Comedian Kenan Thompson, the longest-tenured cast member in the history of Saturday Night Live, is lending his voice to the upcoming remake of The Grinch, produced by Illumination Entertainment, the company behind Despicable Me and Dr. Seuss’ The Lorax. The Grinch is a holiday classic based on the 1957 book How the Grinch Stole Christmas! by Dr. Seuss and stars Benedict Cumberbatch and Rashida Jones, and sees Thompson portraying Bricklebaum, a new character created for the film.
The funnyman spoke to EBONY.com about working on The Grinch, his Christmas memories, a potential reboot of Nickelodeon’s All That series, Bill Cosby and what’s next for him in Hollywood.
How does it feel to voice a new Dr. Seuss character?
It’s legendary whenever you can do something new on something that is so historic. That’s always awesome, but he’s just a giant fun character; you can tell by the beard.
Bricklebaum is a big Christmas-loving guy. Do you see any correlation to your Christmas spirit as a dad?
Weirdly enough, I super-duper love Christmas. I don’t get into dressing up as Santa Claus or anything like that but I’m into how [the season] makes everyone want to get along for three days. [Laughs]
Only three days?
For some people, yeah. But for me, it starts the day after Halloween.
What’s your earliest Christmas memory?
I think my earliest memory of the holiday, this is terrible because it was the Christmas I felt like I got a whole bunch of toys all of a sudden even though they were Legos. [That year] it was hundreds of pieces instead of two or three toys, and I remember that being incredible, even those I pretty much lost half of them that day. I don’t think we played with them much after that; such spoiled little kids.
How is The Grinch (2018) different from the previous adaptations of the story?
It’s the similar story of the guy who hates Christmas growing to love it. But the way this film has been animated it looks new and fantastical. You can see all the little bitty fibers of the Grinch’s costume. It’s not the live-action version, so it’s back to animation, which is exciting because a lot more can be done [including] crazier action [and] super-duper scenic shots over mountains. It’s just beautiful.
With Bricklebaum being in the mix, it just makes me happy. [Laughs]
What was it like working with the cast?
I was in a studio by myself, but it made me step my game up knowing that I was performing against Benedict Cumberbatch and the likes.
Pharrell Williams is the film’s narrator and, considering his musical resume, that’s pretty cool.
What was your reaction to him sending a cease and desist letter to get President Donald Trump to stop playing “Happy” at rallies?
I was like, “Good for him,” but also, “Good luck,” because I don’t know if you can stop someone from playing a song. At least he stood up for how he feels about that guy using the song, and that’s all you can really do.
You voiced characters before. What’s the difference between voice acting and impersonating people on Saturday Night Live?
It’s all very different because you’re acting in a closet, and no matter how big the studio is you’re in a four-wall type room. You’re operating in your mind as opposed to responding to people standing in front of you. You’re acting and reacting by yourself. It’s a much more isolated feeling.
Does that make it more difficult to voice the character the way you want to?
No, for me I’m straightforward. I know where things feel good when I hear it. If I feel like I’m zeroing in on words that the character is supposed to be sounding like and if it feels good to me, I work fast, when I’m by myself.
Has sketch comedy helped you develop that skill?
Yes. I know where my sweet spots are when I’m emoting.
Outside of your 16 years at SNL and other voice-acting gigs, where else do you want to take your career?
I’ve been voice acting as long as I’ve been acting traditionally. It’s just all parts of the trade. I want to continue doing what I’ve been doing and get into producing so that I can put other people to work. I just want to have a long Morgan Freeman-type of career.
I’m a big All That fan.
Nice. I was just reading [Brian Robbins, Nickelodeon’s new president] wants to bring it back.
How do you feel about a potential reboot?
I agree! It probably should have never been canceled in the first place. It ran for 10 seasons, and anything that went on for that long you might as well keep it going. You can always transcend the times and figure a way for it to stay appealing to a younger audience.
If they’re going to reboot it, that’s a great idea because it would be a good opportunity for young kids to learn how to do sketch comedy when they have an inkling of that talent, to begin with. It was a great starting point for me.
— b r i t t_m a r i e (@nuggetbritt) February 16, 2015
You portrayed Bill Cosby at his prime on All That and then you’ve played out his fall from grace on SNL. Have you had a moment to contemplate that trajectory?
I have. I can’t say it’s unfortunate where [Cosby] ended up because he did it to himself, but it’s something no one from back in those days saw coming. It’s interesting for me to have played him from the good times to the bad times, especially on such a large scale.
I’m the only person who has done Bill Cosby in jail, so far.
Was it easy to bring the character back or were you hesitant?
It was begrudging because it was a responsibility to play it because it is such a topic. If it weren’t in the news like that, it wouldn’t be so topical, and it wouldn’t fit what we do at SNL. Since it is and whatever [Cosby] has done with his life that led him to such a chaotic outcome, I had to close that chapter based on what’s happened finally. It’s the same with OJ [Simpson] getting out of jail. We must reflect that in some kind of way and hope it won’t be a way to step on anyone’s toes.
Taking it back to The Grinch, do you think it will be something you and your family will watch every Christmas?
I hope, and it looks like we can watch it over and over again. Maybe we can finally move from Moana. [Laughs]
Do you have a favorite scene?
There’s a Bricklebaum party scene—he’s been inviting the Grinch over every Christmas—where the character finally shows up, and Bricklebaum is so excited to have him over, it’s the jolliest version of the character. The scene is going to be really funny.
The Grinch will be released in theaters Nov. 9.