LOS ANGELES — 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 United Kingdom’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 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. A U.S. version aired on HBO. The creative team is now writing a new skit show, but Lucas also has a desire to carve out a Hollywood film career with an emphasis on family and fantasy movies.
For his first American film, Lucas found himself working with Johnny Depp and Alan Rickman — it was a dizzying experience, the former stand-up comic said, and he spent hours just watching cast members to improve his acting. He can’t however, watch himself.
Lucas lost all of his hair when he was 6, 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. “I adore watching 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 ... the quirky guy, the eccentric characters.”
For the two Tweedles, Lucas went for “corpulent boys, both childish and childlike, 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” Cohn said. “He’s grieving and he’s going through the emotions that people go through, but he is always moving forward.”
Lucas was dazzled, he said, by working with such a strong cast and director.
“You get warmth in spades from Johnny and Tim (Burton, the director). In Johnny’s trailer, and this betrays a confidence perhaps, I hope he will forgive me, on the refrigerator there is a drawing of the Mad Hatter by Johnny’s kids. And it said, ‘Good luck, Dad.’ I found that so wonderful.”
And 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 worked with them to craft it — keep that, turn that bit down, try for this.”
Lucas was less enamored with the green-screen set. “It was very notional,” Lucas said. “You have to imagine there are trees and castles. 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.”
He hopes to work with Burton again, especially since the filmmaker works in worlds where eccentric characters are at every turn. He also 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’s something boyish in his excitement.”