How I'm Living Now: John Lithgow, Actor, Poet, Author

Courtesy of Walter McBride/WireImage

Lithgow talks about how he met a book deadline during the pandemic, what the production shutdown means for actors and why an unexpectedly sweet, sequestered life has him making lemons into lemon tarts.

With production grinding to a halt in the face of the novel coronavirus pandemic, the entertainment industry has found itself navigating uncharted territory. To offer a better sense of how, The Hollywood Reporter is running a regular series that focuses on how Hollywood's writers, actors, directors, executives and others are living and working in these challenging times.

John Lithgow has been spending the pandemic in an easy chair in his home office in L.A.’s Westwood neighborhood, writing a book of verse. A followup to his New York Times best-selling 2019 satirical poetry collection, Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse, Lithgow’s Trumpty Dumpty Wanted a Crown: Verses for a Despotic Age will go on sale October 6 and include poems about the impeachment, Rudy Giuliani, Jared Kushner and, yes, the president’s handling of COVID-19. Lithgow, who had been set to head to Morocco to shoot the new FX show The Old Man when the pandemic shut down production, spoke to THR about how COVID-19 cut short a golden age for actors, why sequestration has yielded an unexpectedly sweet phase in his life and how, at 74, he conquered the “complete mental agony” of writing.

Given how many writers I know who are completely blocked at this time, I'm stunned that you were able to write a book. It's almost rude. So please tell me how you did it.

I am the opposite of blocked. Sheltering in place has completely enabled me to get this book done. I'll tell you a little bit of history of it. I wrote a book of satirical poems that was published last fall and it was a minor sensation. A new imprint up in San Francisco, Chronicle Prism, published it and it was their first nonfiction best-seller, so they wanted another one immediately. And I recklessly said, "Yes." They wanted it published in October as the last one was, because it was prior to the big election, and it would be politically very timely. I loved the idea of it, but I was overwhelmed by the task, because I was working very hard at the time. I had just finished an HBO series, Perry Mason, and I had put in two months on a new FX series called The Old Man, with Jeff Bridges. I don't know how I ever thought that I would meet an April 29 deadline for 30 poems. I was finding it really, really hard to write, harder this year than last year, because the times are so complicated. How in the world do you write comical political satire at a moment like this? Well, suddenly I'm told, "We're suspending production. You won't be going to Morocco." We were going to spend two and a half months shooting in Morocco. And suddenly that was off, and I was told to go home and shelter in place with my wife. And I was so relieved, because not only did I have time to do the book, but I had a project in sequestration. I'm a lucky man. Most people I know are going stir crazy. Personally, I did meet my deadline. Now I'm working away on my June 1 deadline to get all the illustrations done, and I'm wondering, "What in the world am I going to do when my project is finished?"

What does your typical day look like now?

Well, the other thing I'm doing in this period is just spending a luxurious amount of time with my wife. We goof off. We have been binge-watching a lot of marvelous television in the evenings. We've watched Giri/Haji, a Japanese British series that is on Netflix. We watched Shtisel, a deep dive into the Israeli Orthodox Jewish culture, a family drama. It is so engrossing. We watched Ozark, which somehow or other we missed until now, which was great. We discovered a fantastic British comedy series called W1A. That was also on Netflix. Whenever there's a great movie on TCM, we watch that. We watched Yankee Doodle Dandy last night.

And I've been baking. My wife is a great baker, but I've sort of inherited that enthusiasm from her. Because of our crazy lives, she as a professor, and me as an actor all over the place, we've spent so much time away from each other. To us, it's a real luxury to just be at home together. I'm almost embarrassed at what a nice, sweet, peaceful time we've had in this period. We've been fattening ourselves up, and I bake apple pies. I have learned lemon tarts. A neighbor gave me a great big basket of Meyer lemons and I thought, "OK, I'm going to accept the challenge." And I made up a lemon pie that was just amazing, so that's now my specialty. And we bake cookies all the time together.

And when you work?

When I work, I just go up and close the door, and it's got to be total silence, and I just sit with my thesaurus and my rhyming dictionary app. And I consume the news like a tiger with red meat. The news has been extraordinary and historic and incredibly dramatic. So I just try to absorb it and distill it. And the process is complete mental agony until I think that the last rhyme of the last line of a single poem, and then I'm elated for about the next 12 hours until I start the next one. Every stanza has a punchline. So it's a very strange meditative and mentally exhausting process. Dumpty was my literary agent's idea. He urged me to do this on the basis of a couple of comic performances I'd given like the Public Theater Gala in New York. He said, "Wow, you've got a book there. Write a book, and I can sell it tomorrow morning." And that's how it all started. I mean, very, very late in life, it turns out I missed my calling.

Why did you choose political subject matter?

I have my politics, but I'm not polemical, and I'm not much of an activist. And yet in this day and age, I really feel like it's incumbent on all of us to sort of make our voices heard. And I figured, well, what better way for me to deal with expressing myself politically than as an entertainment and as satire and comedy? My heroes these days are John Oliver and Stephen Colbert and Seth Meyers and Samantha Bee, people who can take these really, really difficult and challenging days and turn them into a kind of thought-provoking, riotous comedy.

Having played Winston Churchill on The Crown, how do you think he would have led in the COVID-19 era?

He would have been magnificent. My reading in sequestration has been The Splendid and the Vile, this new book by Erik Larson about Churchill and his family during the Blitz, which was a wonderful, wonderful read. And it makes you think an awful lot about that. Churchill was a crazy obsessive. He had a feverish, active imagination. He never let a moment go by nor a brain cell be wasted. He was such a micromanager. He was thinking in every waking minute about how he's going to solve this catastrophe. And that's absolutely the only way to approach something like the coronavirus and to communicate with the truth, to be a combination of real, honest and inspirational and hopeful. And we absolutely need a Churchill figure right now. We have nobody like Churchill except for a couple of remarkable state governors who suddenly have revealed themselves to be astonishing leaders just because they rolled up their sleeves and they spend all day thinking about how to solve problems rather than kicking them down the road. These people like [Maryland governor] Larry Hogan and [New York governor] Andrew Cuomo, and [Washington governor] Jay Inslee, and [Michigan governor] Gretchen Whitmer, [California governor] Gavin Newsom and [LA mayor] Eric Garcetti.

You were able to finish shooting HBO’s new Perry Mason series before the production shutdown. What can you tell me about it?

It's not what you expect when you hear the name Perry Mason. It re-imagines the old 1950s and '60s TV series as a '30s crime noir, very much in the mode of Chinatown. And it's the period in which Erle Stanley Gardner first wrote the Perry Mason stories. He was a pulp fiction writer. He just cranked out all sorts of yarns, and they were all set in the sort of Raymond Chandler Los Angeles. It's gritty. It taps all sorts of wonderful scraps of Los Angeles history. Matthew Rhys gives a great performance that is so unexpected. Perry Mason is not even an attorney when it begins. He's a scrappy private investigator who works for an over-the-hill attorney, who's not very good at his job, but who lands a huge case. I'm the old lawyer, who considers himself to be a master lawyer, but he's way past his prime. Just a delightful character. And it's basically the origin story of what forces Perry Mason into becoming a lawyer almost in spite of himself. It's kind of like a great '30s noir film, an L.A. crime story.

How do you think the theater world will recover from this era?

Oh, god, it's really, really disheartening. It's going to take so long, because it's like turning a tanker around, getting Broadway up and running again, and encouraging audiences to come back and sit in crowds. To think of all those playhouses dark and locked up, it's just mind boggling. You think of all these actors. I mean, up until January, this was the golden era for actors. I didn't have a single actor friend who wasn't working on something. Because of the explosion of streaming content on television and a booming business in New York theater, everybody was doing something. Now, nobody's doing anything, and it just breaks your heart.

Does this period remind you of anything you’ve lived through before?

When I was growing up, I was a kid in the '50s, and my parents had lived through hardship in the Depression as struggling artists in downtown New York. My father [was] a young actor. And they talked about the comradeship, and community, and getting through, and their great hero FDR, and going to benefits for the Spanish Civil War. They were wonderful New York lefties. And my mom would feed everybody, because she had the one job. She was a waitress at Schrafft's on 5th Avenue, and she fed everybody with her tips. Those stories defined my folks in so many ways. And I do have this sense that we will be talking about these months, years from now. This is our period of trial, which in so many ways brings us closer to the people we're close to. The difference is, is we're not allowed to be together. That is a tremendous hardship.

What's atop of your to-do list once this is all over?

Well, my daughter is pregnant. It’s her first child. That's one great regret, is that she's in Tucson, and we can't get down there and spend time with her. I mean, we will find a way to do that. That's our great preoccupation. We want to hover like a mother and dad hen, so that's a big thing. And beyond that, I will certainly do what I can not only to promote the book, but to promote the Democrats and Joe Biden in the fall. I'll certainly pour some energy into that, but I'm ready for anything. I'll take things as they come.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.