For a fellow who was never burning to be a performer, John Lithgow has certainly been a singular presence on stage and screen, with credits ranging from The World According to Garp and 3rd Rock from the Sun to just-wrapped Broadway smash A Delicate Balance. As he readies to perform his admired one-man show, Stories by Heart, at the Paramount Theatre, he shares his thoughts on a life in the spotlight.
How did Stories by Heart come about?
It grew specifically out of the experience I had when my father was ill and very old, and I read him stories from the same book that he had read to me as a child. Uncle Fred Flits By by P.G. Wodehouse made him laugh, and that moment was such an extraordinary epiphany, realizing that the most basic way of reaching somebody is just by telling him a story. On one level, this show is all about sharing the history of this man who was so important to me. At the same time, it’s about my impulse to delight people, to entertain. By the end of the evening, they’ve seen just about everything I can do as an actor. In a sense, it’s a rumination on the whole nature of performance.
Your father was an actor and director who headed Princeton’s widely respected McCarter Theatre at one point. How did that influence your choice of career?
I did plenty of acting. It was the family business. But I wanted to be an artist. I wasn’t inspired to really go into it until I went off to college. Later, in New York, I pursued acting, getting nowhere, but getting directing jobs. But I hadn’t really wanted to be a director, either. By that time I wanted to be an actor!
You’ve done scads of films. Do you enjoy the process or prefer doing smaller roles so that you can get on to something else?
Coming in and having a good time and leaving—half the movies I’ve done have been like that. In the case of Interstellar, there I was working with Matthew McConaughey, who is the most delightful man you can possibly imagine. And Christopher Nolan is a terrific director. What’s not to like? But it’s not at the heart of things. The very heart of things for me is standing onstage in front of an audience.
Was there a time in your career when you said to yourself, “Okay, I’ve got this” —where the uncertainty of apprenticeship was behind you and you felt secure in your skills?
I have learned over the years that there are good uses to be made of insecurity and self-doubt. When I worked with Mike Nichols on Comedians back in the ’70s, he used improvisation in rehearsal. He taught us that improvisation is a wonderful tool because it’s as valuable when you fail at it as when you succeed. Improvisation is a way of making use of your being unsure. March 7 at 8 pm, 23 E. Galena Blvd., Aurora, 630-896-6666