Playing a historical figure is an actorly rite of passage, but lately John Lithgow seems to want to play them all. In just the last year, the former “3rd Rock From the Sun” patriarch appeared as both Bill Clinton (in the Broadway drama “Hillary and Clinton”) and Donald Trump (in a live reading of the Mueller report at Manhattan’s Riverside Church), as well as Winston Churchill on “The Crown,” and, come December, disgraced longtime Fox News chief Roger Ailes in Jay Roach’s new docudrama “Bombshell.” If you thought you saw Rudy Giuliani on “Colbert” last month, surprise! That was Lithgow too.
“It’s been a wonderful series of fascinating challenges,” Lithgow says, in a conference room at his publicist’s office in Beverly Hills. “What they all have in common is that they make me feel very engaged. It’s great to do an entertainment that feels on point, somehow connected with what’s going on now.”
“Bombshell,” which follows three women who take on the toxic male culture at America’s most popular cable network, depicts the fallout of a #MeToo scandal in a workplace where “feminist” is still a dirty word. In playing Ailes — who died in 2017, just a year after his ouster from Fox News — Lithgow the outspoken liberal brings depth to a character not only accused of multiple cases of sexual harassment, but also directly responsible for the polarized news landscape that helped bring Trump to power.
Lithgow says he can’t stand to watch Fox, and “tried to prescribe it like castor oil” while preparing for the role. Still, he relished the challenge. “Look, I’m in the business of empathy,” Lithgow says. “You try to get inside that person and answer the question, why does this person feel this way? Why is this person so driven to do this thing? Is this person remorseful that he has done this thing? All those questions are fascinating.
“One of my great assets in playing the part was Connie Britton playing my wife,” Lithgow adds, “because there was someone who was devoted to him, and refused to believe the charges against him until they were irrefutable, at which point it was a terrible crisis for her. That just shows you he was capable of being loved, and in playing any villain, that’s a very important color to have on your palette.”
Ailes is hardly the central character of “Bombshell.” (Showtime’s “The Loudest Voice” miniseries from earlier this year, with Russell Crowe playing Ailes, captures the wider sweep of his career.) Charlize Theron stars as superstar anchor Megyn Kelly, Nicole Kidman plays the ratings-starved host Gretchen Carlson, and Margot Robbie plays a fictional composite character just beginning her ascent as an on-screen talent at the network.
Theron and Kidman could draw upon thousands of hours of footage in preparing to play Kelly and Carlson, but Lithgow says it was difficult to find video of Ailes. “He didn’t go public a lot. He would never be a talking head on Sunday morning. He didn’t want people to see him. I finally found one three-second clip of him walking from a building to a car, and that’s how I knew how to walk. He wanted people to see Fox, but he didn’t want them to see him.”
Unlike with the roles of Churchill and Clinton, playing Ailes required “extreme impersonation” and meant a total physical transformation. “I went to work with Kazuhiro Tsuji, this brilliant makeup artist, and I was quite wary and skeptical. I didn’t want my face covered. I thought, ‘My God, that’s what I act with.’ I said, ‘Please just give me my eyes and my mouth.’ And I got to wear my own hair. But beyond that, we tried as far as possible to turn this face into Roger Ailes’ face.”
Replicating Ailes’ jowls and corpulent figure involved six pieces of prostheses. “I was persuaded,” Lithgow says. “The close-ups in the film are incredible. That’s not my flesh, but I felt very comfortable in it.”
Recently, Lithgow has taken a more satirical approach to Republican leadership, having just published a poetic diatribe called “Dumpty.”
At a 2017 gala for the Public Theater in New York, Lithgow sang the “Major-General’s Song” from “The Pirates of Penzance” but altered the lyrics to include Michael Flynn and several figures from the Trump-Russia story. “And it was a huge success with the audience. They roared with laughter at the rhymes.” His agent encouraged him to “mess around with poems,” and “Dumpty” is the result.
“So many of these stories just enrage me and appall me,” Lithgow says. “But the best way for me to deal with it is to turn them into an entertainment.”