At an age when many actors are slowing down, or settling into an easy TV gig, John Lithgow seems to have shifted into high gear, stage-wise. A fairly steady presence on the boards since first winning attention in The Changing Room on Broadway in 1973, the seasoned actor has been inescapable of late, knocking down titanic roles like King Lear (last summer in Central Park) and Tobias in Edward Albee’s A Delicate Balance (currently on Broadway). Meanwhile, he managed to fit in his most high-profile film role in decades, as one half of an aging New York gay couple in “Love Is Strange.”
Playbill talked with Lithgow about his hyperactive ways.
As I watched you in A Delicate Balance with Glenn Close, I thought, "What we have here is a mini-reunion of the cast of ‘The World According to Garp.'" Is this the first time you’ve worked with Close since then?
John Lithgow: Yes. We've done a couple little things. She recorded some poetry for me when I published a book of poems. We’ve been on a couple of gala evenings together, but we’ve never spoken lines together. We’ve never been on stage together.
So you’ve stayed in touch.
JL: Yeah, yeah. When I see her do something great, I give her a phone call out of the blue.
You’ve done a lot of theatre, but is this your first Albee?
JL: It is my second. I played George in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Glenda Jackson years ago in Los Angeles with Albee himself directing it. That was in 1990 at what was then called the Doolittle Theatre.
That must have been a memorable experience
JL: Tobias is about 15 years older than George and I’m about 30 years older than that. (Laughs)
A very different character from George, too. Is it a role you’d ever thought of playing?
JL: Actually, I’d been asked to play it, about three years ago, in England, and I really wanted to do it. I just couldn’t work it out. I do have an interesting history with the play itself. I worked on it back in 1968 when I was about 22 years old as the American dialect coach when it had its English premiere at the Royal Shakespeare Company. I was an American drama student over there, and I had a friend at friend over at the RSC who needed an American to come over and help Peggy Ashcroft and Michael Hordern and company. I sat in on rehearsals for three, four weeks and Peter Hall was directing. I took endless notes and helped them on certain syllables and diphthongs and inflections. And Edward showed up to see a run-through and the first thing he said to the company was “Forget the accents.” That was the beginning of my history with A Delicate Balance.
Your pace in the theatre seems to quicken with each season, doing more and more things. Is that by design?
JL: Not really. Everything is haphazard in most actors' careers. We may plan things, but we’re always burning our bridges before we get to them. In this case, I was all set to do King Lear in Central Park as of December or January of last year, and then came the A Delicate Balance offer immediately afterwards. I was very hesitant. I really vacillated. The two roles are just so enormous and demanding, and I couldn’t imagine sprinting from one to the other. But Scott Rudin is a very persuasive producer and an extremely good one, and bit by bit he had this extraordinary company to tempt me with. So I finally acceded. I’ve done so much acting, I’m in danger of boring people to death at the sight of me.
About King Lear, the reputation of that role is that it’s very exhausting to do. Did you find that to be true?
JL: Well, it was in the park, which meant you never had to do it twice in one day, because you only did it at night. And it’s not a long run. It was only 24 performances. And I managed to do them all with losing my voice or collapsing. I knew the reputation of the role for being a real killer, so I think I prepared more than I had for any play. I learned the entire, huge part in the spring prior to starting and I worked out a lot. I knew it would be an exercise in stamina building. Yes, it was exhausting, but it was extremely exhilarating. And Shakespeare had a way of timing even the biggest, most-demanding roles in such a way that they weren’t impossible to play. Once you read Lear, you realize, yes, it was playable. It was written for an actor, not a superhuman creature. For one thing, you get virtually all of Act Four off, so that you’re all ready to give it all you’ve got for Act Five. If you pay attention to all the great Shakespearean roles, they all have Act Four off. Shakespeare, he knew how to treat actors well.
That’s interesting. That had never occurred to me.
JL: Yup. In Hamlet, Act Four is where you hear all about Laertes and Ophelia and Claudius. Hamlet is off in England somewhere with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern.
I know you played Laertes opposite Sam Waterston in Central Park in the 1970s. Did you ever play Hamlet himself?
JL: No. I was offered the role a few times and turned it down. And then I grew too old. And I’ve been kicking myself that I never got to play Hamlet. But, actually, Lear has always been the one. It’s really the only thing on my bucket list when anyone has asked what parts you want to play before you retire. I would always say King Lear. And now I guess I’ll do whatever comes along. The bucket list is clean! That is rare.
JL: Well, in my experience, other people have much more creative ideas for you than you have for yourself. People often see you in ways you can’t imagine yourself. All my best work I’ve done is stuff I didn’t think I was right for or capable of doing.
You’re frequently cast as a newspaper man of wit and intelligence, in plays like Sweet Smell of Success, Mr. and Mrs. Fitch and The Columnist. Why do you think directors, playwrights and casting directors see you that way?
JL: It’s a good question. In a sense, you have to ask them. And I could add The Front Page to that. I was in a great production of that in the ‘80s. Newspapermen and women are fantastic roles, because they’re so driven and they’re so high-energy and panicky. And I’m a high-energy actor — although I didn’t play all these roles the same way. Certainly, The Front Page, you just make a great big meal out of it. Journalists, they’re very self-dramatizing. They feel great events in the news can’t take place unless they’re there to record them. And they have to be intelligent. And they have to write fast, and write clearly, and the rest of their lives can go to hell while they pursue a story. They’re great roles for character men, and I’m a character man.
Switching over to your film career, “Love Is Strange” is one of the most prominent movies roles you’ve had in a long time. How did that come about?
JL: I was blessed by another actor pulling out of it. I don’t know why he did. To me, he’s crazy, because it’s a wonderful role. And they had to find someone fast. Alfred Molina was already set for the other role. My agent sent me the script and got me together with [director] Ira Sachs and we hit it off. I absolutely loved the script. It all happened very quickly and very easily. Fred was an old friend of mine. I knew the moment I read it, we’d have no trouble at all creating a wonderful screen relationship. It was one of the great acting experiences I’ve ever had.
You’ve had such a long stage career at this point. Are you able to pinpoint what have been your favorite experiences?
JL: That’s a tough one. I’ve had so many great ones. The quick and easy answer is M. Butterfly in the late ‘80s. I guess because it was such a bold, innovative play by David Henry Hwang. It was such a daring piece of producing by Stuart Ostrow. He took a tremendous leap of faith. And John Dexter created a fantastic production of that play. I would say it’s the best example of emotion and intellectual idea in a piece of theatre. And it was about ideas that most people had not thought much about. The first major Broadway play written by an Asian-American. It really gave point of view that you just felt the audience have this great massive intake of breath. “Oh my God, I never thought of things that way!” It was really an amazing time.
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