John Lithgow has always been hungry for a challenge, playing a plethora of roles, from aliens to priests, to sitcom dads, murderers, millionaires, scientists, and schizophrenics. “I can walk down one block and people will recognize me for 10 different things,” he laughs at a bustling lunch spot in North Hollywood. It’s an unpredictable path that’s allowed him to pick up six Emmys, two Tonys and two Golden Globes.
Lately, however, Lithgow’s been hunting big game. Three years ago, he agreed to play Winston Churchill on The Crown. Until then, he’d mostly avoided playing real-life figures—he didn’t see the fun in retelling a story audiences already knew. But Lithgow was so chuffed to bring the British Bulldog to heel, psychoanalyzing him as a weakened titan terrified of failure, that he started gobbling up powerful men. In the last year alone, he’s played Bill Clinton on Broadway in Hillary and Clinton, Donald Trump in a staged reading of the Mueller Report, and a rabbity, red wine-chugging Rudy Giuliani on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, slurring about the Bidens while howling that he’s the mayor of outer space.
“The Rudy Giuliani shtick, just outrageous self mockery and parody, I find that just delightful, very liberating, because I’m shameless, completely shameless,” grins Lithgow, who says the political intensity of the last few years has “drawn me out of my shell a little bit”. Until 2016, he’d never even publicly campaigned for—or against—a presidential candidate. “I’m a Libra, hopelessly balancing everything on the scale, and then BOOM!” he yelps, smacking his hand on the table. “Being an entertainer—sometimes a wacko comedy entertainer—it’s kind of the best thing I can do. My great heroes these days are satirists because they’re better than ever. Their claws are sharp.”
He admits he’s “always a little uncomfortable” watching himself in “grim and serious roles.” But it’s Lithgow’s chilling supporting performance as Fox News CEO Roger Ailes in Jay Roach’s Bombshell that might score the actor his third Oscar nomination, and possibly his first win.
Unlike Churchill, Clinton and the rest of the mic-hoggers, Ailes himself isn’t well-known. He shied away from the camera, preferring to let his protégées be the public face of the network.
“He’s the troll under the bridge in the fairy tale,” says Lithgow. “My sense of it is he was very self-conscious about how he looked.”
Lithgow met Roach while filming the 2012 comedy The Campaign, and calls the director “a wonderful detail man” who emboldened him to go “whole hog” on the prosthetics, which were done by Kazu Hiro, the same artist who transformed Gary Oldman into Churchill for Darkest Hour. (Lithgow simply stuffed his jowls.) Then, Lithgow searched for the rare recorded interviews in order to study Ailes’ unexpectedly chipper Midwest accent. “Not a villainous voice at all,” says Lithgow with surprise.
Lithgow’s Ailes is an indoor beast, a sexual harasser cushioned by carpet, money, enablers and his own thick padding. He seems to make the very air ripple with tension. Occasionally, he pounces, like when he chases Charlize Theron’s Megyn Kelly around his office, trying to pin her against the wall for a kiss. Usually, however, he’s unnervingly still. In the film’s most wrenching scene, he commands Margot Robbie’s Kayla—an amalgamation of the low-level lovelies forced to play nice, or else—to stand up and give him a twirl. Then he asks her to raise her skirt. Higher. No, higher.
It’s a brutal, disorienting, head-scrambling moment, both for Kayla—who soon after stumbles out of the room unable to explain what happened—and for the audience, who hears the ache in Ailes’ throat when he thanks her for the underwear flash. Even Lithgow’s Ailes seems disturbed. He seems damp and miserable, aware that next to this bright, promising, potential TV anchor, he is, well, a monster.
“It falls to me to emotionally explain how this would happen,” says Lithgow. “I imagined his heartbeat is speeding up for a lot of reasons, not just sexual arousal. He’s daring himself to do something bad, and having shame mixed in with it even as it’s happening.”
As the scene was written to be sparse, with the emphasis on Ailes and Kayla’s painful silence, Lithgow had to make each word carry extra weight. He added a mournful oboe note to the way Ailes sighs, “You have a great body.”
“If you can think of Roger as the victim of his compulsion, and feeling victimized by it, that at least gives the story more dimension than just a tale of a bad man,” says Lithgow. “My intention was to trouble people, unsettle people with the fact that they shouldn’t have sympathy for the devil.”
“I have my dander up on politics and gender politics,” continues Lithgow. “I’m full of rage. But I’m in the empathy business. Every role I play, I’m on the side of the character.”
Not that it was easy to empathize with Ailes. Lithgow started by trying to pinpoint his fears. “In every tyrant, there’s that huge well of insecurity,” he explains. He listened to a police recording of Harvey Weinstein wheedling a woman into his hotel room and was struck by how pathetic—“almost whiny”—the studio boss sounded, “like it’s his injured dignity that she’s saying no to.”
Finally, Lithgow tracked down an old mutual acquaintance who had worked with Ailes in the ’70s, when he was producing plays while serving as a Republican media consultant advising the campaigns of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The former friend described a mercurial man with “a white hot temper” who was also tremendously funny. Says Lithgow, “In the course of a three-minute conversation, Ailes could be about five different things.”
“He said no one tells the story of what wonderful company he was, what a boisterous sense of humor he had,” says Lithgow, eyebrows raised in astonishment. “There’s no denying that he had his devotees, loyalists, people who genuinely liked—if not loved—him.” With that knowledge, he treasures the scene where Ailes’ wife Beth, played by Connie Britton, gently kisses his hand to comfort the wounded CEO as the Murdoch family repossesses the empire he built. Confronting Rupert Murdoch’s athletic Australian sons Lachlan and James, as they offer him a platinum parachute to walk away from the network, Lithgow’s Ailes suddenly seems to shrink from a frightening troll into a small and bitter septuagenarian—a feat when you remember that the 6’4” Lithgow is seven inches taller than the actual man.
“The stakes are so high—as they are in Shakespeare—when there’s that much power to be wielded,” says Lithgow. “To see him drummed out and the sons take such a pleasure in it is very poignant,” he adds. “But he plays the power game, and the power game finally does turn around and crush him.”
Bombshell does feel like witnessing a building under attack, cubicles clamoring with victims, zealots and survivors, some of whom are all three at once. It’s uncertain how the people who still work in the building will react to it, though they tend to make their opinions known.
“I say bring it on,” laughs Lithgow. “Judge me by my enemies.” Besides, he’s already published his own opinions in his recent best-selling book, Dumpty: The Age of Trump in Verse, which includes a poem called “The Four Horsemen of the Foxpocalypse”. Lithgow recites a bit of the opening stanza. “Their right-wing agendas all nicely align, Dumpty, Hannity, Murdoch and Shine.”
“I’m telling a story that needs to be told,” he continues. He’s told lots of stories, of course, but when he looks over his long career, there are a few that feel especially resonant and necessary: the obtuse white seducer in David Henry Hwang’s M. Butterfly, the financially strained gay husband in Love Is Strange, and, of course, Roberta in The World According to Garp, which earned him his first Oscar nomination. “I got the most poignant letters from transgender women saying, you have no idea what it’s like to go to a movie and see a transgender woman played as something other than a serial killer or a psychotic.”
Even though his current string of ripped-from-the-headlines roles is a new shift, he’s always been political. “It was my way of expressing my principles, I guess. My politics, my biases—expressing them in terms of storytelling,” says Lithgow. “That goes for playing villains, too.”