Love is Strange: John Lithgow on Gentle Men and Interstellar

Love is Strange John Lithgow

John Lithgow came to Los Angeles in June when his latest film, Love is Strange, played at the Los Angeles Film Festival. Lithgow and Alfred Molina, who also goes by Fred, play lovers displaced from their home when they can no longer afford it. While their family helps out, no one can host the two of them so they are forced to live apart and miss each other.

John Lithgow may be best known to you as the original anti-dancing reverend in Footloose, the transgender Roberta Muldoon in The World According to Garp, the dad in Harry and the Hendersons or as the villains in Cliffhanger, Santa Claus: The Movie or Shrek. Lithgow was warm and pleasant talking about all of his past and upcoming roles, and when the interview ended he said, “Great to meet you.” Me! HE said it was great to meet ME!

Love is Strange opens this weekend.

Related: Watch the New ‘Interstellar’ Trailer 

CraveOnline: Is this in some ways a more difficult kind of drama? There’s no overt conflict. It’s just an uncomfortable situation where these lovers can’t be together.

John Lithgow: It was effortless. It was not difficult at all. Just because it was such a beautifully written script. I always say, the only really hard acting, the only really hard roles are the badly written ones. This was just exquisite, and Fred was such a wonderful acting partner. The relationship was ready made. We were old friends. We’d never worked together but we had no trouble just connecting immediately. It’s just a beautiful piece of writing.

They’re such gentle characters, is that a side of men that’s rarely explored in films?

Well, I would say I can’t even think of anything where you see an old gay couple who’s been together for 40 years and have this much of a connection to each other, can you?

No, that’s new.

It’s rare enough for any couple. Movies are not that interested in old people, but what’s so tender about this and what’s important about the film is it’s so much an issue of the moment. It’s not an issue film. It’s a film about love, not about gay marriage, but it certainly applies. It’s on everybody’s mind.

The issue that spoke to me more – because I’m already for gay marriage – was the issue of being forced to listen to other people’s noise, not having your own space.

Exactly. Mauricio Zacharias who co-wrote the screenplay with Ira, that’s something that fascinates him, how loves can get disrupted when your space is invaded.

Were there more scenes to the story that didn’t make the final cut? Did Ben ever try living with Mindy?

There were substantial things that were cut from the film, but they didn’t have that much to do with Fred and me.

I loved Mindy, so maybe there’s more of Mindy on the DVD.

Yeah, that’s her entire role, but it is a fantastic part, isn’t it? That Christina Kirk is exceptional.

When I was thinking back to all the movies I’ve seen you in, I realized in a way you never know if John Lithgow is going to be the lead or a supporting character, or even just in one or two scenes. Is that by design?

Nothing is by design. No, it’s the most haphazard career you can imagine. It’s a luxury to have a choice what you want to do. Usually you’re just waiting for somebody to want you, but I’m game for anything. The thing that is most important to me is working with good people on good material. So I was delighted to play Kinsey’s dad for Bill Condon in Kinsey. I just did a terrific little part for Tommy Lee Jones in his movie The Homesman. Interstellar I play a small part. What happens particularly, I’m a character man [who tends] to be in the featured roles. You’re not often a starring role when you’re a character man, except in the theater. In the theater they come after me to play big tentpole roles. I’ll play King Lear this summer. Joe Keller in All My Sons, J.J Hunsecker in Sweet Smell of Success, two big, meaty fabulous roles and the older you get, the more they want you because there are so few old people left. But in movies, they’re not that interested in old people which is what’s unique about Love is Strange.

Christopher Nolan is so mysterious and secretive, when you do a small role in his film, do you get the whole script or just your part?

He did tell me the whole story. He didn’t give me the script but he told me the story. I was in the happy position of him persuading me to do it and he had to tell me what it was to persuade me. So I knew it.

Was it difficult to follow, another complex story like Inception?

Well, I can’t tell you a word about Interstellar.

I know, that’s why I was wondering vague things about it.

It is complex. You can certainly follow it but it’s very, very complicated. A fantastic story. I’ll tell you a wonderful fact. Do you know the great actor David Oyelowo? He’s in it in a one scene part and he flew up to Calgary to do his one scene part. I said, “Come on, David. I’ll take you out to dinner.” I had already been up there for a few weeks. He knew absolutely nothing about what he was going to do. He knew the scene which I can’t even tell you what the scene is, but it was a very simple and familiar sounding scene. He didn’t know anything that happened around it, and I said, “David, I can’t believe nobody has told you. I don’t know whether I’m allowed to, but I will tell you the story.” And I had him on the edge of his seat because I gave him a 15-minute version of the entire film. He said, “Oh, God, I had no idea I was involved in anything so great!” That’s the wonderful culture of secrecy about a project like that.

You had such a definitive role on “Dexter” in season four. Was that a game changer for you?

Well, I’ve had about 17 game changers but yeah, as far as television goes, I was virtually defined by “3rd Rock From the Sun” until “Dexter.” That just wrenched everything around. It upended everybody’s expectations. I was sort of known as the goofy, clueless alien and suddenly I was this absolutely horrific psychopath. It certainly changed things.

Is that the power of television, that you were so well known for “3rd Rock” even after all the movies you’ve done?

Yeah, the business does have a way of defining you and pigeonholing you. My way of avoiding that is just to run back to New York and do theater pretty regularly.

Did you ever get to see the Raising Cain reconstruction, putting it in the order De Palma originally intended? 

No. I didn’t know it was that reordered. The one that was reordered that I was in was Blow Out. He took my character and split it all apart so that it ran all the way through.

Fred Topel is a staff writer at CraveOnline and the man behind Best Episode Ever and The Shelf Space Awards. Follow him on Twitter at @FredTopel.