Tuesday 23 January 2018

John Lithgow's chemistry lesson

The actor, who stars in Netflix's 'The Crown', spoke to our reporter about grief, growing up and using his personal life for performance

John Lithgow as Winston Churchill in The Crown
John Lithgow as Winston Churchill in The Crown
Donal Lynch

Donal Lynch

In some ways John Lithgow seems like a preposterous choice to play Winston Churchill. Tall and rangy, self-effacing, unmistakably American - the antithesis, in other words, of the aristocratic bulldog who led Britain though the war.

But several episodes into The Crown and you realise that in fact Lithgow is an inspired choice. Who else could summon the flinty determination of Churchill while also delivering the legendary prime minister's one-liners with just the right aplomb.

The series, which has won justified acclaim, focuses on the relationship between the Queen and Prince Philip, but Lithgow's performance is still one of its highlights.

"I like to think that I blend qualities - comedy and drama. If there is any comic relief in The Crown it's Churchill. I think Stephen Daldry may have had in mind that slight twinkle that I sometimes bring to roles.

Star turns: Claire Foy and Matt Smith in The Crown on Netflix
Star turns: Claire Foy and Matt Smith in The Crown on Netflix

"Churchill was also the master of the one-liner. I wore very little make-up for the role. Sad to say, I'm becoming an old man, so all the liver spots and so on came in very handy. I had a fat suit, zipped it up the back, and it completely changed my sense of my self."

I noticed in the weeks after interviewing Lithgow - we met in Paris earlier this year - that if I mentioned his name some people came up blank, but pull out the iPhone for a visual reminder and they tended to exclaim like they'd seen an old friend.

His back catalogue is so broad and varied - everything from Terms of Endearment to Kinsey - that you'd sort of presume he's picked up an Oscar at some stage but despite two nominations he's never had a gong. It seems like a slightly noteworthy gap in an otherwise glittering career and crowded trophy cupboard (he's won several Emmys and Tonys). I wonder if this rankles with him at all.

"To be honest, yes, I would love to have an Oscar. I love winning awards. But it is also a little insidious to think in those terms. You can really beat yourself. I have to concentrate on the work. If I wanted an Oscar above all else then I would have to turn down all those roles that stood no chance of winning me an Oscar, and who would do that?"

Possibly only Daniel Day-Lewis, if we're honest. Does it go through Lithgow's head when he reads a script though - could this win an Oscar?

"Sometimes. And sometimes people will say 'oh I'll bet you win one for this.' But I do believe that way lies madness. We actors have to take our turn in the sun."

Maeve Madden and Matt Smith in scenes from Netflix productio 'The Crown' - Episode 6
Maeve Madden and Matt Smith in scenes from Netflix productio 'The Crown' - Episode 6

His knowledge of the vagaries of the business he picked up mostly from his parents, he tells me. His father, Arthur, was a noted theatre director and his mother an actress and while he officially grew up in Rochester, New York, it was, he tells me, a peripatetic childhood.

He kept being uprooted and would have to make new friends in new towns. I wonder if the empathetic skills needed to do that were a factor in developing his own skills as an actor?

Real life: Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II and Matt Smith as Prince Philip in Netflix series 'The Crown'
Real life: Claire Foy as Queen Elizabeth II and Matt Smith as Prince Philip in Netflix series 'The Crown'

"To an extent, probably, yes, that is true. But I grew up in a theatre family and so that was the biggest factor. I tried to treat it as a craft and keep my own ego out of it as much as I can. I also, I would say, know how to make use of my own insecurities.

"And that's important. Acting is a process of dealing with volatile chemicals, stirring them up in yourself and then presenting that concoction to an audience and hoping that it stirs up something in them."

Like his parents Lithgow started out as a stage actor. He won a Tony for his Broadway debut in 1973 and later starred opposite Meryl Streep in Arthur Miller's A Memory Of Two Mondays. Numerous film and stage highlights would follow but Lithgow was notable for being at the vanguard of serious actors who migrated to television.

His best known role of all has been his wonderful, winking turn as Dick Solomon in 3rd Rock From the Sun but the performance of his life was probably the one he turned in to avoid the draft for Vietnam, which came while he was in London. He once said that he worked himself up into a "feverish" state - and it worked.

The process of alchemising personal pain for performance also helped Lithgow deal with the death of his father.

"When my father was an old man and near death I read to him from a book of stories by PG Wodehouse and you have never heard someone laugh so much. It was an incredibly emotional moment for me.

"Reading it I thought 'wow all I have to do is memorise what I'm reading and this will be a fantastic piece to perform, and even better this moment is itself utterly memorable'. And some time later I did make a one-man show based on that moment. As intensely personal as it was you do have to make use of your own experience. And it did help me understand everything."

He tells me that even for The Crown, in a role seemingly far removed from his own reality, he still used his personal life to fuel the performance.

"Another example in my work is the relationship between Churchill and Clemmie (Churchill's wife). It was a 35-year marriage. I have had a long marriage and to an extent I'm telling the story of my own marriage in the performance. Of course I did the research, I read a lot of books on Churchill, but even more so I sifted through my own experiences."

He is convinced that there is no Churchillian figure in the modern political landscape.

"The closest might have been Maggie Thatcher - she was a tough-as-nails Conservative, but I don't think she really had much of his twinkle or sparkle. In our retelling, he has wonderful lines that Peter Morgan created for him.

"At one point he snarls 'you reek of socialism'. But there is a reason he was voted out at the end of World War II - they didn't want a war-monger.

"They wanted to get Britain back on its feet again. And of course under (Clement) Atlee socialism was no longer a dirty word - although it would remain that way in America. I found it fascinating that one of the contenders for the presidency in this race [Bernie Sanders] openly described himself as a socialist."

He's lost some of his friends in the business over the last few years - he was close to both Mike Nichols and Robin Williams. Given that he's 71 now, I wonder if those deaths have affected his view of grief and if they brought his own mortality closer to the forefront of his mind.

"You don't get over someone like Mike. What a genius. You never get used to it. The death of a friend is always a blow. But I consider myself lucky to be alive and kicking, and viable and creative. For that I must be grateful."

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