A Q&A with John Lithgow on Drama
Q: Why did you call the book Drama?
Lithgow: The book is full of drama, both onstage and off. I’m an actor. I’m in the drama business. So in plotting the book, I decided to tell stories of my younger years and turn my own life into drama. What these stories have in common is that they were all formative moments, leading me to become the actor that I am today. Hence the subtitle: an actor’s education.
Q: Early in the book you write, “acting is nothing more than storytelling.” How do the two compare?
Lithgow: An actor is a storyteller all right, but he only plays a part. He is a single character in a larger drama, like an essential cog in a complex machine. A storyteller is in charge of the whole event – like a playwright. Where would an actor be without a play?
Q: In Drama, you admit that in your youth, you “had no intention of being an actor.” All these years later, could you imagine any other life?
Lithgow: No, I’ve long ago embraced my destiny as an actor. My great lost ambition was to be a painter, and I suppose I could have been a good one. But early on, acting won out.
Q: While it offers an inside glimpse of your life and career, Drama is also a tribute to your father. Tell us a little about the man readers will meet in the pages of the memoir. What was the most important lesson you learned from him?
Lithgow: My father was a pioneer in the American regional theater movement and remains one of the very few Americans to produce every single one of Shakespeare’s plays. He was a delightful, creative, and complicated man. He headed up our family of six, and because of his quixotic ventures, we led a gypsy-like existence while I was growing up, moving about ten times. What important lessons did I learn from him? Far more than I can list here. You could fill a book with them. And I did.
Q: What do you consider to be your biggest successes, both professionally and personally?
Lithgow: My biggest professional success? That’s a hard one. I guess the simplest answer is achieving a career where I can move easily between movies, television, and the stage, and from comedy to tragedy to horror. As for my biggest personal success, it’s my family and sporadically achieving the elusive goal of a happy life.
Q: Could you ever see yourself scaling back your stage and screen career and becoming a teacher like your father, inspiring a new generation of aspiring actors?
Lithgow: Not really. I remain too busy acting and too full of self-doubt to present myself as an expert on anything. If I aspire to anything as a teacher, it would be to teach by example.
Q: You have said that “it is far more interesting for a reader to read an actor’s backstage history of struggle, crisis, and discovery, out of the public eye, than a conventional, self-congratulatory rehashing of his ‘big moments.’” what are the lessons inherent in that “history of struggle, crisis, and discovery”?
Lithgow: We actors (and anyone else for that matter) learn much more about ourselves from failure than from success. Indeed, success in my business can be a source of egregious self-importance, self-delusion, and sometimes self-destructiveness. Succeed by all means, but remember your failures.
Q: What would you like readers to take away from reading Drama?
Lithgow: I hope that readers will find my memoir to be surprising and entertaining, and find the people and events in my life as fascinating as I find them. But I also hope that the book provokes some thought about this curious business I’m in. Why are actors driven to act? Why does everyone want to gather round and watch? What is this strange transaction between the entertainer and the entertained? And why can none of us do without it?
A Look Inside Drama
Click on the images below to open larger versions.
“Warm and generous. . . . Lithgow is relentlessly likable. . . . A brisk book, packed with funny stories. . . . A buoyant, heartwarming account of coming into one’s own.” (The New York Times Book Review)
“Anyone interested in an actor’s lifeespecially backstagewill find this book enlightening.” (USA Today)
“A memoir as finely crafted as one of Lithgow’s performances. Lithgow tells of transgressions, indiscretions, and a tabloid-worthy affair that my PR people could only have wished for. An exciting and revealing book, and what’s more, it’s about ACTING!” (Steve Martin)
“John Lithgow’s memoir is more than an insider’s view of his craft. The portrait of his father is as finely articulated as it is heartfelt, and the account of the young actor’s struggles with his too-young, too-early first marriage is both moving and candid. I loved this book.” (John Irving)
“This book has all the drama we’ve come to expect from John Lithgow, the alternately dark, tender, romantic, dangerous, deranged actor we find in Drama, which is also a family tale of the richest variety. A great read.” (Mary Karr)
“John Lithgow’s memoir is both unflinching and irresistible. It captures the long, hard road to the stage for any actor, or for virtually anyone trying to make it in New York, and shows how putting all of your hopes into the one thing you love isn’t so crazy after all.” (Gay Talese)
“Drama recounts in graceful, considered prose a life that after a few wrong turns is now happier and more well adjusted than most.”- (Charles McGrath, The New York Times)
“Lithgow rises to the occasion with courageous honesty and fairness. . . . There’s something breath-catchingly poignant in the simple, hard-won wisdom he imparts before taking his final bow: ‘Acting is pretty great. But it isn’t everything.’” (The Los Angeles Times)
“John Lithgow’s memoir, Drama, reminded me that the world is indeed all a stage and that professionals have some great ideas about how to perform on it.” (Drew Gilpin Faust, The Wall Street Journal)