When I heard that John Lithgow was cast to play Winston Churchill in the new Netflix series, “The Crown,” I had to wonder. Lithgow as the legendary Prime Minister? The short and rotund Sir Winston hardly resembles the tall, slim Lithgow. The show, written by Peter Morgan, who also wrote “The Queen,” is a serious drama about the royal family and I knew he wouldn’t entrust the role to an American actor on a whim. Then I watched John on screen. He’s properly paunchy thanks to some padding under that waistcoat. Add a dead-on English accent and a stubby cigar clenched between his teeth, and it’s an amazing transformation. I got to congratulate John personally. He towers over me and had to lean down to give me a kiss on the cheek. As he bent way over I said, “Ok, you are more than a foot taller than Churchill – How did you handle that?” His eyes twinkled and he replied, “I relied on a special acting technique. I just kept telling myself, think short!”
Jeanne Wolf: You’ve often said that your life is a lot of lucky happenstance. How much does luck play into your life and how much does all your hard work, your talent?
John Lithgow: Well, luck plays into it of course. Actors just never know what’s coming along. You depend so much on bright ideas that other people have for you because very often they think of things you would never think of yourself. I would never cast myself as Winston Churchill but when Steven Daldry cast me as Winston Churchill, I couldn’t say yes fast enough.
JW: Fears and all?
JL: I trusted him. He’s a director that I’ve always wanted to work with. I knew Peter Morgan created the series. I just figured, “Well, if you want me, I may be scared of this but I’m certainly not gonna say no.”
JW: I have to know at which point you looked in the mirror and said, “Why did I ever say yes to this? What am I doing? How do I pull this off?”
JL: You know, in my career, I am fortified by the fact that the work that I’ve done that has been most satisfying to me, I have been scared to do. It was other people’s bright ideas that kind of took me aback. I went over to England and started working with the actors of “The Crown,” none of whom seemed to have the slightest problem with an American playing Winston Churchill, much to my surprise. My confidence grew and grew and grew. I collaborated with all these wonderful people—costume and makeup and dialect coaches—in every area.
JW: Did you have a cigar coach?
JL: I needed no coaching with the cigar. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to smoke good cigars. Just like in America, you’re only allowed to smoke these kind of dreadful, vegetable cigars on set, but I made it look like I enjoyed it.
JW: Yes you did. You know, as the series begins, we don’t get a picture of him that reminds us of the statesman that we all have idealized. Even his colleagues think they’re going to take over for him. Do you think that’s part of his trick that he didn’t let everyone see what he was seeing or see what he knew?
JL: Well that’s an interesting question. I think Churchill was so completely himself to a fault. He hadn’t the slightest problem with offending people or making enemies. He had a sort of reckless courage about his own convictions. It’s what made him incredibly unpopular until he became incredibly popular and his whole career was made up of those highs and lows and it was usually his bulldog personality which accounted for both.
JW: Did he know that they were practically making fun of him and trying to get him kicked out? Did he sense that? Was he enjoying it?
JL: I think both. I think he was threatened and I think his response is to fight back. He was a man with tremendous insecurities, a propensity for depression, and a sense of constant impending defeat and yet he fought back in all sorts of ways – and fascinating ways! He fought off depression by sitting outdoors and painting landscapes. He was a man full of conflicts, contradictions, and colors.
JW: Let’s talk about the moment where he has to speak to the radio audience and tell about the king being dead and all of a sudden, he looks different and sounds different. You understand what they meant for charisma with this strange guy and you understood how he commanded the room and the nation. Can you talk about his genius and can I use the word ‘charisma?’
JL: Of course! I think that’s wonderful that you took that away because it was certainly our intention. This was a man who was destroyed with grief at the loss of the king and fear of whether or not the monarchy would survive and he knew that if he failed in that speech on the radio then he was a goner. He knew that his rivals in the Tory party were counting on him to do a bad job. He did a magnificent job and I think it is that wonderful duality – a man who appears so defeated and so frail and incompetent suddenly being so much more than competent.
There’s something about British royalty, say what you like about the whole idea of a monarchy in the modern day, it’s got some sort of mysterious importance to the whole British experience. That’s why it makes such incredible drama. You can’t quite define what that importance is but you know the stakes are very high. Can this young girl be a queen at a moment when British society is in economic rubble post war? Do they really need a queen? Half of them don’t want it anymore. Churchill believed so fervently that they have got to have a strong sovereign. He’s the only Victorian left standing and he takes it upon himself to turn her into a great queen.
–Jeanne Wolf is our West Coast Editor