Peter Billingsley Teases 'A Christmas Story Christmas' : Ralphie Is 'Back on a Quest' 33 Years Later

Peter Billingsley chats with PEOPLE for an exclusive first look at A Christmas Story Christmas, which debuts Nov. 17 on HBO Max

Ralphie Returns! Peter Billingsley Is a Dad on a Mission in A Christmas Story Christmas First Look
A Christmas Story Christmas (2022). Photo: Yana Blajeva/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and HBO Max

Ralph Parker has some serious shoes to fill in A Christmas Story Christmas.

Peter Billingsley reprises his iconic role as the starry-eyed protagonist from 1983's A Christmas Story in HBO Max's upcoming sequel A Christmas Story Christmas, set 33 years after the beloved original.

PEOPLE has a first look at the family film, set in 1973, which stars Billingsley, 51, as the grown-up Ralphie: a father of two and struggling writer who returns to his childhood home on Cleveland Street in the fictional town of Hohman, Indiana, for the holidays after the unexpected death of his own dad, known simply as The Old Man (played by the late Darren McGavin in the first film).

Speaking with PEOPLE about the movie's plot, Billingsley teases, "Ralphie's not really where he wants to be in his life but he's still a dreamer, so he still has these fantasies of what his life could be, where it could go. And then he's called home with some real responsibilities and burdens."

A Christmas Story fans will remember that in the first movie, released almost 40 years ago and taking place in 1940, Ralphie had his eyes on the prize — a Red Ryder BB gun for Christmas — but by the end had learned some important lessons about family and the season.

"He's kind of now back on a quest," Billingsley says of his beloved, "relentless" character. "Nothing's going to stop him. ... He might not want to do it, but once he's in, he's in."

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Ralphie Returns! Peter Billingsley Is a Dad on a Mission in A Christmas Story Christmas First Look
A Christmas Story Christmas (2022). Yana Blajeva/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and HBO Max

Billingsley says the film had been in development for almost four years, and he was focused on playing both "offense" and "defense" to make sure the filmmakers would "get it right," as opposed to going for "low-hanging fruit."

"You really want to try to create something that could stand on its own, that's original," he says.

To that end, Billingsley was "cognizant" of wanting to "protect" the new movie's "association to the original" — which famously airs annually for 24 hours beginning the night of Christmas Eve and, for many fans, is "borderline sacred."

"The one word we used a lot was 'tone,' " he tells PEOPLE. "The first [movie] has such an interesting, unique tone. It's not the perfect family. They're hostile at times, they're loving and then there's this interesting voiceover and this reverence and some pretty adult things that Ralphie's having to go through."

Ralphie Returns! Peter Billingsley Is a Dad on a Mission in A Christmas Story Christmas First Look
A Christmas Story Christmas (2022). Yana Blajeva/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and HBO Max

"It feels very real, so we really wanted this to feel very much real, as well," he explains. "And I think that idea of going home felt like there was a lot there to return home [to]."

A Christmas Story is based on the book In God We Trust: All Others Pay Cash, first published by Jean Shepherd in 1966.

And Billingsley isn't the only original cast member to return for the new movie. Also among those reprising their roles from the 1983 film are Ian Petrella (who plays Ralphie's younger brother Randy Parker), Scott Schwartz (Flick), R. D. Robb (Schwartz) and Zack Ward (Scut Farkus).

New additions to the cast include Erinn Hayes as Ralphie's wife Sandy, River Drosche as his son Mark, Julianna Layne as his headstrong daughter Julie and Julie Hagerty as Ralphie's mother, Mrs. Parker. Hagerty, 67, takes over the role from Melinda Dillon, who retired from acting in 2007.

Billingsley also raves about having "the resources" to recreate many of the familiar sets from the first film for the sequel, including the Parker home and the entire neighborhood block.

"We created 11 structures back there, including the Bumpus house," he says. "We built them from the ground up and really replicated old Cleveland Street."

"To get those details right was such an important aspect to us that all those pieces had to align, and really, [we had] to have the story right," Billingsley adds.

A Christmas Story Christmas marks Billingsley's first time reprising his character of Ralphie — or being involved in any project related to the original film, save for his role as a producer on the 2012 Broadway production of A Christmas Story: The Musical, which was nominated for three Tony Awards: best musical, best book of a musical and best original score.

Ralphie Returns! Peter Billingsley Is a Dad on a Mission in A Christmas Story Christmas First Look
A Christmas Story Christmas (2022). Yana Blajeva/Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and HBO Max

Another big reason now felt like the right time for him to make the sequel? His own kids. (Billingsley shares a 5-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son with his wife of nearly seven years, Elizabeth.)

"A lot of people have said, 'Why now?' for this movie, and definitely being a father in real life [paralleled] being able to channel being a father in A Christmas Story Christmas," he says.

And while he has mostly been producing and directing throughout his adult life (save for a few cameos, like in 2003's Elf), Billingsley tells PEOPLE he has "been mostly driven by making movies" in general. (Also on his radar? Christmas with the Campbells, which Billingsley is producing alongside Vaughn, 52, and calls "kind of a Hallmark parody." That film hits theaters and AMC+ on Dec. 2.)

As for A Christmas Story Christmas, "It was a nice opportunity to channel my writing, producing and acting all back into one," Billingsley says.

The theme of loss — and carrying legacy on — is prevalent in A Christmas Story Christmas, which Billingsley says serves as both a sequel and, in a way, "actually the origin story" for the original.

Ralphie Returns! Peter Billingsley Is a Dad on a Mission in A Christmas Story Christmas First Look
A Christmas Story Christmas (2022). Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures and HBO Max

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Asked whether he thinks McGavin, who died in 2006 at age 83, would be proud of the sequel, Billingsley tells PEOPLE, "I do hope so."

"It very much is, in many ways, a love letter to the Old Man character and to Darren himself," he continues. "Darren was the best. He was such a gifted actor and a great person and such a mentor to me in the shooting of the first film, and was kind of like having [another] dad."

And at the end of the day, Billingsley says with a laugh that he feels "lucky in that sense that when you're associated with something that's iconic, you don't maybe get to pick what that's going be" — and Ralphie's story is one he will always be proud of.

"It's not something I could have run from, had I chosen to. And so it's certainly something that I welcome," he says.

Billingsley stars in and produced A Christmas Story Christmas, the latter alongside longtime friend Vince Vaughn through the pair's Wild West Picture Show Productions, for Legendary Pictures and Warner Bros. Pictures.

He also co-wrote the story for the movie in conjunction with Nick Schenk. Schenk, 56, also serves as executive producer on the film, and co-wrote the screenplay with director Clay Kaytis.

A Christmas Story Christmas debuts Nov. 17 on HBO Max.

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