film

‘It’s Lovely Being Mean’: Benedict Cumberbatch Gets Into Character As The Grinch

Sometimes it seems like there’s no role Benedict Cumberbatch can’t play.

He’s been an iconic British detective, he’s been J.R.R. Tolkein’s dragon Smaug, he’s been Doctor Strange — and now Cumberbatch is back on the big screen, voicing the Grinch, the bright green grump in a new animated version of Dr. Seuss’s famous Christmas tale.

Cumberbatch says the story is a classic, but it was due for a reimagining. “I think it’s such an iconic American role, and something I was surprised to be asked to do, and that’s a good thing in an actor’s life, when you’re surprised by an offer.”


Interview Highlights

On why the Grinch hates Christmas

He’s part of Whoville, even though he’s separated from it, and that’s very much the heart of our retelling — this guy is traumatized by Christmas, because poor thing, he grew up as an orphan, and therefore all the joy and belonging and loving he sees going on everywhere else, he’s not a part of. So he’s, you could say, green with envy, and it makes him far more empathizable and far more of a sort of antihero, and also, we kind of enjoy the Grinch, we like him, we’re used to him being mean. But he’s only really scary when he can’t see any answer other than stealing Christmas, and then he does get a bit psychotic — not to put our younger viewers off, but he becomes a bit tunnel-visioned, and the world we live in today, we know a few people like that, I think, who act out on hate and ignorance and fear, and it’s pretty toxic. And the lesson, I think, is that you can take those people back into the fold by offering love and forgiveness.

On the trappings of Christmas

It’s hard to imagine children that wouldn’t be upset by the idea of waking up and discovering that all of their Christmas decorations and presents … it is also a learning curve for the Whos in our version. I think in the book it’s sort of slightly glided over that they’re just, they’re high on the spirit of Christmas, but I think the film deals with the reality, especially in the modern context, that those things are part of the excitement of Christmas, but they shouldn’t be the raison d’etre for the excitement. The real excitement is the people who are giving each other something, the joy and love and generosity, the things we need most, as the Grinch says at the end of the film.

On getting in character as the Grinch

I had a lot of fun doing that. It’s lovely being mean. It’s great fun. I wouldn’t, myself, go about knocking the heads off snowmen, or taking a jar away from a woman who’s trying to reach to the top shelf to get it, and then put it back out of her reach. But I quite like playing those things, because watching them, you get a vicarious thrill out of it. As far as getting into character goes, it really was the book I went off first, and then we realized, oh Christ, he’s just really mean. He’s very kind of growly and snarly — that would take some enduring for an entire film, it would be a bit scary for kids. So we decided to remind ourselves that he really, really enjoys Christmas.

On play

You know, what we do for a living, there’s a lot of navel-gazing, it gets a little bit serious in some interviews talking about all this, but the fact is, it’s play. All of this is play. We’re narrators, we’re storytellers, and you reduce back to that innocent state of imagining and imagination, which is what all of Seuss’s worlds are from. They’re so extrapolated from our reality, they’re so odd and unreal, and yet universally catchy and poignant and pertinent, and they transcend cultures and logic, because they just tap into that need for story and theme, and through rhyme and amazing illustrations, they do all that. So if you’re an actor free on a mic to kind of imagine all that, it’s kind of, it’s a wonderful state to be in.

This story was produced for radio by Ian Stewart and adapted for the Web by Petra Mayer.

Here’s To The Romantic Comedy Pleasures Of ‘To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before’

Well, it’s safe to say Netflix giveth and Netflix taketh away.

Only a week after the Grand Takething that was Insatiable, the streamer brings along To All The Boys I’ve Loved Before, a fizzy and endlessly charming adaptation of Jenny Han’s YA romantic comedy novel.

In the film, we meet Lara Jean Covey (Lana Condor), who’s in high school and is the middle sister in a tight group of three: There’s also Margot, who’s about to go to college abroad, and Kitty, a precocious (but not too precocious) tween. Unlike so many teen-girl protagonists who war with their sisters or don’t understand them or barely tolerate them until the closing moments where a bond emerges, Lara Jean considers her sisters to be her closest confidantes — her closest allies. They live with their dad (John Corbett); their mom, who was Korean, died years ago, when Kitty was very little.

Lara Jean has long pined for the boy next door, Josh (Israel Broussard), who is Margot’s boyfriend, and … you know what? This is where it becomes a very well-done execution of romantic comedy tricks, and there’s no point in giving away the whole game. Suffice it to say that a small box of love letters Lara Jean has written to boys she had crushes on manages to make it out into the world — not just her letter to Josh, but her letter to her ex-best-friend’s boyfriend Peter (Noah Centineo), her letter to a boy she knew at model U.N., her letter to a boy from camp, and her letter to a boy who was kind to her at a dance once.

This kind of mishap only happens in romantic comedies (including those written by Shakespeare), as do stories where people pretend to date — which, spoiler alert, also happens in Lara Jean’s journey. But there’s a reason those things endure, and that’s because when they’re done well, they’re as appealing as a solid murder mystery or a rousing action movie.

So much of the well-tempered rom-com comes down to casting, and Condor is a very, very good lead. She has just the right balance of surety and caution to play a girl who doesn’t suffer from traditionally defined insecurity as much as a guarded tendency to keep her feelings to herself — except when she writes them down. She carries Han’s portrayal of Lara Jean as funny and intelligent, both independent and attached to her family.

In a way, Centineo — who emerges as the male lead — has a harder job, because Peter isn’t as inherently interesting as Lara Jean. Ultimately, he is The Boy, in the way so many films have The Girl, and it is not his story. But he is what The Boy in these stories must always be: He is transfixed by her, transparently, in just the right way.

There is something so wonderful about the able, loving, unapologetic crafting of a finely tuned genre piece. Perhaps a culinary metaphor will help: Consider the fact that you may have had many chocolate cakes in your life, most made with ingredients that include flour and sugar and butter and eggs, cocoa and vanilla and so forth. They all taste like chocolate cake. Most are not daring; the ones that are often seem like they’re missing the point. But they deliver — some better than others, but all with similar aims — on the pleasures and the comforts and the pattern recognition in your brain that says “this is a chocolate cake, and that’s something I like.”

When crafting a romantic comedy, as when crafting a chocolate cake, the point is to respect and lovingly follow a tradition while bringing your own touches and your own interpretations to bear. Han’s characters — via the Sofia Alvarez screenplay and Susan Johnson’s direction — flesh out a rom-com that’s sparkly and light as a feather, even as it brings along plenty of heart.

And yes, this is an Asian-American story by an Asian-American writer. It’s emphatically true, and not reinforced often enough, that not every romantic comedy needs white characters and white actors. Anyone would be lucky to find a relatable figure in Lara Jean; it’s even nicer that her family doesn’t look like most of the ones on American English-language TV.

The film is precisely what it should be: pleasing and clever, comforting and fun and romantic. Just right for your Friday night, your Saturday afternoon, and many lazy layabout days to come.

‘It’s Taken On A Whole Other Life,’ Says ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ Author Kevin Kwan

Around the time Kevin Kwan published his 2013 satirical novel Crazy Rich Asians, a producer reached out with an offer: “I will option this movie if you are willing to change Rachel to a white girl …” Kwan recalls the producer saying.

Kwan didn’t even bother to respond.

The film adaptation of Kwan’s book is now out. All of the characters are Asian and Asian-American, and all of the actors are of Asian descent.

The romantic comedy is set in New York and Singapore. Kwan was born into a wealthy family in Singapore and Crazy Rich Asians draws on the extravagant lifestyles he observed as a child. Kwan moved to Texas with his parents when he was 11.

“I grew up very lucky, very pampered, but in no way like some of my classmates or even some of my cousins,” he says. “So it was a world I witnessed and was taken out of.”

Interview Highlights

On his own family’s wealth

I came from a family of extremely old money, and so by the time I was born there was really just a trickle of money left. So while we had all the privilege, we didn’t have the same spoils that, you know, “Crazy Rich Asians” would have today. So by comparison, I think I led a privileged, lucky life but it wasn’t as extreme as what would be depicted in the movies. … It’s something that’s extremely hard to articulate. … I think you’ve been trained almost from birth … this is something to never be talked about.

On his family’s house in Singapore

It was a very multigenerational family compound. It was a world of beauty that I think I really took for granted as a child. … It was on top of a hill and it had a beautiful panoramic view of kind of Singapore … so we got the breezes, and I remember from my bedroom, from my bed, I would always look out and just see for miles. I would see first other houses in the neighborhood, and then a highway, and then a hill on the other side of the highway, and this lone tree, this beautiful gigantic mountain tree, which I don’t think you have used like that anymore.

Singapore since then has become so built-up. The street where I grew up and most of the large sort of estate-style houses have since been torn down, and many, many more houses built on those plots of land. My own family house was torn down in the early ’90s and four large houses have since been built on that property.

On meeting new people through his journalist aunt

I think I was always, even as a child, just fascinated by the world around me and I was very much a fly on the wall observing things. I was always fascinated by the stories that my grandparents had told me. Then through my aunt, who also lived in the house, she introduced me to her world and she was part of this Bohemian set of privileged Singaporeans who were artists and sculptors and collectors and writers. She was a journalist … and she pulled me into that world.

Every Sunday she hosted a lunch and after church … she always had the most fascinating people with her at her lunches: Thai princesses, businessmen that have been around since the ’30s and ’40s, things like that, art collectors. That was my exposure to that world. So when I was taken out of that world and transplanted to Houston, that was the world I missed, and that was the world I craved.

On his cousin Nancy Kwan starring in the 1961 film adaptation of the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical Flower Drum Song

When it played in Singapore probably back in the late ’70s at some point, it was a family event. I remember my mother [hosted] a whole viewing party around it and we were sat down in front of the TV and made to watch this important film, Flower Drum Song, and everyone was so proud that cousin Nancy was one of the stars of the movie. …. I had not met her before, she was already living in the States at that time and so I didn’t meet her until I was much older, but it’s interesting that even in Singapore, this was probably 15 to 20 years after the movie had come out, it still was a seminal movie, even for Singaporeans.

On the criticism Crazy Rich Asians received because Henry Golding, who plays Nick Young, is half-Asian and half-British

For so long Asians in America have been so underrepresented in media, so whenever there’s a chance — whenever there’s that rare comet of a chance — people are so invested in every aspect of this being perfect and being right. Unfortunately, this movie cannot be everything for everyone. And I see and I feel the pain and I completely understand the arguments that people were trying to make, but it’s ironic that these people are demanding sort of blood purity in a way — that if he’s not 100 percent Chinese he’s not qualified to play the role of Nicholas Young — when really Nicholas Young himself as the character isn’t 100 percent Chinese.

Then there’s the other question of actual fairness in how this industry works, because when you look like an actor like Brad Pitt, for example, he can play an Irishman, a Czech, a German, a Native American, he can play really whatever he wants without anyone being up in arms about it, so why can’t someone like Henry Golding, who is half-Asian but has grown up, spent most of his life in Asia, is very much an Asian man, why does he have to justify playing an Asian role? …

The other thing — it becomes so subjective. What is an “Asian face”? Because when you go to China and you look at people from province to province, I mean, the vast array of facial structures and the size of your eyes or the size of your nose. … I think it’s a very limited view to think that there’s only one representation of an Asian face, and it should be a Han Chinese descendant type person with a nose that is this many millimeters broad, or whatever it is.

On eyelid plastic surgery

Korea has become the plastic surgery capital of the world where all these young men especially are transforming their faces into that … very plastic-looking K-pop singer look. I also I have been through my own journey of acceptance of how I look. … I mean, several people in my family had suggested that I should get the double eyelid surgery. … And I said, “Why would I do that? I like my eyes. I don’t feel like I need to have more Western-looking eyes, or what’s perceived as Western.”

On a producer offering to option Crazy Rich Asians if the female lead, Rachel, was played by a white woman

This was back in 2013. So this was way before the whole Hollywood whitewashing movement began, before all the waves of outrage that happened — justifiably so, with the casting of Scarlett Johansson in Ghost in the Shell, things like that. So it was early days yet, and I knew that this movie would be a challenge because I knew it needed an all-Asian cast, and so I knew that a lot of traditional Hollywood would find it to be not a viable project, and so that’s why I chose to go the team that I did. We thought we would really produce this outside of the studio system and it would be an independent film. … It’s taken on a whole other life that I never dreamed was possible.

Heidi Saman and Seth Kelley produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Molly Seavy-Nesper and Beth Novey adapted it for the Web.

Origin-al Sin: What Hollywood Must Learn From ‘Spider-Man: Homecoming’

by Glen Weldon

Mr. Parker Goes to Washington: Spidey (Tom Holland) scales the Washington Monument in Spider-Man: Homecoming.

Columbia Pictures

Long, long ago, when the Earth was new and ichthyosaurs swam the turbid seas, Iron Man 2 arrived in theaters. [Ed. Note — Simmer down. It was 2010.]

It was, most agreed, a disappointment, compared with its predecessor, despite a fun and deeply, deeply squirrelly Sam Rockwell performance. (Remember how he had bronzer on his palms? And no one mentioned it. It was just a character thing? Remember that? That was cool.)

I agreed that it didn’t work as well as the original Iron Man, and I said then — declared, really, as I was a younger man, full of moxie, and gumption, and eels — that I knew why. In fact, I developed A Theory. A Grand Unified Theory of Superhero Cinema.

It’s the origin, I thought. It’s crucial. Origin stories are what draw us in and keep us engaged. They’re cinematic road maps, guiding us from here (mundane human existence) to there (a world of costumes, powers, magic, spectacle). Bildungsromans in spandex.

Once you get past the origin story, I thought, what have you got left? Dudes in suits, waling away at each other. Big whoop.

In other words: The origin story is what drives and shapes a superhero franchise, because it grounds all that third act (and sequel) CGI action in the first act world where characters have dreams, and relationships, and have lived lives. Because in that life, something magical happened — this guy got amazing powers! The origin story tells you how it happened and why it happened.

But sequels say only: No, yeah. Guess what? It’s still happening.

Think about ancient myths, I would proclaim to anyone who hadn’t yet taken their beers and moved down the bar to stare sullenly into the middle distance. Myths are preoccupied with the origins of things, the how and why of the natural world: fire, the seasons, lightning, the stars in the sky. Superheroes are modern-day mythical demigods, they came from somewhere. Origin stories tell us where.

The Theory, Tested

Important reminder: I developed this theory seven years and approximately 392 superhero movies ago. The Marvel Cinematic Universe hadn’t yet undergone its big bang, filling all of existence with origin stories, until they became inescapable, unignorable, omnipresent — the static hiss of a kind of narrative background radiation that now pervades the culture.

Iron Man 2 arrived three years after the first Spider-Man franchise concluded and two years before a second Spider-Man franchise would commence. Both kicked off with origin stories.

There have been several origin movies that tanked so hard they killed franchise opportunities, saving us from a universe in which, say, Green Lantern III: Wasting Still More Of Your Time is a thing. And there certainly have, over the years, been sequels that were more successful, cinematically and/or financially, than their predecessors:

  • Many say Superman II was better than Superman: The Movie. (I disagree, I prefer the sweep and bombast and myth-building of the Krypton/Kansas stuff in the original to the “must lose his powers to visit bonetown” business in the sequel.)
  • There are many who think Batman Returns outshone Batman. (I’m a Schumacher defender, so I have no voice in this debate.)
  • X-Men 2 is generally regarded as superior to X-Men. (Story-wise — and on the strength of “Have you tried … not being a mutant?” — I agree.)
  • Spider-Man 2 is clearly superior to Spider-Man, in strict accordance with the Better Villain, Better Film Corollary.
  • The Dark Knight > Batman Begins, see above.
  • Captain America: Winter Soldier is considered superior to Captain America: The First Avenger. (Don’t buy it, personally. I prefer Guns of Navarone Cap to Parallax View Cap.)

But in every other case — and there are a lot more other cases — superhero sequels have lost steam.

So my theory about origin stories had been challenged, but remained, I thought, fundamentally sound.

Until now. Until Spider-Man: Homecoming.

The Theory, Defeated

Spider-Man: Homecoming dispenses with his origin story completely, which is, at this point, a wise move. Given Spidey’s status as Marvel’s flagship character and his concurrent cultural saturation, it’s perhaps even inevitable, because: We know.

We get it. Spider-bite, spider powers, great responsibility. We’ve, all of us, been there.

And yet! Even without seeing precisely how and why Peter Parker gets from the hereof normal life to the there of fantastic, thwippy powers, Tom Holland is eminently, achingly relatable. His Peter is someone in whom we easily see ourselves at our most excited and anxious. Which is the whole secret.

A big reason is Holland himself, of course. He is charmingly awkward in the role, and he both acts like a kid, and looks like one.

But lo! What’s that, rising with an epiphanic glow from the smoldering ashes in the burnt-out husk of my Grand Unified Theory of Superhero Cinema? Could it be … another theory?

A New Theory, Ascendant

You see, there is another reason — a big one — that this new Spidey grabs us and earns our empathy.

Because while Homecoming loses the origin story, it doubles down on another aspect of superhero cinema — one that’s featured in every single film that’s ever kicked off a superhero franchise and that turns out to be the true secret to their appeal. It’s something I hadn’t noticed, because while it has been a part of every cinematic superhero origin story, it has always lurked in the shadows.

I thought it was the origin itself — the story logistics that explain where the heroes’ powers come from, and why they choose the path they do.

But it’s not. It’s what comes immediately after.

It’s the training montage.

To win our empathy and interest, it’s not enough for a superhero to start out like us. We have to see him strive. And struggle. And fail. And start over.

And that is what the training montage does. It mingles delight at the discovery of magical gifts with the hard-won, sometimes brutal knowledge that those gifts must be honed. That it will take work.

In Spider-Man: Homecoming, Peter Parker is forced to relearn everything he knows when he finds himself in the possession of a miraculous, tricked-out new Spidey suit. The trial-and-error (and error, and error) that ensues forms the meat of the film’s second act and serves to endear him to us.

Both the Tobey Maguire and Andrew Garfield franchises featured similar scenes in their kickoff movies. The first Iron Man devoted considerable screen time to Tony Stark’s learning to fly … and fall … and get fire-extinguished by helpful robots. In Ant-Man, Paul Rudd found himself repeatedly overmatched by a door’s keyhole. Even the dour Man of Steel admitted a fleeting moment of levity when Superman first took to the sky … and promptly took a super-header into the frozen tundra.

Behold, then: The New Unified Theory of Superhero Cinema!

Hollywood screenwriters: Forget the how and why of their powers. Show us the halting first steps they take as they attempt to use them. We need to see them training. Striving. Working hard.

Give them their advantages from the get-go. Fine. We get it.

But if you want us to care about them, and care deeply, we need to see them earningthose advantages. Through work. And sweat. And by doing that thing that makes them truly universal, endearing, and relatable:

By screwing up.

CorrectionJuly 11, 2017

A previous version of this story incorrectly stated when Iron Man 2 came out in relation to the first two Spider-Man franchises.