When President Donald Trump took office earlier this year, he made a big show of returning the bust of Winston Churchill that President Barack Obama had previously removed from the Oval Office. That symbolic gesture has apparently not endeared the president to the actor who has received rave reviews—and is currently the frontrunner for a Best Supporting Actor Emmy Award—for playing Churchill on Netflix’s The Crown. But that doesn’t mean he’s not interested in portraying him on screen.
At 71 years old and standing 6-foot-4, John Lithgow is the same age as President Trump and about two inches taller. And now that he is done playing Churchill after The Crown’s excellent first season, he jokes that he could make a comeback in Season 7, should Trump end up actually meeting the queen. “You know, they will have forgotten Churchill by then,” he says of the show’s fans. “Let me play Donald Trump.”
But first, he can be seen playing the very Trumpian Doug Strutt in Mike White and Miguel Arteta’s new film Beatriz at Dinner, which has been gaining steam at the box office since its mid-June debut. Lithgow swears he did not base his performance of the character on Trump, but the parallels between the two men are unmistakable.
The film takes place over the course of one increasingly awkward and unnerving dinner party, with Lithgow’s billionaire real estate developer squaring off against Salma Hayek’s Mexican-born healer Beatriz. When she confronts him for, among other atrocities, shooting a lion on safari, it’s as if every Trump critic in the audience is finally getting a chance to tell the president how they really feel to his face.
Lithgow calls The Daily Beast early in the morning from his living room in Los Angeles where he’s just finished a round of five-minute radio interviews. “I’m so relieved to talk to you,” he says, after what he describes as an “excruciating” experience getting questioned by one morning DJ after the next.
In a wide-ranging discussion, we talk about how he gets inside characters as disparate as Doug Strutt, Winston Churchill, and the role that earned him his first Oscar nomination, Roberta Muldoon in 1982’s The World According to Garp.
Mike White, who wrote Beatriz at Dinner, recently said that you brought a necessary warmth to this character so that viewers can identify with him to at least some degree. Is that something you did intentionally, or does that just happen naturally?
Yeah, that was very much intentional. And I must say, Miguel Arteta, the director, he spoke to me in those terms too, the first conversation we had. He surprised me the way he talked about Doug Strutt. He talked about him with genuine affection. A man who completely enjoyed life, enjoyed his wealth and his power, was completely unapologetic about it. And here was Miguel, talking in his vivid Puerto Rican accent, a man whose politics I could sense even though I didn’t really know them. I thought it was so wonderfully ironic, him talking with affection about this character. So from the very get-go, I approached him that way. That’s kind of the way I work anyway. Whenever I play a part extremely different from myself I simply play him as if he were myself. I’m on his side. Even if it’s a horrible man or a serial killer or, in this case, a man who embraces right-wing politics. Nobody is a villain in his own life. He considers himself to be right. And there’s something kind of bracing about that, and captivating—a man who’s so self-assured, and humorous about it.
So you play this character Doug Strutt, a casually racist billionaire real estate developer on wife number three who you have said is not based on Donald Trump. What do you see as their main differences? Because there are obviously many similarities that people have picked up on.
Well, I suppose in this day and age it was inevitable that everybody compares a billionaire real estate developer to Donald Trump. But there are thousands of real estate developers and they’re all different. The only thing they have in common is their profession, their wealth. I consider him far more different than similar to Donald Trump. But in this day and age everyone is bound to reflexively compare the two of them. He’s very articulate, for one thing, Doug Strutt. He makes wonderfully reasoned arguments on his own behalf. He has a sense of humor—the best sense of humor in the room. And because he’s the alpha guest, he dominates the tone of every conversation. But he does it with great humor. And it comes from a place of self-assurance. There’s nothing defensive or paranoid about him. There’s a big difference right there.
What kind of preparation does a role like this one require? Did you study the habits of billionaires?
Well, you didn’t have to do much—it was all there in the script. We didn’t rehearse much. We read through the script as a group and wandered through our set, which was this big, beautiful McMansion in Malibu overlooking the sea. This is a group of seven actors who were so in tune with each other. We were all excited about the project and it was just very second nature. I don’t think we really rehearsed in any formal sense of the word. We just simply arrived and inhabited these scenes. It worked effortlessly.
Yeah, the whole cast is really wonderful.
It’s a great little ensemble. We just had a wonderful time. Everybody was there every day. It was a 27-day shooting period, all on one location, one single costume for each one of us. Everything takes place between the afternoon and midnight of one evening. It was a dinner and it sort of had the feeling of a dinner party the whole time.
Obviously you’ve done a lot of theater in your career, so did this feel similar to doing a play?
It was very much like a play. Of all the movies I’ve done, it’s the most like a play script. That long, sustained dinner party, which is the centerpiece of the film, you could put that right on stage. It had that kind of wonderfully crisp theatrical dialogue. Mike [White] is such a terrific writer of dialogue. From the very outset, that dinner is a study in social discomfort. The way he has people change the subject and avoid unpleasantness, it’s so expert. All in the writing, not an improvised word in the script.
Your relationship with Salma Hayek’s character is so contentious on screen. Does that affect your off-camera interactions with her at all when you’re on set?
No, no, not at all. She’s delightful. When I was offered the part, as I so often do, I just checked her out a little bit. I emailed my very good friend [and Love Is Strange co-star] Alfred Molina, who played Diego Rivera with her in Frida, and he said, “I’m so jealous of you, you’re about to work with the nicest woman in the business.” And she really was great. The casting is so perfect. She’s so dissimilar from the rest of us, but such a generous-hearted, wonderful person. And we were all on the same page; we knew what the film was. We knew what was funny about it, what was ironic about it, what was troubling about it. It was a very smart group.
Why do you think it’s so cathartic for viewers to see a character like Beatriz confront your character so directly and forcefully in this film?
It’s extremely unusual that you see two characters like this take each other on—in film or television or even in real life. People are too courteous at a dinner party. And as a matter of fact, the two of them are the only ones who are willing to really argue with each other. Everyone else is just squirming with discomfort. That’s the way Mike has structured this in his writing. The two of them just emerge as antagonists and it becomes a one-on-one debate between two very smart people from two opposite ends of the economic and political and social spectrum. You just don’t see that dramatized very often. The closest you come to it is cable news networks where they have people yell at each other. But you don’t see it in narrative drama, and I don’t think it even dawns on people how unusual this is, what they’re watching.
Yeah, the cable news analogy is interesting. People are hungry for anything that touches on these issues now.
People are writing about how this as an important film for the Trump era. We didn’t make this film during the Trump era. We made it in the month of August, before the election. And of course all these political things were in the air, because they were being debated. We would arrive on set the morning after these horrendous Republican primary debates and our hair was on fire. It was such a crazy political time, but we couldn’t look into the future. We couldn’t know that this was going to happen. So along comes November and the film was completed by then. And it was the same film, but it was a totally different impact. Because now you were seeing a debate about what was actually happening, what was actually going on. And I do think people are hungry for that. We knew we were making a fine, little film, but we didn’t know we were making a big film that everybody would be talking about. You and I and everybody else, we get up in the morning and we read the latest news and the first five or six stories are all about the executive branch of our government. And talking about the economic situation, immigrants, the travel ban, the environment, animal rights, all these things that have people in such a state on either side. To have a film that takes this kind of humorous and ironic approach, a debate conducted between two smart people—and two people who, in effect, create a bond between them, bit by bit. It’s the bond of two adversaries, but it’s a very interesting connection. The two of them really engage; nobody else does, they’re too scared to.
I also want to talk about The Crown, because it was such an incredible performance that you gave on that show and so unexpected in a lot of ways. What did you think about the idea of playing Winston Churchill when it first came up?
I was very surprised to be asked to do it. I was very excited and very scared, all three. I was asked to do it by Stephen Daldry, who’s a wonderful director. I knew him but had never worked with him—always wanted to work with him. And they gave me all 10 scripts, the 10 episodes all completed, even though we wouldn’t start shooting for another six months. But they gave me this enormous package of scripts in one weekend. I sort of binge-read them and it was phenomenal. I was so excited. It’s very rare that you get an offer like that out of the blue, which is the dream job. And I knew that Claire Foy would be playing Queen Elizabeth, whose work I knew quite well. And I knew that they would go find the best actors in London to be in this. I knew this was going to be amazing, but I was intimidated by it. I don’t think I’ve ever done that much research. It started out of sheer terror. But I became so fascinated by the man and his history—especially his young history, his childhood, his teen years, his twenties. And everything I read was so supported by the scripts that Peter Morgan had written. I just had the feeling that this is going to be wonderful.
I think it was the month of January that I was offered the role and I arrived in June to rehearse for 10 days. And all the actors were set by then. And this is the greatest bunch of people. When you work with actors that good in scenes that are that well-written, your fear just falls away. They gave me so much confidence; they all welcomed me into the fold. I wasn’t completely a newcomer to English theater. I had worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National [Theatre] and in fact, there were three or four actors from my era at LAMDA [London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts] way back in the late 1960s. Dame Harriet Walter [who plays Clementine Churchill] had been at LAMDA a year or two after I had. So I just joined that great, sprawling repertory company called London actors.
Are you disappointed at all that Churchill is not returning for Season 2 of The Crown?
Well, I’m wistful, but his story was over. I had a wonderful exit from the series. And the way the series is structured, every season will be built around a new prime minister. Each one is kind of a decade of British history. And even though Churchill is still alive for another 10 years after he was voted out as prime minister, there’s not much story there anymore except for his declining health, and that’s not all that dramatic. I went back there for the BAFTA Awards and saw the whole gang. In fact, I went to the wrap party for the [second] season. And at that wrap party, they were wrapping a season in which I had not participated, but I still felt very nostalgic. But Claire, Vanessa Kirby, Matt Smith, and Victoria Hamilton, all playing Elizabeth, Margaret, Philip, and the Queen Mother, respectively, they would all be replaced in the following season by older actors.
Yeah, this will be their last season as well.
We all had supper together after the wrap party. I was sort of welcoming them into the ranks of veteran performers from The Crown. It was very sentimental, very sweet. I really never left a job with so many great, great friends. Friends for life.
Did this experience of playing Winston Churchill inspire you to take on any other real-life historical figures?
Not specifically. It’s not something I hanker to do. Impersonating someone who’s very familiar to the public has its own sets of limitations and challenges. You don’t want to just do an impersonation. You want to go beyond that, which is what Peter Morgan does for a living. He takes historical characters and turns them into very rounded, surprising human beings. It’s pretty rare that someone does it that expertly. I think Daniel Day-Lewis accomplished that in Lincoln. But I can’t think of a lot of other examples, of someone who really brings a character to life in a deeply sympathetic way. I don’t know, I just wait around for other people to come up with bright ideas. Churchill himself was a tremendous surprise for me.
So you won’t be throwing your hat in the ring for the Donald Trump biopic?
[Laughs] Well, I did joke that if Trump goes and meets the queen sometime in the next year, then that may turn up as an episode about five years from now. And I immediately said, you know, they will have forgotten Churchill by then. Let me play Donald Trump.
This year marks the 35th anniversary of The World According to Garp, which got you your first Oscar nomination. Looking back on that film, with you playing a trans character so early in your career, what were your thoughts about taking that leap at the time?
I had read the [John Irving] book a couple of years before and I had never thought that they would ever make a movie out of it. It didn’t even occur to me. I just read it because I’m a novel reader. And I loved the character of Roberta Muldoon, but I never dreamed of playing her. The first I ever heard of the notion is when my agent’s assistant called to inform me of a meeting with [director] George Roy Hill and I said, “What role? I don’t remember any role I’m right for in Garp.” And she said, “Well, I don’t know what role exactly. There’s a typographical error on the cast sheet. It says ‘Roberta.’” And I immediately remembered Roberta Muldoon and thought oh my god, this is my role! I was so excited. It burst into life in my mind. I’m a big man, plausibly athletic, with a fey, actorish demeanor. And I just thought I was perfect casting. I went and met with George Roy Hill and he rejected me immediately, because he thought I was too tall. Put me beside Robin Williams and he thought it would be too ridiculous. But about eight months later, I got a call to come and screen test for it. Because he’d looked at about a hundred other people for the role. I think they’d even offered it to Kevin Kline, but when he did a makeup test, he looked like a pirate, so they decided, no, he’s not right for it either. So I did the screen test and he was finally persuaded. It took all that time.
It was written by Steve Tesich and directed by George Roy Hill, who was right out of 1950s live television. He hired this huge cast of terrific New York theater actors. And it just was like doing a terrific play. I loved Roberta’s character. I loved her on the page, I loved her in the script, and I felt extremely self-conscious and awkward at first. I remember George Roy Hill, after my very first scene when I felt terribly uncomfortable and over the top, I said, “What do you think, George?” And he said, “Well, I’m glad you brought that up.” And my heart just sank into my stomach. And then he roared with laughter and said, “Oh no, you’re fine. If there’s ever anything wrong, I’ll be sure to tell you.” That was about the last direction he ever gave me. I tried to play it very inconspicuously, just as a genuine person. My sister saw the film and said, you know, of every role you’ve ever played, that was the most like you. And that was my intention, to not make it into a drag act at all. Just be very genuine. And it’s the same strategy that Jeffrey Tambor used all these years later [on Transparent]. Just make it a real person and create sympathy there.