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Over the Top: A Conversation with John Lithgow at the LA Film Festival

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“I’m always glad to publicly discuss a great subject – me!” was John Lithgow’s tongue-in-cheek opener at the Los Angeles Film Festival for an evening of humorous and insightful stories about movies and acting.

John Lithgow and David Anson“Over the Top: A Conversation with John Lithgow” was moderated by David Anson, Artistic Director for the Los Angeles Film Festival, and Lithgow’s college roommate at Harvard. In between showing two of Lithgow’s no-hold-barred acting romps, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai and Twilight Zone – the Movie, the two reminisced and discussed Lithgow’s turbo-powered acting style.

“My acting training came in the theatre and Buckaroo Banzai was my fourth film,” Lithgow (Third Rock from the Sun, Shrek, Terms of Endearment) recalled. “In my previous films the directors kept telling me ‘Hold it down. You’re not playing to the back of the theatre.’ That made me somewhat uncomfortable like I wasn’t using all of my equipment to give a good performance.”

“They say ‘less is more’ in film acting,” Lithgow continued, “but, I think that depends. You have to do whatever fits the character. In Buckaroo Banzai I tried to get back to a German Expressionism feel like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari or Nosferatu. In fact, director W.D. Richter was going for something much campier and moodier, too. If you watch the first two scenes, you’ll see they don’t look likeLithgow in Banzai the rest of the movie. After the studio saw them, they didn’t like them and replaced out director of photography. They were oblivious to the potential of the film.”

Anson asked Lithgow how he came up with the character of Dr. Emilio Lizardo, the human-alien hybrid in Buckaroo Banzai.

“He was two people battling inside – the alien dictator, Lord John Whorfin, and the Italian scientist,” Lithgow said. “So I channeled Mussolini. Besides, after I put on the red wig and put in those teeth, how could I act anything but crazy?”

Anson wondered whether Lithgow had help with the Italian accent. “You’ll see a credit at the end of the film for a dialog coach,” Lithgow pointed out.. “I got him that credit. He was actually a tailor in the wardrobe department who had this great Italian accent. I had him record all my lines and I studied the recording.”

Anson suggested that Lithgow’s performance in Twilight Zone – The Movie was even more uninhibited.

“Exactly. It was great working with director George Miller. Unlike other directors who kept telling me, ’less, less, hold it down’, he kept saying ‘More, more‘. With George nothing was ever enough. I remember him yelling, ’I want to see your face crack!’”

“George even created a prosthetic for my face with fake inflatable eyeballs controlled by a bladder strapped to my back. When I came face-to-face with the monster, he wanted my eyes to bulge and be as big as the monster’s. I wasn’t sure if that made it into the final cut, but now that I was able to watch it on video, I could see that the fake eyes were there for three frames.”

Anson asked if Lithgow read a lot of great scripts that he’s like to do. “You really hope and pray for good scripts,” he said, “but it’s so rare. Then sometimes, like with Shrek, I didn’t like the script or think it was very funny. They told me what Lord Farquaad would look like, but I couldn’t see it. Only when I finally saw the final version, two years later, did I realize these guys were comic geniuses.”

Anson pointed out that Farquaad was just one of a long line of villains that Lithgow had played. “Are you asking me if I like to go into dark, wicked places?” Lithgow said. Without waiting for an answer, but with a devilish simile: “Yes.”

Lithgow making a point

Anson asked Lithgow what he was happiest doing. “My taproot,” Lithgow said, “is acting on the stage. What I bring to film is a theater actors baggage – but, in a good way. I love audience and I love the chemistry, the interaction with the audience. In film you can’t tell whether a joke is working or not. Film acting is an act of faith in your director. You are providing him with the raw materials.

And that love of the audiences is bringing Lithgow back to the stage. He confided that for the past two years he’d been working on developing a one-man show, Tales from the Heart. “I can’t say yet where it’s going to play until they announce their season, but I can say that it will be here in Los Angeles for six weeks next January and February.”

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