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John Lithgow on Digging Into His 'Beatriz at Dinner' Role

Ethan Alter
Senior Writer, Yahoo Entertainment
John Lithgow in ‘Beatriz at Dinner’ (Photo: Courtesy Sundance Institute)

Due respect to supervillains like Ares and Ego, but the movie bad guy of summer 2017 may be Doug Strutt, the smirking Master of the Universe portrayed by John Lithgow in the new comedy, Beatriz at Dinner. Opening in theaters on June 9 following its acclaimed launch at the Sundance Film Festival in January, the film unfolds at a dinner party that pits earnest Mexican immigrant Beatriz (Salma Hayek) against cooly confident (and absurdly wealthy) businessman Doug, flinging words and ideas in a battle of competing world views. Written by Mike White and directed by Miguel Arteta — the team behind Chuck & Buck and The Good Girl — Beatriz begins on a lightly comic note that grows more resonant as the night goes on. Lithgow’s portrayal of Doug deepens in complexity as well, ultimately joining the ranks of the veteran character actor’s most indelible creations. Yahoo Movies spoke with Lithgow about playing a “cheerful” villain, why he’s often a go-to choice for playing movie psychopaths, and milestone anniversaries for three memorable movies in his past.

When I saw Beatriz at Dinner at Sundance earlier this year, it played like a great comedy of manners, combined with a timely culture clash story. What stood out to you about the film when you first read the script?
John Lithgow: Well, I thought it was a great comedy of manners, timely, and had a culture clash. I’m trying to remember everything you just said, because you’re saying all the things I should’ve thought of saying. [Laughs] No, I knew Mike because I had been in one of the films he’d written before, Orange County. So I was primed to look for all those wonderful Mike White-isms in the script. But the subject matter was very surprising. I hadn’t really paid a lot of attention to the recent things that Mike has done, and he’s gone into such interesting areas. This script really challenges you; he tees you up for comedy, but then he goes off into these really dark and uncomfortable issues. I just loved reading it, and wanted to do it immediately. And when I spoke with Miguel, I loved the way he wanted to approach the character of Doug Strutt. Doug is so comfortable and satisfied with himself and enjoys life. He thought that was a wonderful way to present the villain of the piece, because it’s so ironic, funny, and troubling at the same time.

Doug really is the most confident person at that table, and it almost makes the other people, like Beatriz, angry with him. They’re almost asking, “Why can’t you see the other side?”
Yes, he’s perfectly ready to engage and not at all defensive. He lets Beatriz have her say, engages her, reasons with her, and as a result you get this really interesting debate that seems like genuine dinnertime conversation. What’s fascinating about it is that it turns into a debate between two people from opposite ends of the economic scale, the very rich and the poor immigrant. You never see them talking to each other in movies. In fact, you don’t see them talking to each other in real life! I don’t think people even realize how unusual it is, what they’re seeing.

‘Beatriz at Dinner’ cast mates take a selfie at the premiere. (Photo: George Pimentel/Getty Images)

The movie must have been made before the election, but many have noted the connection between Doug and Donald Trump. Did you have any idea while shooting the film how the real world would inform peoples’ reactions to it?
Not to this degree of course. We filmed it in September, so the campaigns were white-hot. Nobody thought he was going to win that election and, interestingly enough, the film became much more urgent and vivid as soon as there was a Trump administration. Just think of what a lightning rod movie it is now! This would not have happened if Trump weren’t president. We are so grateful. That’s a joke, by the way. A Mike White joke. [Laughs]

‘Beatriz at Dinner’: Watch a trailer:

The film ultimately ventures to a very emotional place that I didn’t necessarily anticipate going in.
I’m still trying to figure out how to talk about the film [without spoilers], but I describe it as a movie that begins one way and ends another, and just gets more complicated and disturbing as it goes. It’s also just a terrific ensemble piece; you care deeply about Beatriz, but I think you recognize all these people and [understand] that they’re not completely unlikeable. They can be captivating, and they can certainly be successful. There are some lines Doug says in the film that you sort of recognize from the current political discourse and which are so unsettling, and yet he says them as if they’re self-evident. Like the moment where he says, “The world is dying.” That’s really challenging the audience, because he says it in a very cheerful way, like “Enjoy yourself.” And it’s very hard for us to acknowledge that he’s got a point there. Mike cares very deeply about these things. He really did set out to make a movie about certain subjects that concern him, but he approaches it in an extremely oblique and entertaining way.

The key scene for me comes when Beatriz sings to the group, and Doug in particular. Her song is meant for him, and his reaction to it is really interesting. He takes it in and seems to appreciate it, but it doesn’t change him as it might in another movie.
That’s the scene that really helped give some dimension to Doug, because I think that song really does touch him. It does reach him, and he says that. He admires the depth of her feeling. Ultimately, though, it doesn’t change his mind. It just makes him like her a little bit more. It’s a fabulous and mysterious scene, and Miguel lets the camera linger on everybody’s face, because it affects them in different ways. We only did a couple of takes, but with seven or eight different angles, because they had to get a close up of everybody. We heard that playback a lot! [Laughs]

You have a few notable cinematic anniversaries this year: Raising Cain turns 25, for example. Do you feel that movie changed peoples’ perceptions of you at all? It feels like there’s a direct line that leads from Cain to your role in Dexter.
I loved doing that film. It was the third movie I did with Brian De Palma. [Lithgow was previously in 1976’s Obsession and 1981’s Blow Out.] It’s really wonderful working with Brian; he included me very much in the process. Anytime you get a chance to play five different roles is red meat for me. I have these multiple strands to my career. It was my third De Palma film, but it was about my 10th movie villain. I’m a character man, which means I play characters very different from myself. So when they have a psychopathic villain, I’m at the top of a very short list!

‘Raising Cain’: Watch a trailer for home video release:

At the opposite end of the spectrum, there’s the family man you play in Harry and the Hendersons, which has its 30th anniversary in June.
I liked the movie enormously, but it was a very difficult movie to make. It was a very special effects heavy film with this dear man, Kevin Peter Hall, as Harry in this huge costume. There were lots of very rudimentary special effects that were incredibly hard on him and everybody. It’s so interesting because it’s such a blithe and lighthearted and sweet movie. But it was really hard to make. Comedy is very weird. I’ve just done two movie comedies in a row, Pitch Perfect 3 and Daddy’s Home 2, as well as my sitcom Trial and Error. In those cases, everyone created a wonderful atmosphere. You just have to feel free and in tune with everyone else comedically.

And finally, The World According to Garp, for which you received your first Oscar nomination, turns 35 in August.
That was an incredible experience. I worked with two of the great old-timers, Bob Fosse on All That Jazz and George Roy Hill on Garp. I’m so grateful to have been connected to that great era of moviemaking. The way George approached Garp was just wonderful and, of course, I had a dream character to play. It was my first big break in the movies, as well as Glenn Close‘s first feature film and Robin Williams‘s first serious role. And it was the first and only time I played a transgendered character. I’ve run into Jeffrey Tambor [who plays a transgender character on the TV series Transparent] and he embraced me as his ancestor. He thinks of me as the founding father or perhaps the founding mother!

‘The World According to Garp’: Watch a trailer

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