From director Bharat Nalluri, The Man Who Invented Christmas shows the wild journey that Charles Dickens (brought to life in a tremendous performance by Dan Stevens, who humanizes the author with all of his emotional ups and downs) took, in trying to revive his career. He mixed real-life inspirations with his vivid imagination to come up with the characters (including Ebenezer Scrooge, played by Christopher Plummer) that filled his timeless classic A Christmas Carol, which forever changed the way we celebration the holiday season.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, actor Dan Stevens talked about why he was intrigued by this project, the sparkle of Christopher Plummer, what made him most nervous and why he was excited to play Charles Dickens, his own favorite adaptation of A Christmas Carol, and how getting into his head changed his appreciation for the author. He also talked about Season 2 of his FX series Legion (returning in 2018) and why it will never follow a traditional format, and the appeal of the Gareth Evans film Apostle.
Collider: Of all the projects you could have done, would you ever have imagined that you’d be doing an origin story for A Christmas Carol?
DAN STEVENS: No, that definitely was not on the cards. But like most of my choices that are lead by script and character, this project had intriguing elements, all over it. I didn’t really set out to make a Christmas film, but it had a lot to say about a favorite author of mine and about the artistic process, and it had a lot of social commentary, in general. It was a very, very intriguing prospect. And there was Christopher Plummer.
What was it like to work with Christopher Plummer, as the Bah Humbug over your shoulder?
STEVENS: He was full of wit and sparkle, and it was a great joy and privilege to get to work with him.
Was it ever hard not to crack up while he was there and you weren’t supposed to acknowledge him because other people weren’t supposed to see him?
STEVENS: Yeah. It’s a very, very funny conceit, and it’s a great way into looking at a creative process, making the character part of the character development. A great deal of the writing process is internal, which we have to externalize, in order to make it interesting. With Christopher, it’s not only interesting, but also very fun and playful.
What were you most excited about, in taking on Charles Dickens, and what were you most nervous about?
STEVENS: I was most nervous about destroying his legacy for generations. And I was most excited to take down a figure off the shelf from which he’s most often regarded and approach him as a human. He had a very childish, playful and silly side with a great sense of humor, and he could also be rather depressive and dark with a great sense of pathos and tragedy. That’s inherently an interesting man, right there.
Obviously, it’s hard to predict what might happen in the future, but if you had a ghost from Christmas past or present show up for you, would you be worried about anything or anyone, in particular?
STEVENS: God, that’s a big question! I’m sure that there is, and I’ll probably have nightmares about it now.
Did you have a favorite adaptation of A Christmas Carol, prior to doing this?
STEVENS: Yeah, I’d probably say The Muppet Christmas Carol. That’s a firm fixture in our household, every Christmas Eve. I like Bill Murray’s Scrooged. That’s pretty awesome. And the 1951 version with Alastair Sim is a classic. Growing up in England, we would see that a lot. That was a big part of our Christmas.
Because the work of Charles Dickens is so well-known and classic, he’s not someone who we think of as having had flops. How much do you think having three consecutive flops really affected him?
STEVENS: There’s something universal about the artistic process. He was a very ambitious man who had great plans for his work, in terms of the breadth and scope. You could see him constantly reworking ideas and coming at similar ideas from a different angle in different books. He really had three back-to-back not successful books. Oliver Twist was a huge hit, but you get to Barnaby Rudge, which I don’t blame anyone for not liking, and American Notes, which is quite interesting but not a real crown pleaser, and then Martin Chuzzlewit, which was also weirdly quite critical of the Americans. He upset too many Americans and came home a little bit disheartened. He just wasn’t quite sure how to get back on top of his own ideas. So, we find him at quite an interesting moment, in his career and his life. He’s got four kids and one on the way, and mounting debts, so he was putting himself under an enormous amount of pressure, anyway. But then, he decided to write a new book by Christmas, in six weeks time, that mined a religious festival that nobody was celebrating, in the way that we think of it now. A lot of people really thought that he was quite mad. On top of that, the story had science fiction elements, with the character time traveling through his own life, past and future, learning moral lessons. It was a very, very strange idea to come up with, but it was the sort of idea you’d only come up with, if you were under an enormous amount of pressure, and you were very creatively gifted, as well.
I loved Dickens’ title suggestion of Humbug: A Miser’s Lament.
STEVENS: We had good fun with that. There were a bunch of improvs that day, of different working titles of what it might have been.
It makes you wonder whether the story would have had the same appeal, with that title.
STEVENS: Yeah, maybe not.
What do you think Charles Dickens might have thought of this film and how it portrays him?
STEVENS: I have no idea! I hope he would have liked it. Very often, you question whether you can separate the art from the artist, and it’s interesting to examine the human mind-set that goes into creating these epic works that have such cultural resonance. What was going on, in order to provoke that. That’s very interesting. And it’s such a universal tale of hope, in times of bleakest despair. I think that’s definitely something worth exploring now.
The Christmas holiday and Christmas traditions are such a big part of people’s lives now that it seems impossible to imagine a time when it wasn’t that. How important are holiday and family traditions to you?
STEVENS: Oh, very important! It’s a wonderful celebration. The winter solstice, alone, is worth a celebration. It is a wonderful moment to remember that the light will return, after the darkest hour of the year.
Did getting into the head of Charles Dickens change your perception or appreciation for him, at all?
STEVENS: Definitely. I’m not an expert on him or his work, but this has definitely given me a fresh appreciation of his work. I’ve re-read some of his books that I studied, as a teenager, in a drier way. Now, the characters are much more vivid, for an appreciation for the kind of man that he was.
Do you feel like playing David on Legion helped you in having conversations with fictional characters from your imagination?
STEVENS: Funny enough, I went pretty much straight from the set of Season 1 of Legion, over to Dublin to start working on this film. There was about 10 days in between them. So, there’s probably more than a hint of David in there. Dickens was operating on quite a strange level and genuinely manifested these characters. There are accounts from his daughter, encountering him in his study, making these bizarre faces and noises. He really was aware of the performative aspect of his characters and couldn’t really work with them or use them until he’d manifested them in his study. The film takes that step one step further and actually has them there, involved in the process.
What can you tease about Season 2 of Legion, in contrast to Season 1? How will it be different, especially now that you’ve already laid the groundwork for what the series is?