John Lithgow on How His Character Differs from Trump in ‘Beatriz at Dinner’
In Beatriz at Dinner, it’d be easy to say that John Lithgow‘s Doug Sutter is a Donald Trump stand-in. He’s a real estate billionaire, he’s been protested by activist groups, and his overall belief about the climate is let’s have fun and make money while we can. However, calling him a Trump stand-in is a bit of a disservice to screenwriter Mike White (School of Rock, Enlightened) because making a thin-skinned, incoherent ego-maniac would be easier to do than what White and Lithgow create in Beatriz. Doug is willing to discuss things with a woman who does not share his worldview (Salma Hayek) at a dinner party—because he probably hasn’t encountered anyone in that type of setting who wasn’t already making money with him and therefore her humanist ideas are very foreign to him. He’s curious and he doesn’t bristle as much as the host of the dinner (Connie Britton) tries to protect him from bristling (because it’d be bad for business, of course, since her husband stands to make a lot of money after this dinner).
Recently, I got the chance to sit down with Lithgow to talk about White’s expert ability to write about wealthy blandness in a comical way. He, of course, talked about Trump but how far the future President was from his mind when they shot the film. But Lithgow also revealed that he himself is uncomfortable talking politics with people, long before this most recent US election.
Most happily, I also chatted with him about Brian De Palma‘s 80s films, in which Lithgow co-starred in my all-time favorite of the auteur (Blow Out). And to round up the delightfully easy conversation, we also talked a bit about Daddy’s Home 2 in which Lithgow has some quarrels with Mel Gibson and why Will Ferrell is his new Hollywood favorite.
COLLIDER: In reading about this film from Sundance, a lot of people were saying “Trump-like”, so I was expecting a lot of bluster. It’s a very easy thing to say because of his work and view of success, but Doug has a very thick skin and can handle disagreements like an adult. It seems like he wants to debate and have a conversation. How do you receive hearing that your character is merely “Tump-like” and misses Mike White’s more nuanced character?
JOHN LITHGOW: Well, it’s understandable. He’s a billionaire real estate developer. Your reflexive response is to say “oh! It’s Donald Trump!” But to me he’s more different than similar. It was best to put Trump completely out of my mind. One of the ideas that, sort of, emanates from the film is the subject of economic inequality, demonizing the other, the things that all of us are all so constantly aware of these days because the whole subject has been amped up by what’s happened politically. But, you don’t think in those terms when you’re simply playing a scene about a dinner. You behave as if you’re at a dinner. If you’re sitting at a dinner with a bunch of rich real estate moguls, there’s small talk, there’s dinner talk. Unless there’s a wildcard at the table who suddenly says “wait a minute, what are you talking about?!” and throws everybody off balance. That’s what Mike has done. And therefore, we have approached these people as not symbols of anything else, just as people.
By not making it over-the-top or even Trump-like, I think it shows how even though people think it’s an aberration, Doug is a very common type of person. There are many of them that exist.
LITHGOW: And they all club together. What’s unique about the film, I think what’s surprising people without them even realizing what it is, it’s quite unique, you can’t even think of another movie where they put together people from complete opposite ends of the socio-economic spectrum, and put them in contact and conflict with each other. Talking. Really talking.
Buñuel’s bourgeoisie films…
LITHGOW: Luis Buñuel is the only person I can think to compare it to! And nobody now knows anything about it, you know [laughs]? I’m certainly glad you do, that gives me hope. You mention him to most people and they don’t know what you’re talking about. But that’s what it is: it is putting different people together who are never seen together in the same film, and are never seen together in real life! You don’t have a member of a country club having his caddy over for supper. It just doesn’t happen. It’s Mike White’s ingenuity that he creates this wonderful character of Connie Britton. Who says, “why don’t you stay for dinner! They’ll love you!” You know [laughs]? That would be perfectly typical too. She takes this to her husband and says “what are you talking about? This is an important dinner.” You know there’s gonna be trouble. There are all sorts of wonderful images in the film! The first time that you see Doug’s strut he gets out of an Escalade, he looks over at the driveway and he sees a broken-down jalopy, and is like, “what’s this doing here?” Not only are these people never put together, their cars are never put together!
I used to live in L.A. for years, I’m actually moving back soon, but when I first started in this industry I had a beat-up truck that I would park so far away from fancy functions…
LITHGOW: Yes! We all had them! And you were embarrassed that anyone would see you pull up in one [laughs]. We all identify with this film! Everyone does, because everyone knows the feeling of feeling out of place. Socially out of place, or not knowing quite where you stand in a small social hierarchy – like a dinner party.
Something that was interesting watching it when I did, which was about two weeks ago or ten days ago or something like that, is that there is a lot of dinner talk of steamrolling through areas, “fuck the birds” and all this stuff. Watching after Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Accords, and you hear all of these businesses who are actually in favor of staying in, how do you think that Doug’s character would have responded to this debate?
LITHGOW: I don’t think it would have mattered to him one way or the other. I don’t think he would have thought about it. He would say that they can do whatever they want to do, I’ve got my business exempt. He wouldn’t have cared. He wouldn’t have thought it was a big deal! [Laughs] he’s so…
Well, in a way it’s not a big deal because people don’t understand there are no fines, it’s all voluntary…
LITHGOW: Yeah, yeah. But even beyond that, it upsets us, it certainly upset me, that news last week. And I know that in a larger sense, in an invisible sense, it impacts me personally, but tangibly, day-to-day, moment-to-moment, no. Well that’s Doug: why would you think about something that you can’t control anyways? And he has those very frightening lines at the end of the movie that he tosses off with such insouciance about what’s happening to the world. We’re all dying, so why get upset about it? That’s Mike White’s particular brand of dark irony. He’s a comedy writer writing about serious things, and to me that’s always hypnotically interesting.
I’ve been a fan of his for a long time; Enlightened is one of the best shows of the modern era.
LITHGOW: I agree.
Who would you like to debate or tell off, maybe, at a dinner party?
LITHGOW: I am such a coward when it comes to political arguments. I tend to sort of recoil rather than engage. I’m one of those people at the people that looks at it kind of like a tennis match [laughs].
You’re Chloe Sevigny’s character in this film, then.
LITHGOW: I’m Chloe or Jay Duplass, except when I’m in my element. When I sit with a bunch of theatricals, you know, I’m a great rack on tour, and I suppose I’m even capable of vehement arguments. But come to politics, I don’t know. I’m too much of a Libra. I too often see the other person’s point of view and capitulate, even though I have strong political convictions. It’s just my liability. Maybe I’m too empathetic. That’s the actor in me.
Going back to what you were saying prior, no one at this dinner thinks that they’re saying anything political. They’re just in their bubble, having a conversation. Things don’t really become political until somebody has a different viewpoint.
LITHGOW: And they’re willing to express it. And even then, everybody wants to just get under the table, they’re so mortified, except for Doug. Everyone wants to change the subject. It’s like a piece of chamber music, the different ways people respond to conflict…and Mike, that’s the deafness of his dialogue. These wonderfully bland comments that people make. Like, “It’s so wonderful to have a mentor.” [scoffs] It’s a very special brand of comedy. It’s the comedy of blandness and there is definitely blandness in wealth.
Or even how Instagram has changed small talk because we feel like we know more of what everyone’s doing, so we don’t ask questions that would lead to that information. Because it’s like “oh, I saw you went to California. I can ask how it was and I look attentive.” [laughs].
LITHGOW: This script was the best damn small talk I have ever seen in print, when I first read it And it must just pour out of him! He wrote the script in 2 weeks and delivered it to Salma on a promise.
Shifting gears, a little, I am a big Brian De Palma fan.
LITHGOW: Ah, great!
Actually, you’re in my favorite of his: Blow Out.
LITHGOW: Oh yeah, that’s correct.
I feel like I’m the resident De Palma blurb writer for lists on our website, but sometimes I have to spent extra time explaining why I don’t think we should be offended by some of his films. I’m wondering, considering gender and gender identity, how so much has changed since he made his films in the 80s does it feel difficult to go back and watch now? I love watching De Palma, but I feel like I can’t really recommend a number my favorite films of his—like Body Double, Dressed to Kill—to too many people, and to a lesser extent Blow Out too because there are so many caveats to put with it, because I know people would get upset by things that happen in it, how groups of people are treated, how lovingly deaths are filmed. I’m just wondering, with a bloated lead in, if you have any thoughts on that triggered nature when we go back and watch these very psychological and interesting films?
LITHGOW: It’s funny, I haven’t been back to see them. It’s pretty rare that I see a film that I did a long, long time ago. I remember being unsettled by Brian’s vision, for want of a better word, even when I was doing many films with him. But I really admired the fact that he went there. For example, in Blow Out his version of women getting carved up in that was very different and much more warped than even a standard slasher movie. You know, I played the Liberty Bell killer, and I murdered women with an ice pick. I [laughs hesitantly] basically drew a Liberty Bell on their torsos with an ice pick; several women, several prostitutes, as I recall, to make it look like I was a psychopathic killer—when in fact, all I was trying to do was rub somebody out, without any motivation. This was not Jack the Ripper. There was no gross statement. Just pure desire to kill and knowing it would be accepted more if there appeared to be some crazy person with a trademark etch behind it. A ghastly premise. Absolutely ghastly. And I think maybe time has moved on to the point where that kind of thing is completely unacceptable. It was appalling, then, don’t get me wrong. It was a nightmarish idea, even then. But Brian is an old friend. He told me the stories of his own life—you must know this if you know a lot about Brian—which so completely connect with his obsessions on film. And I had a real respect for that and I think he was very adventurous in the 80s and it would be hard to find funding to be that adventurous into dark areas now. To me, of all the movie directors I’ve ever worked with, he was the most—this will sound like a crazy thing to say—he was the most like a director like Ingmar Bergman, who takes his own obsessions and puts them on film.
I can definitely see that. If you had that response to the script, what was it like to work on it?
LITHGOW: Oh, I would do anything for Brian. And yes, it’s lurid, it’s psychological thriller in the mode of Hitchcock for mass entertainment. It was gleefully gory stuff. Truly horrific films, but they came out of such a need to make art that critiqued our glee at such sights. Really, it sounds pretentious, but I really had to admire Brian for that. He had the courage of his own compulsions, really.
His horror and erotic thriller films are so extremely icky that if we’re worried about misogyny and misogynistic depictions, his films are so extreme that way that it doesn’t make it look appealing, it’s perfectly ugly for something ugly that exists in the world, stares it right down and wants you to look away but we don’t. And I think that that’s why they’re still fantastic movies and deserve to be looked at in how he shoots misogyny not just dismissing as misogynistic. I was just curious about that because I re-watched a number of his films recently.
LITHGOW: I haven’t seen the documentary on Brian (De Palma) yet.
Oh, it’s great.
LITHGOW: I will catch up with that.
I have to ask about playing Will Ferrell’s dad in Daddy’s Home 2. What was that like?
LITHGOW: Fantastic! Will Ferrell is my new favorite person in the business. He’s a completely adorable man. Have you met him ever?
I have in a social setting, but not in a professional setting.
LITHGOW: Lovely, lovely man. Big, generous man with no visible sense of hierarchy or anything. Just a wonderful, adorable man. And very funny; just reflexively funny! We just had a marvelous time. All four of us, I mean Mark (Wahlberg) and Mel (Gibson), they were great too! It was a wonderful combination of odd sensibilities thrown all together to create this wonderful comedy friction.
Are you pitted against Mel Gibson in any particular way?
What’s your tactic with him?
LITHGOW: In the film? Not tactical; I’m just one of nature’s innocents. A character who is just completely friendly and good and positive and sunny, covering up some serious issues. Whereas Mel’s character is a kind of brute realist, all macho badass. The combination of the two of us was just great [laughs], as was Will and Mark.
That’s definitely a very fun cast.
LITHGOW: I think it’s going to be an absolutely delightful movie.
Beatriz at Dinner is currently playing in limited release. Read our interview with Salma Hayek about the film by clicking here.