From screenwriter Steven Knight (Peaky Blinders, Taboo) and director Nick Murphy, the iconic ghost story A Christmas Carol (premiering on FX on December 19th) delves deep into a dark night of the soul for Ebenezer Scrooge (Guy Pearce), a successful businessman who prefers to search for the worst in people than to see their goodness or struggles. As he is faced with his past, present and future, and the consequences of all three, it will be up to Scrooge to determine whether he is even worth redemption.
During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, British actor Joe Alwyn (who plays Bob Cratchit, overworked and underappreciated employee of Ebenezer Scrooge and family man to two young children, including Tiny Tim) talked about the relatablility and universality of A Christmas Carol, what excited him about this telling of the story, the dark and uncomfortable subject matter, what he identified with in Bob Cratchit, exploring the family dynamic, the Cratchit-Scrooge relationship, working with co-star Guy Pearce, the experience of walking onto a set like this, and his own holiday family traditions. He also talked about his upcoming film Last Letter from Your Lover, about a young woman who becomes obsessed with a series of letters she discovers that recount a love affair, and the TV series that he’d love to do a guest spot on.
Collider: I’ve loved a variety of different retellings of A Christmas Carol, and this one is so interesting because it’s set in the time period, and yet still somehow feels very modern and relatable.
JOE ALWYN: Good. It definitely tries to stir things up, a little bit. Nick Murphy, the director, was clear that he didn’t want us to slip into the old, very Dickensian way of things that often can happen when you see interpretations of Dickens. There’s nothing bad about that, but he wanted a more irreverent, modern feel, even though it’s still within the structured framework of the story. That really comes down a lot to Steve Knight. His writing is so brilliant. He just took the original novel and drilled deeper, and looked between the lines and beneath the surface. Consequence brings about things that are, oftentimes, a lot more uncomfortable to see. It’s certainly a little more twisted and darker, but it’s good fun.
Everybody is so familiar with this story, and even just the title of the story, so when A Christmas Carol came your way, was it something that you were immediately intrigued by and curious to read, or did you need a little bit of convincing to sign on for something that so many people have done?
ALWYN: I didn’t, no. I had to hold my hands up and say, “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a proper full version of A Christmas Carol before. I know there are so many of them, but somehow I had a deprived childhood and was never shown one.” I read the book again, which I must’ve read when I was younger. I read it again, just doing my homework. I’ve since been told about The Muppets and that Kermit is my main competition. I’m going head to head with a frog who played Bob. But I didn’t know a huge amount about other interpretations. The descriptions were so complete, unto themselves, and there was so much in them to mine and go off of, that was attractive, in itself. I knew the people surrounding it. I’d worked with Guy [Pearce] before and really got on with him, and I think he’s just fantastic. So, with the combination of him, Andy Serkis, and everyone, really, it was an exciting opportunity.
It definitely says something about the work and the themes that are in the work, when it can be interpreted as a drama or a comedy, and it can even be told by The Muppets. That’s certainly a wide range of things that most stories can’t do.
ALWYN: Yeah, definitely. It’s that idea that we always seem to come back to stories of redemption. The themes in it are universally significant to who we are as humans, about remembering who we are, and why we behave the way we behave, and about family, love, redemption and hope. It’s wrapped up in this amazing, powerful Christmas fable, and Christmas keeps coming around every year, so we keep coming back to it. It’s just a story that we keep going back to, and the fact that it’s been done in so many different ways really speaks to the strength of its core.
This is definitely a darker and more twisted telling of the story, with some difficult subject matter and some adult language. I was actually a little surprised by the swearing that was in it. Do you think that this is still something families can watch, or do you feel like this version is geared a little more toward an audience that’s a bit older?
ALWYN: Yeah, it’s undeniably darker and the themes explored are more uncomfortable, compared to what we’re used to seeing. I think it’s suitable for families, but I don’t think it’s suitable for a seven year old. I don’t know what that line is. For some reason, since the novel was written and the story seems to have been told, from what I understand and from what clips I’ve seen, it’s progressively gotten cheerier and cheerier, and almost glossy, with the Ghost of Christmas Past as a Santa Claus-like figure, and we all know who Scrooge is, but he’s an old, removed miser. Here, they’re the characters that we recognize, but they’re darker and more relatable, and hopefully the characters translate as 3D humans, as well. The things that are explored probably were there, at the time, and were an implicit path to the story, but it’s beneath the surface. [Steven Knight] has just read beneath the lines and has gone deeper into looking at why Scrooge is the way he is. He looks into his pain and has asked, “What could have made this man become this man?” And the answers that he’s come up with are certainly uncomfortable.
What was it about this version of Bob Cratchit that you found yourself most identifying with and that you also most enjoyed getting to explore?
ALWYN: I like that Bob, in this version, has got a little bit more pluck and spine, and he fights back and bites back with Scrooge, as much as he can, within the workspace. There are these great scenes between the two of them, where he doesn’t just lie down and stand down. He pushes back on Scrooge, as much as he can. Whether that’s through wit or sarcasm or dishonesty, he pushes back. He doesn’t just let himself be trampled all over. At the same time, there’s obviously a line. He knows what the stakes are and the stakes are huge, and he can’t afford to cross it because he has to provide for his family. But I liked that he had a bit more backbone to him, and he isn’t just completely submissive. And I also like that we spend more time with his family and we get to know his wife, Mary (Vinette Robinson), and his children. Mary has her own story with Scrooge, and it’s a secret that emerges within the family and these cracks begin to form. I don’t think that’s ever been explored before, in a telling of A Christmas Carol, and I thought that was pretty interesting.
I love that you really do get to experience that family dynamic and see what they’re like together, because it helps you to understand why they might be willing to endure certain things, in order to keep that together.
ALWYN: Yeah. Obviously, Bob is in the dark. He doesn’t know what’s happening. Often, if you see a family portrait, and it’s all completely happy and cheery and smiley, for all of the love that’s in this family, they’re also struggling and this secret is pulling them apart. Their conversations are quite fractured and full of tension, but that’s truer, in a way. Not everything is cheery and sanitized and 2D. Hopefully, it’s a little more rounded.
What was it like to have those young actors to work with?
ALWYN: They were amazing. A girl called Tiarna [Williams] played Belinda, and a boy called Lenny Rush played Tim, and they were both fantastic. Lenny, in particular, is just brilliant. It was so great to have both of them on set because the whole thing would just become more magical. The excitement and enthusiasm is infectious, whenever you have a child on set. It lifts everyone else. There’s a production of A Christmas Carol at The Old Vic in London that’s been going for a few years now, written by Jack Thorne, and Lenny plays Tim in that. I think he’s the only cast member who’s returned, consistently, for that production. He’s a master of that role. He’s such a lovely boy.
The dynamic between Cratchit and Scrooge is so important. How did Guy Pearce affect your approach and performance, throughout this?
ALWYN: Firstly, I was lucky enough to have worked with him before, on a film called Mary Queen of Scots, and got on with him really well, and so, I was so happy to have the opportunity to work with him again ‘cause he’s not only phenomenally talented, but he’s also a really, really good person and I got on with him. So, that was great. More than maybe any actor I’ve worked with, he’s been the most interesting to watch the way he works, and the way that he approaches a scene and asks questions, and the way that he conducts himself on set, within a scene, is amazing to watch. I like that his Scrooge is younger and has a swagger to him. Where often Scrooge can be a character that’s retreated from the world, there’s a cockiness to his and an upfront-ness that makes you engage with him. He’s not just twiddling his thumbs, sitting in a corner and grumbling. He meets you and he’s present, whereas I feel like with other older Scrooges, there’s something more passive about them. He’s younger, he’s active and he’s engaged, and that was great.
What was the experience like, being on the set, in these costumes, and surrounded by all of these actors? What are the most memorable aspects of walking onto a set like this and seeing all of that come to life?
ALWYN: Well, it was summertime, so it was very hot and very sweaty. We did it in May and June, and it was a really hot summer in London. The costumes all look amazing, but I wouldn’t have wanted to be washing them, at the end of the day. It was pretty unpleasant. But it was amazing, the way they’d close down roads in London and cover everything with fake snow. It just makes your job easier, when you’re placed into a setting in a world like that, that’s so amazingly built around you, with costume and production design. You just need to turn up and know your lines.
When you do something that is such an epic production like this, and you have such great writing to work with, and a great director and cast, does it affect what you want to do next? Every time you do a project of this caliber, does it then make you think about what the next step is?
ALWYN: It makes me want to continue to try to work with great people. I feel lucky, in my career so far, to have worked with some really, really great people and great directors. That’s all I just want to keep trying to do, and this was another version of that. It was the first time I’d done television. I hadn’t done TV before. And it didn’t really feel any different than film. We had a fair amount of time to do the three episodes. Also, it’s a real mini-series, with three episodes. We were not doing 10 episodes, or a multi-season. It’s just the attraction of trying to tell interesting stories, in new ways, with great people. I grew up watching films like Memento and, later on, The Proposition, which I absolutely loved, so getting to work with [Guy Pearce] and [Andy Serkis] and Stephen Graham, as well as Steven Knight, I just want to find people like that to work with.
Do you know what you’re going to do next, or are you in that stage of trying to figure out what you’re going to do next?
ALWYN: I just wrapped something two days ago (this interview was conducted on December 17th) in London, which was a film called Last Letter from Your Lover, and that was directed by a woman called Augustine Frizzell, who directed the new HBO show Euphoria. That stars Felicity Jones and Shailene Woodley. And then, I think there’s something I’m going to do, near the start of next year, but it’s still being figured out and is not set in stone. So, I’m just reading lots and trying to figure things out, for next year.
What’s the character you played in Last Letter from Your Lover?
ALWYN: It’s a story in two parts. It’s a modern day story and a ‘60s story, and it jumps between the two. My storyline is in the ‘60s with Shailene and Callum Turner, who’s a British actor. I play Shailene’s husband. We’re a couple, and this other figure comes into our life and disrupts the balance.
Is there a current TV series that you watch, that you’d love to do a guest spot or guest arc on?
ALWYN: I haven’t finished it, but I love watching Succession. That’s been pretty amazing. The writing on that and the performances in that are incredible.
Is there anything that you would love to do that you feel would really stretch you, as far as a genre or a character, that you just haven’t gotten the opportunity to do yet?
ALWYN: In one sense, no. It’s not as specific as that. I just want to find really good people to work with, and that could be on anything. But I would love to do a World War film. I don’t know what or how, but I think that would be really fun.
For Bob Cratchit, the holidays seem to really be about family. Do you have holiday traditions that are important to you? Is it about a sense of family, or are you a crazy decorator?
ALWYN: There’s a bit of decoration going on, with wreaths and stuff. But, yes it’s about seeing family and keeping up with weird family traditions. There are these ponds in London, near my family’s house, and for some reason, on Christmas morning, we go and jump in the ponds, and it’s absolutely freezing. It’s ridiculous, and you’ve gotta get out quickly, or you aren’t getting out. But for some reason, that starts the day on Christmas.
A Christmas Carol premieres on FX on December 19th.