How The Grinch Stole Christmas! Star Stefan Karl Explains the Unique (and Scary) Customs of an Icelandic Christmas

Q&A 11/08/13

As the title green menace in the national tour of Dr. Seuss’ How The Grinch Stole Christmas!, Icelandic actor Stefan Karl is all about the holiday season. The actor, who is best known for playing the villain Robbie Rotten on Nickjr's popular Lazy Town, is embarking on his sixth season playing the Grinch on tour. Broadway.com caught up with the actor to discuss playing baddies, the intricacies of Nordic holiday customs and his worst Christmas ever. 

This looks like an incredibly fun role to play.
It’s a dream role. Playing the bad guy is always the best part to get. He’s complicated, this Mr. Grinch. Does he hate Christmas or does he like it? I think he likes Christmas very much, at the end of the day. It’s all about family. 

Do you enjoy celebrating the holidays?
Absolutely. I have four kids, so it’s very important. Two years ago on the tour, we ended up in Toronto on Christmas. I couldn’t manage to bring my family up there, so I was alone in a hotel room Christmas night. It was the worst Christmas I’ve ever had. Last year, I brought the family on tour with me. I will never experience a Christmas like that again.

Are your kids familiar with your character?
They are. They’re 5 and 6, so they’re accepting the fact that their dad is the Grinch. When I’m in costume, they’re not quite sure what to say. They like to say, "Dad, stop fooling around. We know it’s you."

You grew up in Iceland. Did you have access to Dr. Seuss’ books there?
Oh yes, absolutely. When I was a kid, my mom read the story to me, for sure. When I got the chance to play the Grinch, it was a perfect match. We were made for each other, I think. How Seuss plays with the language—it’s fun as an actor to play with.

How do you celebrate Christmas in Iceland?
It’s a little different. January 6 is what we call the 13th of Christmas—the last day of Christmas. Thirteen days before, the Santa Clauses start visiting us. In Iceland, we have 13 Santa Clauses. Each one of them is like the Grinch. They come to town and they steal the sausages and the roast beast. The next one comes and steals another piece of food. Then another one comes and wakes everybody up in the night. And the last one comes on the night of the December 24; he steals all the candles. These Santa Clauses do exactly as the Grinch does.

I can honestly say I have never heard of this before.
Yeah, they clean the house of all food and gifts. Instead of stockings, we put our shoes in the window. If the kids behave, they get a little toy in their shoe as a thank-you gift from Santa Claus for stealing everything.

If this all leads up to Christmas, how do you celebrate Christmas Day?
All the 13 Santa Clauses have arrived from the mountains, where they live, on the December 24. They kind of roam around during the holidays until the 13th of Christmas—January 6. Then they all leave together back to the mountains. That’s when it’s a new year and we have these big fires all over town when we burn all the Christmas wrappings. We basically burn Christmas away.

This seems a little scary for children.
Did you know the Santa Clauses have a mother? Her name is Gryla. She has a black cat as a pet, who is huge like a horse. If a child did not get a new piece of clothing for Christmas, the cat would come and take you, bring you up to the mountain, and Gryla would boil you and eat you.

Strangely, these stories do share elements with How The Grinch Stole Christmas!
I haven’t done any thorough research on it, but I have a feeling that Dr. Seuss might have been inspired by these Icelandic, Nordic sagas. I’m sure that Dr. Seuss had heard about that when he wrote The Grinch. At the end of the day with our customs—just as it is in The Grinch—the message is that it’s all about family. We don’t need Christmas trees, we don’t need packages; we just need to be together. That’s what The Grinch is all about. I am positive that at some point, Dr. Seuss was exposed to these stories.

When you did The Grinch in Los Angeles in 2009, you played opposite John Larroquette, who won a Tony Award for How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. What was it like working with him?
He was playing the narrator, Old Max. It was fabulous. We always joked about, "Why are you in a dog costume?" That was John Larroquette’s first musical experience. We worked very well together. We had great talks.

What did you two bond over?
He’s a lover of good music. He was very fond of an Icelandic music group called Gus Gus. He’s a music nerd.

Are there moments where kids in the Grinch audience become overly frightened?
For sure. There are moments in the show where kids freak out completely. They’re so afraid of the Grinch.

Do you attempt to comfort them?
It depends. The Grinch is the only character in the story that kind of has a permit to break the fourth wall and talk to the audience, if need be. There have been places where I had to turn out and say, "It’s OK! It’ll be fine." Or I’ll say, "Can you please take that kid away? I can’t hear myself." The Grinch is, of course, rude. Once, in a scene when the Grinch is being very dark and cruel, the green spotlights are on him and he says to Whoville, "I’m going to steal Christmas forever!" there’s a three-second silence, and this little voice came from the balcony saying, "Grinch, I love you!" I literally ran off stage laughing.

See Karl in How The Grinch Stole Christmas! at Procter & Gamble Hall at the Aronoff Center for the Arts from November 27 through December 1.

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Dr. Seuss' How the Grinch Stole Christmas! The Musical
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