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Jim Carrey’s Grinch is the Perfect Christmas Movie Monster

Despite feeling “buried alive” by his makeup, he plays Dr. Seuss’ classic Christmas curmudgeon with heartwarming emotion.
Jim Carrey As The Grinch
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on December 14th, 2021

Acting is an art form, and behind every iconic character is an artist expressing themselves. Welcome to The Great Performances, a bi-weekly column exploring the art behind some of cinema’s best roles. In this entry, we examine Jim Carrey’s portrayal of the Grinch in Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas.


Ron Howard’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas (a.k.a Dr. Seuss’ How the Grinch Stole Christmas) is an odd little holiday movie. From its elaborate carnivalesque art direction to the stunning makeup and hair design by veterans Rick Baker and Gail Rowell-Ryan, the children’s book adaptation feels more in line with the dark, bizarro world of Tim Burton than anything Howard had directed by the year 2000. 

Regardless of its overt strangeness, the movie is still attuned to a childlike sense of wonder. But that only thinly conceals the fact it’s more than a little ghoulish. The citizens of Whoville, with their upturned noses and wild hairdos, look patently unsettling, which is only heightened by the movie’s Christmas setting. How the Grinch Stole Christmas is clearly aimed at kids, but those nightmarish visuals give it the appeal of a cult film, like The Garbage Pail Kids Movie, which also used practical effects to bring cartoon characters to life in truly unnerving ways. 

So, how did a movie that toes the line between heartwarming and horrifying become a holiday staple? Jim Carrey’s maniacally calculated performance as the Grinch. His brand of chaotic physical comedy is perfectly matched to the needs of a live-action cartoon. He has a rubber face that can seamlessly change into some of the Grinch’s most iconic looks, like his wide Cheshire grin, made famous in the classic 1966 animated special.

The overt eeriness of How the Grinch Stole Christmas gives Carrey the space to imbue his Grinch with a streak of danger, but he never tips over into outright scaring kids. He manages this through a vocal cadence that mimics the playfulness of a child donning funny voices to crack up their classmates. This allows children to see themselves in the Grinch, which makes it easier for Carrey and Howard to deliver the film’s message that everyone deserves to be treated with dignity and respect. 

The Grinch as a Tragic Movie Monster

As I watched Jim Carrey’s Grinch hunch over to smile at Cindy-Lou Who in the movie’s finale recently, I noticed something I hadn’t before. Decked out in his rubbery suit, bristling with green Yak hair, Carrey strikes a pose that reminded me of Quasimodo, the tragic character from Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dawn, famously brought to life by Lon Chaney for one of Universal’s first monster movies. (It’s worth noting that How the Grinch Stole Christmas is also a Universal release.) 

It dawned on me that, beyond the sheer clowning Carrey does in-character, the Grinch contains qualities similar to a classic movie monster. He’s driven into exile, like Frankenstein’s monster, and he has a festering lust for vengeance akin to the Phantom of the Opera. But he’s also a character ostracized for the way he looks, much like Quasimodo, that feeds the Grinch’s seething resentment towards Christmas and Whoville. 

Carrey’s performance can then be seen as a sly nod to classic movie monster actors, especially Chaney, who was known for creating elaborate makeup designs so his monsters appeared frighteningly real. And, just like Chaney, Carrey also had to endure uncomfortable prosthetics to become his Christmas monster, and he took that discomfort and channeled it into his performance.

The process to apply the Grinch makeup initially took over eight hours, which Carrey described as “the feeling of being buried alive every day.”

The Makeup Maketh the Character

If you’ve ever worn prosthetics, you know just how suffocating it can feel. It’s similar to the itchy sensation of wearing a cast — just, you know, over your entire body. Jim Carrey found himself spiraling with anxiety every morning, dreading being trapped behind a mask of makeup for hours on end, so the producers hired a CIA-trained expert in withstanding torture to teach Carrey coping mechanisms to mentally survive the application process. 

Even though Carrey was facing severe discomfort for likely every frame of the movie, he used the physical limitations of his monster suit to help build his character. When asked about how he came up with the Grinch’s Sean Connery-esque voice, Carrey explained on The Rosie O’Donnell Show: “When you put those teeth in your head, you’ve got the agony of the suit going…it just came out that way. You stick those teeth in there, and they’re gigantic, and you have to learn how to talk over them.” 

Carrey took this initial impulse for his character voice and ran with it, giving the Grinch a hodgepodge of accents and voices that underline the Christmas monster’s manic, childlike energy. His Grinch is so all over the place that you can’t tell what choice he’s going to make next. Will he throw on a baseball cap and do his best impersonation of a Hollywood director, or is he going to make some esoteric pop culture reference that only the adults in the audience will understand?

Nothing is too big or broad for the Grinch because Carrey allows himself to become the living embodiment of a cartoon character. He honed these skills through films like Ace Ventura: Pet Detective and The Mask, but the Grinch is the perfect conduit to let his impulses go wild. 

The Grinch as a Gateway to Jim Carrey’s Dramatic Period

He is an incredible clown, so naturally, Jim Carrey is utterly at ease in the Grinch’s buffoonery. But this was also a period in his career when he began to make his slow transition into more dramatic acting. The Truman Show had come out two years earlier, and when he was in the casting process for How the Grinch Stole Christmas, he was still in the throes of his method acting work becoming Andy Kaufman for Miloš Forman’s Man on the Moon.

While Carrey was just starting to stretch his acting chops, we can see an inkling of his future dramatic turns in the pathos he gives his Grinch. Amidst a neverending onslaught of comedic jabs, he lands carefully calculated emotional uppercuts that give his character depth. He knows exactly when to ground the Grinch’s important emotional moments so the audience can truly empathize with him by the movie’s finale.

Throughout How the Grinch Stole Christmas, we slowly learn how the Grinch became who he is. He is an orphan, raised by a pair of Whoville sisters who enroll him in school and raise him alongside the other Who children. After developing a crush on a young girl in his class, the Grinch is targeted by a bully who makes fun of the way he looks. After an incident involving a pair of hair clippers, he lashes out, disowning Christmas, and fleeing his hometown for the mountainous region surrounding Whoville. 

The insecurity the Grinch felt as a child is at the bedrock of Carrey’s performance. He grounds his character in the reality of someone who uses humorous hyperbolic ire to mask their inner fragility. He still leans on broad physical comedy during these emotional beats, but the doubts and fears of Carrey’s Grinch are played with the poignancy of a person afraid of reliving childhood trauma. This helps us empathize with the Grinch because it’s a feeling many of us can recognize in ourselves. No one should be bullied, especially not a child.

An Emotional Performance Only Achieved in Live-Action

The zenith of Jim Carrey’s emotional performance comes in the film’s climax when the Grinch’s heart finally grows in size. As he says the story’s most famous line, “Maybe Christmas doesn’t come from a store,” we see this wave of emotion wash over his face and he wordlessly processes the joyous feeling creeping through his body.

It’s a physical transformation that Carrey is seamlessly able to do with a simple shift of his brows as his eyes begin to water. A fleeting moment in the movie, it’s still a rewarding one for the audience. The real emotions that Carrey gives his Grinch counterbalances all of the clowning that is paramount to his overall performance, allowing us to appreciate his work on a deeper level.

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Carrey’s work as the Grinch helped him get more dramatic roles, but the character was a vehicle for him to experiment more in his performances, finding places to add soulfulness where another actor may have not. I’d argue this is why the movie continues to have legs decades after it was first released.

Carrey plays a cartoon, but he doesn’t play his Grinch as a one-dimensional cardboard cut-out. He imbues his Grinch with genuine emotion that allows audiences to empathize and connect with the character in a way they couldn’t with the original TV special. 

I talk a lot in this column about the different acting techniques performers use to bring their characters to life. But sometimes a great performance is merely the convergence of utter commitment and a genuine interest in uncovering the truths about a character. The fact that Carrey was handily able to do both while experiencing abject torture underneath his Grinch monster-suit, is a testament to the uniqueness of his style of performance.

Whether it’s a loony pet detective, a diabolical cable guy, or a classic Christmas movie monster, Jim Carrey pushes himself to the limit with every character he plays.

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). He is available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)