Portraying one of the most recognizable figures of the 20th century is no stroll in the English countryside — just ask John Lithgow, who underwent an amazing transformation to play Winston Churchill on Netflix’s The Crown.
Ahead of the 69th Emmy Awards (Sept. 17), EW talked to the actor, 71 — who is nominated for best supporting actor in a drama — about mouth plumpers, immersing himself in history, and having a royally good time on set with Claire Foy.
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Was there any hesitation about taking on the role of such a well-known man?
JOHN LITHGOW: It was an immediate yes, mainly because of all the elements involved: Winston Churchill, Stephen Daldry [director], Peter Morgan [creator], Netflix, and Claire Foy. I think I said yes before my agent even finished the sentence, even though I was quite astonished. I was a combination of thrilled and terrified.
At least you had tons of research to draw from.
Yes. I started doing a lot of reading and seeing as much video and audio as I could. I don’t think I’ve ever prepared for any role quite as much as this, mainly because I’m an American playing the archetypal Englishman. He’s arguably the most recognizable figure of the 20th century and I would be working with an entirely English cast. I literally was the only American actor aside from I suppose a couple of those roles in Washington, D.C. when Anthony Eden was over there, so I almost overcompensated by immersing myself so completely in the man’s history. At a certain point, I didn’t need to do anymore but it was just fascinating, I sort of became addicted to Churchill the way I’ve discovered many people are. He’s just an unfathomably interesting man, full of so many idiosyncrasies and contradictions and a great deal of depth, but a man full of insecurities. I was so fascinated by his childhood and his young years. He was really a miserably unhappy boy.
What went into your physical transformation?
I spent two days just fitting the fat suit. It extended all the way around to my back. He had a sort of fat back, Churchill. Interestingly enough, there really wasn’t that much makeup; unfortunately, I’m becoming more like Winston Churchill every year, but I did have a wig that did make me look even balder than I already am and we created these wonderful plumpers inside my mouth that swell my jowls. Those helped me speak more like Churchill. He has the most complex and inscrutable speech defect: a lisp that came out of the back of his mouth. As a matter of fact, his voice was even more extreme than mine, but there’s a limit to how theatrical you can be without seeming like you’re putting on a Churchill vaudeville act. I consider it a fairly modest performance of Churchill. In some of the material I found of him talking, you literally can’t understand what he’s saying. He spoke extremely fast for one thing. There really are two different voices — the public Churchill and the private Churchill. In the little bits of private Churchill I found, he was very loquacious and spoke very fast and was literally hard to understand.
What was it like to play such a revered but also criticized person in history?
There’s such an incredible Churchill lore because people love to tell the outrageous stories about all aspects of him: about his arrogance, about his craftiness, about his manipulation, about his drunkenness, about his wit and sense of humor. All of these things make him kaleidoscopically interesting.
It’s particularly interesting that Churchill was voted out and regarded as over the hill and yet six years later at 75, even though he was really too old to do it properly, he was elected again. That’s his story in season 1 and it’s a marvelously neglected part of English history. You think of Churchill as a war hero, not as an out-of-his-depth prime minister as an old, old man.
I was so excited by the whole process, and, of course, the bottom line was I was so incredibly well supported by the text. Peter Morgan just wrote amazing dialogue and it was very speculative. You don’t really see much of the private Winston Churchill; [Morgan] invented the private Winston Churchill and it had this amazing ring of truth.
What’s your favorite episode or scene?
Episode 9, “Assassins,” is just delicious writing. The mutual dislike and suspicion at the beginning of that relationship [between Churchill and artist Graham Sutherland] gives way to a kind of friendship. Each of them opens up to the other. They almost surprise each other and it becomes friendship and then that friendship is dashed in front of your eyes. It’s all extremely powerful stuff. It’s not history; it’s very much interpersonal emotional writing. As far as the whole story of that portrait, it’s all based on fact, there’s even video of the moment when the painting was unveiled and Churchill mocks Sutherland in front of all the members of parliament. You can look it up on YouTube and find it. It’s pretty interesting. We don’t completely imitate it, but it’s extremely authentic. It is known that Churchill had an extremely sentimental, almost maudlin side, that he cried extremely easily. It’s also known that he had a white-hot temper and you see both those sides of him in this episode and yet it’s an episode about a portrait being painted. It’s such an ingenious thing for Peter Morgan to seize on and turn into drama. There’s a wonderful moment in that episode where I slouch down on the couch very depressed in front of the painting and I look exactly like it. This was the ingenious idea of the young director Ben Caron who directed that episode.
And any scene with Claire [Foy, who plays Queen Elizabeth II]. We made each other laugh so hard that sometimes it really was a problem. People started getting a little worried.
So forget the plumpers and fat suit, the biggest challenge was trying not to laugh on set with Claire Foy?
Exactly. Both of us felt this giddy anticipation when we knew we had a scene together. It gave such a sparkle to the scene. Mischievous is the word for it.