How Joaquin Phoenix's Joker inspired Matthew Morrison's Grinch
Comparing an unhinged Batman villain to the main character of a beloved children's holiday cartoon might seem off the deep end of Mount Crumpit — but for Matthew Morrison, the Grinch and Joaquin Phoenix's Joker have more in common than a penchant for green hair.
For starters, there's their shared mean streak, fueled by isolation and loneliness. But Morrison most specifically took inspiration from the Clown Prince of Crime's fancy footwork. "I didn't want the Grinch to be a good dancer," he tells EW. "I took a lot from Joaquin Phoenix's performance in Joker, just going down those steps, like loose and [reveling in] abandon and just carefree and raw. I really felt like that was how the Grinch would dance. At first, I was like 'I don't think the Grinch dances'; it didn't feel very Grinch-y, but then I came up with that and it felt right."
Never fear, this is still a family-friendly musical. Morrison is playing the infamous holiday hater in Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Musical, which will air Dec. 9 at 8 p.m. ET on NBC. It was filmed live at the Troubadour Theater in London, and it also stars Tony winner Denis O'Hare as adult Max (the Grinch's faithful dog), Booboo Stewart as young Max, and Amelia Minto as Cindy-Lou Who.
Morrison has been a face of musicals on television for the better part of the last decade, breaking out as the earnest Mr. Shue on Glee (after already racking up a successful Broadway resume that included originating Link Larkin in Hairspray and portraying Lt. Cable in the Lincoln Center revival of South Pacific). But this, surprisingly, marks his first of the live TV musicals, a trend the networks first revived in 2013 with The Sound of Music. (Although this musical special won't be completely live like its predecessors, due to COVID-19 related protocols.)
The musical version of The Grinch was previously seen on Broadway in 2006 and 2007. It features a book and lyrics by Tim Mason with music by Mel Marvin.
Ahead of the special, we called up Morrison to chat about what it was like getting done up in all that green makeup, why 2020 felt like the right time to join the live musical fun, and why the Grinch is the perfect story for right now.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You've done Broadway, film, TV, etc., but we've yet to catch you in one of these live TV musicals. What took so long, and why was now the time at last?
MATTHEW MORRISON: Well, I basically did a live television musical for six years. [Laughs] No, but I had entertained it a little bit, but it wasn't something I was called to or seeking out. But this one really resonated with me. They asked me to do it, and I said yes immediately because I think the theater community needs this right now. Honestly, the story of the Grinch is so relatable. At this moment in time with everyone feeling loneliness and isolation, probably a lot of people are feeling a little Grinch-y this year. It was just the right part and the right time, and those were among many more reasons to do this show.
You've generally played pretty nice, decent guys: Link, Lt. Cable, J.M. Barrie, Fabrizio. Was it difficult to play the king of mean himself?
I love playing dirty and dastardly. That's so much fun for me. Most people know me from Glee, and so this is a joy for me to do. But also this part in particular is one of those parts where anything goes. You can really do anything you want to with this character, and it won't be too big or too over-the-top. Having not worked in nine months, I really just also had this deep appreciation for what I get to do for a living. To not be doing that for so long, I had this hunger to really put everything into my next project. Thankfully it was this one, because I took some big swings. I don't know if they're going to be great or horrible, but I just went for it, and it felt dangerous and liberating all at the same time.
This makeup is also probably the most intense we've ever seen you in. Can you tell us a bit about the look, how you devised it, and what it's like performing under all that?
I can't imagine being Jim Carrey and doing an actual movie of this, having to day in and day out for months on end put that face on. I had to put the whole outfit on maybe five times. But it took three and a half hours to put on and an hour to take off. It was a little inhibiting, if I'm honest, just because you don't want to move your face too much because the prosthetic might fall off. I'm singing and dancing in this, and I'm a sweater and that messes with a lot of makeup things as well. It's not live, but it felt live-ish, because we had one take, maybe like a take and a half, to do this. The shooting schedule, which was over two days, was very ambitious. It felt very alive. It was fun. It definitely helps you get into that character and to take you away from any sense of ego about vanity or anything like that. You're the Grinch, you're green. I now have so much respect for any woman who has ever played Elphaba [in Wicked]. Having to go through that every night, oh my gosh!
You have this big belly too, and in reality you're a svelte guy. What was it like navigating the bulk of the costume when you're dancing?
It was challenging throwing the extra weight around. We had some brilliant costume designers, and they did the best job that they possibly could to make it as light as it was. But it was still pretty heavy. If I was ever to lose weight on a project, this was the one. I took that thing off every day, and besides the smell of it, it was just like, covered with sweat. This might be too much info, but I was drinking so much water, and I never had to go to the bathroom.
You mentioned how the present moment helped informed your version of the Grinch. How so?
There's so many mental health issues that are going on at the moment. I did a lot of research on that, going into what he must be going through and to feel safe in that isolation and loneliness. Because that's the hardest thing we're all going through right now. As human beings, we crave connection and community, and that's something that has been stripped away from us. I used a lot of the collective sorrow that we are all feeling globally. I used a lot of that energy that I feel every morning when I wake up. I have some family members that have some mental health issues, and it was actually great because it was the first time I really openly talked to them about it. I think it was really healing for them, so it was a win-win for everyone, and I really got more insight into it.
The Grinch is known for his distinctive voice and has been portrayed by the likes of Boris Karloff, Jim Carrey, and Benedict Cumberbatch. How did you find your take on it?
That was a challenge for me because I have to sing in the show too. I didn't want to go too harsh because that really affects your voice, talking like that constantly. But at the same time, I knew we were going to have two days to shoot this thing. I just saved up all my growliness and discomfort for those two days and left it on the table. It was fun; I did feel a little sore afterwards.
You went over to London to film this. Can you tell us more about that element and what it entailed?
NBC is airing this, but it was a bunch of London producers that put the whole thing together. It was as long as I've ever been away from my family, but it honestly helped with that feeling of loneliness and isolation. I was able to do the work that I needed to do for this part and put all my resources and energy into it, so it all worked out for the best. I love London, and with the West End being shut down, we had our pick of the litter of all the best talent.
The idea of doing live theater in the age of COVID-19 is strange. What has that experience been like?
The rehearsal process was unlike anything I've had to do. We all had to wear masks for the whole month, and we all had to maintain six feet. It was really an interesting process for me as an actor, just relying on someone's eyes and that's it. It was something when the masks finally came off in that last week, to see all the expression that we show with our face. It was counterintuitive. There were scenes where I had to hold Little Cindy-Lou Who's hand and stuff, but we actually were so far apart and weren't touching. Just all these little things that we had to do during the rehearsal process. NBC was so great in making this feel really safe, even though it felt awkward. I wanted to rip that mask off so many times. Especially as I was doing some of the dance numbers I had to do. Huffing and puffing through a mask, I had to go in a corner and just lift it up a little bit because it was tough.
What is a holiday tradition or something around this time of year that turns you into a Grinch?
I'm a pretty positive person. Honestly, I think social media is the biggest Grinch in a lot of our lives. It's just a space where people just can be negative and hide behind their screens and snark. That's the biggest Grinch in all of our lives right now.
You recorded "You're a Mean One, Mr. Grinch" on Glee, but is there a chance you'd add a song from the show into your solo concert repertoire?
Oh my God that's right, I totally didn't even put that together! There's a possibility. There's the songs we all know. But also there's some great gems in this score. I didn't really know the music of this show prior to doing this project, and I fell in love with it. The music is so strong, and it's really heartfelt stuff, so it could be possible if there is another Christmas album.
Lastly, you're part of the Broadway community. What does it mean to you to be bringing live theater to people's homes at a time when stages are dark?
Honestly, that's the main reason I took this job. I feel like the theater community needs this, to sit back and enjoy something that does feel live-ish. The design of the set is very almost two-dimensional. It's all black and white. It's a really recreation of the original Dr. Seuss books. They really kept it theatrical, which I thought was so important. It was just a beautiful way to blend television and theater but never say we're doing something for television or in a cinematic way. It felt very theatrical, and I love that it kept that integrity.