Lot of Americans have played roles requiring a British accent, but it was worrisome to John Lithgow when he took on the role of one of the biggest British citizens in history. He plays Winston Churchill in the new Netflix series, “The Crown.”
“I had a little list of British actors playing Americans just in case anyone challenged me on it,” Lithgow says. “My list included Thomas Jefferson (Stephen Dillane), Benjamin Franklin (Tom Wilkinson), Abraham Lincoln (Daniel Day-Lewis), Martin Luther King (David Oyelowo) and Richard Nixon (Anthony Hopkins). Turned out, I didn’t need the list because people were so welcoming.”
“The Crown” is the historical tale of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy) as a 25-year-old newlywed faced with the life-changing prospect of leading the world’s most famous monarchy while forging a relationship with Prime Minister, Sir Winston Churchill. She takes the throne with the British Empire in decline and the political world in turmoil. It also stars Matt Smith as Prince Philip, Victoria Hamilton as the Queen Mother, Jared Harris as King George VI, Vanessa Kirby as Princess Margaret and Dame Eileen Atkins as Queen Mary.
Executive producer Peter Morgan says the decision to go with an American to play Churchill came out of a little fatigue for the role in England where most major actors have portrayed him. As soon as Lithgow’s name was mentioned, everyone agreed he was the best pick.
During the first reading of the script, Lithgow showed why he has been nominated for two Oscars and won five Emmys and two Golden Globes. He is one of the most versatile actors working, showing up in everything from dark dramas like “Dexter” to offbeat fantasy films like “The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension.”
“It’s just another role,” Lithgow says. “You can’t help feeling a bit of burden, particularly with Churchill. I have played Franklin Roosevelt and it’s the same thing.”
For Lithgow, Churchill, even more than Roosevelt, is demanding because people quote his speeches in length and he is an extremely theatrical character full of idiosyncrasies. He’s seen other portrayals of Churchill where those elements are all that’s used to play the role. Lithgow gives a nod to all of that, but he plays it in moderation. He’s convinced a full blown portrayal of Churchill would come across as far too theatrical.
Lithgow describes himself as a character actor. As part of that job title, he loves to spend hours observing everyday people. The actor laughs and says after looking at the real world, he knows he will never be able to go over the top enough as an actor to be more over the top.
One thing that Lithgow was happy to embrace about Churchill was the prime minister’s indulgence in eating and smoking cigars. Lithgow loves to use props and these elements gave him a natural excuse to include them.
Lithgow also liked that he was playing a figure much heavier. Most of that was costuming an makeup, but he admits to gaining a few pounds during the filming.
“I ate a lot and I drank a lot of beer. I kept on rationalizing it by saying ‘What the hell, I’m playing Winston Churchill’,” Lithgow says with a huge laugh.
12:01 a.m. Friday, Nov. 4, Netflix