Now starring in a West End play, the American actor talks candidly about critics, fellow collaborators and why he accepts or declines roles.
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31 Jan 2013 - 1:49 PM  UPDATED 31 Jan 2013 - 1:49 PM

Veteran stage and screen actor John Lithgow claims he has a mechanism for coping with reviews that are less than fulsome in their praise of his performances. “Yes, bad press can hurt,” Lithgow tells SBS Film in an interview from London. “I have strategically placed friends who tell me what to read and what to avoid.”

I approach a villain as if he is the good guy

No doubt his friends urged him to check out the numerous positive reviews for his latest role in The Magistrate, the National Theatre production of Arthur Wing Pinero's Victorian-era farce. In his West End debut, Lithgow plays the titular character, Aeneas Posket, whose orderly life unravels when he gets caught up in scandalous events. The play will screen in Australian cinemas on Feb 2-3 as part of the National Theatre Live series.

The Times' Libby Purves described the actor as “priceless,” marvelling at the “wonderful soliloquies from a mutton-chop-whiskered, mud-spattered John Lithgow… clutching at remnants of dignity while recalling his first ever disgraceful night.”

The Mail's Quentin Letts said the play evokes the spirit of Norman Wisdom with a sprinkling of Gilbert and Sullivan, and lauded Lithgow's “lovely touch for mordant understatement”.

Lithgow's friends probably shielded him from a couple of critics who quibbled with the casting of the American actor in a quintessentially English comedy and his thinly disguised trans-Atlantic twang.

The latter criticism seems odd considering Lithgow's long association with Pinero's work and his numerous Broadway performances as English characters, including a Northern rugby player in The Changing Room (for which he won his first Tony award), a Manchester milkman in Comedians and a shambling suburbanite in Bedroom Farce.

He first saw The Magistrate when he was a drama student in London in 1969, a production which starred Alastair Sim. The following year he chose that play to direct in a summer stock season in the US. “I loved Sim in the role and remember being completely taken by surprise by the play,” he says. “The beauty of the project is that it's not much better known now.”

The actor first worked with the director, Nick Hytner, in Sweet Smell of Success, the 2002 Broadway musical adapted from the 1957 movie, in which he played ruthless newspaper columnist J.J. Hunsecker, winning his second Tony. Lithgow didn't hesitate when Hytner invited him to star in The Magistrate, which opened in London in November and closes February 10.

“Nick has a fine combination of intelligence and theatricality,” he says. “He's so smart and he has a great instinct for thrilling an audience. It's what makes him a truly great theatre manager.”

Before the curtain rose on press night in London, Lithgow encountered a tradition of English theatre which moved him to tears: All the actors bang on the windows of their dressing rooms with open palms, a sound he likened to the stampede of a thousand wildebeests.

It's his first long-running play on the West End; he presented Stories by Heart, his one-man show that celebrates the power of storytelling and invokes memories of his father, a small-town-theatre director, for just two nights at the National in 2009.

Aged 67, Lithgow has had a distinguished career in film, TV and live theatre, and he's collaborated with such fine directors as Herbert Ross, Bob Fosse, James L. Brooks, Brian De Palma, Alan J. Pakula and Bill Condon. Among his film credits are All that Jazz, The World According to Garp, Terms of Endearment, Footloose, Blow Out, The Pelican Brief, Dreamgirls and Shrek.

So it's a surprise when he nominates the film he most vividly remembers: the 1983 sci-fier Twilight Zone: The Movie. His segment was directed by Aussie George Miller, whom he praises as “the first film director to demand that I put all my theatre chops to work”.

Preparing for the role of Posket, Lithgow confides that he drew on one aspect of his own character: “My naïve, well-intentioned side, which sometimes gets me into terrible trouble.”
Playing the serial killer dubbed the Trinity Killer in TV's Dexter required a very different mindset: “I approach a villain as if he is the good guy, because after all he thinks he is. Or, as in the case of Trinity, as if he himself hates what he is doing and wishes someone would stop him.”

Last year he and Dan Aykroyd played the comically nefarious Motch brothers, rich guys who recruit a doofus (Zach Galifianakis) in a plot to unseat an accident-prone Congressman (Will Ferrell), in Jay Roach's comedy The Campaign.

How hard, I wondered, was it to resist the temptation to break character and collapse in laughter playing opposite those funny men? He replies, “I've got a secret for keeping a straight face but I keep it to myself. If I knew that people knew my secret, I would laugh.”

Currently Lithgow is on screen in writer-director Judd Apatow's dramedy This Is 40, playing the neglectful, uptight father of Leslie Mann's character. Apatow keeps the cameras running and encourages his actors to improvise beyond the script. That free-wheeling approach, says Lithgow, was “scary until the very second we started work; at that point it became not only liberating but ecstatic fun”.

A regular as extra-terrestrial Dick Solomon in TV's 3rd Rock from the Sun for six years, he's been in the fortunate position of being able to reject numerous offers through the years. “There are a hundred-odd reasons for turning down shows,” he reflects, “mostly to do with what's going in with the rest of my life.”

So what criteria determine whether or not he says yes? ”Again, a hundred reasons. The role, the writing, the people involved, the fun factor, the dough, the attention paid, but mostly what your gut tells you.”