This month, actor Brant Miller has been doing dozens of shows a day. The audiences are small, but very appreciative. His character? Santa Sam. He's one of the four St. Nicks available for scheduled meet-and-greets at Mall of America's Santa Experience... and he loves it.
"People will be like, 'This must be the worst job ever,'" says Miller. "I go, 'No, it's the best job ever!'"
Santa Experience co-owner Rachael Zuleger majored in theater at the University of Minnesota, and immediately thought of Miller -- a co-founder of Four Humors Theater -- when the company decided last year to expand its red-suited ranks.
"I knew he could grow a full beard," Zuleger explains. "I knew he had the personality: that laugh, that smile. His improv skills were a major plus."
"The best improvisers make the other improvisers funnier," says Miller. "That's kind of what this is. If a kid says something fun and it's bringing levity to the room, I give them follow-ups."
Turning into Santa isn't a casual commitment. Miller has to start growing a beard by summer's end ("every Santa takes biotin"), and then the 35-year-old needs to bleach his hair white.
Miller says his wife, actor Christian Bardin, has been "super supportive," even though his convincingly aged look means the couple sometimes get funny looks when they go out together. "I got offered the senior discount at Taco Bell, which I didn't even know they had."
As a professional Claus, Miller has been welcomed into a sizable community. There are local and national Santa gatherings, and even a Santa Code.
"It's a lifestyle," he explains. "When you're Santa, you're always Santa. Even on my days off, when I'm wearing my glasses and I'm at Home Depot, people are like, 'Are you Santa?' I'm like, 'Yeah.'"
Miller's working to memorize more seasonal lore. "There's lots of stuff I should know, like 'The Night Before Christmas.' You're expected to be the Christmas expert."
Santa Sam is available for home visits, but there's an important condition: Miller will only do things befitting a real Santa. "I got a job offer, looking to hire a drunk, stumbling, filthy Santa at a party, handing out shots," he says. "I was like no, absolutely not. That goes against everything that being a real-beard Santa is about."
A day as Santa Sam is nothing like the cynical visions of department-store Santas in A Christmas Story or The Santaland Diaries. Miller gets down on the kids' level, letting his visitors lead the conversation.
"A kid will want to come in and just talk about, like, his dog," says Miller. "Sometimes we'll just laugh and laugh."
On a recent Sunday, Santa Sam's first guests were a pair of sisters who arrived carrying their own handwritten wish lists. They were shy at first, but Miller soon got them giggling with intentionally miscommunicated high fives. After the kids left, candy canes in hand, Miller looked approvingly at the photos snapped by Zuleger.
"Now," he says, "we just do that 100 times."