In his long and illustrious stage, TV and film career, John Lithgow has amassed two Tony Awards, five Emmys, two Golden Globes, two Screen Actors Guild Awards, and a pair of Oscar nominations for roles as diverse as naïve alien Dick Solomon in 3rd Rock From the Sun, vicious serial killer Arthur Mitchell in Dexter, transgender Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp and Shirley MacLaine’s lover Sam Burns in Terms of Endearment.
He’s been in Footloose, Rise of the Planet of the Apes, Interstellar and most recently The Accountant, and his distinctive voice can be heard in everything from Shrek (as Lord Farquaad) to documentaries, Grammy-nominated children’s albums, and the Long Live Chicken! Progresso soup commercials.
And beginning tomorrow on Netflix, he’s playing former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill in The Crown, about the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, and although the iconic English statesman might seem like a big stretch for an American actor, Lithgow nails it, with the help of research and hidden prosthetics. We asked how.
“I found that just about every Englishman I met had an impeccable impersonation of Winston Churchill. This scares the hell out of you.”
Was it daunting to take on such a well-known historical figure?
The hardest thing was just getting over the fear. I was very intimidated by the entire prospect of playing Churchill, being an American playing the ultimate Englishman among the best theater and film actors in England. But I wasn’t going to say no to it. My agents called and I said yes within the first 30 seconds.
It seemed like a dream job, although it completely disrupted my life. Eight months in England. My wife took a sabbatical and joined me for six months and we lived the life of an English couple in north London and we had a completely wonderful time, working with remarkable people from the London theater, some of whom I had worked with before. It felt like doing a top-of-the-line movie. All of the designers were Oscar and multiple Emmy winners. I just had to do my part and learn my lines.
How did you approach playing him?
I immersed myself in the history of Churchill, as much video and audio as I could find, before I even came to England to start rehearsing. I found that just about every Englishman I met had an impeccable impersonation of Winston Churchill. This scares the hell out of you. The way I approach any acting role, there’s me and there’s the character—in this case, a real-life character. It’s sort of like a Venn diagram; what I come up with is some amalgam of the two of us. The challenge was forgetting the real Churchill at a certain point and making viewers forget the real Churchill, and making him just as authentic as I could. I was playing him as an old man, 10 years older than I am. I’m about 14 inches taller than he was, so I simply thought small.
What did you learn about him while doing your research?
It’s very hard to find footage or audio of the real Churchill. But when you find him, it’s gold. What people mostly know about Winston Churchill is an extremely public figure, a famous figure from history. Everyone has heard his speeches. What’s really fascinating is looking behind that. He was deeply patriotic and the only Victorian, the only person who had served under Queen Victoria. For him, growing old and facing mortality was also watching the Empire fall apart. He had a lot going on emotionally. He was extremely different from the public, very stentorian and oratorical Churchill.
There’s a remarkable Churchill museum in London, and I found one long, long video. It goes on for about five minutes. You don’t hear his voice, but you see him having lunch with a bunch of soldiers in a hangar. He lights a cigar. He eats like a pig. He never stops talking. He laughs. He’s incredibly engaged with them. You think of him speaking with long pauses between words but he spoke extremely fast, to the point you couldn’t understand him. He was a very animated and exciting person. But that’s just one side of him. He was a politician and an orator. There was an actor-ish streak in him. He loved to move people. He had an extraordinary wit and loved to make them laugh. He also had this very personal and depressive side. For an actor, it’s just fascinating to sort of make up my own narrative based on everything that I can accumulate.
“I had fabulous costumers and makeup artists. I had the greatest fat suit ever created.”
How about the physical transformation—what was that process?
I had fabulous costumers and makeup artists. I had the greatest fat suit ever created. We tried to do as little makeup as possible. It was done with an extraordinary wig that made me even more bald than I am. They put little plumpers inside my mouth to change the shape of my face but nothing painted on. And bit by bit, I turned into my version of Churchill.
Is this one of your favorite roles?
It’s certainly been a highlight. I’m always most excited about the thing I just did, and that’s this. They’re all so different from one another, crazy diversions into different genres. M. Butterfly on Broadway. Third Rock from the Sun and Dexter on television. I would say my theater work, which not many people have seen, and a lot of it was so long ago.
What’s next? More theater?
Right now I only know that I’m doing a little independent film, Beatriz at Dinner, and 13 episodes of an NBC sitcom, Trial and Error. But at some point, sure. One never knows!
Photo: Alex Bailey/Netflix