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John Lithgow on Process, His Past and Playing an Artist in LOVE IS STRANGE

Interviews
by Meredith Alloway
July 17, 2014 4:25 AM
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Lithgow is one of the most versatile actors of our time. When I learned I’d have a chance to chat with him, I wondered how I could possibly cover the expansive portfolio of his work. But his character in Love is Strange is beautifully similar to Lithgow himself, who is also a painter; this made the conversation considerably easier. It turns out there were many things I didn’t know about Lithgow, including his adoration for painting, Alfred Molina, and how he grew up going to poetry readings on Bleecker Street.   

In the film, directed and written by Ira Sachs, Lithgow and Alfred Molina star as Ben and George, two artists struggling to find a home after George looses his job. They are divided in New York City; Ben forced to crash with Kate (Marisa Tomei) and George with his friend Ted (Cheyenne Jackson). It’s an honest film with a subtle, poignant comedy, exploring the challenges of being an aging artist and what it means to maintain a partnership.

MA: You’ve played some over-the-top characters and it was nice to see you play someone simple and raw. Was that something that drew you to the character in the first place?

JL: Very much so. Everything drew me to it. I read the script and I just wanted to do nothing else. You read something like this, and you know this is going to be so exquisite. Fred was already set when I was hired for it, and I knew the relationship would be perfect.

MA: Watching the film, I felt like it was a relationship, where you had known each other previously.

JL: We did know each other very well. We’d never worked together. There had been a couple of odd things that had brought us together. The real thing we had in common was a very dear friend, Ileen Getz, who passed away of cancer. We hung out together on her hospital ward. This was about 10 years ago.

MA: What an intimate way to get to know someone.

JL: I really saw what a big heart he had, and a wonderful sense of humor. He’s just a great stage actor. I knew it was going to be effortless, and it was.

MA: There is that sense of humor about the script, even though there are some dark moments. Did Ira allow the actors to include their own humor?

JL: We talked about humor very specifically. The wonderful scene between Marisa and me where I’m talking and she’s trying to work sold me on the project. It plays like a sitcom scene and it’s completely real. Ben is this wonderful character, in equal measure, adorable and infuriating!

MA: It reminded me of Harry and the Hendersons!  It’s the same sort of endearing character.

JL: (Laughing) Yes! A character that comes and throws everyone off their game! Ben is an artist, a kind of abstraction. I have this lovely moment in the film where [George and I} are dealing with a real-estate woman. I’m listening; I’m trying to be good. Then suddenly I drift off and start thinking about something else. That’s an artist. An artist is always thinking of something else. My father was like that. He had this feeling of abstraction and I do too. I just put it to work for Ben. When I do a painting, I can sit for 15 minutes and look at the painting.

MA: Didn’t the film use your own work?

JL: I did this collaboration with a very big painter Boris Torres, Ira’s husband. We worked together because I joined the film halfway through the shooting, and they had to have the paintings. So he did the paintings based on my techniques so that when I actually painted I was painting something he had already half done.  The only time you really see one of my paintings is in one of the very first scenes. I walk into the kitchen, and the camera follows me and stops on a painting of a boy on the deck of a ship. That’s my painting.

MA: There’s a moment where your nephew’s son comes up onto the roof where you’re painting and says, “You’re not even that good.” You say, “You don’t mean that!” That felt like what the core of the film is, the struggle of the artist. 

JL: I choked up even reminiscing about that scene. It devastates me when I see it! He’s not a great artist, he’s a perfectly good artist but he’s certainly not a successful artist. Ira spent a lot of time talking about just how good or bad he is. He’s a nice, but not a successful, one.

MA: Do you think there’s a difference between people who are successful and people who are truly good artists? 

JL: There’s a huge difference. I really prize and love great painting. It’s so out of date now. It’s slightly come back in. Painting is being valued again, but twenty years ago you’d go to art school and they wouldn’t even teach painting! They would send you off to do a plaster caste of a racecar or something! That’s the nice thing. He’s a good old-fashioned painter.

MA: There’s that old-fashioned element in the film. I picture you and Alfred… I feel like I don’t know him well enough to say Fred!

JL: You can say Fred!

MA: I picture you and Fred, your younger selves, doing what you do in this film. Did you live that life of couch hopping in New York City?

JL: Not really. I was married very young. I lived a very middle class life. I was married at age 21, divorced at 31. I didn’t sleep on people’s couches.

MA: Was it interesting to play a character with that lifestyle?

JL: I went to Princeton High School, when I was very serious about being an artist. I was in a theatre family but I didn’t want to become an actor. Every Saturday I would go into New York to take figure-drawing lessons at the Art Students League. Those were fabulous days. I was 15, 16, 17 years old. This movie Inside Llewyn Davis, that was the life I lived, going to those folky clubs, listening to poetry readings on Bleecker Street. That’s the closest I came to it. I certainly had my years as an out of work actor but I was married with a baby. My wife was supporting us.

MA: I have friends that are 25 living the life that your character lives in the film, going what am I doing with my life, I’m out of work, what is my craft? Given I now know you lived a different lifestyle, how did you relate?

JL: You play a part and it’s a leap of imagination. To me it was all there in the writing. Fred and I brought so much of ourselves. Ira has a way of reaching into the actor’s experience and putting it to work. He had a very interesting work method. I was making a film in Calgary. Fred was living in LA. Ira flew out and spent two days with me, two days with Fred and never wanted us to work together. We just talked and went through the script line by line, never wanted me to perform it at all, save it all for the actual experience of acting with Fred. We just answered all these questions about Ben’s backstory. The first thing Fred and I shot was singing on that piano bench. We hadn’t done any other scenes and you think they’ve been together for forty years. Who knows how we accessed that, but it happened.

MA: If you guys didn’t rehearse, how did you guys feel comfortable with each other’s bodies?

JL: We were just comfortable with each other’s bodies. I wish you could meet him. He is the most adorable, accessible man, so available, wonderful to act with. You just feel an automatic connection with him. The camera stops, and that connection goes on.  He would make me laugh so hard. We would tell each other jokes and get crippled with laughter.

MA: Are there other actors you’ve worked with that you had that companionship with?

JL: This had been pretty unusual. I’ve had that on stage in a lot of things. M. Butterfly with BD Wong, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels with Leo Butz, Sweet Smell of Success with Brian d’Arcy James.

MA: Do you think in theater there’s more of an opportunity for that intimacy?

JL: It all depends on the material.
 
MA: Have you ever thought about playing King Lear?

JL: Why do you think I have a beard? I’m playing it this summer! In Central Park! How did you--what occurred to you to ask that? I just spent the past two months learning the role! 

MA: Are you really? I’ve been reading the play recently!

JL: "Darkness and devils! Saddle my horses; call my train together. Degenerate bastard! I'll not trouble thee. Yet have I left a daughter!" I could do the whole role for you right now. You have to come see it.

Meredith Alloway is a LA local and Texas native. She is currently Senior Editor at TheScriptLab.com where she focuses on screenwriting education and entertainment resources. She also launched her own interview show, "All the Way with Alloway," where she scoops the latest up and coming industry insiders. She received her Playwriting and Theatre degree from Southern Methodist University and continues to pursue her own writing for film and stage.

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