his list if you don’t), but it’s still surprising to hear one of Hollywood’s go-to tough guys talking earnestly about his ‘obligation to capture the essence’ of the North Pole’s most famous son in new Netflix film The Christmas Chronicles.

‘This is a real person, not a comic book character,’ Russell tells Weekend when we meet in London. ‘There are really only a few people in history whose myth and legacy has continued on like this. Santa Claus has been around for 1700 years.’

The power of belief is a major theme in The Christmas Chronicles, in which Russell’s Santa enlists the help of a young girl and her cynical teenage brother to help him save the festive season from disaster. It’s a feelgood, unashamedly sentimental family film, which might make the man best known for playing grizzled anti-heroes like Escape From New York’s Snake Plissken a surprise choice to don the red velvet pantsuit.

That said, it’s not an entirely traditional take on the character. At one point, Santa gets arrested for stealing a car and thrown in the slammer, where he later performs the film’s big musical number – a bluesy slice of jailhouse rock worthy of Russell’s old pal Elvis himself.

‘Santa, to me, does have this slightly intimidating factor about him,’ says Russell. ‘He’s someone who kids are drawn to, but when they get close to him, very few can look him in the eye. I felt that was an important part of Santa Claus – he’s not afraid of slinging coal!

‘I very rarely think I’m the perfect choice for a role,’ he adds. ‘It’s not that I like talking myself out of projects, but if I’m not the guy, I’m not the guy. But with this, I said, “You’ve no idea how much you’ve gone to the right guy.”’ In other words, not only does Kurt Russell believe in Santa Claus, he believes he is Santa Claus.

And besides, the 67-year-old – a relaxed and genial presence in the flesh – reckons he’s not nearly as macho as people make out. ‘If somebody really looks at my career, and the pictures I’ve done, the truth is I’ve only played maybe six or seven characters that were abrasive or tough, or living in a tough world.’ He’s talking, in particular, of the gallery of rogues he played for director John Carpenter in the 1980s, including badass helicopter pilot RJ MacReady in The Thing and roughneck truck driver Jack Burton in Big Trouble in Little China – as well, of course, as war hero turned criminal Snake Plissken. ‘I understand they take up a big portion of what people think when they think of me,’ he says. ‘But I’m an actor who’s played a lot of different characters, all over the map.’

It’s not just about the roles, though. Off-screen, Russell is every inch the rugged, frontier type: he hunts, rides horses, flies planes and runs his own Colorado beef ranch. Which may explain why he’s so fond of a saying he once heard – ‘every actress is a little more than a woman, and every actor is a little less than a man’ – and why it took him so many years to accept that an actor is, indeed, what he is (as was his father, Bing). Is it true that, for decades, he even refused to use the word in his passport?

‘Yes, for a long, long time,’ he says. ‘When I worked, I loved doing the job, but I didn’t like being connected with what I saw as the representation of the job. It was just too embarrassing for me. It wasn’t until I was about 40, that I finally said, “Look, it’s what you do.” I never felt inhibited or embarrassed when I was doing it. But when I was younger I found it difficult to admire.’

In fact, though he enjoyed success from an early age – he made his film debut aged 12, kicking Elvis Presley in the shins in 1963’s It Happened at the World’s Fair, and won the title role in TV western The Travels of Jaimie McPheeters the same year – Russell never seemed hugely impressed with the Hollywood life. In newspaper interviews from the time, he’s adamant that his future lies with a career in baseball, and he would go on playing in the minor leagues until a shoulder injury forced his retirement in his early 20s. (He cried for days on learning he’d now have to fall back on acting full-time.)

Despite this, he signed a 10-year contract with Disney, and was the studio’s biggest star of the 1970s. He also became something of a personal protégée to Walt Disney himself, who would seek the youngster’s advice on upcoming releases (Russell says it was his lukewarm response to Mary Poppins that prompted Disney to add the dancing penguins). The very last thing Disney wrote, discovered on his desk following his death, was a memo with Russell’s name on it.

‘I was 10 when I started working, so I’m in my 57th year in the business,’ he says. ‘My dad said to me, when I was 10, “You’re earning a man’s salary, so do a man’s job.” My family didn’t tolerate childish behaviour. I was treated like a person, so I became one, at a very early age.’

Russell’s career may have gone the way of a thousand other former juvenile leads if John Carpenter hadn’t cast him in the title role of his 1979 TV biopic of his former shin-kicking victim, Elvis Presley. It was a risky venture – The King was only two years dead – but Russell was Emmy-nominated for the role, and a star was (re)born.

Despite being one of Hollywood's most bankable assets, with the likes of Backdraft, Tango & Cash, Stargate and Guardians of the Galaxy 2 giving him box office hits across six decades, Russell’s conservative political views (including opposing gun control) have always set him at odds with Tinseltown's liberal establishment.

‘You know, it’s been my experience that politics have had very little to do with the movies,’ he shrugs. ‘The movie speaks for itself. I’d say writers are probably the most liberal aspect of Hollywood. Directors? Not so much. Actors are all over the map. But if there’s anything political that doesn’t fit the movie, or sounds offensive, my point is always: Why do you want to offend half your audience? And if the answer is “because that’s the way I feel”, then I’m out. I’m not interested. 

‘So in that regard, I’m not afraid to put my feelings about certain things out there. There’ve been some really good directors that I’ve wanted to work with, but I could see they were going to go in with a political point of view that doesn’t help the movie… I think at that point, I’m not your guy. But there’s been very little of that. To me, I don’t care what your politics are, I care about what we can create here. That’s what’s interesting about the perception of me versus the reality. When I’m working, I could care less. The character has to be what’s best for the story, and if that’s completely against my way of thinking, so be it. I’m not a psychopath, but I play 'em!’

Last year, Russell and Goldie Hawn, his partner of 35 years, received adjoining stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. (The double ceremony, joked Hawn, was the nearest they’ve come to a wedding.) The pair, who met on the set of the 80s World War II drama Swing Shift, have a son, Wyatt, and Russell also has a son, Boston, from his marriage to first wife Season Hubley. Hawn’s children, the actors Kate and Oliver Hudson, both call Russell ‘Pa’.

Hawn once said that Russell wakes up happy every morning. What’s his secret?

‘I don’t know,’ he grins. ‘But it’s true. ‘I very rarely, I mean really rarely, wake up feeling down. I wake up looking forward to the day, thinking, hey, what’s out there? I gotta get going.’

From Walt Disney to Santa Claus, it’s been quite an extraordinary journey. Is Russell aware of quite how extraordinary?

‘That’s a good question,’ he considers. ‘Certainly, for most of my life, I’ve paid zero attention to that. There’s a thing Jimi Hendrix used to say, that I think applies to acting: you cannot perform if you’re doing it in a room full of mirrors. If you’re looking at yourself when you’re doing something, I think you’re sunk. And I find in life, that’s also true. 

‘I just live my life and do what I do,’ he adds, with a smile, ‘and let the chips fall as they may.’

Published in Waitrose Weekend, December 6, 2018

(c) Waitrose Weekend