USA TODAY spoke with Benedict Cumberbatch about channeling Dr. Seuss’ “brilliant” Grinch.
The English actor, 42, has played cantankerous genius types, from Marvel’s Doctor Strange to Sherlock Holmes. But Cumberbatch knew he was stepping up that game revisiting the conniving Grinch from Theodor Seuss Geisel’s (aka Dr. Seuss) children’s book and the classic Chuck Jones 1966 TV special “How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”
“That’s the joy: Vicariously or not, you get a thrill out of some of his meanness,” says Cumberbatch, speaking by phone from New York, where the animated movie premiered last week with an avocado-green carpet. But there’s Grinch love, too, in the new version (in theaters Friday). USA TODAY spoke to a surprisingly joyful Cumberbatch about donning Christmas sweaters, driving like a Grinch and what makes him crazy during the holidays.
Question: Sensitive actors would hate that call saying, “You’re the perfect Grinch!” How did that go down?
Benedict Cumberbatch: I have my moments. But, I thought, “Christ, it’s a bit early for being called out as a Grinch, isn’t it?” One of my first questions, in all seriousness was, why me? They said, “We love your voice.” So I gave them a Grinch voice, quite animal-y with an American dialect. They went, “No, we’d like your voice.” Then I got it. They saw a correlation between casting Benedict Cumberbatch as the Grinch. They saw Sherlock, and outsiders, somewhat socially awkward, who can be occasionally rude. I said, “I might not be the right guy.” I had to stick to my guns: “You cannot release a film with an English Grinch. It’s got to be an American.”
Q: Is your argument undermined by the fact that English actor Boris Karloff voiced the Grinch in the original TV special with a British accent?
Cumberbatch: Did he? I haven’t seen the original. I loved the book but haven’t seen either of the other versions (the TV special or the 2000 Jim Carrey movie). I’m looking forward to seeing both now that I’m free of them influencing what I was doing. But there is something classically American in the rhyming scheme that lends itself much more to an American accent.
Q: Do people understand that the Grinch ethos is laudable in some areas, such as his stance against Christmas commercialism?
Cumberbatch: He’s proven right and wrong. But when you start stealing toys from kids, it doesn’t go down so well. That’s a pretty hard sell at Christmas.
Q: Does the Grinch offer freedom to be grumpy over the holidays?
Cumberbatch: There are certain things that are going to grind you down. I’ve worked in a shop over the Christmas season, with the holiday track repeating. It drives you insane. And your Christmas spirit gets really, really tested. I’m not as high on Christmas as the Whos of Whoville. But I’m not as Grinchy about it as the Grinch. I’m somewhere in a happy English, cynical, medium place about the whole thing.
Q: What holiday aspect brings out your Grinch?
Cumberbatch: Definitely plastic winds me up at Christmas with the amount of waste and short-term joy. Beyond that, I’m human behind the wheel. Everyone can get lost within their world and feel like they are driving on Mount Crumpit and the world is at fault. I can get Grinchy in a car. I get quite Grinchy when I’m hangry or jet-lagged. That happens. But I don’t have too much to get Grinchy about, honestly. And I love Christmas for the reasons this film celebrates.
Q: Did you ever pull the Grinch card, get grumpy while recording and say it was for character reasons?
Cumberbatch: I prepped for this by getting very Grinchy about doing another recording session, saying the same line 500 times. That’s enough to put you in the Grinch spirit. But it was always a joy going into the Soho recording studio. There would be a healthy breakfast shot of something green-looking with a bit of ginger. I’d have one to get my green on, go downstairs with a smile on my face and then get cracking.
Q: Christmas is a great time for villains. Who’s your favorite?
Cumberbatch: Hans Gruber in “Die Hard.” It is a Christmas film in my book.
Q: Christmas controversy! Others?
Cumberbatch: Bill Murray in “Scrooged.” A wonderful anti-hero rather than a villain. That’s one I can watch every time it’s on with one of my favorite movie closing numbers, “Put A Little Love In Your Heart.” Great song.
Q: Would you play Scrooge?
Cumberbatch: I’ve been offered in the past. I shouldn’t talk about offers. Maybe. It’s a story that’s been told a lot. Superlatively.
Q: Have you ever worn a Christmas sweater?
Cumberbatch: Never. Not knowingly anyway. Not once I could dress myself and had some control of my wardrobe.
Q: So you’re anti-Christmas sweater?
Cumberbatch: I’m not anti-Christmas sweater. I would just rather other people walk around as good target practice.
Q: What mantra gets you through the holidays?
Cumberbatch: Only (fill in the number) days to go. No, to be honest, I’ve worked so to the wire the last few holiday seasons, all I’m looking at is the gold at the end of the rainbow: family and friends behind a closed door with no other demands. That is the only Christmas present I could ever want these days.
Dr. Seuss’ classic Christmas tale “The Grinch” returns to the big screen this holiday season.
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