MELBOURNE INTERNATIONAL FILM FESTIVAL: John Lithgow is one of America’s most respected and prolific actors. A huge name on Broadway where he is regularly up for Tonys, he won for best actor in 1973 for The Changing Room and in 2002 for Sweet Smell of Success. He garnered best supporting actor Oscars for his role as transsexual ex-footballer Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp (1982) and as a bashful Iowa banker in Terms of Endearment (1983) and has been nominated for 11 Emmys, winning three times as best actor for 3rd Rock from the Sun and once for Dexter. And he doesn’t stop there. Whenever acting work is not forthcoming, he writes poetry and children’s books and has never been one of those angst-ridden actors waiting for the phone to ring.
"He’s such a delightful, funny, bighearted man and we made each other laugh so hard"
“I’m interested in lots and lots of things,” Lithgow admits in his distinctive cultivated tones. “So to avoid that anxiety, I just go and do something else, to the point where I clutter up my life. My whole anxiety becomes how I’m going to fit all these things in, including my wife and family, which, in fact, is the most important thing in my life and that gets slighted the most.”
The 68-year-old actor who seems partly English – “I’m a strange hybrid, there ain’t many like me,” he pronounces – now stars as half of a married gay couple with British actor Alfred Molina in Ira Sachs’s Love is Strange, one of the hits of Sundance this year. Lithgow plays a retiree far frailer and older than himself, 71-year-old Ben, who is forced to live separately from Molina’s George, his partner of 39 years, after George loses his job teaching music in a Catholic school because of their recent marriage.
“The film seems to have had a wonderful general response from a fairly select movie-going audience in Sundance and Berlin,” Lithgow says. “We didn’t make it to perform just for a gay audience; we don’t regard it as a niche film. We regard it as a film about love in many forms and it’s certainly about family. What’s extraordinary about the film is how ordinary it is. It’s about the little dramas of life that happen to all of us, losing a job, losing an apartment getting in financial trouble and having to live with relatives. These are very domestic crises but they’re very painful and funny and they’re treated with a kind of gentleness. The film’s an examination of the nature of love in many ways, but ordinary love.”
Lithgow says it was so easy and natural playing that love relationship with jovial Brit “Fred” Molina, another imposingly tall actor who has enjoyed a long successful heterosexual marriage and a long career in many a macho role, starting off with Raiders of the Lost Ark and taking a big villainous role in Spider-Man 2. Lithgow’s latest is Christopher Nolan’s hugely anticipated Interstellar and he’s also been the voice of Lord Farquaad in Shrek. They are, in essence, a pair of old pros, in the nicest way you could imagine.
“I knew if was going to be very easy because I’ve known Fred for 20 years without ever acting together,” Lithgow explains. “We had met on a red carpet at the Tony Awards and we have a very good mutual friend, Jonathan Pryce, who got us together for supper. We had another mutual friend, Ileen Getz [from 3rd Rock], a character actress who died of brain cancer and we hung out in her hospital ward for a couple of days and that’s when I really got to know him. But even then, I didn’t know him that well but I knew we’d work fabulously together. I thought we’d be a great couple.”
So you fell in love with each other?
“We did. We literally did, we were inseparable on the set. He’s such a delightful, funny, bighearted man and we made each other laugh so hard. There would be moments I would tell him, ‘You have to stop Fred or I’ll throw up!’ We brought that into the film – it was our idea to just laugh out of control in the bar scene. It was the last scene he shot and there was a conscious moment when I said, ‘We’ve got to bring this into the relationship’ as there was no laughter up till that point.’”
In the beginning, Sachs likes to work individually with his actors so travelled to Calgary where Lithgow was filming Interstellar.
Love is Strange trailer:
“Ira works in a very unique way and we just sat in a hotel room and read through the script and talked about the timeline and the back history. He took many of his interpretations and just shaped the film from our ideas. He spent two days with Fred in LA, he didn’t ever have us rehearse, he didn’t ever have us speak the lines together until we were actually on the set.”
Fiercely independent in his filmmaking, Sachs had experienced the greatest success of his career with his previous movie, Keep the Lights On (2012), which he financed via private investors. He refined his approach for Love is Strange.
“In America, there’s no support for the arts so you’ve got to figure it out for yourself. I received the money for this movie from 26 individuals; with the last film it was 400 individuals. We developed more confidence and strategically I followed a different plan, the Obama plan of fundraising, where you bring in a few people who know people. I’m not someone who expects people to come to me.”
Born in 1965, Sachs is married, and draws on his own experiences for his stories. His husband is a painter like Ben. As with Keep the Lights On (which he based on his past relationship with Bill Clegg, a literary agent who wrote a memoir about his struggles with addiction), Sachs wrote Love is Strange with Mauricio Zacharias.
“I think the pleasure for the audience is in seeing these men who are most comfortable when they are with each other,” Sachs says. “As a couple they’re appealing. I wanted to make a film about the possibility of love to blossom over time and it’s something I hope for myself. It’s also something I’ve observed about my mother and stepfather who have been together for 41 years and they still have a friendship and humanity with each other. While imperfect, it’s inspiring to see people who still love each other 40 years later.”
Love is Strange
Thursday 27 February, 9:30pm on SBS World Movies (streaming after broadcast at SBS On Demand)
Genre: Drama, Romance
Director: Ira Sachs
Starring: John Lithgow, Alfred Molina, Marisa Tomei, Darren E. Burrows
What's it about?
After Ben (Lithgow) and George (Molina) get married, George is fired from his teaching post, forcing them to stay with friends separately while they sell their place and look for cheaper housing, a situation that weighs heavily on all involved. From Ira Sachs, writer-director of Little Men (2016).