There are very few people in the world that can say they have worked with great artists like Billy Wilder, Alfred Hitchcock, Bette Davis, Bob Fosse, and many others. But for Shirley MacLaine, who has had a successful career spanning over six decades, these are just some of the names she called friends over her lifetime.
MacLaine has played many characters, but in Noelle, one of the first Disney + original films, she takes on a role unlike any other she’s done before- a nanny who happens to be an elf. Polly (MacLaine) has been Noelle’s nanny her whole life. She has raised her, and basically been there and done everything for Noelle (even though Noelle is well into adulthood). So when Noelle needs Polly’s help to go find her brother Nick (Bill Hader), so that he can take his place as Santa and save Christmas from their cousin, Gabe (Billy Eichner), of course, Polly agrees.
We got to visit the set of Noelle in Vancouver two Christmases ago and sat down with the legend to talk about Noelle, what she thought of the FX miniseries Feud: Bette and Joan, and why the “Golden Age” of Hollywood is still so appealing to audiences.
Collider: Tell us about your character.
SHIRLEY MACLAINE: She’s a very no-nonsense nanny. Never been out of the North Pole. Does everything for Noelle. I like to say that everything Noelle is, is because of Polly. I think she’s really nice, really sensitive and also adventurous, funny and it’s like that in every scene.
Right now you’re adorned with the Phoenix turquoise, but do we see you in some more traditional elf clothes?
MACLAINE: These are it. No, no. I have elf clothes. It’s pretty straight. Something I would kind of wear. These are great. I’m not gonna get up to show you but I’ve got these great boots…And they’re there because I live in Santa Fe. I tried to get ‘em to shoot in Santa Fe but the deal was better here.
Can you tell us about your own Christmas traditions?
MACLAINE: ‘Cause I travel so much I have ‘em all over the world. Before you lived all these different places you don’t really… I’m these days really looking at the problems we’re having because of materialism, and so that, to me, is what our Christmas has become. So…it doesn’t mean that much except that I get my presents sent out in time.
It’s exciting that we’re getting to see our first female Santa Claus.
What does it mean to you getting to be a part of this project?
MACLAINE: You know, it’s coming at exactly the right time with all of the pink attitudes and what’s happening with women raising their voices about equality in every way. But it won’t be out until 2019. I mean ‘cause that’s how long it takes with all these special effects. But I love making it now and I love the idea, of course, of a female Santa Claus.
And seeing all the other women, like Mrs. Claus, and like you, running everything.
MACLAINE: Says a lot about Marc Lawrence, doesn’t it?
You’ve worked with a lot of great directors. What’s it been like working with Marc?
MACLAINE: Slow. But he’s brilliant, you know. He’s a writer and he thinks like a writer, too. He’s a real scientist of comedy and he understands what will work and [what] won’t. His dry comedy is very sophisticated. So let’s see how that works. I’ve always admired him. Talked with Sandy about it, Sandy Bullock. She worked with him several times. She’s the only one that has anything good to say about him so maybe that’s why I enjoy working with him ‘cause I like lookin’ at that mind. You see, he thinks hologramically. He will be saying one thing from that side of his brain when he really means this side of his brain. Then he’ll go up and down and around, instead of being so linear. That’s very interesting to me. But that’s what his comedy is based on, too, all the different attitudes that you might have and what makes you laugh.
You’ve had a very long, successful career. How have you seen the roles women have been offered and are currently taking change throughout the course of your career?
MACLAINE: How have roles for women changed? Well, there’s not enough of them. I don’t think that’s gotten better because, I mean, look at the old days when I was in the golden times, with Bette and Joan and all those wonderful people. They are the ones who got a picture made and that’s very rare now.
What did you think of Feud?
MACLAINE: Having known both of them and watching them together, I thought both women did a hell of a good job and I love that, what’s his name? Who does the…
MACLAINE: Ryan did a really did a good job. I think he wanted to play one of the parts. But he knew. It was such camp. Just a camp. But, at the same time, they were real and because it came from the past and the golden age you somehow believed that that level was real and it was. They acted like that. I mean you wouldn’t do that today but people wanna go back to the past and they wanna know how it was with those outrageous women, who, by the way, made or broke a studio. You don’t find that today. Well you barely find the studio, so.
Do you think the stars of the “Golden Age” seem bigger to us simply because of television?
MACLAINE: It could be. Because they weren’t allowed in our living rooms so we had this existential sort of separation and they were literally stars. Knowing a lot of them, which I did, they all treated me like this little baby and helped me. Bette Davis particularly. She was funny. Joan Crawford was very interesting. The attitude about talent was different. There was more equality in female and male money. But remember, I go much further back than a lot of these people that complain and can remember. I mean they were runnin’ the studios, these women, from the point of view of audience profit. Also, we were all under contract so they owned us. I was always rather rambunctious anyway, so I didn’t do what they wanted me to do half the time.
How has it been working with Anna? What’s your dynamic like on set?
MACLAINE: Oh, she’s terrific. Good voice. She’s been in since she was a kid – younger than [I was], actually. Did Annie and all that. [It’s been] fun to watch what’s happened with her career, fun to watch her. Also to watch what goes on from now on with her career.
Have you seen her in any of those Pitch Perfect movies?
MACLAINE: No, I saw her in the George Clooney Up In the Air movie. Knew there was something there then. How old was she in that? Like 25? This is the big one for her. Let’s see how it goes. Love working with Bill Hader too. I didn’t know he was a PA! I didn’t know he worked as the personal assistant of [Arnold] Schwarzenegger. I mean the guy has really been around. Very interesting that he’s so funny.
Some of the other actors have been talking about how you’ve been telling them a lot of stories and, I’m sure, asking you a lot of questions like we have been about the history of Hollywood. Has anyone asked you for any advice on set?
MACLAINE: They don’t need advice. They too wanna know what was it like in those days. I don’t think a lot of ‘em knew that I started when I was nineteen. Half of them couldn’t remember half the movies I did. Neither could I! But they were fascinated with the magic of it all because there’s nothing like it in the world, like Hollywood. Or let’s say like show business, frankly.But they’ve been wonderful. I leave my trailer open, I leave the door open for anybody [who] wants to come in and ask me questions. In many ways I wish there was more. They’re a little bit trepidacious. They don’t wanna take up my time, well, come on, I don’t wanna forget it either! Those were the days. I think about it quite often when someone asks me a really direct question. Like tonight, Billy was asking me who is the slowest director you ever worked with, and I said this one. Because I can’t remember the timing, what you remember is the talent. What you remember is the focus and the sense of dedication, even though it seems insane. It’s an insane business.
Noelle is now streaming exclusively on Disney +.