Karra Elejalde (Vitoria-Gasteiz, 1960) never stops. His prolific credits say it all. It’s not long after the release of Too Many Chefs (Joaquín Mazón, 2022) and Vasil (Avelina Prat, 2022) and already he’s back in the news with the arrival in cinemas of Paco Caballero’s fantastic family comedy Reyes contra Santa (The Three Wise Men Vs. Santa). Playing Melchior, he has to fight against a big and powerful enemy threatening to bring an end to Christmas. We talked with the double Goya winner (Even the Rain, Spanish Affair) about his flair for comedy and about Miguel de Unamuno, as well as about being a father, being a director, being mortal and working in a team.
Reyes contra Santa is not only for the little ones in the family.
True, it’s for both children and for parents, and it’s a multi-layered story that can be read in various ways and also has an instructive side. It’s really valuable for children to learn that their own actions can affect whether evil flourishes or fades.
Did you have experience shooting with as many special effects as you did here?
Not with so many. For example, you’re riding a motorcycle and there’s a chase scene, but the motorcycle is stationary and beside a green or blue screen. It’s not till later that you can see if your performance works well with what they’ve drawn around you. This is one of those movies. And I absolutely loved the experience.
I like it because the screenplay manages to say that the Wise Men, Santa Claus and other characters linked to these holidays really exist, but without being over-sentimental or sickly sweet.
Exactly. We are promoting the film in age groups in which there may be children watching and listening to us, and we are telling them that the Three Wise Men exist. And that there is a magical world out there. When journalists ask me what I’m going to ask Melchior for, I say: “That he forgives me if I did a bad job in the film.” It’s on me whether Melchior likes what I’ve done or not.
In Reyes contra Santa you worked alongside another great comedian, David Verdaguer. What was that like? When you’re together onscreen, it’s hard to decide who to look at and who to listen to.
David and I really loved working together and we gave each other a lot of strength. I’ve made a really good friend. We adore each other. David has both a great feel for comedy and good timing, both of which are crucial in comedy, and he puts them to great use. The Three Wise Men are each very different. David, like Caspar, is the most earthly one, the most romantic. And the least magical of the three. He is so, so human that he is about to defect and stop collaborating with us in the distribution of gifts. Balthasar, played by Matías Janick, is a big kid, the wise one, the know-it-all. He’s well-read and a bit self-important. And Melchior is the oldest, the first class sergeant who is considering retirement. He’s spent 2020 years as a Wise Man, and everything is starting to hurt!
It’s obvious that Paco Caballero, known for comedies like More the Merrier (2021) and Amor de madre (Mother’s Love), as well as various series, has a lot of experience in comedy and knows what’s funny and what’s not.
Totally. And, despite what a thug Paco is, he also introduces a critique of Anglo-Saxon cultural imperialism. Why do we say Santa Claus and not Papá Noel (Father Christmas) like we used to? Our Santa, played by Andrés Almeida, is Mexican, and he’s a bit creepy, but we end up showing that together, the four of us are a force to reckon with. Putting our squabbles aside, we make a helluva team.
And that would be the message – that we are better together than alone.
Yes, it’s better to work as a team, to not be envious and not to feed evil.
You’ve just starred in Vasil, by Avelina Prat, a comedy that’s the polar opposite of this one. In Reyes contra Santa the humor is much more overt, while in Vasil you go for a more minimalist approach, with more subtle gestures. And you do so together with another great comedic actor, the Bulgarian Ivan Barnev.
It’s harder to do comedy than to do drama. That’s because there are many ways to provoke tears. Not in comedy. Comedy is a very unusual thing. What’s more, you never know whether something will work or not. Sometimes you’re at a wedding, you tell a joke and it goes down well. The next month, you’re at another wedding and tell the same joke, and this time it bombs! Or you’re onstage, and on Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday the audience laughs along with you, but come Friday and now suddenly they’re not. And you wonder, what happened today, when I’m doing exactly the same thing. In Vasil, Ivan and I adopted the typical clown roles, the traditional clown duo, with one as the sidekick and the other as the clown.
You like to say that comedy arises out of conflict.
Yes, because for something to be funny, there needs to be a conflict between the characters. If there’s no conflict, there’s no comedy, whether in a small story like Vasil or a big one like Reyes contra Santa. Put a character in strife and, depending on how you play it, it can lead to drama or to comedy. Life’s like that – if we see a dear old lady topple over in the snow, at first it might make us laugh, and then we might realize the poor thing has actually broken her tailbone. Vasil addresses how clumsy we are when it comes to communicating. My character, who is already having trouble communicating with his daughter, played by Alexandra Jiménez, goes and runs into this Bulgarian. And then things get even more complicated.
Speaking of dramas, do you know that you made thousands of people cry with 100 metres (Marcel Barrena, 2016)?
Yes, I know. Sometimes, when we make a film, we don’t realize the effect it could later have on people later. In Santillana del Mar, a very old lady approached me and said: “You know, my husband died on me and my family insisted that I had to see Spanish Affair so that I would laugh a bit. At that time, I just wanted to be in mourning and cry, because I thought that as a widow, I had no right to have fun. I want to thank you, Karra, for having made that movie and for making me laugh and realize that life goes on.” Since then I’ve recognized that our profession has a role to play in providing some happiness for people.
I’m sure that lady wasn’t the only one.
It’s true, many people say to me: “Karra, thanks for all the fun and happiness you bring to my life.” I’m not a doctor, nor am I a firefighter saving a child, but I sure do have a nice job.
You haven’t directed any more feature films since Torapia (2004). Why?
Because I don’t have the money to make the kind of movie I would like to make. If I was to direct a feature film, I would produce it myself, because if not, it’s the never-ending rigmarole of “I need it and I don’t have it”. If the screenplay says I need seven helicopters, then I need seven helicopters. If not, I don’t want to direct, because otherwise things end up well beneath what the public have come to expect of you. Bottom line, either I produce it myself or I find a producer that I trust. And it also turns out that I’m more comfortable as an actor, screenwriter or even a make-up artist, than as a director. Moreover, it’s not even worth it financially – I earn more doing four leading roles a year than having to invest over two years of my life in order to direct.
You’re a perfectionist – you either do things well or not at all.
Precisely. And I don’t want to have a hard time on a shoot. Acting is ‘jouer’ in French, and ‘to play’ in English. And that’s what I want – to play.
Your daughter Ainara has just made her debut in the world of cinema, and none other than under the direction of Elena Trapé, in the film Els Encantats. Does she share your certainty that acting is her thing?
Ainara has spent years studying to be an actress, and she’s not intimidated by cameras or sets. But, since she’s the child of actors, they’re always going to compare her to the two of us, poor thing. I can’t wait to see her first work onscreen.
Let’s wind up by talking about Miguel de Unamuno, your character in While at War (2019), by Alejandro Amenábar. What lifelong lesson did you draw from Unamuno? Any particular line? Any thoughts that have stayed with you?
That in this life we are only elements and we don’t know where we came from or where we are going to. I’m an existentialist like Unamuno, and I share the same rage as him. Why? Because one day we all have to die. So what’s my role in this life? Am I fulfilling it or not? Something’s not right here because, if you’ve called me into being, at least tell me what I’m supposed to be doing here. And if there’s a prize for doing it well. You go to reception and ask… and there’s no one there to answer these vital questions. I have this ongoing tussle with God, who I think should really be providing us with some answers. And he doesn’t. That worries me.