John Lithgow has delighted audiences in hit movies from Footloose and Terms of Endearment to Shrek and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. On TV, he took home multiple Emmy Awards for his work on 3rd Rock from the Sun, and he scored another trophy last year as the Trinity Killer on Dexter. His stage work earned him Tonys for The Changing Room and Sweet Smell of Success. Now he’s back on Broadway in The Columnist, written by Pulitzer Prize winner David Auburn (Proof). Lithgow plays Joseph Alsop, a powerful journalist who ruled Washington, D.C., for decades.
American Way: What drew you to this story?
John Lithgow: It’s one of the greatest plays I’ve ever read — incredible storytelling, illuminating, revelatory. And the center point is one of the great national tragedies of my lifetime, the assassination of President Kennedy.
AW: What’s your take on Alsop himself?
JL: He was temperamental and passionate, both terrifying and irresistible. It was so difficult for him to be truthful about himself. He was extraordinarily social, yet comfortable behind a facade. He’s an actor’s feast, and I just couldn’t wait to play him. I’ve never learned my lines this early for a play.
Coming Soon to an Airport Near You?Jet-setter John Lithgow talks travel. “I’m going to Caracas, Venezuela, with the Los Angeles Philharmonic to host a live broadcast of its huge Mahler 8th Symphony. And I’ll be in Chicago to narrate a Stravinsky work with the Chicago Philharmonic.”
“I truly love New Orleans, where we filmed [The Campaign]. They’re so proud of how they transcended the storm.”
“I still haven’t been to Santa Fe, N.M., San Antonio or Charleston, S.C. I’m dying to go, and I’ll get there eventually.”
JL: Actually, I find it liberating. For one thing, almost nobody even knows what Joe Alsop looked like. I don’t feel I have to do a great imitation of him. I don’t like having to duplicate a famous figure.
AW: What’s one big difference between stage and screen work?
JL: The movie camera is amazingly revealing. You can’t hide. The performance has to be real and genuine, so you must put your own emotions to work. In a play, you have four weeks’ rehearsal before anyone sees you, but in a movie, the camera’s rolling the first or second time you ever play a scene. In a movie, very often the best things you do are just accidents, things you weren’t even aware you did.
AW: Last year you published the autobiography Drama: An Actor’s Education. In it, you told wonderful stories about your father, Arthur Lithgow, an actor, director and huge lover of Shakespeare.
JL: For the first 20 years of my life, we were like a traveling gypsy wagon and a Shakespeare troupe. He had such a passion for it. I recall him playing Petruchio in The Taming of the Shrew or Brutus in Julius Caesar. When I started acting seriously and had my first great successes, I recognized that in myself — the joy of acting. But it was a very hard profession for him. We were always on the edge of financial disaster, though my parents managed to hide that from us kids.
AW: Steve Martin read your manuscript and made some suggestions. Are you good friends?
JL: Yes, we are. He gave me very detailed notes. I was astonished. His autobiography, Born Standing Up, was one of my models for this book. He really takes you into the nuts and bolts of how he discovered his comedy persona and who he is as a performer. That’s why I called my book An Actor’s Education. These are things that turned me into the actor that I am.
AW: You’re in the upcoming political comedy The Campaign with Will Ferrell, Zach Galifianakis and Dan Aykroyd. Was that a laugh a minute?
JL: It’s a fantastic comedy, so much fun. It’s all about money polluting politics.
AW: You graduated with honors from Harvard University, and you’ve given the commencement address there. What was some of your wisdom?
JL: Four rules to live by: Be creative, be useful, be practical and be generous.
The Columnist will run April 4-June 17 at Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre (261 W. 47th St.).
Tickets range from $57 to $116; get more information at www.manhattantheatreclub.com.