Up until recently, everything that Dan Stevens knew about Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, he learned from the Muppets. The British actor was 10 years old when The Muppet Christmas Carol — the first Muppet feature made in the wake of Jim Henson’s death and the umpteenth adaptation of Ebenezer Scrooge’s holiday adventure — premiered a quarter century ago in December 1992. “That movie played religiously in my household,” Stevens tells Yahoo Entertainment. “And Gonzo plays Charles Dickens in that movie, so it was fun to see the author onscreen, kind of. I appreciated seeing the human behind these things.”
Fast-forward 25 years and Stevens is now taking over the role previously played by Gonzo the Great in the new period drama The Man Who Invented Christmas, which opens in theaters on Nov. 22. The film presents a lightly fictionalized account of how a struggling Dickens got his career back on track by crafting an unlikely blockbuster out of a story that’s part morality play, part time-travel adventure, and part celebration of then nonexistent Yuletide spirit. “It’s difficult to appreciate how weird the idea of a Christmas book was in 1843,” Stevens says. “People were baffled by it! Since then, it’s really become part of the fabric of our conception of Christmas. I was really interested to examine it as a work of art and also as a cultural moment.”
While researching the non-Gonzo version of Dickens, Stevens stumbled upon some surprising facts about the author that helped shape his portrayal. Accounts penned by Dickens’s children, for instance, pointed to the way he would act out his stories while writing them, something that’s depicted in the movie. “In her diaries, one his daughters would remember going into his study and he’d be making faces in the mirror or talking in weird voices.” Also, in his younger years, Dickens was quite the “stylish cat,” sporting long hair and a clean-shaven face.
But Stevens — who was glimpsed with flowing locks earlier this year in the live-action adaptation of Beauty and the Beast — didn’t grow his own hair out for the part, instead donning what he semi-jokingly calls his “Gene Wilder wig.” (To be clear, this isn’t the same wig he wore when the Beast turned back into his princely alter ego — a transformation that left some viewers disappointed.) “The hair is based on a portrait of him from 1841 and communicates the wildness and frenzy of his personality. There’s a bit of my own hair in front, but otherwise it’s almost all a wig.”
Stevens is leaving the “Gene Wilder” wig at home now that he’s back on the set of Legion filming the sophomore season of FX’s X-Men-adjacent hit series. The actor says he’s currently in the middle of shooting the sixth of 10 episodes, which continue the story of David Heller — the troubled telekinetic mutant that expelled Aubrey Plaza’s psychological parasite, Amahl Farouk, at the end of last season only to be kidnapped by as-yet-unknown forces. Asked what the big themes of the new season will be, Stevens replies, “Mass psychology, mass hysteria, and paranoia, as well as a trust of oneself and one’s thought processes and how that plays into interpersonal relationships. How ideas get seeded and how they grow. There’s a real mischief to the angle we take on some of those questions! That’s what makes a good comic book adaptation — they’re explorations of big universal themes dressed up in colorful abstract worlds.”
And the first season of Legion got awfully abstract at times, as creator Noah Hawley frequently abandoned the narrative and aesthetic conventions of superhero television to the delighted bafflement of the show’s fanbase. “We all put a lot of trust in Noah,” Stevens says of the process of making a show where it’s not always clear how the individual pieces fit together. “We’re on his crazy train, but what a train! The first season is every bit as weird and wonderful as I hoped it would be, and the second season is weirder and more wonderful.”
The Man Who Invented Christmas opens in theaters on Nov. 22. Legion returns to FX in 2018.
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