John Lithgow is so convincing as Winston Churchill in Netflix’s lush and lavish new series, “The Crown,” about the early years of Queen Elizabeth’s reign, that it’s easy to forget in real life the well-known and acclaimed character actor is neither short, squat, nor even British.
I ran into Lithgow at 9 a.m. in the elevator of the Essex House last week, and he looked slender and tall – he is 6’4” – and I realized just what an incredible transformation he makes to play Britain’s revered elder statesman who was a whole foot shorter and very plump.
The series, which looks at the public and private life of the Royal House of Windsor, relies on research and documentation to be as historically accurate as possible. The private conversations are, of course, imagined, but the Royals, who never comment on this sort of thing, are unlikely to contradict or complain.
The show has a stellar cast of young and established actors. Claire Foy stars as the Queen, and Matt Smith plays her consort, the Duke of Edinburgh. Jared Harris as King George VI and Vanessa Kirby as the tragic Princess Margaret round out the cast. All five actors – all Brits except Lithgow – were at the Essex House to promote the show.
The pedigree of the show is impressive: Peter Morgan, who knows a thing or two about the monarchy, wrote the series, which has already been picked up for a second season. Morgan also wrote “The Queen,” as well as the hit Broadway and West End play “The Audience,” both starring Helen Mirren. Stephen Daldry (“The Hours,” “Billy Elliot”) directed the first two episodes.
Lithgow, who is 71, was still participating in interviews at 5:30 p.m. that day. As journalists streamed into the room for the final round table of the day, the actor said he’d get up but he was too tired. Then with zest and passion he spoke for nearly 30 minutes about how excited he was about the Netflix show, which debuted Friday, November 4.
Below are highlights from the interview:
After all the roles you’ve played, was it always your dream job to play Winston Churchill?
Never occurred to me (Laughs). I was astonished when I was offered the part. I’ve played FDR in my day, with Bob Hoskins playing Winston Churchill and Michael Caine playing Joseph Stalin in a television series in the early 90’s, and even then, it never occurred to me that I would play Winston Churchill. For one thing, Bob came up to here on me, (points to chest) which seemed quite right and proper, even when I was in a wheelchair.
How did the offer of the role come to you?
Apparently, it was Nina Gold’s bright idea. She’s a brilliant casting director in London. She’d seen me in ‘The Magistrate,’ in the title role at the National, being very English and very Victorian. It was her idea, and they both (Peter Morgan) tell me – they both lit up and said, ‘Yes!’ Peter Morgan describes a certain Churchill fatigue that had kicked in… We’ve seen so many of the knights play Churchill by now. For some reason, they thought this would shake up people’s expectations.
How did you capture his physicality when you obviously look nothing like him?
A lot of it had to do with the fat suit. There was a lot of fat back. We spent two solid days just getting the body right, and a lot of that had to do with how I held myself and sat and stood up and limped and hobbled and used my cane. That part was not strenuous at all. I just felt like the man. I was very aware of being too tall to play the part. I would have thought that was prohibitive, but in the course of two weeks nobody brought it up and I finally said, Stephen, ‘What are we going to do about the gorilla in the room?’ I’m an entire foot taller than Winston Churchill. And he said, “Don’t even think about it. We do nothing.” The only accommodation they made to my height, absolutely the only accommodation, they built the set of the exterior entrance of Downing Street and they made the door much taller because there are so many photographs of Churchill in front of the door at Downing Street, and I would have dwarfed that door.
Churchill is such a revered figure by the English. Were you apprehensive at all about taking the part?
Somewhat, yeah. Not at first, but when I started, a couple of my British friends, I could tell they were a little skeptical … I was very coy with my friend Nick Hytner, the director of the National Theater. I said, I’ll be doing a long job in London. I’ll only give you two hints. It’s a big role and it’s not on the stage. And he said, “My guess it that it’s ‘The Crown,’ because everyone wants to get into the series. If they’ve hired you as Winston, I have to warn you every major actor in London will have a contract out on your head.” And sure enough, he was in New York about three weeks later, about this time he still didn’t know for sure and I finally told him in a taxi, yeah it’s Winston Churchill, and his answer was, ‘They will kill you!’ Oh my god, what have I done?
Why did you want to undertake this role?
You don’t turn down a job like this for Netflix, for Stephen, for Peter Morgan, it was a gold plated job, a dream job, and once I got to England and rehearsed, this cast of actors amazing company, not just the ones you’ve met, all of them, and they were all marvelously welcoming. For some reason, they had no qualms at all. And I really, that was what I was nervous about, like I would be rejected like an organ transplant, but no, they were very pleased.
As advisor to Queen Elizabeth II, you have many close scenes with Claire Foy. She’s comparatively unknown here. Talk about playing opposite her.
She’s quite incredible to act with. Our only difficulty is that I was constantly making her laugh. She laughed at almost at everything I did, which delighted me. ‘Good, I’m comic relief!’ But we really had to deal with that, because there were moments when the entire crew was stony face and we were giggling like little children … That face of hers tells you volumes.’
She has incredible eyes that are so expressive and so vulnerable and frightened like a frightened dear. And you compare it to Anne Boleyn in ‘Wolf Hall,’ which was terrifying, and Matt Smith, their dynamics together. And Daldry, the way he filmed them, and succeeding directors. I haven’t seen those episodes yet. I’ve just seen Stephen’s two. But he let so many of those scenes play in silence, entire stories just told by their faces. When Matt looks at George VI on the train and he senses that this man is going to die soon and you see in his face his anxiety about what’s going to happen to him as a result. That’s, you wait forever to see moments like that in the movies, let alone on television.
How much interest did you have in English politics or the Royal Family before signing on?
Well, I’d had a passing interest. I’m as Anglophile as an American can be, but I was never that engrossed in parliamentary politics or the constitutional monarch. I thought I knew enough about Winston Churchill, but I had no idea how little I knew. I didn’t know about his astounding young life. His boyhood and his teenage years and his 20’s, he was such a miserably unhappy misfit child, such a poor student, and such an inept soldier at Sandhurst. It makes you see his whole life in terms of compensation and over compensation.
In fact, the research I did, just the reading I did on his young years in his biography deeply informed his whole character as an old man. And you see him and marriage for many, many years. His relationship with Clemmie, that’s where you see his incredible vulnerability. He’s got this infantile, petulant side to him, which he never shows in public but you see it with Clemmie and it all comes out. So along with many, many other things the series is about, it’s about an old, old marriage. That’s a part of the script that I really responded to.
What’s the most important lesson Queen Elizabeth learned from Churchill?
His job was to give her confidence and make her feel like the Queen. And that’s a very general thing. The specifics are you never ask me to sit down, and you never offer me tea. (Laughs). That is verbatim from “The Audience,” the play, and that formed the very beginning of the idea of the whole series.
What was it like working in London?
It was a dream job because I loved the job, but also I was the only – Jared and I were the only ones who traveled to England to do this job – I was there for 8 months. My wife’s a professor and she took a sabbatical and came over with me. It was like a junior year abroad. There were 150 shooting days on the film. I worked 51 days, which meant that I had entire weeks free, so we got to know London so well. I even drove in London. (He laughed.)
“The Crown” is sure to be recognized this awards season. Do awards still mean a lot to you?
Sure. They’re wonderful to have. I’ve won a whole lot of them. They make me very proud. They’re a little less important to me because I’ve won awards. I had my Broadway debut on March 7, 1973 and I won a Tony Award two and a half weeks later on March 25, and I had this distinct feeling, relief, “I got that over with! I never had to worry about winning an award after that.”