When Netflix and creator Peter Morgan approached veteran stage, film, and TV actor John Lithgow about taking on Sir Winston Churchill for their new series, The Crown, out today on Netflix, Lithgow says he felt nothing but “sheer terror.” But the story of how Queen Elizabeth II unexpectedly came to power at 25, soon after Churchill was elected prime minister for the second time at 78, proved irresistible to the actor, who’s often come close to being an EGOT winner.
“You don't say no to something like this, even though you're terrified,” Lithgow told Vulture. “The prospect of being an American playing the ultimate Englishman was very intimidating to me, especially when you consider all of the theater and film actors available in England.”
But playing Churchill in his later years as a non-British actor “shakes people of that mental image we all have of him,” Lithgow said. “What people mostly know about Churchill is that famous figure from history — his speeches. It’s fascinating to look behind that, and it’s the reason I ignored the terror and went for it.”
At a Television Critics Association panel in July, Morgan (Frost/Nixon, Rush, The Queen) credited casting director Nina Gold with the “startling and imaginative” suggestion to hire Lithgow. The producers immediately loved the idea “because it stopped us having one of our own lovies phone it in. It gave us dividends and benefits from minute one. The very first table read, everyone was like, Oh, my God! It was such a relief and a blessing.”
Ahead of The Crown's premiere, Lithgow spoke with Vulture about his physical transformation, why he's usually a "lazy" actor, and working for Netflix.
Tell me about your transformation. You looked like you gained 100 pounds, but it was a fat suit?
Yes, it was very easy to put on. I just needed someone to stand behind me and zip it up. That was basically it.
Your back also appears hunched.
Yeah, yeah, it made me hunch a little. There was a little beef back there. There were little rolls. I mean, it was a perfectly formulated fat body. I'm about 14 inches taller than he was, so I simply thought small. I turned into my version of Churchill. That fat suit was a fabulous thing. I should have kept it.
What would you do with it?
Well, next time I have to play a fat man! Although it was not just any fat suit, it was just amazing. I used to have a photo of myself standing in the fat suit. It’s the least flattering photo ever taken of me.
What about your face?
I wore little plumpers inside. They clicked onto my back teeth. There's a marvelous guy named Chris Lyons [from Fangs F/X in London] who is a great tooth genius. He does all the Tilda Swinton teeth. He did Meryl Streep's Margaret Thatcher teeth, and he made these little blobs that click onto my back teeth, inside my mouth, and help me make speak like Winston Churchill. It all comes out of the back of his mouth. It didn't feel right not to have them on. Even in long shots where you couldn't see my face, I insisted on wearing them. I just felt like Winston Churchill, you know? And I didn't feel like him if I didn't have them on. I also jammed cotton up my nose to make my nose bulbous.
Could you breathe?
No, but neither could Churchill. He had the most gummed up pharynx and sinuses, if I really spoke the way he spoke, nobody would buy it. Nor could anybody understand me. He made a noise every once in a while — ahhh — when he talked. I mean, it was so bizarre that you had to modulate it. So sticking all this stuff inside my head only helped.
How long did production last?
Eight months. Upended my whole life. My wife is a professor. She took a sabbatical and came over to live with me, so we had this kind of second honeymoon year. I didn't really work that often, you know, that's the thing about a big ensemble show, you only work about 30 percent of the time. So we just had a great year.
What did you think about working for Netflix versus the other TV you've done?
They're remarkable. It felt like an extremely classy feature film project that went on and on and on. Netflix was a great host; they were there for the table reading, took the principals all out to a very fancy, expensive dinner in London, and then disappeared. We saw them again eight months later when they gave us another wonderful party when we wrapped. That was it. And [Cindy Holland, Netflix’s vice president of original content] got up and made this speech that they have two great skills at Netflix: saying yes and disappearing. And it was so true! It was like we were just working for this great, British film company, doing high-quality work — the production values, the costuming, the production design, the wigs and makeup and authentic historical accuracy. It's just extraordinary. It's the kind of thing the Brits do so brilliantly, and you marry that with Peter's writing and the whole concept of the thing, and it’s like the classiest soap opera ever created with the highest stakes historically.
What was your favorite part of playing him?
Well, my favorite episode is the last episode I'm in, which is the ninth of the ten. It's just wonderful. It focuses on Churchill as an artist, as a painter, and an episode in his life where the houses of Parliament commissioned an 80th birthday gift of a portrait of him by a distinguished artist, Graham Sutherland. And he sits for the portrait and he gets to know and like the artist, played by Stephen Dillane, who is a fantastic actor, and then he hates hates the painting when he finally sees it. His old man's vanity is so injured and it's absolutely heartbreaking. And it's his exit from the series, really, him realizing what an old fool he is. I worked very closely with Harriet Walter, who plays Clemmy, his wife. She was magnificent in that episode and so was Stephen. That was just as good as it gets.
How does Sir Winston Churchill rank in your vast repertoire of characters?
Well, you know, whenever I do something and promote it, it tends to feel like the best experience I ever had. It will be eclipsed soon enough, but it's up there. And a lot of it has to do with so many of the other elements I just described. Living in London, working only one day in five, traveling with my wife on the continent whenever we had a little break, the most wonderful friends. I've come home from this job with more great friends than any project I've ever done.
Was there anything you learned about Churchill that really struck you?
I'm playing him as an old man. He’s a lion in winter trying to teach the Queen how to be the Queen while trying to hang on to his own power. What I found most fascinating was learning about him as a young man and how that informs him as an old man: a man full of contradictions and conflicts and desperate insecurities, a propensity for depression that he fights off by painting. All these really interesting things, you see the roots of all of them in his childhood. I didn't know any of this. I read his biography before. I've never done quite so much research. I'm a lazy actor, lazier than you would think. I don't usually do a lot of research. But this was so fascinating and I myself was so insecure about playing the part. I simply immersed myself in the history of Churchill, as much video and audio as I could find. The way I approach acting when there’s a real life character, it’s sort of like a Venn diagram. What I come up with is some amalgam of the two of us. The entire challenge is, in my own mind, forgetting the real Churchill at a certain point and making viewers forget the real Churchill and making him just as authentic as I can. I dived into all of the research and it was really wonderful.
This interview has been edited and condensed.