The Crown's John Lithgow on the Pressures of Playing Churchill
Actor John Lithgow has had a long and storied career, with roles that range from an extraterrestrial leader to a serial killer to Shakespeare's Malvolio. But this fall, he takes on what could be his greatest performance yet, playing Winston Churchill in The Crown, a new Netflix series that's as much about politics as it is about the British royal family. In advance of the show's premiere, we sat down with Lithgow to talk about the pressures of playing the British Bulldog, the kindness of his castmates, and why he'll be sad to see the 2016 election end.
What was it like to play this iconic British figure as an American?
It was very exciting and very intimidating all in the same degree. I never dreamed I would play Churchill. It was sort of unimaginable. I would never cast myself in the role, but Daldry thought of me, and Peter Morgan thought it was a great idea, and my agent called and said Peter Morgan writer, Stephen Daldry director, Winston Churchill on Netflix for eight months, and I had said yes about halfway through that. It was a wonderful, wonderful opportunity.
Did you feel a lot of pressure?
Well, yes, but the most exciting things to do are the things that you are afraid of. The first time I had any anxiety about it at all was when I confided in a couple of Englishmen that I had been asked to do it. I just saw their faces fall, and I thought uh-oh what did I get myself into. And I told my good friend Nicholas Hytner, the director of the national theater, and his response was, "They will kill you." [laughs] Everyone was trying to get into The Crown. That was the word. This is the hot show. Nick said, "Every major actor in London will have a contract out on your head." Of course, this was an exaggeration. I was welcomed with open arms by everyone I worked with on it, and they didn't seem to bat an eye—they thought it was a great idea. They were excited by the idea of a completely new attack on the role, something very surprising.
When I started watching the show, I didn't realize what a large role politics would play in the series.
Netflix had a clever way of summoning that up. In the very early press releases, way back before we even started filming, they described it as a series about the two most famous addresses in the world: Buckingham Palace and number 10 Downing Street. And Britain is a constitutional monarchy. There is the monarchy and parliament and the interaction between the two of them; both institutions make a much more interesting story when combined with the other.
Do you think there's still a reason for the monarchy in the modern world?
There is in Britain. Britain is probably the most sophisticated combination of a monarchy and a democracy.
I didn't realize the Prime Minister still meets with the Queen once a week.
Oh, yes. Britain has a great sense of its own national pride. It's like the monarchy is the embodiment of that pride. It's not always easy to be proud of your government.
Why do you think Americans still have such a fascination with the British Royal Family?
It's hard to define, but I think it has something to do with the fact that they maintain a certain mystery. They almost represent the unknowable soul of a country. We really learn very little about them, despite how much as is reported about Kate and William or the children or Elizabeth and Philip. There is so much we don't know and that, I think, is the great drama of our series. The whole series is about the public face and the private face of both the royals and a character like Churchill.
But by extension, and metaphorically, it's about all of us. Our private and our public side. There's no more private family than the royal family. People who can really only be themselves with each other. The rest of us just spend all our time fascinated by them.
Did playing Churchill change your perception of him?
Well I certainly learned a lot. I hadn't known what a many-layered man he was, nor how many different peaks and valleys there had been to his incredible career.
You really can study the history of the 20th century by studying the history of that one man's life, at least in the West, certainly in Britain. And I just sort of plunged in. I played him as a very old man, of course. But everything I learned about him in his young years was actually the most valuable stuff I learned about him. That's when you learn who somebody really is.
Did you ever think that someone could sit down and watch the series in one go if they wanted to?
I suppose so—There are crazy people out there. Gluttons for punishment. But I'm almost bitter the fact that they can watch in 10 hours what it takes 8 months to do, you know? [laughs] But I'm very proud of it and it has an incredible scope to it, an arc.
Do you have a favorite episode?
Number nine is a great, great episode because it's about something so minute: it's about a portrait being made of Churchill, and his relationship with the painter. That is the focus of it, these two men working things through and becoming very good friends, and that friendship—well I won't tell you—but it is a wonderful demonstration of Peter Morgan's ingenuity.
With Churchill, one thing I read about constantly was his white-hot temper. He had a colossal temper, a lot of it fueled by drink. He had the temperament of an alcoholic, quite irrational and quite terrifying. Well, the one time you truly see that rage and upset is at a portrait of himself that he absolutely loathes, a portrait of himself. What a wonderful idea. Rather than raging at another politician or at Clemmie or a broken friendship or anything, it's all about his ego. He's basically raging at the approach of death, a wonderful, thrilling idea. That's typical of the whole show. It's about royalty, but on a much larger scale, it's about the public and private face of people, human beings.
What was the biggest challenge of portraying Churchill?
Keeping a straight face when acting with Claire Foy because we giggled all the time. That was a challenge. But it was easier than you would think. It was a wonderfully creative and exciting process with fantastic collaborators. I've always said the real challenge is acting in bad material. Bad writing is the biggest challenge there is, and this was great writing.
Is there any other historical character you'd like to play?
I'm not actually a fan of playing well-known figures. This has been the first time that it has been truly satisfying, and I think it's because there is such a distance to travel between myself and him. The thing, on a very basic level, if you play a historical figure, you're telling a story to which everybody knows the ending. I'm really much more interested in suspending disbelief and in fiction. I'm a storyteller and one of the most essential aspects of telling a story is not knowing the ending. The great thing about The Crown is there are so many aspects to this story that people don't know. But it's pretty rare when you're telling a history to be telling a story that people don't know.
Do you have any memories from filming?
They gave me the most wonderful 70th birthday on set. They had an enormous cake that was a perfect duplicate of the door of number 10 Downing Street, and they called me to the set after lunch to rehearse a scene. And I thought why are we rehearsing this—we've already shot half of it, and I walked in and they were all gathered together singing "Happy Birthday." That was awfully nice (laughs). It was an extraordinarily loving group. You don't associate Englishmen with deep feeling, but by god, I had deep feeling with these people. They were so extraordinarily welcoming. Same day, or same occasion, my wife gave me a party in our flat. There were about fifty people there and Mary and I were the only Americans. I've never been in a job where I walked home with so many best friends for life, truly.
I saw you sitting and reading earlier. Is there something in particular you're enjoying right now?
I'm just consumed with our national story. On the one hand, we'll all be grateful when it's over. On the other, talk about a great historical drama. The theater wonk in me will miss it. It has been high drama of the best order, and what characters, my god! Now that's a role I'd love to play. [laughs] But in a serious drama—Alec Baldwin's got the comedy.
This interview has been edited for both length and clarity.
This story originally appeared on Townandcountrymag.com.
* Minor edits have been made by the Townandcountry.ph editors.