Benedict Cumberbatch is feeling positively Grinch-y.
The actor lends his voice to Dr. Seuss’ Christmas-hating creation in The Grinch, which hits theaters Friday, Nov. 9.
Cumberbatch is no stranger to voice acting, having brought to life Smaug the dragon in The Hobbit films, but this is the first time he’s led a traditional animated family film, as The Hobbit and other projects have required Cumberbatch use motion capture to deliver the performance. The Oscar-nominated actor got green with Christmas loathing as he breathed life into the many sides of the Grinch, the infamous green mountain-dweller who hates Christmas so much he resolves to steal it from the Whos with the aid of his trusty dog Max.
Cumberbatch is joined by a cavalcade of voice talent including Angela Lansbury as the Mayor of Whoville, Kenan Thompson as new character Bricklebaum, Rashida Jones as Cindy Lou Who’s mom, and Pharrell Williams as the narrator. Illumination brings to life Whoville and the story of the Grinch in this new adaptation of Dr. Seuss’ beloved Christmas tale, which has previously been adapted as a 1966 television special with Boris Karloff voicing (and narrating) the Grinch and a live-action 2000 rendition starring Jim Carrey.
EW caught up with Cumberbatch ahead of the film’s release, and the actor opened up about his love of The Grinch as a character, the story’s ties to A Christmas Carol, and the Christmas traditions that both make him feel like a Grinch and make his heart grow two sizes.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Were you a fan of the original picture book or the 1960s cartoon with Boris Karloff?
Benedict Cumberbatch: The picture book, yes. The Boris Karloff cartoon I learned embarrassingly late in the game was in existence at all. But I absolutely love both. I basically knew the picture book. That was the thing that made an impact. I knew exactly what the character was, who he was, who the Whos were. I think Dr. Seuss is remarkable. He’s unique. He’s just got that amazing ability to chime in with children, with morality tales [that have] an extraordinary stretched, bizarre, and fantastical world that’s somehow universal and relatable and human. Despite the Grinch being a Grinch and not really a human, it’s very human. It strikes [a chord] for an Englishman with Charles Dickens and A Christmas Carol and Scrooge. [Scrooge is] very much a Grinch character — someone who’s curmudgeonly-ness and miserly-ness and anger and isolation and loneliness and meanness is transformed through a child. [That is] the manifestation of the true Christmas spirit. Changing them both from creatures that have hearts that are two sizes too small into both [creatures] that utterly embrace the whole thing.
The Grinch has a very distinctive shape and look, but did the animators take any inspiration from you or the way you move?
No, it was all determined by the book. For certain performative strokes definitely. They film your performance while you’re doing it, so it’s not in isolation from that…They’ve managed to embody this voice in a character that’s utterly unique, and I don’t think looks too much like me…They record every session so they can see the performances as well as hear [it]. But it’s not like facial capture, I never did anything of that nature.
When prepping and going in to record, how does this compare to motion capture?
It’s far less mobile. You’re a fixed point. You have to create a lot of energy, but it’s around a really fixed access of a microphone. Whether you’re being hauled around in a sleigh round a mountain or flung through a catapult or talking very quietly to a dog — all those levels have to come around a microphone. Your voice has to be supported by the action that makes it sound that way. But you have to stay on the mic, whereas with motion capture you can really swing yourself about because you have a headset usually. You can throw your body around the landscape…The other thing [is] you are in isolation at the mic. You don’t have Angela Lansbury or Kenan [Thompson] or any of the hundreds of people I did talk to. However, for this character, a little bit like Smaug, he lives in a mountain and he’s quite angry and isolated and alone, so apart from talking to Max who doesn’t verbalize, it helped for the character in this instance. It does get very weird if you’re doing quick-fire dialogue and you’re not in the room with the people you’re acting with.
Did you have a favorite scene or moment to record? You have so many delightfully curmudgeonly moments.
The moment in the supermarket quite early on where I try to perfect a “phawwww” where I threw the gherkin back up into the jar and put it back into the basket. Having stolen it and not liked it. That was a lot of fun. Every single scene had an element of [fun], even through boredom or insanity or sheer joy. We ran the spectrum on this. You really cover your bases as a voice artist because you need to give animators every possible ounce of juice they can get from you in order to have options when they’re drawing. But the upshot of that is sometimes you go, “Guys I think I’ve done this line about 50 times in this session alone having done it 500 times before, can I do something different?” And they’re like, “Yes, of course.” Then you improvise and that’s often when, getting free of the script, [you] come up with good moments, and I love that. I insisted on having one pass at it once the film was complete just saying, “Look, I think I could do better there. I think I could embellish that moment for you or give you a sound in that moment of action.”
The original story was just his heart was two sizes too small, but here we get a bigger picture of the Grinch disliking Christmas because of his isolation and loneliness. Why was that a subject you wanted to address in a holiday film?
Because I think that’s rampant in our world at the moment — the idea of someone or something that’s isolated and alone and acts out of fear and ignorance and distrust. Remember that those people are frightened and insecure so you have to offer them love, again, even though you might get hurt, in order to try and heal them and bring them in and make their heart grow again. Christmas is a great time to do that. The best of Christmas for all of us is that we’re off the grid with those we know and love the most in the world having a good time however that may manifest, and it’s not necessarily to do with presents. It’s much more to do with having time with those people, and not everyone has that. So seasonally, it’s a big thing to remember. A lot of what is nice to practice in a seasonal way as charity is bringing people in who otherwise wouldn’t have that contact, that belonging, that sense of purpose and security.
It’s a children’s film. It’s a very powerful one to throw out there for the film to be about love and goodness, the things we need most. But as usual, with Illumination and this genre of filmmaking, it’s done with such lightness and wit. It’s moving and important, but it’s also really entertaining. It’s also technically a stunning film to look at. Utterly beautiful.
Was that always the direction of the story?
You don’t necessarily get the whole script. There’s pitches all along the way and you know where it’s going. But I did say quite early on I really want to know why he is the way he is. Maybe there is a reason behind that, that he’s been hurt before. Why is he outside? Why is he green? Why does he live on his own in a mountain? What is all that about? The sort of motivational questions that a navel-gazing actor always asks. But you do need to make sense of characters. They can’t just exist in a vacuum, even if they’re animated characters in a family film.
What is a holiday tradition or Christmas thing that makes you feel most like a Grinch yourself?
Excess packaging, especially non-recyclable plastic. It’s enough already. We’re living [through] environmental disaster after environmental disaster. I don’t get why it’s not something that’s actually fine-able now, to wrap toys and goods in plastic that’s not needed. Toys are made of plastic as well. It’s plastic on plastic. That is the thing that gets me Grinch-y. Everything else is just part of the season. Last minute Christmas shopping? Often you’ve only got yourself to blame. But I just can’t stand all the excess that goes with consumer goods and packaging.
On the flip side, what are your own tips or traditions for getting in the spirit?
It’s just about family and friends and going off-grid for me. It’s about decorating of course — the tree, the house. I like getting out there and being with friends and family. I’ll be like, “Wow, I feel like I’ve been out three nights in a row — oh yeah, it’s Christmas!” I really love that sense of it being a holiday. I just enjoy the effort that people go to everywhere with decorations. I like being in a metropolis for Christmas, and I really like getting away from it all around the actual days and being in nature.