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