John Lithgow: Live from the NYPL 11 October 2011

It’s a new season for Live from the NYPL and my first ticket was for John Lithgow being interviewed by his friend and neighbor Bill Moyers. Lithgow is promoting his latest book, Drama: An Actor’s Education. The book deals with Lithgow’s life up until 1979 when he became a movie actor who did theater instead of a theater actor who did movies. After that point he’s been interviewed so many times that it’s all already out there so he wanted to write about what happened before he was the subject of so many interviews.

It was a delight to listen to a conversation between two friends but also to listen to an interviewer who knows how to interview. Moyers started with Lithgow’s The Poet’s Corner (a book of poems compiled by Lithgow) and had him read “The Owl and the Pussycat” and the eulogy from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline and had Lithgow tell us why he loved those pieces. Then Moyers asked him to read the beginning of the new book – it starts with Lithgow taking care of his elderly parents. He’s in the middle of finding a nursing home for them and they’re staying at his home. His father was extremely depressed and, in an effort to cheer up his father, Lithgow read them PG Wodehouse’s “Uncle Fred Flits,” a story that his father read to him when Lithgow was a child. Lithgow read the first part of that introduction at the beginning of the night and then Moyers had him read the end of the intro at the end of the interview and Lithgow was in tears as he recounted how he used all of his acting powers to bring the story to life and how his father reacted as if his life depended on it (which it did). Everything that an actor does was distilled in that one night.

In the book, Lithgow talks about the pendulum that swings for every actor from arrogance to self-doubt/contempt. Actors know they’re in a serious world but don’t think it’s a serious business. On the difference between stage acting and movie acting, the biggest difference is that on stage the audience and the actors are experiencing the moment at the same time. In the movies by the time the film comes out you’ve forgotten the performance plus it was shot out of sequence and your performance is chopped up.

He writes about the crisis he had as a young man – married too young and an unformed person having affairs and acting out the adolescence he had skipped the first time around. Moyers joked that some have affairs and some go to seminary (Moyers is an ordained Baptist minister).

Moyers quoted a critic who described Lithgow as having a hulking frame and a long quizzical face who always seemed to be inhabiting the wrong body. When Moyers asked Lithgow whose body he was supposed to have the answer was Ryan Gosling. Lithgow mentioned that in several of his roles he has played a character who is inhabiting another body.

Lithgow spent a year in England on a Fulbright Scholarship studying Shakespeare. Two things came out of that – he became a Shakespeare snob and therefore hasn’t acted nearly enough Shakespeare in the US. And he came back with a hybrid British accent, which he had to purge.

He first became known with his role in The Changing Room where he has the distinction of the longest silent nude scene on Broadway. When asked about keeping a performance fresh night after night Lithgow told about a conductor telling his orchestra during a bad rehearsal that, despite the fact that they’ve played Brahms Second Symphony so many times before, tonight they would be playing it for two people – the person hearing it for the first time and the person hearing it for the last time.

Moyers told Lithgow that he should play Orson Welles. But Lithgow won’t play someone where people can make comparisons. He will be playing Joseph Alsop and that is comfortable for him because no one knows what he looked or sounded like.

The conversation was fast and fun and intelligent and the NYPL should have Moyers interview most of their guests.

By Carene Lydia Lopez