What do you hear from parents and kids who’ve seen you play the Grinch? Are they scared of him or do they pretty much get the joke?
“It’s up to two factors – the text has to tell a story that even the youngest kids can understand, and the production crew and the actors must deliver an atmosphere and a performance that finds the central message and communicates it. So with that in mind, we all know the Grinch is a grumpy guy, he frowns, he sings about being annoyed with Christmas. But kids know he is broken in some way. They see his silly behaviors, and they understand that the Grinch isn’t scary, he’s sad.
It’s a fine line, but Dr. Seuss created a character with real emotions, it all started with his book and the values in it. The book was a reaction to the way Christmas was changing after World War Two – the commercialization of the holiday, the emphasis on material things. We dress up the story with music and dancing and a lot of silly fun. But the foundation was set in stone many years ago.”
Now you’re playing a role that kids will remember forever.
“It’s what helps get me on stage sometimes three or four times a day. Our first director, Jack O’Brien, encouraged us to remember that we are telling a simple, honest story to a new generation of kids. For many of them, it will be their first experience in a large theatre, seeing a big production. So not only will they carry a Christmas memory with them, in many cases they’ll take away a larger-than-life experience that might encourage them to go see live theatre throughout their lives.”
Two of your signature roles, Robbie Rotten and the Grinch, have you wearing a lot of makeup, yet you are able to communicate emotion to the audience. How do you use your body to do that?
“It’s the same old story, it’s not about the makeup. That’s just the cherry on top. As an actor, makeup is just one of your tools, like dancing ability or a nice singing voice. Audiences watch an actor’s eyes, that’s where we’re able to get a message across. And kids do that too, they watch an adult’s eyes to see where they stand, in the home or in the classroom. And kids in the audience, they know when something isn’t real or authentic. No amount of makeup will fool a kid. Kids are the most difficult and also the most rewarding audience. They keep performers honest.”
You’ve become known for your physical comedy, much like Charlie Chaplin. Have you studied him?
“Oh yes. My university thesis was on Charlie Chaplin and his art. One of the stories that really touched me the reason he created the character of the Tramp, it was a key to so many things he did later. When Chaplin was a boy, his mother was sick and his father had to find work far away. Charlie and his brother Sid would play, but when they got hungry, there was no food. So Charlie and Sid would sit in the alley behind a neighborhood bakery. They couldn’t afford to buy bread so they would just close their eyes and smell the freshly baked breads and pastries. They would imagine that they were eating it, and for a short while, they felt full! They could go back and play with their friends until they felt hungry again, then it was back to the alley to imagine some more delicious food. That’s the power of imagination, and the power of Charlie’s connection to who he was before he found fame. People at their most basic. And so you show your imagination on stage – if you do it properly it’s like doing research on the human condition. How far can we go here?”
Obviously you’re very comfortable on stage. Do you manipulate your performances to match what’s going on with the audience? Do you get a sense of where they’re at and then use that to guide you?
“What goes on between an actor and the audience, at its best, is a dialogue. Sometimes you watch an actor on stage and somehow the performance isn’t getting through. The fourth wall is not only closed, it’s soundproofed. That’s because the actor isn’t connecting with the living and breathing human beings in the room with him. The audience feels the distance and they react accordingly.”
As an actor, you have to fire up your sensors at 100 percent all the time. You have to be in touch with all those heartbeats in the audience, connect with them. Sometimes during the Grinch performances, a child will shout out something. And I’ll turn right around, look them in the eye and respond to them. They light up like a Christmas tree – the Grinch talked to me!”
Do you see yourself as a role model, since many of your roles are geared toward children?
“I’m sure I am to some kids, but it’s the characters I play, they’re really the point, not me personally. I work to be a good role model to my own kids, that’s what parents do. But my public life is about the characters I play, and what kids can take away from those performances.”
Tell us about your anti-bully project.
“I’ve always been interested in promoting the anti-bullying effort, and my organization, Regnbogabörn, has found many successes. Recently we started a web site, which is sort of like TED.com. It’s called Lectures.is, and we present speakers who deliver helpful messages, no longer than seventeen minutes, on a wide range of topics that will help parents, teachers and victims of bullying. The web site is designed to give people more information about various conditions like ADHD, Asberger’s, and others, so that we can recognize our differences and understand them. We think that will help to decrease bullying to some degree.”
How do you feel about the state of live theatre these days?
“It means so much to me, this work we do. You know, every time there’s a recession, the first thing that goes on the budget chopping block is the arts. People question why we should pay for something we don’t need. It’s just people playing around, indulging themselves.
But I ask: can we not afford beauty? Is something that elevates our lives, raises our awareness, increases our humanity, is that worth preserving? One member of the Icelandic Parliament put it very well, I thought. He said those who think that money gives you all the wealth in life, they’re actually quite poor. And I agree with that.”
- ‘Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas’ to Air Friday, November 29 on ABC (tvbythenumbers.zap2it.com)
- Chaplin’s Three Hundred and Forty-Two Takes (newyorker.com)