PRIME ROLE

John Lith­gow’s sur­pris­ing turn.

Los Angeles Times - - THE ENVELOPE - By Valli Her­man cal­en­dar@la­times.com

In his long and dec­o­rated ca­reer, John Lith­gow has learned never to un­der­es­ti­mate the power of creative anx­i­ety and a good melon baller.

Play­ing against type, the beloved comedic ac­tor has earned raves for his por­trayal of Win­ston Churchill on Net­flix’s “The Crown.” The 10 episodes span a decade in the life of young Queen El­iz­a­beth, giv­ing Lith­gow much op­por­tu­nity to por­tray Eng­land’s war-time prime min­is­ter, and as im­por­tant, il­lus­trate his vast range as an ac­tor. Emmy buzz around “The Crown” is strong for an­other Lith­gow stat­uette, par­tic­u­larly af­ter the role earned him a sup­port­ing ac­tor Golden Globe nom­i­na­tion this year.

Dur­ing a re­cent visit with The En­ve­lope at the Hol­ly­wood Roo­sevelt Ho­tel, Lith­gow con­fessed he had been un­cer­tain he was the right fit for Churchill.

“He is ar­guably the most rec­og­nized and best known and most im­por­tant English­man of the 20th cen­tury, with the em­pha­sis on English­man. And I’m an Amer­i­can. I was hon­estly amazed that they cast me,” he said. “I’m 6-4 and he was about 5-7 and both of us are about 225 pounds. We couldn’t have been more dif­fer­ent.”

Lith­gow was fur­ther worried how he’d fit in as the lone Amer­i­can shoot­ing for eight months in Lon­don among highly re­garded English ac­tors. So he set out to get in­side Churchill, the leader, and the pri­vate man.

“I was hired to do it in Jan­uary, and it didn’t start shoot­ing un­til July. I was both ter­ri­fied and de­ter­mined to deeply re­search this man. I think it’s more prepa­ra­tion than I’ve ever done for a role. At a cer­tain point, it was no longer prepa­ra­tion for a role. I was just fas­ci­nated by Churchill, as so many peo­ple are,” he said.

Get­ting the great or­a­tor’s dis­tinc­tive, rum­bling speech was crit­i­cal, so Lith­gow de­vised a novel tech­nique, which he demon­strated dur­ing an early re­hearsal.

“I had prac­ticed in L.A. where I had taken a melon baller and had dug out two lit­tle balls of ap­ple and I put them in my jowls,” Lith­gow said, shift­ing into Churchill-speak, “so I would give my­self a Churchillian face and that strange, hol­low voice. His mouth was an echo cham­ber.

“I ac­tu­ally took my melon baller to the re­hearsal. And they all looked at me like I was nuts. And even as I spoke, my mouth filled up with ap­ple juice,” Lith­gow said. No ap­ples were re­quired dur­ing the pro­duc­tion, how­ever.

He cred­its “The Crown” makeup de­signer Ivana Pri­morac with send­ing him to Chris Lyons. “He’s the king of false teeth. He built me these plumpers that fit onto my mo­lars. They swelled my jowls up, so they made me not only look but sound a good deal more like Win­ston.

“It was my idea to stuff cot­ton up my nose, not only to give me a more bul­bous nose, but also to make me sound more nasal,” said Lith­gow. “Now I’ve ru­ined it for you!”

Spoiler alert: He also wears a fat suit and a wig, but no fa­cial pros­thet­ics. Lith­gow, a lithe 71, also as­sumed an old man’s gait and bent pos­ture to play the 80-yearold leader.

Yet achiev­ing the trans­for­ma­tion was as much a psy­cho­log­i­cal chal­lenge as a phys­i­cal one. The first hur­dle: A two-day ta­ble read in front of about 40 ex­ec­u­tives.

“Now, I’m used to ta­ble reads for ‘3rd Rock From the Sun,’ so I came to my first scene as Churchill,” and then as now in this ho­tel room, Lith­gow not so much im­per­son­ates Churchill as chan­nels his spirit, voice and man­ner­isms. The ef­fect was just as star­tling to his cast mates.

“All these English ac­tors, they all looked up from their scripts and straight­ened their spine. But I was scared to death. I had ter­ri­ble stage fright. But from that mo­ment on, there was never any ques­tion,” he said, sound­ing still slightly thrilled he pulled it off.

He came to ap­pre­ci­ate that he, and ev­ery other ac­tor who plays a well-known fig­ure, can’t and shouldn’t hope to be a replica.

“The whole trick is for those two hours or 10 episodes to oblit­er­ate the mem­ory of the real thing and just ac­cept this,” he said. “In a sense, the dif­fer­ences be­tween your knowl­edge of the real thing and the fic­tion that you’re see­ing, the ten­sion be­tween the two is part of what makes it grip­ping.”

Fears now quelled, Lith­gow said he’d love to play Churchill again.

“I’m heart­sick that I’m not in the sec­ond sea­son. On the other hand, I had a won­der­ful exit from the first sea­son. You don’t want to mess around with a good exit.”

Gina Ferazzi Los An­ge­les Times

“I WAS both ter­ri­fied and de­ter­mined to deeply re­search this man,” says John Lith­gow of play­ing Win­ston Churchill.

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