Q&A: John Lithgow

Thespian talks about his career and 'over-the-top' acting

Some actors might take umbrage if the title of their career retrospective was "Over the Top." Not John Lithgow. The notoriously affable actor says of his sometimes oversized acting, "Well, it's kind of my trademark. There's no getting around it."

Lithgow will be speaking at the Los Angeles Film Festival in an event titled "Over the Top: An Evening With John Lithgow" on June 22, at 8 p.m. at the Regal 12 Cinema in downtown L.A. The conversation, moderated by festival artistic director David Ansen, will be accompanied by two of Lithgow's biggest and most memorable performances: madcap Dr. Emilio Lizardo in the 1984 sci-fi romp "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai" and the terrified plane passenger in the segment "Nightmare at 20,000 Feet" from the 1983 anthology film "Twilight Zone: The Movie."

While he may be best known for the big performances -- like the alien masquerading as a human in the NBC comedy "3rd Rock From the Sun" that earned him three Emmy Awards -- Lithgow has also played countless roles of a more subtle and nuanced nature. Consider his Oscar-nominated turns as a transgendered football player in "The World According to Garp" and the lonely husband who has an affair with Debra Winger in "Terms of Endearment." Most recently, he completed an arc on Showtime's "Dexter" that is certain to garner him an Emmy nod as Arthur Mitchell, a seemingly mild-mannered husband and father who also happens to be a serial killer.

When not recording CDs or writing books for children, the two-time Tony winner (for "The Changing Room" and "Sweet Smell of Success") can be found developing and performing on his one-man show "Stories by Heart," which has played Lincoln Center in New York and the National Theatre in London. In it, Lithgow portrays several characters -- including members of his own family -- as he traces his path as an artist. He talked to Back Stage about his career, "over-the-top" acting and being typecast.

Back Stage: Who came to you with the idea for this event?

John Lithgow: Well, David Ansen is my oldest friend. We were arbitrarily put together as roommates in our freshman year of college. That was about 45 years ago, and we've been best friends ever since. He's a marvelous man and a tremendous choice as artistic director of the festival.

Back Stage: David was a film critic for many years. As an actor, how do you maintain a friendship with a critic?

Lithgow: A lot of critics like to keep their distance from actors, but what can I do? I knew him years before he even dreamed of becoming a critic. But even back in college, there was nothing he didn't know about movies. It was like living with a film professor. He taught me everything I know about movies.

Back Stage: Has he ever reviewed you?

Lithgow: He has, about 10 times, but also very neutrally. He's never praised me too much; he's never panned me too much. I remember I was in a really lousy movie, and I said, "David, here's your chance. Go right ahead. Let's get this over with!"

Back Stage: How do you feel when someone calls a performance of yours over the top?

Lithgow: Well, I do think of myself as primarily a theater actor, and I'm often hired for bringing theatrics to the roles I play. But my theory is, no matter how big I am, life is bigger. Every time I see somebody behaving truly insanely in real life, I think, "Yes! I'm not over the top after all!"

Back Stage:
But as an actor, you have to justify the behavior, correct?

Lithgow: It's like what Shakespeare says: "Suit the action to the word, the word to the action." I work very hard on motivating everything I do as an actor. Explosive moments have to be completely motivated; whether they're explosive comedy or explosive horror, they have to come organically out of a scene and an interaction with another actor. I really don't like to showboat, but I feel it's my job to grab people's attention and pin them back in their seats.

Back Stage:
Have you ever done a take and thought you went too far?

Lithgow: Oh, constantly! Especially at "3rd Rock From the Sun." There was a subtle gesture between me and Terry Hughes, who was the director of most episodes. We would do a take, and he would just say, "Uh, John?" And he'd sort of tap his hands down to indicate I should do less.

Back Stage: I can only imagine what the blooper reel looked like at that show.

Lithgow: The outtakes at the wrap party every year were something. I remember there was a series of pictures from an episode we shot with John Cleese guest-starring. And in the sequence, bit by bit, you could see the four of us breaking up laughing while John was still deadpan. And in the last photo, all four of us were flat on our backs on the floor with John standing above us, as though he somehow defeated us in some sort of comedy boxing match. We were just crippled with laughter. And it happened all the time.

Back Stage: You've played your share of villains. Did you ever worry about being typecast?

Lithgow: I didn't get worried about it; in fact, I almost got the role of Hannibal Lecter. At first, Anthony Hopkins was not available for it, and if he couldn't get out of his other commitment, it would have gone to me. And I was crazy to play it. But I did do two or three bad guys right in a role -- "Ricochet," "Raising Cain," and "Cliffhanger" -- and it was one of the reasons I was enthusiastic about doing "3rd Rock": I loved the idea of changing gears. But I don't stay awake at night worrying about being typecast. If I'm not getting roles in TV and film, I can always go back to New York and do theater.

Back Stage: The killer on "Dexter" is very chilling because he seems so average, then commits these heinous acts. Did they come to you for the role?

Lithgow: I was told about the offer on a Wednesday night, and on Thursday morning, about 12 hours later, I met with the executive producer, Clyde Phillips. He told me every single detail of the plot and described the duality of the character, and I told him, "You have come to exactly the right actor; I know just how to play this." On the other hand, I had just come off working very hard in New York all year doing my one-man show and in "All My Sons" and had planned a long summer break with my wife; we were going to Europe. And I actually turned the role down on Friday, believe it or not. By Sunday, my wife said, "John, you've got to play this part." So I called and said, "Listen, have you given it to anybody else yet? "And fortunately, they hadn't. And God knows, I'm glad they hadn't. It was even richer than I thought it would be.