The Hemi Q&A: John Lithgow
John Lithgow doesn’t hesitate to call himself a character actor. Given his diverse and unpredictable résumé, it’s not hard to see why: In the past year, the 72-year-old stage and screen veteran has played a lovable murder suspect (in the NBC sitcom Trial & Error), a ruthless real estate mogul (in the Sundance hit Beatriz at Dinner), and Winston Churchill (in Netflix’s The Crown—a role for which he won an Emmy). He’s also popped up in two franchise sequels, Pitch Perfect 3 and Daddy’s Home 2.
“I don’t know what’s happened,” he says via phone from his New York apartment, where he confesses to still being in his bathrobe. “It turns out growing old is a huge asset for a character actor. It must be that I have a lot less competition.”
But this winter the multi-hyphenate star—he’s also an amateur painter, Grammy-nominated children’s musician, and picture-book author—is devoting his attention to his most intimate project yet, with the Broadway debut of John Lithgow: Stories by Heart. An updated incarnation of the one-man show he toured with in 2008, the production allows Lithgow to pay homage to his late father, a pioneer in regional theater, by conjuring characters from some of the classic short stories his dad read to him as a child, including P.G. Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits By” and Ring Lardner’s “Haircut.” It promises to be a touching, hilarious evening, with, he says, possibly a memorable mishap or two.
We’re speaking just a week after New York City repealed its 91-year-old cabaret law restricting dancing. What would your fire-and-brimstone preacher from 1984’s Footloose say?
I didn’t even know that news! Well, it would never have happened if I’d been here.
You previously toured Stories by Heart. What prompted you to revisit the show, and what’s different about the Broadway production?
I made some big changes, cut some material, and wrote new material, but all of it is based on my experience of performing it. It’s always been these one-night stands—one performance in one city and then moving on—and as a result I’ve visited 35 American cities, most of which I’d never been to before. There were some wonderful nights where there were ridiculous mishaps, most notably, I think it was, in Greensboro, North Carolina. I got about 10 minutes into my two-hour evening and I realized my fly was open. I simply said, Oh my gosh, people, I am so sorry. How many of you noticed? Four people had the courage to raise their hands. Why didn’t you tell me? I was mortified. When that happens, it tends to be the best show you ever had. So, yes, I’ve reached a kind of culmination with this show, performing it on Broadway, but I don’t intend to stop doing it on the road. It’s a wonderful way to see this country. If you go to Kansas City, look up the Arabia Steamboat Museum.
Your father devoted his life to the theater, but it was never a steady gig for him, and as a result your family moved around a lot. What sort of emotions did it bring up for the two of you when you met with such success where he had struggled?
I think he was completely overjoyed. My first big success was my Broadway debut in [1973’s] The Changing Room. I won a Tony Award two weeks after my opening night. It happened to be the year when he lost his job as director of the McCarter Theatre in Princeton, which was his most prestigious job ever. It was an ironic and poignant moment in both his life and mine, but we never talked about it directly. In many ways, this whole show is a tribute to him. To me, he was a great man whom nobody knows about now. He was a big pioneer of the regional theater movement—creating Shakespeare festivals in Ohio—and I love going out and telling people about him. Because that’s where I came from. I never would have been an actor without him.
Have any of your three children wanted to follow in your footsteps, and if so, what did you tell them?
My oldest son is an actor, my youngest son plays music, but both of them have parallel careers. You know, the acting profession is so fluky. I tend to discourage young people from even pursuing an acting job because the profession is ruthless. Even when it’s good, it’s hard. But I always say, if you’re going to be an actor, you’re going to ignore my advice anyway. The choice is an irrational one, but most actors can’t choose anything else.
Pretty early in your career, you played trans woman Roberta Muldoon in 1982’s The World According to Garp. It’s a lovely, empathic portrayal, and what’s more, Roberta’s identity is presented as fairly uncomplicated, even though it long predates the progress we’re seeing now. Did the part give you pause at the time?
I was dying to play the role. There was no consideration whatsoever that this was a risky career move. I had read the book a couple of years before. When my agent called and said, “[director] George Roy Hill is casting Garp with Robin Williams, and he wants you to come in and read for it,” I said, “That’s great, but what role? I’m not right for anything.” And my agent’s assistant said, “I don’t know, there’s a typo, it says Roberta.” And I said, “Oh my god, that is my role.” I went in to meet George, and he rejected me out of hand for being way too tall—he thought it would be too ridiculous, pairing me with Robin. I was devastated. But eight months later, he came back and screen-tested me and hired me on the spot. It’s amazing how prescient that novel was. So much of it was about women’s reproductive rights and gender issues. It was way ahead of its time.
Do you hear from fans about any one role in particular?
It’s surprising how often Roberta comes up, and always in a positive vein. It tends to be the first time people saw me in a movie, even though it was a good 12 years into my career. An actor always makes his biggest impression the first time you see him. Do you know the five stages of an actor’s life? Let me tell you. The first stage is, Who is John Lithgow? The second stage is, Get me John Lithgow. The third stage is, Get a me a John Lithgow type. Then comes, Get me a young John Lithgow. And the last is, Who is John Lithgow? I was told that by Charlie Durning, who heard it from Gregory Peck. We actors, what we do is built to be forgotten. And the more you’re acquainted with that harsh reality, the better. I remember on the set of 3rd Rock from the Sun years ago, we were talking about Cary Grant, and Joe Gordon-Levitt, who was about 15 at the time and a smart kid, said, “Who’s Cary Grant?” Our hearts sank.
Are you ever curious about what makes you appealing for certain roles? Like, “What about me seems like a convincing serial killer?”
The whole power of that role in [Showtime’s] Dexter was how ordinary that man was, how inconspicuous. I got a very good review for my performance in TV Guide, which referred to me as “a bland blob of a man,” and I chose to take that as a compliment. As a character actor, your motto is, Human beings are capable of anything. All of us have murder in us. The most fascinating thing about playing a part is finding the good in the bad people or finding the bad in the good people.
You’ve won multiple Tony and Emmy awards. What do relatively silly movies like Daddy’s Home 2 and Pitch Perfect 3 afford you the chance to do?
Surprise people. It’s great to go from Winston Churchill to Daddy’s Home 2, because you catch people off balance. They expect one thing from you and you give them something else. It keeps it all very fresh for me, but I like to think it keeps it fresh for audiences, too. Like, My god, what is he doing now? Also, I’m happy to report that there have been lots of things that I’ve said no to, mainly because I’ve been unavailable.
Was your preparation for playing Churchill more of an intellectual exercise or a physical one?
Both. Of every role I’ve ever played, it’s the one I most deeply researched. I was scared to death. He is so recognizable: what he looked like, what he sounded like, his baroque speech defects. Everybody in England does a Churchill impersonation. Fortunately, it’s a very different Churchill story. It’s him as an old man tutoring the queen and facing his own mortality. And it was extremely well written. But that didn’t matter—I was still intimidated. It was only when I got to England and people welcomed me with open arms and persuaded me that it was a really genius idea, hiring such an unlikely actor for the part, that I began to build my confidence.
In that great episode of The Crown in which artist Graham Sutherland is working on Churchill’s portrait, he says to Churchill, “I find in general people have very little understanding of who they are. One has to turn a blind eye to so much of oneself in order to get through life.” Do you agree?
I think that’s true. If I had to pick one hour of drama that I’m most proud of, it would be that episode. People who are not actors—and even actors—are so freaked out at the sight of themselves on tape or in film, and it’s because we really do not know ourselves. The mirror lies. We do not like what we see. We avoid the reality of who we are. Now I can be more objective. 3rd Rock was the big breakthrough for me, because it was so wild and funny, and self-mockery was our tool. We made fun of ourselves; we were completely outrageous. It sounds vain, but I just love watching myself on 3rd Rock. It liberated me.
How does that philosophy apply to your 2011 memoir, Drama: An Actor’s Education? You discuss infidelity in your first marriage and confess to acting mentally unwell to avoid the Vietnam War draft, which was a great source of anguish. Did you think of that project as being warts-and-all?
Yeah. I’ve often felt ambivalence about that book because people say, “Whoa, John, why’d you put that in?” I really did expose myself in a lot of ways. But as you write, you begin to realize what it is you’re writing and why. And early on I realized I was only writing up to the age of 35. And you come to these crucial moments that are often shameful moments or incredibly difficult or painful moments, and you have to decide: Do I write about this or do I just pass it over? I thought it was cowardly and dishonest to pass it over. It did form me, avoiding the draft. It did form me, making a mess of my first marriage. I learned who I am, and learning who you are is a big part of becoming a proper actor.
You have an amazing personal history. You’re distantly related to Oliver Wendell Holmes. You once met your childhood idol, Norman Rockwell. Coretta Scott King babysat you and your siblings.
As you rattle off those names and events, I feel like Forrest Gump! You get to be my age and you have this crazy, varied life. My older sister remembers Coretta much more vividly than I do, but I met her later in my life—she was friends with a producer of a Broadway show I was in, and she’s the one who told me that she’d been my babysitter. And I was floored. But, yeah, there really were those remarkable moments. When I did Daddy’s Home 2, we spent the first week in the Berkshires. I lived in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, in fifth grade. It was a very formative year, and going back there for an entire week and living in a very swanky hotel with three superstars was so intense. As we drove to the set every morning I passed right by the building that used to be Norman Rockwell’s studio, and the house I lived in in fifth grade.
What is the biggest change you’ve witnessed over the course of your career?
Goodness knows the media landscape has radically changed, to the point where I don’t know what’s going on. Streaming television shows and social media and YouTube comedy—I feel like such an old-timer. When I first worked in New York theater, it was in the 1970s and you had to be crazy to go into the Theater District after 9 o’clock at night. Half of the Broadway playhouses were dark. Now every single theater has three or four productions waiting in line. But it’s more similar than different. People still want to see live drama. People will wait two years to see Hamilton because they want the experience of going into that theater, being with those people, and living through that story with them. And that’s what keeps me going.