This is a longer version of my story on Matt Lucas that appears in Tuesday’s Los Angeles Times Calendar section.
A week before the London premiere of “Alice in Wonderland,” a special screening was held at the El Capitan Theatre in Hollywood and the lucky fans who attended were giddy to see celebrities in the crowd such as Crispin Glover, the film’s villain, who slouched down in a front-row seat, and “Star Trek” leading man Chris Pine, who was all smiles and handshakes.
One actor who wasn’t mobbed by fans, though, was Matt Lucas, who plays Tweedledee and Tweedledum in “Wonderland” and looks far different than he did in the role and not just because of the digital effects. “I’ve lost 50 pounds since I made the movie,” said Lucas as he declined a free bucket of buttery popcorn. “No popcorn for me.”
Lucas is a major star in his native England where the skit show “Little Britain” has made him one of the country’s most popular comedians and the coverage of his star-studded wedding to Kevin McGee put him among the U.K.’s most prominent gay celebrities. The tabloid press, though, pounced when the marriage soured and even more so in October when McGee committed suicide.
So while Lucas has high hopes that “Wonderland” (which piled up $210 million worldwide in its massive opening weekend) will help him get a foothold in Hollywood, there’s some relief in the anonymity he enjoys on Los Angeles sidewalks.
Sitting down for the first full interview since the death of McGee, Lucas was achingly polite but also firm in his resolve that his pain is not for public display. “I’ll talk about my career rather than my life,” Lucas said over lunch at the Peninsula Hotel. “And career-wise, I’ve been really fortunate.”
Created by Lucas and writing partner David Walliams, “Little Britain” skewered the foibles, quirks and manias of old England with a savage glee. It began as a BBC radio show and spawned a three-year television series and a number of specials, plus a U.S. version that aired on HBO. The creative team is now writing a new skit show (with hopes that it will also air in the U.S.) but Lucas also has a desire to carve out a Hollywood film career with an emphasis on family and fantasy movies.
“The movie career is perhaps not as important to me as it should be and not as much as my agents at CAA would like,” Lucas said. “I’d rather make a good television series than a bad movie … because we’re fairly established in the U.K. we don’t feel an obligation to take any role.”
For his first American film, Lucas found himself working with Johnny Depp, Helena Bonham Carter and Alan Rickman – it was a dizzying experience, said the former stand-up comic and he spent long hours just watching his fellow cast members in order to improve his acting. He can’t, however, watch himself.
Lucas has carefully observed other comics-turned-actors (“watching Robin Williams do stand-up,” he says, “is like watching Muhammad Ali box”), but he doubts that he could win roles that go to people like Steve Martin or Billy Crystal. Lucas lost all of his hair when he was 6 years old due to a medical condition called alopecia; that and his weight in the past made him play the joker with more than a little self-loathing. At one point in the interview he disparaged himself as a “fat, British gay fool,” but for the most part he was being clinical in his appraisal of his career options.
“I adore watching people like Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill but I wouldn’t necessarily cast myself in those roles,” Lucas said. “They are people that audiences can easily identify with. I don’t play so easily the regular guy. I might be more like a Wallace Shawn who always plays the quirky guy, the eccentric characters.”
For Tweedles, Lucas went for “corpulent boys, both childish and child-like, juvenile in the extreme.” To help Lucas pull off twin duty, actor Ethan Cohn was brought in as a double to stand in as the “other brother” while Lucas was doing his lines. Cohn became fast friends with Lucas and says it’s been hard to watch him suffer in the wake of McGee’s death.
“God knows how someone deals with what he went through, but he’s gone about it in a very smart and logical way,” Cohn said. “He’s grieving and he’s going through the emotions that people go through, but he is always moving forward.”
Lucas said he likes Los Angeles – “Some people think it’s a cynical place but I admire its ambitions” – and he was dazzled by working on a film with such a strong cast and director.
“You get warmth in spades from Johnny and Tim [Burton]. You get briefly included in their warm friendship. In Johnny’s trailer, and this betrays a confidence perhaps but I hope he will forgive me, on the refrigerator there’s a drawing of the Mad Hatter by Johnny’s kids. And it said, ‘Good Luck Dad.’ I found that so wonderful.”
Burton turned to British television in a big way when he undertook “Wonderland.” He brought in Barbara Windsor, for instance, who is a major icon in England after appearing in 1,399 episodes of soapy BBC sensation “EastEnders,” and he says he modeled Anne Hathaway’s White Queen character on food-show host Nigella Lawson. For Tweedledee and Tweedledum, the director was so high on the work of Lucas in “Little Britain” that he handed the actor the role without even scheduling an audition.
“I kept thinking about the twins in ‘The Shining,’” Burton said, referring to the chilling Stanley Kubrick horror film that celebrates its 30th anniversary this year. “But really any kind of twins; there’s always something scary about them, in a way. Or there can be. And Matt did a great job tapping into that eerie quality.”
“Wonderland” was a true hybrid of different filmmaking approaches. It was made with live performances by actors, animation and motion-capture work, all of it blended by Burton, visual effects guru Ken Ralston and a small army of artists and computer specialists. Despite all the technology that came to bear on the $200 million production, Lucas said the most memorable aspect was Burton’s trust of his actors.
“He employs people he likes then he really trusts them to build the character and the performance,” Lucas said. “I was surprised that the first take is always the actors’ take. With all the money invested into the project and how little time people have to make the movie. He let actors have the first take and then work with them to craft – keep that, turn that bit down, try for this. He gave a lot of guidance and I was grateful for that, but it came with trust.”
Lucas was less enamored with the green-screen set. “It can be grueling to be in a large green room where everything is just…green; Consistently, constantly, undeniable, unashamedly green; and not even different shades of green at that. It’s a snot room. The booger world.”
Some cast members got headaches from the sea of green, but Lucas said he tried to keep his mind occupied with the fiction of the place.
“It was very notional,” Lucas said. “You have to imagine there are trees and castles and the ground. And instead of the Bandersnatch there’s a man holding a stick with a cross on the end of it made out of masking tape, which you have to imagine is the most terrifying thing you’ve ever seen. And I don’t have stick phobia. Masking tape, however, makes me cringe. And weep. You have to use your imagination quite a lot but that happens in television, too. You need to pretend there isn’t an old man in the corner chewing his gum and checking his watch and waiting for you to finish the take and give a very emotional performance.”
Lucas said he hopes to work with Burton again, especially since the filmmaker works in worlds where eccentric characters are at every turn. He also said he hopes to absorb some of Burton’s sense of wonder.
“He brings with him the enthusiasm of someone making their first film,” Lucas said. “You have the expertise of someone who has been doing it a long, long time but there is still something boyish in his excitement. I think the same can be said of Johnny Depp. It was just ambition on display and enthusiasm and excitement and craft. They seemed pleased to be there. I know I was.”
— Geoff Boucher
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PHOTOS: Top and fifth photo: Matt Lucas at the Peninsula Hotel in Los Angeles (Christina House). Second, sixth and seventh images from “Alice in Wonderland” (Walt Disney Studios). Third image, John Tenniel illustration for Tweedledee and Tweedledum. Fourth, a scene from “Little Britain” (BBC)