'Biggest Little Christmas Showdown' Host James Monroe Iglehart on Filming During Coronavirus and the Incredible Art of Miniatures
You might best recognize James Monroe Iglehart from Broadway shows like Aladdin (he played the Genie) and Hamilton (where he played the dual roles of Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson). Like many of us, his life has been interrupted because of the coronavirus pandemic, and he’s been largely at home since mid-March. And whenever he sits down for an interview in his home office, he has to do one very important thing: shut the door, lest his nearly-19-year-old cat, Zoe, pop in and make a cameo. “She’s quiet, so I don’t know [she’s there],” he says. “And all of a sudden, she’s behind me, and I’ll just feel this claw on my leg.” At first, she meows quietly—but if the proper attention isn’t paid, the meows quickly get louder. “Because some of my [meetings] are on TV, I have to make sure the doors are closed so she doesn’t make a surprise appearance, like ‘Hello! I just wanted to talk to everybody!’” Iglehart says. “Cause she would.”
Remembering to close the door has been important this year, because Iglehart has been keeping busy working from home—voicing a character on DuckTales, putting on a The Nightmare Before Christmas concert for charity, and singing a glorious rendition of Ragtime’s “Make Them Hear You” on Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, recorded in his apartment’s office (“The great thing is I happen to live in a pretty sound resistant apartment, because I have done some really loud things in this room … and [my neighbors haven’t] said anything”). Next, Iglehart is hosting HGTV’s miniature-building competition, Biggest Little Christmas Showdown, which premieres on Friday, November 27. We spoke with the actor about filming during coronavirus, tiny tools, and all things holidays.
How did the hosting gig on Biggest Little Christmas Showdown come about?
Honestly, it came about from being nice. I was doing a show called Maniac on Netflix, starring Emma Stone and Jonah Hill, and the stand-in for Jonah and I just began talking all the time. Little did I know that his wife was one of the producers at Food Network, HGTV, [and] Discovery.
We filmed [Maniac] two years ago. All of a sudden, I’m in the car, driving from Whole Foods back home, when my agent calls and says “Hey, HGTV is looking for you, they want to talk to you about maybe hosting this show.” Turns out the guy I'd met on Maniac was like, “Hey, James was always really nice, you should talk to him, I think he’s the guy who could really pull this off.”
There was no audition—we had a conversation. I told them that it’s so fun to watch HGTV because it is something that, when I come home at night, [my wife] Dawn and I turn on the TV and let it play in the background. And then you’re like, “They built what?! They took two sticks and a rubber band and built a hot tub? That’s amazing!” When they explained this show to me, I was like, “This is the kind of show that Dawn and I would watch.”
So, you never know. Don’t kiss ass, but be nice, be professional, because you never know who’s watching.
Obviously, filming a TV show doesn’t happen quite like it used to because of the pandemic. What was that experience like?
We filmed in August, so we were one of the first shows to start doing something.
I had to go get the COVID test—I’ve had like 50,000 of them now. They separated the film crew, the engineering crew, the office crew, separated into different quadrants. So I would walk in with my mask, someone would lead me to my dressing room, people would get the clothes, hair, makeup. I’d walk on set, take off the mask, do the shot. The whole crew was in masks, goggles, and face shields. The contestants were not—we were all free-faced—but once everything cut, you put your mask back on, they’d take you back to your dressing room, and you’d stay there until it was time to go back. It was a very well-oiled machine.
The way it’s shot, it looks like we’re close, but we’re six feet away. I’m talking to the person, and there’s one camera shooting [at me] and one camera shooting [at them], and we’re talking, yes, but I’m far enough away that we’re not spitting on each other or anything like that ... It was a learning curve, but it was really fun.
I watch what some might say is an embarrassing amount of competition shows like this one. What are some factors that go into these shows that people might not be aware of, or misconceptions people might have about how these shows work?
I think when people see them they just assume it’s more like a reality TV show—like people know what’s going to happen, they know what’s going on. No, they don’t. They have no idea. The contestants had no idea I was there. Some of the contestants were theater people, and when I walked out, they freaked.
Or, what’s really crazy is that I don’t think people understand the realness of when you say "And the winner is… this person"—of what happens to the other two teams. I think people think that, “Oh, it’s TV, they’re happy!” They are not. I was like “the winner is so and so” and I looked over at the other teams, and they’re distraught.
These are some amazing artists. When they’re not on this show, they are miniaturists outside—this is what they do for a living. They lost not because they’re not good, but because this particular person did what we asked them to do better. Yes, it’s TV, but this is a real competition, and they were working their butts off. And this is not bulls**t, this is not smoke, every single team was fantastic. And that’s the real hard part.
People also don’t get how good the backstage crew is. What you’re seeing, they make it look so easy, and it’s so hard. They’re trying to get the shot right, they’re trying not to get in each other’s way, and that’s just without COVID. With COVID … we had to tell our crew to stay six feet apart. Just imagine: Our Steadicam has a person who has his look, with a wire connected, but they have to be six feet apart so they don’t bother each other. So there’s this weird choreography that has to happen all through the show to make it look seamless. It’s amazing how nobody tripped over each other. I think that’s one thing that people don’t understand—how much work goes into making these shows look as smooth and easy as possible.
What impressed you the most about the work these teams were doing?
The detail. I don’t want to give anything away, but people are painting, people are making pottery, people are making food. Tiny, tiny, food, in little ovens. And I’m like: If you were to have a shrink ray, if you were to be like Ant-Man from Marvel Comics and shrink down, you could live in these houses like a normal person. The only thing that’s not in the house is heating. There are water fixtures, there’s electricity, we just don’t have heat. If we had heat, it would be over. We could shrink and live in the house [and] be fine.
That was the thing that got me so much—the detail that folks put into this. There was a young lady who had a loom … a miniature loom. And she made a rug! It was one of those moments where it was like, “... Is that a loom?!” She’s like, “Oh yeah, me and my father built this!” It was amazing.
And this stuff is real. They built something. They built a stool, a real stool. I was in awe every time: How did you do that?! I saw how much time they had. The little exact-o knives they used. And they talk smack—trust me, they do talk smack—but there’s a lot of quietness, of people just concentrating. It is incredible. And people build tools for this! Tiny tools to build tiny things. It’s so good.
Did you take any of the miniatures home with you?
I was given a little lamp. And I cherish the lamp. You can turn it on—it works!
And has your cat knocked it off a table yet?
No, because I put it up really high! The minute I put it down, she looked at it like, “I could destroy that. Where you gonna put that?” I was like, “No no no, this is breakable!” and she was like “I know.” We put it up really high.
Were you tempted to get in there and make any miniatures yourself?
Noooo, I know my limits. When they called the first time, my agent was talking to me and telling me about the project, and I’m thinking to myself, I hope he doesn’t want me to be a part of this. I hope he doesn’t think I’m a contestant, cause that’s not gonna work. That’s a hard no from me, bro. It’s hard for me to make a hand turkey.
I didn’t take shop in high school, because I knew, I am not good. I Donald Duck—if something doesn’t work, I Donald Duck, like, “AHH!” and just start destroying crap. My wife builds everything that comes into the house. If we get something from IKEA, I lift it, she builds it. Don’t give me power tools.
So me trying to build anything, no. I know what my skillset is. I’m a great announcer, I’m a great host, I’ve got a great voice, I sing, I dance. Don’t let me build anything. LEGO is about as far as I go, because you can’t destroy them.
This is a random question, but: If you could Godzilla your way through a miniature of any place, what would that place be?
[Laughs] Probably … my old neighborhood that I went to high school, junior high school, [and] elementary school in. I would like to come through and just start crushing everything. This is the place that those guys bullied me—CRUSH! This is the place where that girl said I couldn’t get her number—CRUSH! Just taking out all those bad memories.
The holidays are coming up, so I have a few rapid-fire questions for you. What is your favorite holiday song?
Easy—“The Christmas Song.” I have a bunch of different songs I love. People always cover these songs, but I have specific versions of these songs that I love. “The Christmas Song,” but it has be by Nat King Cole. “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” but it has to be by Johnny Mathis. When I hear “White Christmas,” it’s gotta be by Bing Crosby, or maybe Michael Bublé, but that’s it. But my go-to is “The Christmas Song” by Nat King Cole.
Canned cranberry sauce: Yay or nay?
Oh my god, that’s a big yay. There is nothing like a circle of gelatin with the little dents inside from the can that you slice, and nobody can slice it right. Everybody tries to slice is perfectly and it always comes out looking all oblong shaped and all messed up. That is Thanksgiving to me. That’s Christmas, too. Don’t get me wrong, I love real cranberries. Fresh cranberry sauce is great. But there’s something nostalgic about [that sound of cranberry sauce coming out of the can]. It’s the best thing ever.
What’s the coolest ornament on your Christmas tree?
That’s hard. I have many. And every year I have a different favorite ... There’s one ornament that’s really sentimental; one that’s really, really expensive; and one that’s really cheap, but just fun.
So the one that’s sentimental is—my wife and I have an ornament from our first Christmas together, in 2002. It’s a little cheap ornament that just says “Our First Christmas.” It’s not worth anything, but we love it. We always put that up.
Then there’s one that’s just way too expensive for no reason, but it was in Disney World and it’s discontinued. It’s a sculpture of Mr. Toad, but its coat is red and it feels velvety. I always put it in the middle, so just in case it falls, it falls into the tree.
And then a friend of mine came to work at Hamilton, and she had made a Grinch ornament. It was just a green ornament, and it was sparkly, and she drew the Grinch’s face on it with a marker, and then put a green tuft of hair. And I saw it, and I was like “Oh my god, I’m such a big Grinch fan!” A week later, she came back with one for me, so I have the Grinch.
I love the Grinch. I love the Boris Karloff version of it, I love the Jim Carrey version of it. I’m going to watch the Benedict Cumberbatch version this year. Huge Grinch fan.
You may have just answered this, but: If you could be a character in any pre-existing Christmas movie, what would it be?
Actually, to be honest, Ebenezer Scrooge. A Christmas Carol and The Grinch are my favorite Christmas stories. My dream, which is crazy, because some great people have already done it, is to do a one-man version of A Christmas Carol. I had the privilege last year of seeing my favorite guy in the world, Sir Patrick Stewart, [do his one-man A Christmas Carol]—he came out of retirement for a three-night thing. And I went to see him. It was incredible. But that’s my dream. I know A Christmas Carol by heart. Scrooge would be the one.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Biggest Little Christmas Showdown premieres Friday, November 27, at 9 p.m. EST/PST on HGTV.