By Sydney Bucksbaum
November 04, 2019 at 09:00 AM EST

Klaus

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In Netflix’s upcoming animated Christmas movie Klaus, J.K. Simmons brings a new version of Santa Claus to life. But long before he lent his voice to the streaming service’s first original animated film, the Oscar-winning actor actually played Father Christmas in a much more thankless role.

In EW’s exclusive behind-the-scenes sneak peek at Klaus, Simmons reveals that when he was younger he actually spent some time working as a mall Santa. “I was obviously a wannabe actor at the time, fresh out of college,” Simmons tells EW. “I have no recollection of how that ended up happening, what unfortunate set of circumstances led to that. I do have a picture of my sister and her boyfriend at the time — husband now — coming to mock me, and my future brother-in-law sitting on my lap, regaling me with his Christmas wish list.”

Simmons laughs at how “eye-opening” of an experience it was suiting up and dealing with families over the stressful holidays. “This was way before I had kids,” he says. “So any naïve young man’s perspective on that is going to have a certain awakening as he deals with the vast diversity of kids’ and parents’ attitudes and temperaments as they line up to sit on your lap and make their requests — or demands in some cases!”

What most people don’t know about what it takes to be a mall Santa is “just the level of pure exhaustion that it led to,” Simmons adds. “At least in my case. Just the mental and emotional toll that it exacted.”

Since Klaus is an animated movie, Simmons didn’t have to don the red-and-white costume again to voice the titular character (which is probably a good thing since that suit could be triggering for him). “I did not take my mall Santa experience into the recording booth with me at all,” he says. “I was attracted to this idea based on the script and the familiarity of Klaus, that character. But it’s a very different take on it that I found really appealing.”

Written and directed by Sergio Pablos, Klaus is a comedy that delivers a new kind of origin story for Santa Claus. After proving himself to be the worst postman at the academy, Jesper (Jason Schwartzman) is sent to a frozen town in the North where he discovers Santa Claus, a.k.a. Klaus (Simmons), is hiding out. The selfish postman and a reclusive toymaker form an unlikely friendship and end up delivering joy to a cold, dark town that desperately needs it.

“It’s not Santa Claus, it’s Klaus,” Simmons says of how his version of the iconic character is going to be different from what people may be expecting. “He’s certainly not the cuddly St. Nick that people see when they go to Macy’s when we first meet him. Part of what was interesting and challenging and fun was that these characters go on a journey and Klaus really starts in a dark, unhappy place. He’s not jolly when we first meet him and it takes a lot of relentless cajoling to bring him out of himself.”

Klaus arrives in theaters Nov. 8 and on Netflix Nov. 15.

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