'It's Lovely Being Mean': Benedict Cumberbatch Gets Into Character As The Grinch

Nov 11, 2018
Originally published on November 11, 2018 9:49 am

Sometimes it seems like there's no role Benedict Cumberbatch can't play.

He's been an iconic British detective, he's been J.R.R. Tolkein's dragon Smaug, he's been Doctor Strange — and now Cumberbatch is back on the big screen, voicing the Grinch, the bright green grump in a new animated version of Dr. Seuss's famous Christmas tale.

Cumberbatch says the story is a classic, but it was due for a reimagining. "I think it's such an iconic American role, and something I was surprised to be asked to do, and that's a good thing in an actor's life, when you're surprised by an offer."


Interview Highlights

On why the Grinch hates Christmas

He's part of Whoville, even though he's separated from it, and that's very much the heart of our retelling — this guy is traumatized by Christmas, because poor thing, he grew up as an orphan, and therefore all the joy and belonging and loving he sees going on everywhere else, he's not a part of. So he's, you could say, green with envy, and it makes him far more empathizable and far more of a sort of antihero, and also, we kind of enjoy the Grinch, we like him, we're used to him being mean. But he's only really scary when he can't see any answer other than stealing Christmas, and then he does get a bit psychotic — not to put our younger viewers off, but he becomes a bit tunnel-visioned, and the world we live in today, we know a few people like that, I think, who act out on hate and ignorance and fear, and it's pretty toxic. And the lesson, I think, is that you can take those people back into the fold by offering love and forgiveness.

On the trappings of Christmas

It's hard to imagine children that wouldn't be upset by the idea of waking up and discovering that all of their Christmas decorations and presents ... it is also a learning curve for the Whos in our version. I think in the book it's sort of slightly glided over that they're just, they're high on the spirit of Christmas, but I think the film deals with the reality, especially in the modern context, that those things are part of the excitement of Christmas, but they shouldn't be the raison d'etre for the excitement. The real excitement is the people who are giving each other something, the joy and love and generosity, the things we need most, as the Grinch says at the end of the film.

On getting in character as the Grinch

I had a lot of fun doing that. It's lovely being mean. It's great fun. I wouldn't, myself, go about knocking the heads off snowmen, or taking a jar away from a woman who's trying to reach to the top shelf to get it, and then put it back out of her reach. But I quite like playing those things, because watching them, you get a vicarious thrill out of it. As far as getting into character goes, it really was the book I went off first, and then we realized, oh Christ, he's just really mean. He's very kind of growly and snarly — that would take some enduring for an entire film, it would be a bit scary for kids. So we decided to remind ourselves that he really, really enjoys Christmas.

On play

You know, what we do for a living, there's a lot of navel-gazing, it gets a little bit serious in some interviews talking about all this, but the fact is, it's play. All of this is play. We're narrators, we're storytellers, and you reduce back to that innocent state of imagining and imagination, which is what all of Seuss's worlds are from. They're so extrapolated from our reality, they're so odd and unreal, and yet universally catchy and poignant and pertinent, and they transcend cultures and logic, because they just tap into that need for story and theme, and through rhyme and amazing illustrations, they do all that. So if you're an actor free on a mic to kind of imagine all that, it's kind of, it's a wonderful state to be in.

This story was produced for radio by Ian Stewart and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Copyright 2018 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Sometimes, it seems like there's no role Benedict Cumberbatch can't play. He's been the iconic British detective...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "SHERLOCK")

BENEDICT CUMBERBATCH: (As Sherlock Holmes) She's got a West Highland terrier called Whiskey - not exactly what we're looking for.

MARTIN FREEMAN: (As Dr. John Watson) Sherlock, for God's sake.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Tolkien's dragon Smaug.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE HOBBIT: THE DESOLATION OF SMAUG")

CUMBERBATCH: (As Smaug) I smell you.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And now Cumberbatch is back on the big screen as another icon, the Grinch.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE GRINCH")

CUMBERBATCH: (As The Grinch) If you can get past the present, the only obstacle left is the cookie. Look at it in all its red, sugary splendor.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He's the voice behind the bright-green grump in the new animated version of Dr. Seuss' Christmas tale. And Benedict Cumberbatch joins us now from New York. Welcome to the program.

CUMBERBATCH: Thank you for having me. I'm a big fan of the program.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And I'm a big fan of yours. And I'm a big fan of "The Grinch," which is, of course, a Christmas classic.

CUMBERBATCH: Yes.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And like "A Christmas Carol," the main character is not in the Christmas spirit. Why did you want to play the Grinch?

CUMBERBATCH: I think it's a time-old classic. And I think it was time, as well, for maybe a reimagining of it. And I think it's such an iconic American role and something I was surprised to be asked to do. And that's a good thing in an actor's life when you're surprised by an offer. And then they said, we love your accent. And I went, oh, that's very kind. Now, this is, I think, what the Grinch might sound like from my...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

CUMBERBATCH: ...Reading of the book. They went, oh, that's great, but we like your accent.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

CUMBERBATCH: And I went ah, but the Grinch doesn't have my accent. He's American. And they went, no, we want him to be in an English - it divided the room. Some people wanted that, and some producers wanted it to be American. And I sort of - I fought for that argument a little bit. And we landed on a voice we all liked.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why didn't you want him to be a Brit? It's the classic...

CUMBERBATCH: Because that would...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Evil character - the British accent, you know...

CUMBERBATCH: Yeah, for classic...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...The whole thing.

CUMBERBATCH: ...Really cliche. So I just wanted...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

CUMBERBATCH: ...To move away from that. And, you know, he's part of Whoville, even though he's separated from it. And that's very much the heart of our retelling. This guy is traumatized by Christmas because, poor thing, he grew up as an orphan. And therefore, all the joy and belonging and loving he sees going on everywhere else, he's not a part of. So he's, you could say, green with envy. And that's - it's - yeah, it makes him far more empathizable (ph) and far more of a sort of antihero.

And also, we kind of enjoy the Grinch. We like him. We're used to him being mean, but he's only really scary when he can't see any answer other than stealing Christmas, and then he does get a little psychotic. And not to put our younger viewers off, but, you know, he becomes a bit tunnel-visioned.

And in the world we live in today, we know a few people like that, I think, who act out on hate and ignorance and fear. And it's pretty toxic. And the lesson was, I think, that you can take those people back into the fold by offering love and forgiveness.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah, the thing in this retelling which I thought was really interesting - I mean, Jim Carrey's Grinch from the 2000 film was distinctly mean, right?

CUMBERBATCH: Yeah.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: But your Grinch is mostly unhappy. This seems like a story ultimately about loneliness.

CUMBERBATCH: Yeah, I think that's right. And not belonging in, I think, a place and not being accepted or forgiven for what you are. And I think one of the greatest things about Christmas is having that sense of community spirit where you look outside your own circumstances and try to help those less well-off than you. And, you know, acts of kindness are very important at that time of year because it can be very isolating and very lonely.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah. One of the things watching this film is that the Grinch reminds the people of Whoville that they don't need all the trappings of Christmas to find joy.

CUMBERBATCH: That's right because, obviously, it's hard to imagine children that wouldn't be upset by the idea of waking up and seeing that all of their Christmas decorations and presents had been...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: My daughter would be distinctly unhappy.

CUMBERBATCH: I think that that's - that she would be forgiven for that reaction. So, you know, it is also a learning curve for the Whos in our version. And I think in the book, it's sort of slightly glided over that they're just - they're high on the spirit of Christmas.

But I think the film deals with the reality, especially in a modern context, that, you know, those things are part of the excitement of Christmas. But they shouldn't be the raison d'etre for the excitement. The real excitement is the people who are giving each other something, the joy and love and generosity and the things we need most, as the Grinch says at the end of the film.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You know, you are obviously a renowned actor of stage and screen. And I'm just curious how you got into character for this. You know, how did you reach down into the Grinch's hardened, green, little heart? And what did you find?

CUMBERBATCH: I had a lot of fun doing that. I mean, it's lovely being mean. It's great fun. And, you know, I wouldn't myself go about knocking the heads off snowmen or taking a jar away from a woman who's trying to reach to the top shelf to get it and then...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: That's good to hear.

CUMBERBATCH: ...Put it back out of her reach. But I quite like playing those things because, like, watching them, you get a vicarious thrill out of it. As far as getting into character goes, it really was the book I went off first. And then we realized, oh, Christ, he's just really mean.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: He is really mean.

CUMBERBATCH: He was very kind of growly and snarly. And that would take some enduring for a whole film. It would be a bit scary for kids. So we decided to remind ourselves that he really, really enjoys Christmas. And that was the kind of key direction that Scott, the director, gave me because you are acting in the dark. You're on a mic. You're not with any other actors. You have no environment. You don't have any visual stimulus. So...

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Yeah.

CUMBERBATCH: You know what we do for a living, there's a lot of navel-gazing. And it gets a little bit serious in some interviews talking about all of this. But the fact is it's play.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: (Laughter).

CUMBERBATCH: All of this is play. We're narrators. We're storytellers. And you're reduced back to that innocent state of imagining and imagination, which is what all of Seuss' worlds are from. They're so extrapolated from our reality. They're so odd and unreal and yet universally catchy and poignant and pertinent.

And, you know, they transcend cultures and logic because they just tap into that need for story and theme. And through rhyme and amazing illustrations, they do that. So if you're an actor free on a mic to kind of imagine all of that, it's kind of - it's a wonderful state to be in.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Benedict Cumberbatch - he's the voice of the Grinch in "The Grinch" - out now. Thanks so much.

CUMBERBATCH: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.