‘The Crown’: What Emmy Frontrunner John Lithgow Learned About Acting By Playing Winston Churchill

As an American taking on the role of one of Britain's most famous leaders, Lithgow came to understand the British approach to acting in a whole new way.
The Crown Season 1
"The Crown"
Robert Viglasky/Netflix

If you weren’t at John Lithgow’s 70th birthday celebration in London, you missed the chance to party with some of Britain’s most elite actors.

“My wife threw a 70th birthday party for me for about 50 people, and she and I were the only Americans,” the actor told IndieWire. “Maybe 60, 70 percent of these people were actors, but only half of them were actors from ‘The Crown.’ The others were people that I’d worked with on other projects – Jonathan Price, and Jim Broadbent, and David Suchet. They came in one after another and it was this constant moment of, ‘What are you doing here?’ They all knew each other.”

Lithgow’s legendary career includes everything from “Terms of Endearment” to “Third Rock From The Sun,” but even he’s still discovering new tricks. That camaraderie inside the British acting community was just one of the things Lithgow learned during the eight months he spent playing Prime Minister Winston Churchill in “The Crown,” Netflix’s lavishly produced drama about the early years of Queen Elizabeth II (Claire Foy).

Not only did Lithgow get an Emmy nomination for Outstanding Supporting Actor in a Drama Series (he already has five, out of 12 lifetime Emmy nods) out of “The Crown,” but he experienced something arguably even more valuable.

“I don’t think I’ve ever done a job where I’ve walked away with more great friends for life,” he said. “These English actors are just heaven. They’re so smart, and funny, and talented, but business-like about the business of acting. They’re just great craftspeople.”

The work ethic of British performers also impressed him. During his time in England, Lithgow only worked on “The Crown,” sometimes only just a day or two a week. But his U.K. colleagues? “In the course of those eight months, they did six or seven different jobs. I don’t know how they did it all, but they were in plays, they would do radio shows, they would do other films.”

Some of those actors even worked on another project about Churchill that was filming around the same time — the ITV film “Churchill’s Secret,” starring Michael Gambon as the famed leader, Romola Garai, and Lindsay Duncan. “There were two or three of our actors who were in both. Alex Jennings played the Duke of Windsor in ours and Anthony Eden in theirs.”

All that, with a “craftsperson” attitude. “They just didn’t take it seriously at all until they took it very seriously and it just made them delightful,” he said. “I was working with people who I felt were at the very top of the food chain among actors. I mean, just the greatest English actors. All of whom knew each other, you know, they’d all done four or five jobs together. It was very rare that you found an Englishman meeting another Englishman for the first time.”

The Crown Season 1

While Lithgow was an American playing one of the most famous British men of all time — one who’s been played on screen over 200 times, according to IMDB — he didn’t think that was a factor in how he approached the role.  “I think anybody playing Churchill feels like an outsider,” he said. “He’s such a one of a kind character, and I think everybody is equally intimidated by it because he’s so iconic. He’s arguably the best-known man of the 20th century.”

Still, Lithgow’s outsider status did provide a separation between him and Churchill that proved helpful. “I’ve passed on the opportunity to play a few of these iconic characters, because it just seems there is this innate conflict between the real thing and you,” he said. “To what degree can you make drama out of it? In a way, it helps me that I am so unlike Churchill. It like wrenches him out of our preconceptions of him.”

And creator Peter Morgan’s writing also made a huge difference. “I just felt so lucky to have the role. The character was so interesting, full of contradictions and different colors, and different kinds of surprising passions. The kind of role an actor just adores.

The Crown Season 1

“Bottom line, it’s only hard when it’s badly written,” he added. “At that point it becomes a paper mache performance. But if it’s beautifully written like this, when the scenes themselves have just the snap of emotional authenticity, then it’s just wonderful. The beats are all there.”

He’s understandably sad that the end of Season 1 marks the departure of Churchill from the series (Lithgow will not appear in Season 2), but it’s a function of the show’s adherence to true events. “I would’ve loved to do more, but Peter is quite right in the way he has structured these,” Lithgow said. “He sort of sees the history of Elizabeth as the history of a succession of prime ministers. I had a very good exit.”

Plus, he got a pretty cool souvenir out of it. Episode 9 of Season 1, “Assassins,” focuses on Churchill getting his portrait painted, and being displeased by the results. “It’s typical of Peter’s ingenuity, if not genius, to take such an oblique attack on Churchill’s mortality, his fear of his own loss of viability,” he said.

While the actual portrait was so big it would cover a whole wall, the show’s art department did several smaller oil studies to prepare for the final version, and gave him one. It’s now hanging in Lithgow’s office.

“The Crown” Season 1 is now streaming on Netflix. Season 2 premieres in December 2017. 

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