John Lithgow has grown mutton chops for his part as Posket in Victorian playwright Arthur Wing Pinero’s farce The Magistrate and has the air of a sophisticated lecturer about him. It is quite fitting considering he’s wearing corduroy trousers and we’re surrounded by shelves stuffed with classic literature. The 67-year-old actor sits down, crosses his gangly legs and is offered a cup of tea. “Yes, I think that would be lovely”, he hums.
To see Lithgow like this is a surprise. I’d somehow expected the man with the rubbery face made for comedy to be way more silly. After all, he’s bedded in as one of the most recognisably unhinged character actors in the industry. Hits include his Oscar-nominated turn as a transsexual in The World According to Garp, his paranoid passenger in the classic Twilight Zone: Nightmare at 20,000 Feet – “so silly and still one of my favourites” – then who could forget Dick Solomon, the narcissistic alien dissecting earth as a “third rate planet” in 3rd Rock From the Sun?
Now though, he looks as if he might be hiding a pipe and a pair of slippers behind his seat.
What happened? Is this the real John Lithgow?
“You know I’m often asked that,” he says in a baritone east coast accent, scratching his head as if to suggest I’ve harboured the same expectations as casting directors throughout his life. “They come to me for ‘the crazy’,” – and here he pulls a brilliantly zany face – “but the work has always been a nine to five. I’m on the shortlist for oddballs, scoundrels, fools and perverts of all stripes, which is how I end up playing aliens and serial killers. But the nice thing about it is that it takes you down all kinds of interesting roads without telling you everything about me.”
Today Lithgow is keen to show he’s not shy of a bit of self-mockery or at least a taste of the fun I was expecting. At times he digs up juicy quotes from Pinero’s text and recites them at an unnerving volume, including a well-timed comment on doing interviews at lunchtimes during busy rehearsal periods – “I solidly prepare you, madam, that you stand in danger of being late for dinner!’,” he shouts, relishing the words. “That talking at cross-purposes Pinero writes. I love it. It’s just great.”
Which it is. But as he discusses his part as Posket, a “wonderfully foolish, innocent court magistrate on a wild night out”, it’s clear he prefers to see the exhibitionism it brings with it as a by-product of a much more fastidious approach to what makes good acting. He even says he has learned to apply three elements to every role he plays – “the meaning, the emotion and the music”.
This needs explaining. “You have to have a good sense of whatever you’re doing,” he says, taking gargantuan pauses between each point as he numbers them on his large left hand. “It’s got to make sense intellectually,” he looks up to see if I’m paying attention, “Right? But then acting always has to have an emotional authenticity. And then you have to pay attention to the sound. Bom-bom-bom-bo-bo-bo-bom. Right? Think of Shakespeare every time you speak that wonderful poetry. It’s all to do with timing and the rhythms of the scene.”
In London they generate a tremendous amount of material and new plays. It’s very daring and very adventurous, with a very adventurous audience
This isn’t the first time that Shakespeare’s name crops up and it won’t be the last. It’s well documented that Lithgow has had a rocky relationship with the Bard “for what seems like always”. He grew up in the shadow of his father Arthur Lithgow, who as a producer of Shakespeare festivals across regional America would rely on John to play six or seven different roles in rep during summer seasons. It taught him to learn how to adapt.
“And boy did I have to learn fast, you know,” he says. “It meant a different kind of experience every night, from Hamlet to Merry Wives and King Lear and beyond. All these subtle, complex, comical, tragic plays. Just going abruptly from role to role is great training, it stretches your muscles and gives you an enthusiasm for playing different roles.”
It’s easy to see how this can influence a career that spans stage, screen and telly, but interestingly he would later move away from Shakespearean acting, and in so doing, away from the lessons his father taught him – “God I’ve turned down so many Shakespeare roles over the years. I have a lot of regrets” he said in one interview. Maybe though, that relationship with his father and that zest for character acting accounts for Lithgow’s ability to delve into the emotions most of us have nightmares about?
He nods tentatively. When he covers this ground Lithgow insists he approaches it rationally. “Look, when you play any villain or an idiot you’re just trying to inhabit that person and play the role from his point of view,” he says, adding that the best way to play someone like Iago is to do so as if the play is called Iago, and never Othello. “You try to understand what makes Iago work, and you try to sympathise with him – sympathy for the devil – that’s the way to approach villains. And, of course, fools like Posket. It makes them fascinating.”
Three years ago he played the Trinity Killer for a season in Showtime’s violent TV crime drama Dexter. Like the show’s eponymous central character, Lithgow’s Killer explores the duality between a mundane suburban life and a depraved hunger for murder. He won a Golden Globe and an Emmy for his performance and just mentioning it makes him smile (not in the serial killer kind of way, of course).
“It was so fascinating to play a man who does horrific things and yet desperately does not want to do it. He wishes he did not live with this compulsion to kill. And more than anything else he wishes someone would put a stop to it. What a fascinating tension. And to play the role with empathy and sympathy – that’s tough.”
But I wonder what kind of effect this peripatetic study of human wickedness has outside of his career? On married life? He’s been with his partner Mary Yeager, a history professor at UCLA, for more than 30 years and another anniversary is approaching.
“It’s a miracle that my marriage has lasted as long as it has,” he says. “An actor’s life is so fragmented and unpredictable and my wife’s life is orderly and scheduled. I’m always disrupting things. I’ve gone a month now without seeing her, it’s very hard but we somehow make it work over time. My work often drives her crazy, but she knows it’s extremely important to me.”
And returning to London? Lithgow came here as a young man to study at LAMDA in 1967 and has tried to visit regularly ever since. Missing the US presidential election during his latest was hard to take and he has been deeply concerned about his friends in New York during one of the worst storms in the city’s history – “I feel an enormous affection for everyone there right now. It feels very bizarre to be here while New York is under siege.”
Coming back to his “second favourite place in the world” has, however, positioned him well to compare the state of play in the West End and on Broadway, a judgement he says he has no qualms in making.
“In London they generate a tremendous amount of material and new plays, or they re-imagine classics, forgotten classics. It’s very daring and very adventurous, with a very adventurous audience, and they do that in the spirit of ‘this might work and it might not’ kind of thing.” He adds that theatre isn’t welcomed with the same dynamism on Broadway. “You don’t arrive in New York and immediately get Time Out and see what’s on at the Signature or wherever. But you come to London and you must find out immediately what’s going on.”
The differences, he says, also come down to money. “In New York the big engine of theatre is investors looking to make money. It’s a commercial proposition. Of course they’re interested in that here too, but it’s not the primacy of it. Right now there’s a list of 20 shows that I’m dying to see in London. I’m full of regret that I won’t be able to see them all. It’s just crawling with activity all over town. There’s just an tremendous importance attached to theatre here.”
Will he be so cool about things when it’s his turn to answer those audiences at The National? “It’s their big Christmas show. Simple as that. It’s not a challenging play. It’s completely delightful, I hope they’ll be as delighted as I am. It’s also endearing and very very funny.”
A bit like him? He’s already shown me he can turn it on and off easier than a switch, that he’s arrived at a sort of Zen for the craft. He smiles. “Nice meeting you,” he says, recognising that we’ve already overrun. “Put it this way. Our intent is to dazzle.” And with that, he strolls back downstairs, presumably to do just that.
The Magistrate runs at the Olivier, National Theatre, London, until February 10