The actor discusses his latest film Beatriz at Dinner.
Actor John Lithgow
Tavis Smiley: Good evening from Los Angeles. I’m Tavis Smiley.
Tonight, a conversation with John Lithgow. The prolific actor’s performance as Prime Minister Winston Churchill on “The Crown” has already taken awards at the Critics Choice and SAG Awards. This weekend, you can catch him on the big screen as a billionaire property developer in the film, “Beatriz at Dinner”.
We’re glad you’ve joined us. A conversation with John Lithgow coming up in just a moment.
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Tavis: Always pleased to have John Lithgow on this program. The prolific actor has already earned trophies at the Critics Choice Awards and the SAG Awards for his portrayal of Winston Churchill in the series, “The Crown”. His NBC comedy, “Trial and Error”, just wrapped its first season.
And this weekend, you can catch him on the big screen opposite Selma Hayek in the politically charged dark comedy, “Beatriz at Dinner”. Before our conversation, here a scene now from “Beatriz at Dinner”.
Tavis: I’m laughing already. Because I have seen this, I whispered to you when you walked on the set that I have not seen you play a guy who I disliked so much [laugh]. As much as I love you, Mr. Lithgow, I have not seen you play a guy I dislike so much since maybe “Ricochet” with Denzel [laugh]. And your character in “Dexter” wasn’t the nicest guy.
John Lithgow: Well, you know, I’m a full service entertainer [laugh].
Tavis: Well, you put it to good use in this one, man.
Lithgow: I play the good guys and the bad guys and, most interestingly, the people who fall somewhere in between.
Tavis: Yeah. What is the joy of playing the bad guys, the mean guys, the arrogant guys?
Lithgow: Well, you see, I don’t even consider him the bad guy. When you play this role, you think of him as the righteous one, the one…
Tavis: Fair enough.
Lithgow: He thinks he’s right, so you’ve got to put yourself into that mindset and so does the writer, Michael White, Mike White. He just sort of loves just the curiosity of human beings and these are complicated times. I mean, this is a complicated villain. His name is Doug Strutt. He is a billionaire developer.
Tavis: Strutt’s the right name [laugh].
Lithgow: Yeah. He’s got a certain swagger to him, but he’s very comfortable with his own decisions in life. He has no conscience or remorse about anything. Everything is pragmatic with him. Now who does this remind you of [laugh]?
The thing is, this movie has all the elements of a comedy. It’s a sort of a culture clash story. It’s a dinner party among three billionaires and their wives which, by a couple of turns of plot, there is a seventh guest. And this is a poor Mexican immigrant who works as a physical therapist for the lady of the house. This is Selma Hayek.
So you have — bit by bit, it becomes a dialog, a sort of debate between my character and Selma’s. It’s very rare that you see someone at the very extremely rich end of the social and economic spectrum actually debating with someone at the very bottom. It makes for a comedy at first and then it gets more and more uncomfortable as such a dinner party would.
Tavis: First of all, you described that brilliantly. I love how you did that. It makes my work a lot easier.
Lithgow: A hard one to describe.
Tavis: It is hard to describe. The social commentary in this thing is searing by the time this thing starts to turn. When you read this on paper, were you immediately turned on by this? I mean, obviously, you saw what it was.
Lithgow: Yes, I was very turned on. You’re always turned on by dialog that’s that good, that has that much crackle to it. I already knew it was Mike’s dialog. I’d already been in one of his films, a flat-out comedy, “Orange County”. And I knew — you know, he’s interested in comedy, but he’s also interested in much, much broader things.
When he set out to write this, he and Miguel Arteta, the director who has worked frequently with Mike, they went to Selma and they just presented this as an idea. What if this character Beatriz got stuck in a supper party with six wealthy people? What would happen? And they got her excited about the very idea and, two weeks later, Mike presented her with a script. He wrote it that quickly.
He knows these people. He’s very, very interested in tensions between dissimilar people and people who come at situations from a completely different direction, and you just radiate it. I mean, I read it and I thought, gosh, I really want to do this. It’s also a mordant comedy about what’s really going on.
I mean, we go through our lives. One of the problems in our lives is that people from different segments of our society just don’t communicate with each other nor do you ever see entertainment where they communicate with each other and fight with each other. And that’s what Mike set out to do. I was just fascinated by that challenge.
Tavis: When you chin-checked me as nicely and lovingly as you did a few minutes ago by saying to me, “Tavis, I don’t see him as the bad guy”, I knew immediately where you were going with that, having seen the project.
Because you’re right. In his mind, he isn’t the bad guy. He believes what he believes, he isn’t shy about expressing his opinions. So I took your point when you said that. And yet, the flip side of that is that that kind of hubris and that kind of arrogance and that kind of elitism as one sees in this film is hard to break through.
And it makes me wonder how it is that we in fact do that in a world where classism is so entrenched. If the people that we’re talking about are like the character that you play, there really just isn’t any there there to appeal to.
Lithgow: It’s very unsettling. It’s a troubling film. It’s a challenging film in this way, but I think it’s very accurate. There are these social enclaves, certain golf courses, certain social clubs where people have set up sort of battlements around them. There’s just no communication with the rest of society. They are a protected breed. It’s almost anthropological and yet they’re human beings, you know.
In doing the film, I was quite surprised and excited by how Miguel, our director, would direct me to really enjoy himself, genuinely enjoy himself, be very comfortable. He himself was interested in looking around the other side. I mean, of course, particularly liberal filmgoers already bring all sorts of expectations to this film. They have their — we, I should say.
I’m a liberal Democrat myself. I know what the vision and the point of view of this film is and yet Miguel was intent on turning that on its head on really challenging people. Doug Strutt says some very frightening things, particularly toward the end.
He completely accepts, for example, the fact that the environment is decaying and the earth is doomed. He accepts that. What can you do about it? Enjoy yourself. He says these things and it’s heart-stopping because he’s going at the things that terrify us most. And yet here’s a person who’s not afraid of that. As I say, it’s very unsettling stuff.
Tavis: Because, as you said earlier, John, because he and all his cohorts at the dinner table are in fact homo sapiens, they’re human beings as well, I have to believe that every human being has a humanity that is worth respecting and maybe even reveling in.
No matter how wrong they may be in their political ideology, they do have a humanity that is worth respecting. How did you connect to the humanity in this character?
Lithgow: Through his humor. I mean, that had a lot to do with it. Through his own enthusiasms when he talks about big game hunting in Africa, for example. He talks about it with real genuine passion. It’s something that really reaches him emotionally. Try to find the things that animate this man and get him excited, make him laugh. It’s just what you do when you approach a character.
You try to find out what makes him tick, and that’s particularly important if you’re playing somebody who people already know is the villain purely on the basis of what they’ve seen in the quotes as you walk into the theater. It’s important to up-end that because nobody is the villain in his own story.
Tavis: I’ve been around people like this in my lifetime and in my work. It’s so unsettling and it never ceases to amaze me how people can be so blind to the opinions, the feelings, the world view, the experiences of others. This scene you raise now is a powerful example of that. So as you recall from the film, he passes around his cell phone with the picture of his hunting.
Lithgow: His conquest.
Tavis: His conquest. Perfect word. And when it gets to Beatriz, Selma Hayek’s character, she just unloads on him and, not to give the movie away, throws the phone across the room. But the fact that — and, again, I’m not naïve in saying this — but the fact that he couldn’t even process or see that coming or just didn’t have another way of viewing how somebody else might see his conquest, it’s numbing to me.
Lithgow: But look at how he responds when she throws the phone. Do you remember his response? He laughed like, wow, this is great. You know, the thing is, we all live in our little worlds. It’s very rare that people venture out of their world, and we’re all subject to group think as a result.
You know, my circle of friends, academics and theatricals, my wife’s a professor, many of our friends are simply faculty members at UCLA. We all have more or less the same politics and we all reinforce each other all the time and go to the same marches and write the same Op Ed letters.
But it’s very, very important to see what in the world is going on on the other side of the political divide. The most distressing thing about society right now is this huge gulf. None of us can figure out why the other side can possibly be thinking this way.
Tavis: But how do you do that, John, when by your own admission, in your own — I’m coming away from the film now to your personal world that you just described. I only go there because you went there.
In your own world when your point of view, right though it may be, is reinforced by your wife and your friends and your colleagues, how do you see the other side? Now we’re back to Strutt in the film who couldn’t appreciate another point of view.
Lithgow: Well, curiously, Doug Strutt does see the other point of view. At least he has certainly seen it before. People have protested.
Tavis: But he finds it laughable, though.
Lithgow: He dismisses it because he’s far, far more powerful than they are, and he knows they can’t bend to his trajectory at all. You know, he’s going to accomplish what he sets out to do because he’s done it a hundred times before.
He has power and he has the complacency and smugness of power, but he completely enjoys it. He’s a curiously appealing character [laugh] just because he’s sort of fun to be with. At least this is how Mike has written it and Miguel has directed it. To me, this is what gives the film its terrific tension and makes it so challenging.
You know, you’ve simply got to accept the fact, for example, that our government is doing what it’s doing right now because it’s happening. I don’t know about accepting it, but you’ve got to acknowledge it and figure out ways of resisting it and at least creating a dialog. I mean, it’s a film that creates a conversation, I think.
Tavis: But when the Strutts of the world run the world and they have that kind of power, that kind of authority, that kind of control, when they think they are or in fact appear to be untouchable, if in fact these are the folk who run the world, what are we to do about that? What agency did Beatriz really have in that scenario?
Lithgow: Well, Beatriz is very heroic and fearless. She just goes ahead and says it. I think that’s the most important thing is courage and to really make very clear to yourself what your convictions are and act on them.
I say that. I’m not a particularly courageous person politically myself, but it is time to stand up and say what you believe. In fact, there’s a lot of, I think, in the midst of — this is a very upsetting time. I mean, I read the news every morning and I get in a state of hysteria about the damage that’s being done, in my view.
But it’s also a time of sort of creative ferment, I think, politically. People are rising up and acting — I mean, it’s very significant that these political races are getting a lot closer now. And as soon as this devastating election took place, in my world view, it was devastating, but the next day I began to already think, well, this is going to be a good year.
This is going to be a great year for schadenfreude because people like this have a self-destructive streak. They tend to destroy the things that they have built up before our very eyes, and we’re seeing it. We’re seeing it, as I saw it in 1973. The last time I was this obsessed with journalism and what was being written about politics was in the spring of 1973.
Lithgow: When the whole government fell apart because of duplicity and ambition.
Tavis: John Dean, who was Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, as you recall, sat in this very chair some weeks ago and it was fascinating to have a conversation with John Dean about the parallels as he saw between that Nixonian moment and this Trumpian moment, if I could put it that way. So it’s just eerie to hear his sharing of what those comparisons are.
Since you remember that period just as a citizen, does it feel as eerie, as icky, now as you recall it feeling then to you?
Lithgow: Well, the interesting thing about Watergate was you just felt something’s curious here. Something’s wrong. This isn’t quite right, and then suddenly it exploded. This is quite different. Things are happening so fast right before our eyes. Every day something essential that happened in the last eight years of a very good presidency is being taken away from us and you’re just seeing it happen.
Concurrent with that, some scandalous things are coming to light. So there is this kind of hunger for things to move faster. I do believe these scandals are going to bring this administration down. I just want it to happen fast [chuckles].
Tavis: Sooner than later, yeah.
Tavis: I’ve asked this question of others, John, but I’m curious to ask it of you, given the role that you play in this film and given your earlier comment that you’re not particularly politically courageous. I’ve always known you to be a person — that comment notwithstanding — a person who speaks his own mind on this program and elsewhere.
So what do you see as the role of the citizen artist in this moment? That’s what you are. You are a citizen artist. What’s the role?
Lithgow: Well, you know, Tavis, I did do “Beatriz at Dinner”. I did “The Crown” which I think is a wonderful meditation on leadership with government. But in the middle of all that, I did “Trial and Error”, “Pitch Perfect 3” and “Daddy’s Home 2”, three pieces of wild, nutball entertainment [laugh]. As I said, I’m a full service entertainer.
Tavis: Yes, sir.
Lithgow: My job in life is to delight, excite, sometimes terrify people. Just keep them entertained. It’s a wonderful thing when I do something that actually hits the mark, which actually moves the chains down the field in terms of expanding peoples’ consciousness.
When I did Roberta Muldoon in “World According to Garp”, when I did “Love is Strange” with Alfred Molina, when I did “M. Butterfly” on Broadway, these were all pieces which, in their way, really jostled peoples’ mindset and expanded peoples’ consciousness.
It’s a wonderful thing when you can do that as an actor, but you can’t make it your main mission. Your main mission is simply do your job, delight people, you know, give them emotional exercise. Make them cry, make them laugh and make the scream out in terror. Those are my jobs and, if possible, make them think, but that’s not completely necessary.
Tavis: I take all of that and yet you will never convince me that you did not or do not take or will not take a particular delight in this film, given the resonance of it in a time such as this.
Lithgow: No. I’m so glad. You know, we made this film in September. This was around the time when I saw your great interview with Andrew Sullivan who predicted the results of the presidential election. I watched that and I said, “Well, scary words, Andrew, but don’t worry. That’s not gonna happen.” [laugh].
Well, by the time we had finished the film, they were just finishing the final cut of the film when the election took place. Suddenly, the film suddenly cast a shadow that it didn’t have before. It suddenly became a much more provocative film, as provocative as it was, because it was really about our political moment.
Tavis: So a tricky question. I’m only going to ask it and you, having starred in the film and having seen the film, will know how to answer this without giving too much away. I wrestled with the way that thing ended.
Lithgow: I knew you were gonna ask that! I knew you were gonna ask that!
Tavis: I’m not giving anything away.
Lithgow: Neither am I.
Tavis: I’m just saying, John Lithgow, that I wrestled. My spirit was vexed by the way that thing ended. What say you about that?
Lithgow: Well, I say people have got to see this film [laugh] to see what you’re talking about. Like I said, it’s a complicated film, it’s a very troubling film. It’s a film written by a very funny man about a very serious subject and you end up with intently conflicted feelings at the end, and how can you not when the film is about the things it’s about?
I mean, I agree with you. I was very — there are moments in this film that are extremely upsetting, but if you put together this combination of people for an entire evening…
Tavis: That’s what happens [laugh].
Lithgow: And watch them drink wine all evening long and, in one case, smoke dope, crazy things are going to happen.
Tavis: The truth can be very unsettling and very unhousing. I close on this note. In this moment, this for-real moment off the screen, are you hopeful? And if you are, how do you sustain your hope? What makes you hopeful?
Lithgow: I’m a very hopeful person. I mean, I’m an optimistic person, sometimes stupidly optimistic. I went and voted for Hillary Clinton…
Lithgow: On the morning of November 8 and I felt like a million bucks. I felt like I’d voted for the first woman president and I believed in her as a candidate, and my hopes were dashed, you know. I felt like a fool for being so optimistic. But then I was optimistic again the next day.
I don’t know. Maybe it’s just my nature. I am in the business of exploring crazy possibilities. I am a storyteller and the stories I tell are, when I’m lucky, really good ones. It’s a very exciting thing to do with your life and that’s, I think, what keeps me hopeful.
Tavis: Well, you’re luckier than most [laugh].
Lithgow: I know how lucky I am [laugh].
Tavis: I didn’t mean it like that. You said when I’m lucky, I tell good stories. You do a lot of good stuff and you’re pretty lucky you do. I’m always honored to have John Lithgow on this program. His insights are always profound. I always learn something talking to him. I go to bed at night after talking to you, I feel smarter.
Lithgow: Well, I can return the compliment, Tavis.
Tavis: No, I mean that sincerely. I feel smarter. You challenge me to reexamine assumptions, as we say, and help me to expand my inventory of ideas, so I thank you for that, sir.
Lithgow: Keep the faith [laugh].
Tavis: “Beatriz to Dinner” is the film. If this conversation hasn’t encouraged you to see it, then I can’t help you, but I highly recommend it. That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching and, as always, keep the faith.
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