EXCLUSIVE: How John Lithgow Embraced His Age and Scored the Role of His Career

by Stacy Lambe 11:16 AM PST, January 21, 2015
Photo: Getty Images

Some actors struggle their entire career to land that one iconic or important role—the role that ultimately defines their career and marks their legacy. For John Lithgow, his 42-year career has been filled a number of notable parts, including prominent TV characters on 3rd Rock from the Sun and Dexter and two Oscar-nominated supporting roles in Terms of Endearment and The World According to Garp. But it’s Love Is Strange that the 69-year-old says is his best film role he’s ever had.

In what Lithgow describes as a modest indie film, Love Is Strange tells the story of Ben and George, an older, recently married gay couple forced to live apart after losing their New York apartment. The Ira Sachs-directed film, while not a box office hit, became a favorite among critics and even earned Lithgow his first Independent Spirit Award nomination for Best Male Lead. The film also earned nominations for Best Feature, Best Screenplay, and Best Supporting Male for his co-star and longtime friend Alfred Molina—who the actor refers to as ‘Fred.’

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In an interview with ETonline, Lithgow looks back a profound year, which included roles in Interstellar and on stage in King Lear and A Delicate Balance, and how age has created new importance for his work.

ETonline: Do awards shows and being nominated still feel exciting after all these years?

John Lithgow: Yeah, you can’t help getting excited. Love Is Strange was just a beautiful experience in so many ways. It was very short, very compact, very modest—I keep using that word but that’s what I love about the film—how unassuming it is. I worked all of 16 days on that film in a 27-day shooting period. It had a budget $1.2 million. It was almost the definition of an independent film—a New York indie film—so it’s hard to imagine it duking it out with the big boys for Oscar nominations.

How did you get involved with the film?

My agent called me out of the blue and said he had been watching this project carefully. There was another major actor—who had been attached to the project—who withdrew from it. I won’t tell you who it is. It would have been an extremely different film with him. I had just read the script having got a wonderful report of it beforehand and loved it.

And you also did Interstellar.

The extraordinary thing is it was a moment I had to choose between that film and Interstellar, which is about the biggest film of the year. I was going to choose Love Is Strange but then my agent worked some kind of magic and then I got to do both of them all in a span of five weeks.

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

One of the best scenes in Love Is Strange is where your character gives the bartender at Julius a hard time and you and Alfred share this genuinely sweet moment. Can you talk about filming that?

It was one of the last shooting days we had. It was Fred’s and my last day together. That scene was the end of working together for two or three weeks. We had spent so much time just laughing out of control because he’s such a delightful man—incredible raconteur and joke-teller, just a big heart, a big sense of humor—and there was a moment—it might have even been that day or the day before—I said to Fred, ‘We’ve got to find a moment where we bring this to the film.’ And this is for a 40-year relationship. You have to see that dimension. You can’t last 40 years without sharing a sense of humor. We sort of found it in that scene. It was already there, of course—that wonderful little lie I tell and [Fred] busting me for it—but we decided to expand that and just laugh out of control for that moment. It came very naturally but it was a conscious choice.

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What’s special about the film is that it tells a story about men of a certain age—something we rarely see on screen. What does that kind of story mean to you?

You do not see love between older people portrayed that way—gay or straight. They are a neglected constituency when it comes to love and romance. I always say the film has one starring role played by two people and that starring role is a relationship—and a long relationship. You don’t see many films about a long, long relationship. If a film is about love, it tends to be about tortured love, or discovering love, or young love. It’s not this wonderful kind of comfortable, old resilient love. To me, that’s so beautiful—because everybody has some experience of that in their lives whether it's their parents, or an aunt and uncle, or a pair of old gay uncles. People know these relationships but they don’t see them dramatized very often. It’s extremely moving to me.

You seem very proud of this role and this film.

It’s certainly the best film role I’ve ever had. It’s the biggest film role, for one thing, that I’ve had in years. I have a 33-year-old marriage myself and it certainly makes me meditate on that—now as a straight man playing a gay but the similarities are far stronger than the differences. Both Fred and I had that experience of referring to our long, long marriages. Those were our strongest reference points in creating this relationship.

Photo: Sony Pictures Classics

Does making a film like this force you to think about your own age—or even your own legacy?

I am beginning to feel my age. If you’re an actor you tend to fool yourself into thinking you’re much younger than you are because you’re playing parts and behaving like a child all the time. [Laughs] But age is catching up to me. I’m beginning to feel it in my bones. I don’t have many jobs. I don’t have time now for a lot more work so I have to be very selective and value what I have left. That’s the stuff of mortality, you know, looking realistically at your own life. You grow into so many things as an actor if you last through the age of 70 and beyond. And that’s where I’m at.

With all that you accomplished on film and on stage in 2014, have you noticed how audiences perceptions of you have changed, especially those who might only know you from TV or your older films?

If you do something prominent that’s the thing people tend to recognize you for on the street. It has felt like my cup runneth over this year. I feel I’m in grave danger of boring people to death with my acting. It does feel very, very fulsome. I feel like I’m using all my muscles for the first time in a long, long time—and in very different ways. It fills me with pride really. I can’t help thinking that I have an important role to play now having survived. My first big breaks came almost 40 years ago now. I was a hot actor in the early-‘80s. You know, the hot actors today, you want to tell them, ‘Think about this moment 40 years from now. With any luck, you’ll still be at it.’


Tell be about the bow tie you designed for the Tie the Knot campaign.

I immediately knew what I wanted to do. A bow tie is a slightly flamboyant gesture anyway. So I thought in terms of bold color. I’m a great fan of the Abstract Expressionists of the 1950s and I said to them, ‘Find great big swatches of Willem de Kooning or Jackson Pollock and bright colors full of contrast and take it from there.’

I’ve never seen a bow tie like that. I wore it myself for the first time going to hear jazz downtown and I got so many compliments. I was delighted. I’ve had a lot of compliments in my life but this is a brand new one.

The neckwear designed by Lithgow, Molina, and Sachs are available now for a limited time. Love Is Strange is now out on Blu Ray/DVD and Lithgow can be seen on stage alongside Glenn Close in A Delicate Balance at the John Golden Theatre in New York Cityn until Feb. 22.