John Lithgow on the Duality of a Character, Finding the Sources of Pride and Shame

Apr 13, 2015

John Lithgow identifies himself as a theater actor first. 

While his long list of credits includes Broadway and the West End, most audiences recognize him from the popular late-90s sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, or from classic films like Terms of Endearment and The World According to Garp, or as the Trinity Killer in the Showtime series Dexter

In this first segment of our interview, the Tony and Emmy award-winning actor talks about the divergence between fulfilling work and critical success -- and why he’s not afraid to inhabit diabolical characters. 

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RLH:  Does it always follow for you that a satisfying or exciting artistic experience translates into well-received work?  Have there ever been times when you’ve really despised an experience and then the work turned out to be a critical success?

JL:  The most notable was – this will surprise you – well, I’ll tell you two examples.  One was Harry and the Hendersons, which is, for so many millions of people -- that was their first favorite movie when they were kids.  That was an incredibly difficult and unpleasant movie to make, mainly because the special effects in those days were crude and very, very difficult to achieve.  And it was just incredibly tedious.  And yet the movie is so delightful and blithe and jolly. 

The other one, which is even more surprising, is Terms of Endearment.   It was an odd circumstance.  I replaced another actor and was brought in to play my entire role over the course of five days.  And I thought, “My God, this is a completely dysfunctional family of filmmakers.  This movie is never going to work.” 

And then about a year later it won about five Oscars and remains, certainly, on everybody’s list, of the 20 greatest American movies ever made. 

You really never know. 

RLH:  We showed the film Love is Strange here as part of our Cinematique Series.  You talked about your experience with Alfred Molina in that film as one of the greatest acting experiences you’ve ever had.  What made that such a great experience? 

JL:  Oh gosh, so many things.  He’s a fabulous guy.  I mean, he’s an extremely good friend of mine and yet we had never acted together before.  Here we were playing these two men who had a 40-year long relationship, a love relationship.  But any relationship that lasts 40 years is, by definition, a very complicated relationship.  And it’s not even a sentimental love.  It’s a kind of partnership.  It’s a kind of other self.  And I just can’t imagine achieving that with another actor as completely as I achieved it with Alfred.  He’s just this extraordinarily generous actor.

It was just a wonderfully loving friendship, so it was easy for us -- two old straight guys -- to play to old gay guys who are completely devoted to each other. 

RLH:  Some years ago you played George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and then, of course, the Trinity Killer (in Showtime’s Dexter).  And now I’m not comparing these two roles, but I do have to ask about the deep, dark tunnel that you have to explore to enter a role like that.  What is it about those characters that make you want to inhabit them for weeks, months at a time?

JL:   Well, it goes to the heart of the matter.  It’s to reach people.  It’s to give them a thrilling experience.  And dark, dark characters are fascinating characters.  The things I always look for in any part – the one thing I look for – is duality.  Or it’s conflict… 

You get the Trinity Killer in Dexter.  Here is a man in the grips of a diabolical compulsion and yet, he hides it by pretending to be a completely normal person.  Well, that’s a fascinating duality.

And that goes to the heart of something we all live with – and that is, what do we show to everybody else and what do we think inside our own head?  You know, what are the things that drive us and what are the sources of our pride and our shame? 

RLH:  John Lithgow, thanks so much for joining us today.

JL:  Well, it’s a pleasure talking to you, Rachel…

Lithgow is coming to Wilmington for a performance of his one-man show, Stories by Heart, at UNCW’s Kenan Auditorium on Friday, April 17th. 

For more information on the show, follow this link:  http://uncw.edu/arts/lithgow.html

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John Lithgow is bringing his one-man show to Wilmington this Friday.  It’s his first foray into the Tar Heel State. 

Stories by Heart is based on the time he moved back home to care for aging parents – only to discover his first order of business was to cheer up his ailing and depressed father. 

"Whatever I tried failed.  And then I got the idea of reading bedtime stories to him as he’d read them to us when I was a kid."

Lithgow even recovered the same book of classic short stories his parents had used when he was a child – the book now more than 60 years old. 

Then one night, as his parents went to bed, he surprised them.

"And they picked this story by P. G. Wodehouse called Uncle Fred Flits By, which is just this riotously funny, silly story… Well, I read it to my father and it made him laugh.   And in my mind, it extended his life."

His father lived another eighteen months.   And the experience reminded Lithgow of why he does what he does.  So he started performing two of the tales, with stories from his own life woven throughout, at Lincoln Center in New York on dark nights at the Mitzi Newhouse Theater.  That was 2008. 

Seven years later, Lithgow figures he’s performed the show in about 40 different cities. 

"The interesting thing about my evening, at least as I see it, is it’s a conversation with an audience that turns into a performance before their very eyes, and in fact, before they even realize it."

Lithgow recently added The Monkey’s Paw to his show – an early 20th century horror story by W.W. Jacobs.