John Lithgow as Churchill: ‘I didn’t want it to be an actorish, hokey performance’

In Netflix hit ‘The Crown’, the very American star takes on Britain’s iconic wartime leader

John Lithgow as Winston Churchill in The Crown: “They’ve hired someone who’s basically an outsider to play an Englishmen who, in so many ways, is set apart from the entire population.”

John Lithgow as Winston Churchill in The Crown: “They’ve hired someone who’s basically an outsider to play an Englishmen who, in so many ways, is set apart from the entire population.”

 

Nearly a month since The Crown appeared on Nexflix, it has achieved what it intended to do: tell the story of Britain’s royal family in a suitably regal fashion, become a water cooler conversation point and ruffle the feathers of historians taking it too literally.

In between the plot on public record, the €110 million drama has held a few surprises, be it Prince Philip’s bottom, an awkward horse-breeding scene, or, much more pleasantly, a show-stealing performance by John Lithgow as Winston Churchill. Yes, the very American John Lithgow, who came to fame 34 years ago playing a transsexual ex-footballer in The World According to Garp.

Rewind to the start of the year. A set visit to Lancaster House in London – the next building down from Buckingham Palace – finds Lithgow in the midst of his characterisation, his head brimming with philosophies on how to approach such a well-known figure. At least there was plenty of material on Churchill to inform it.

“Just last week I was given an incredible document: the minutes of a meeting between Churchill and all the major reporters of the New York Times in 1949, at a fancy banquet in his honour,” he says. “They’d all been instructed by the editor-in-chief to write their recollections of the evening. So here was 25 versions of exactly the same event, by the best journalistic writers in America.

“Detail about how much champagne and brandy he had, the jokes he told – jokes that are quoted in 10 different ways. Incredible information. For an actor, that stuff is just gold.”

Still, “he’s such a familiar character to Englishmen, and everybody seems to do their own imitation of him, so I feel intimidated by the task,” Lithgow says. “I’m the only American in this huge cast, but I think it’s interesting that they’ve hired someone who’s basically an outsider to play an Englishmen who, in so many ways, is set apart from the entire population.”

Warm vs gruff

Lithgow and Churchill share more than an outsider status. In the company of Lithgow before hair and make-up begins for the day’s shoot, he and his character evidently share a theatrical way of talking, as if delivering constant soliloquies. But where Lithgow (71) is tall, warm and fit, Churchill was hunched, gruff and in ill health.

“When we conjured him up, we went right for a lot of physical things. I wear a fat suit, I changed my voice.” He illustrates Churchill’s marble-mouthed grumble. “I didn’t want it to be an actorish, hokey performance, but I knew I was going to have to paint in bold colours because he’s so different from me.

“Just now I walked on set to say hi to everybody, but they’re used to seeing me as Churchill and many of them barely recognised me. There were all these double takes; they simply didn’t know it was me.”

There have been a slew of fine decisions by casting director Robert Sterne (also known for the hires on Game of Thrones), especially the lead duo of Claire Foy as Elizabeth and Matt Smith as Philip.

“Sadly, I barely work with Matt, but he’s a wonderful guy,” Lithgow says of the former Doctor Who. “We’ve been to a soccer match together; we saw Liverpool and Tottenham. We’ve tried so hard to invent a scene where we work together. The best we could do is look at each other once or twice.

“But Claire – we’ve had loads of scenes together, and she’s a dream. She’s by far the most important element of the whole series, and it’s wonderful to have someone so talented, good-natured, tireless and fun. Our biggest problem is that we’ve been laughing through our very serious scenes because we’re just having so much fun. But you see this incredible depth to her character, all in her eyes.”

Lithgow and Foy’s double act depicts the prime minister educating the young queen on her constitutional role. She grapples with the weight of the new responsibility as he grapples with ill health and a cabinet baying for his resignation.

“I call it the classiest possible soap opera, with incredibly high stakes,” Lithgow says. “You’re getting to know what it must be like to be the younger sister of a queen, to be the young husband of a princess who becomes a queen, to become a prime minister whose assignment is to turn the young woman into a queen.”

Many parts

Lithgow flits between film, TV and theatre, with two Oscar nominations and Tony, Emmy and Golden Globe awards to show for it. Everyone knows him from something, be it his recent performance in The Accountant opposite Ben Affleck, to Showtime’s Dexter, back to Garp, Terms of Endearment, Footloose and Buckaroo Banzai, to his signature role of Dick Solomon in 3rd Rock from the Sun. That’s why he is the right name to lure in Yank viewers to The Crown, Downton Abbey’s Stateside success still fresh.

“For American viewers, it’s going to be quite a sophisticated show. They’re certainly infatuated with the monarchy because they love royal weddings and coronations and the extraordinary soap opera stories that spin out of these larger-than-life human beings.

“I think the audience has to go through the process I have: they have to learn about the burdens of being a monarch, the difference between being a monarch and the rest of the British population.

“Any time you create a world that you knew existed but people know nothing about, people are going to be interested. Look at The Sopranos: you know the Mafia exists, but you don’t know what it’s like to be in the same kitchen as a Mafia boss’s wife.”

Netflix keeps its ratings secret, but data science company Parrot Analytics had The Crown down as the top digital series in the US in the week after the episodes were released. For Lithgow, it’s his first foray into television 3.0.

Industry changes

“Since I began, many things have changed, but most of them have nothing to do with my job,” he says. “With 3rd Rock, I worked for Carsey-Werner Productions, which was a great independent production company. They were subcontracted by various networks, but they could set their own terms and create their own show in so many ways. In the course of those six years, big things changed. Gradually networks began to own their own product.

“Television became far less creative until the cable channel revolution came along, and things changed again. That’s why the likes of Martin Scorsese, Steven Soderbergh, Steven Spielberg and lots of actors whom you never thought would be doing TV – that’s all they want to do.

“Things have changed, but they don’t change my working day’s challenges. I just want to work with the best people, and I don’t care what film or project they’re working on.”

The Crown is available to stream on Netflix.

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