The conference room at the National Theatre is hung with photographs of serious actors doing serious things. John Lithgow may soon be up among them but at the moment he’s too busy singing. Not just singing, but exuberantly acting out a piece he has written for a new children’s book. “All at once the conductor erupted with rage / a band of wild animals was storming the stage … rumpa-pa-pa-pummmm,” he beams, conducting himself and his imaginary orchestra. He is in the thick of rehearsals for the National’s new play, but he clearly doesn’t view his lunch hour as reason to pause the serious business of entertaining.
“I just love mixing it up,” he says, in what could well be the motto for a career that has swung from a transsexual in The World According to Garp to a conservative preacher in Footloose, not to mention his much-loved alien in TV sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun. On the way Lithgow has established himself as an actor who can handle comedy and drama with equal intelligence, both on stage and on screen. With his fluffy white hair and famously long limbs – at 6ft 4in, being asked to play the gangly Abraham Lincoln is an occupational hazard – Lithgow is back in town to appear as Aeneas Posket, the lead in Pinero’s The Magistrate. The “wonderful, beleaguered innocent” at the centre of this Victorian farce is not unfamiliar territory for him. “There’s a strain of High Commander Dick Solomon in it,” says Lithgow, referring to his part in 3rd Rock.
This return to London has been a coming home. In 1967, as a young man straight out of Harvard, Lithgow went to Lamda to train. Now 67, he is delighted that he has found a flat just moments away from his old student digs in Gloucester Road, though slightly traumatised by how much busier London has become. As a student, he used to queue for seats in the gods at the National, learning from the likes of Derek Jacobi and Anthony Hopkins. What would that 23-year-old think of the fact that he has now graduated to the stage itself? “Oh my god, my god, I’m lucky,” he says. “I never dreamed I’d actually be here doing this.”
Back then, his love of London extended to an assumed British accent, something that came in useful when he played multiple British characters on Broadway while honing his craft in the 1970s. At that time, many US theatregoers simply assumed he was a Brit. But by now he is indelibly American, on the verge of becoming that dangerous thing: a national treasure. This time around, his accent is unwavering in its east-coast tones, and he’s hoping it stays that way. “[I’ve] absorbed a few little Britishisms,” he says. “I learnt the phrase – is it, push the boat out? I’d never heard that one.”
“Push the boat out” is an expression that Lithgow should add to his repertoire, if only because it is an apt description of his approach to life. This is a man who seems intent on enjoying himself at all times, even when he’s not imitating a zoo animal trying out a bassoon. Exclamations, chortles and affirmations punctuate his language with genuine enthusiasm, a refreshing change from mere luvvie habit. Analytical in his thinking, he is quite happy to discuss the difference between Pinero and Goldoni farces but equally enthused about the prospect of singing a patter song – a rapid number along the lines of Gilbert and Sullivan’s “I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General” – during The Magistrate’s curtain call. When asked if he was willing to do it, he let out an emphatic: “Oohhhhhho-hohoho yeah, am I ever”.
The Magistrate itself is “literally like presenting a gift to the audience,” says Lithgow. “The first thing the audience will see as it files in is an enormous pop-up picture book creation of London in the shape of a Christmas wreath.” Underneath all the music and comedy though, there is a darker side. The central premise involves a woman lying about her age – and that of her son – in order to make herself more attractive to her new husband. “As wild and loopy and delightful a farce as it is, there is a very painful underlying theme,” he says. Not to mention an eternal one, as Lithgow points out. “To me, comedy is at its best when it has some sort of other dimension.”
Whether sending up the quirks of humanity on 3rd Rock or puncturing political pomposity on The Colbert Report, Lithgow has long been a master of deploying humour to make serious points. Last year, he did a searing dramatic rendition of a press release from the spokesman of then-Republican presidential contender Newt Gingrich. “But out of the billowing smoke and dust of tweets and trivia emerged Gingrich, once again ready to lead,” he intoned, in a word-perfect interpretation that became an online hit. Lithgow is saddened by the fact that his time in London means he misses the US election. “I was here in the year 1968, which was one of those epical years in the US when everything fell apart and I felt very far away,” he says. “It’s an extremely crucial election and I hate not being there.”
As his hamming it up as the pontificating Gingrich shows, Lithgow does not take himself too seriously. He has two Oscar nominations, two Tony awards and numerous children’s books under his belt, but none of this is by design. “I kind of like being the subject of other people’s brainstorms. They have much bolder ideas for me than I have for myself. Very often people think of me for things that I don’t think I’m capable of playing and … I test muscles that I didn’t know I had. I like being surprised by things,” he says. “I don’t have a lot of confidence in my own instincts for myself.”
In spite of such insecurities, Lithgow was born for a life on the stage. His father was a pioneer of Shakespeare in the US, a regional theatre director whose frequent job moves meant a peripatetic lifestyle for his family. Lithgow’s first role was at the age of two as a street urchin in one of his father’s productions of The Emperor’s New Clothes. His first Ibsen followed a year later. He decided he wanted to become an actor during a standing ovation in an undergraduate performance of Gilbert and Sullivan. The applause left him wanting more.
Arthur Lithgow’s face fell when his son told him that he planned to study acting, suggesting business school instead. They went on to work together, but their relationship meant that for a long time Lithgow steered away from Shakespeare. “Part of me sort of felt – well that’s his, that’s his property,” Lithgow says. “Which is not to say I wouldn’t love to do some great Shakespeare parts. God, I’ve turned down so many of them over the years. I have a lot of regrets.” But the love of storytelling that his father instilled in him has never gone away.
Lithgow is the polar opposite of the villain he played in Shrek, the vertically challenged Lord Farquaad who tries to banish all fairytale creatures from his kingdom. Such excesses of imagination have always been key to his work and his inner child still understands how important flights of fancy – whether it’s animals taking over an orchestra or a mouse attending college – are in making a seven-year-old laugh and learn. He has always written and performed for his own family as well as a broader young audience. “[Kids] are completely engaged with a kind of passion, and if you can hold their attention and captivate them, which is what you are always trying to do from a stage, it’s absolutely exhilarating,” he says.
Lithgow’s next role is in the new film from Judd Apatow, a man who has made a living out of capturing children trapped in adult bodies. This is 40, the follow-up to Knocked Up, is about a marriage in crisis and Lithgow plays one of two fathers causing problems for their middle-aged children. “Judd’s got a modus operandi that’s like nothing I’ve ever participated in. I just loved it,” he says. Actors are expected to improvise their entire scene: “As a result you get this stuff, which nobody could ever think of to write.”
His affection for this way of working – with all its echoes of those long-ago drama school exercises – is not surprising. The screen may have amplified his fame but it is still the theatre that he thinks of most fondly. “The actual two-hour-long ecstatic experience of being in a play and sharing the experience with an audience, there’s nothing like that,” he says. And although it is almost time to go back to rehearsal, he resumes animal-orchestra mode and launches into another verse for his audience of one.
‘The Magistrate’ is at the National Theatre, November 14 to February 10 2013, www.nationaltheatre.org.uk