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Interview: To Play the Grinch, Matthew Morrison Channels Boris Karloff, Joaquin Phoenix, and Elphaba

Morrison takes on the title role in NBC's holiday season musical, airing December 9.

Before he got the big phone call from NBC, Matthew Morrison never saw himself as the Grinch.

"Ok, what do people really think of me?" Morrison wondered aloud with a laugh. But the opportunity to follow in the footsteps of legends like Boris Karloff and Jim Carrey, and to bring a much needed dose of holiday joy to the world, was something that he couldn't turn down.

That's how Morrison found himself in London earlier this fall, in a socially distanced and masked rehearsal studio, preparing to shoot Dr. Seuss's The Grinch Musical! Starring opposite Denis O'Hare, Booboo Stewart, Amelia Minto, and an ensemble of West End vets, Morrison donned the green costume for the live-ish musical, filmed on the stage of the Troubadour Theatre and airing Wednesday, December 9 and Monday, December 21 at 8pm ET. In doing so, Morrison realized what a true gift it was, especially in a year when "everyone is feeling a little grinchy."

Matthew Morrison as the Grinch
(© David Cotter/NBC)

Did you see yourself as the Grinch when they came to you with this project?
It was kind of terrifying to get that call. There are big shoes to fill: Boris Karloff, Jim Carrey, Benedict Cumberbatch...I was a little intimidated at the beginning. But I got over that when I started thinking "When am I gonna get to play another character this dastardly?" Anything goes with the Grinch. And it was so much fun. I took some really big swings.

How do you rehearse and perform and film a musical in the time of Covid? Take me through that process.
It felt very counterintuitive. We rehearsed it like a theatrical piece, in a studio for a month, but everyone was in masks and we had to keep six feet away from each other. So I have my arm around someone, but they're really over there. We did a whole month with no touching and Covid tests and masks and distance. It did end up feeling much more authentic and in the moment when we actually got to do it. We had two days of camera blocking and two days of actual filming, and that's when we got to take the masks off. I had never seen everyone's facial expressions. It was really, really interesting to see that for the first time.

Did you go back and watch the old special and the movies once you got cast?
I watched everything once, and it was so interesting how different they all were in the storytelling and characterization of the Grinch. Everything I had in my head that I wanted to do was completely different than any of those. I actually looked a lot to Joaquin Phoenix in Joker for inspiration. This story is coming out in such a relevant time, and so many people are going through mental strife and loneliness and isolation, which is what the Grinch is very much going through.

What was the makeup and prosthetics process like?
I'm thankful this is a live-ish production. I only had to put on the whole garb like five times. I can't imagine Jim Carrey going through this every day for months on end. It was like three-and-a-half hours to put on, and an hour to take off. I didn't have many prosthetics, but I did have a nose that was a little pronounced, and then they covered my eyebrows and put these big green waterfalls on. The rest was just spray paint, and then they went back and detailed everything. I kept thinking about all of my friends who've played Elphaba in Wicked. It's intense.

On an emotional level, what was it like for you as an actor to get back to work after so long?
I had not worked for eight months, and it really felt like I had my identity taken away from me in a way. Honestly, it was a great time for my family — my son is three years old and to be there for every transition he went through was so amazing. But as an artist, I really had to reflect on who I am without what I do. If you get into a situation where, luckily, you work frequently, you can lose a bit of the magic in a way because you're going from job to job. This time away made me remember why I do this and why I love to tell stories and bring joy to people. When this project came together, I was so excited for so many reasons. It was the chance to flex my muscles in a role that I'll probably never get to play again, and also to bring theater back to people who have been deprived of it for so long. To give them something they can sink their teeth into, because the theater community has been ravaged. It's a gift to give this to people.

Booboo Stewart and Matthew Morrison in Dr. Seuss' The Grinch Musical!
(© David Cotter/NBC)

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