Apr 232012
John Lithgow as Joe Alsop, ‘The Columnist.’

John Lithgow would like to make a public-service announcement:

Though he can’t see the faces of people sitting in the audience at his new play, “The Columnist,” he can make out when they’re checking their cell phones. “You can see that little blue light,” he says. “Unbelievably irritating. Tell your readers.”

The affable actor could be channeling the biting voice of his latest character, the political columnist and Cold War champion Joseph Alsop. Lithgow stars in the Broadway play, which explores the journalist’s secret homosexuality and its impact on his life and career. The David Auburn drama opens Wednesday.

After his memorable performance as the transsexual ex-football player Roberta Muldoon in the 1982 movie “The World According to Garp,” Lithgow has gone on to rack up dozens of screen credits—memorably starring in the TV sitcom “3rd Rock From the Sun” and, more recently, appearing as a serial killer in Showtime’s “Dexter.” Later this year he releases two movies: the Jay Roach political satire “The Campaign” and the Judd Apatow comedy “This Is 40.”

Lithgow’s work has delved into adult and kiddie territory: He recently wrote a memoir, “Drama: An Actor’s Education,” and next year he’ll publish his ninth children’s book, “Never Play Music Right Next to the Zoo.”

Not one to pass up a chance to perform, he launched into a rendition of a song about zoo animals playing instruments during a recent interview. “I have to entertain you,” he said. “That’s part of my rules.”

Below is an edited transcript from the non-musical parts of the conversation:

The Wall Street Journal: Did the role of Joe Alsop allow you to try something you hadn’t been able to do yet in your career?

Lithgow: I think so, it’s an extraordinary character. There were all these vivid qualities to Joe. In terms of behavior and contradictions and dualities, all the things you look for as an actor, just his way of speaking, his extravagance, his flamboyance and the fact that he was a gay man in an era where you kept that a dark secret. All these things I just found very fascinating.

What did you learn by watching old footage of Alsop?

There was this marvelous long interview with him, C-Span, which I watched and listened to. What I discovered was that Joe’s manners were so extreme, I had to modulate them, moderate them a little bit, so that he wasn’t simply too theatrical. It’s quite an unusual talent to play a very theatrical person. It was very important that he be extremely real and that I respect the man. I didn’t want to demean him with my performance or ridicule him or judge him.

After nearly two dozen Broadway shows, do you still worry about bombing in front of a live audience?

Of course I do. You work this hard on something and number one, you want so badly for people to love it. Number two, you gradually persuade yourself that it’s absolutely brilliant. Going to see a play, you think, “How could anybody think this was any good?” You see that 50 people worked on it. Or a movie. Nobody sets out to do something bad, they all set out to do something good, by the time it opens they think it is good, which is why bad reviews stung them so deeply. I’ve had that experience many times. Acting on stage is a batting average game, if you bat 300, you’re doing extremely well.

One of your “Columnist” costars is Grace Gummer. You worked with her mother, Meryl Streep, when she was roughly the same age her daughter is now. Does that make you feel old?

Oh, it’s been absolutely wonderful. I met Gracie for the first time at our first rehearsal, and the first two days I couldn’t help seeing Meryl in every single gesture she made and the quality of her laugh and her sense of humor all is exactly like Meryl. And then suddenly Meryl completely disappeared. Now I don’t see any trace of Meryl—she’s completely Grace. She’s a fantastic young actress, wonderful to be on stage with.

During your last Broadway play, “All My Sons,” Katie Holmes grabbed attention for her Broadway debut. Can star-casting become a distraction to a show?

It can be a distraction but you tend to overcome it in the course of a couple of rehearsals, as we did with Katie. She worked very, very hard. She had virtually no experience on stage before. A company becomes a tight little band, they become a family and they become protective of each other, and she was such an adorable presence. I mean, it’s easy to be cynical when you think, “This show would not happen if it weren’t for stars, this or that performer.” There are musical-comedy performers who could’ve done possibly better than Daniel Radcliffe in “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” but it wouldn’t have happened without Daniel Radcliffe. One way or another, they’ve made Broadway an extremely exciting place.

Your movie “The Campaign” comes out this summer. In it, you and Dan Aykroyd are billionaire brothers financing a North Carolina congressional race. Had you worked with Dan Aykroyd before?

We did the little epilogue to the “Twilight Zone” movie where he was the ambulance driver and I was in the back in a straitjacket, so we literally didn’t even look at each other. I don’t really remember getting to know Danny at all, but I certainly did on this one. We had a fantastic time.

You’ll also be in a Judd Apatow movie. His brand of comedy makes the “3rdRock from the Sun” sensibility seem pretty innocent by comparison.

Yeah, and kind of old-fashioned.

You improvised a lot in that film?

[Apatow] sent me the script, I was all set to go. I knew my schedule. I was terrified. I said, “I don’t know what this character is.” There was not that much there. But I had the good sense to go and visit the set a week before, so I saw him work on scenes between Paul Rudd and Leslie Mann. I saw the deal immediately and I thought, “Oh my God, this is going to be so much fun.” [Improvising] requires an incredible openness, relaxation and a quick wit, but boy, it gets great stuff, and you can see it in his movies.

For more on John Lithgow and “The Columnist,” click here.

Ellen Gamerman