John Lithgow on ‘Pet Sematary’ and Crafting a New Take on Jud Crandall

     February 7, 2019

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One of Stephen King‘s best novels is finding new life in 2019. Paramount Pictures is resurrecting the terrors of Pet Sematary, King’s haunting novel about grief and mortality, and why you should always be careful what you wish for. Thirty years after Mary Lambert‘s original film adaptation landed in theaters, Starry Eyes duo Kevin Kölsch and Dennis Widmyer are putting their own stamp on the classic story.

Last year, I had the pleasure of joining a group of reporters on the set of Pet Sematary in Montreal, where we got to visit the Creed house, take a walk through the Pet Semetary and the deadfall, and cross off a pair of bucket list items I didn’t even know I had — observe the great John Lithgow in action during filming and sit down with the actor for an interview afterward. Neither of which disappointed.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

Taking over the role originated by Fred Gwynn, Lithgow is playing the role of Jud Crandall, the paternal neighbor to the Creed family, who strikes up a tight-knit bond with Louis (Jason Clarke) and sets him on the path toward terror when tragedy strikes. The scene we observed was a quiet one between Lithgow and Clarke; a dialogue heavy moment of male bonding over beers, set on Jud’s dilapidated porch. The heart-to-heart between Jud and Louis Creed will feel familiar in all the right ways to book fans, nailing the atmosphere of the sleepy camaraderie Louis and Jud share in their quiet night time chats. “You’d do best to keep an eye on that cat,” Jud says. “You don’t need that sweet girl visiting that cemetery again.” Ominous, especially if you’ve seen the most recent trailer.

The scene also turns toward fatherhood. There’s a mention of Jud’s wife Norma, another nod to the books, when Louis asks if Jud ever had children. “No, Norma and I never made that work. I guess we just wanted to keep ourselves to ourselves.” It’s a calm moment and the actors lean into it, playing it loose; Clarke yawns,  Lithgow keeps on puffing on one of Jud’s signature cigarettes. “I like what you’re doing with the front lawn, Jud,” Clarke quips gesturing to the tents of crews and monitors. “Thanks, I brought in a film crew to sort of tamp it down,” Lithgow replies and laughter breaks out across the set wherever people are wearing headphones.

Lithgow is just as amiable and easy going in his interview, excited to talk about his character and his craft. During the round table chat, he discussed what drew him to the role of Jud Crandall and working with the filmmakers, making the decision not to watch Fred Gwynn’s iconic performance before filming his own take on the character, the little touches he’s bringing to his interpretation of the character, and more. Check out what he had to say in the interview below.

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Image via Paramount

We were watching this scene you filmed with Jason Clarke on the porch, and you’re having this warm conversation , your character is very affacble, but as soon as he walks away there seems to be this sadness that overcomes Jud. What’s going on for for you as an actor in that scene?

JOHN LITHGOW: I have to be very coy. I’m sure you’re facing that with everybody. But to me, Jud Bares, he carries something of a great sadness and, he loves this family. He connects with this family right away. He likes them all tremendously but, he just, he carries his own sadness because of his own history. And, I even like to put in, yes that happens when he leaves, but I even like to give little hints of that in the course of the scene itself. 

[Gestures to a scar on his forearm] This is the source of great sadness and, whenever he thinks about this, he thinks about his wife. Little hints like that, little tells. But that’s it, basically.  I always like to find the other side to any scene, you know? Even any other line and give a little hint of mystery, what’s really going on? There’s one thing going on but, what’s really going on? And that’s the essence of a suspense story like this. To give little hints that all is not completely well. 

What’s it about this role that made you want take it? 

LITHGOW: Well, Well, I was captivated by the story. I hadn’t read the book when it came to me, nor had I seen the movie. The closest I came to knowing about this was being an old friend of Fred Gwynn’s. He’s the only actor I’ve ever worked with on stage who was taller than me.

I read it and it scared the hell out of me. The first shocks on the page were the first shocks in the film, and they really shocked me. I thought it would be really fun to be in this.I knew Jason was in it, who I thought was terrific and terrific for it. I love horror that is played for a completely authentic, human emotion and to me, because it’s a family story and everybody has a family, everybody connects with either a parent or child. It just seemed to have this emotional foundation to it that could really take people to a cathartic place.

The other thing is, I talked over the phone with these delightful guys and, they persuaded me. I didn’t meet them in person, I just listened to the… We all talked for 40 minutes and there were a couple of things that troubled me about the script, and I ran through them and in every case, they had already spotted the same problem and had done something about it. They said, “Oh, this is great. I can’t wait.” You know that, you’ve already met them, you know how excitable they are. They couldn’t wait or me to hear how they had addressed my questions, because they felt they had and I saw the script, and they had.

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Image via Paramount Pictures

So, those things persuade you. I had a really good feeling about that. And you know, I just knew it would be a wild and terrific ride. Or I hoped it would. 

Has it been so far? 

LITHGOW: Yeah. I’ve loved it. I loved the character, how mysterious he was. I love having a secret that gets unpacked and I love taking that long journey from the beginning of the movie to an end and I certainly love a good end. Well, Jud has a bad end, but it’s a very, very dramatic end. 

How has it been shooting out here? Because you’ve had such a background in stage work and, just walking onto these sets it’s like, “Wow! This is exactly how I imagined it, growing up and reading this.” 

LITHGOW: Yeah. It’s great. I saw my own house for the first time on the morning I came into work in it. Even though I’d been just down the road working in the other house.  The whole atmosphere is very much how I imagined it. The Pet Sematary just spectacular. Yeah, it’s fun. It’s a great atmosphere. Apparently, the other cemetery or the sound stage is just completely thrilling and very haunting. 

For your process on creating your take on Jud, we heard that you didn’t watch the original film, but did you find yourself turning more to the book or, specifically to the script to craft your take on it? 

LITHGOW: Well, that’s a good question. I immediately read the book, started reading the book. Actually, I had gone a little ways toward thinking about the character and talking with the boys about it before I read the book and they themselves have described the movie and Fred’s performance one way, and talked about the way they saw it differently. Of course, I didn’t see it but, the way they described it, I agree, it should be relayed differently. 

One interesting conversation was just about how much of an accent, you know? Stephen King writes him with a very strong accent and they described Fred as making a real meal out of the accent. As I said, I haven’t seen it yet and, I don’t think I will before I finish playing the part. To me, even a perfectly accurate accent, draws attention to itself and people are familiar enough to me, to know when I’m putting on a different accent from myself and I thought he should have a country quality to him but, the old down east accent… [adopts a strong accent] I coulda’ had a dialect coach and I coulda’ worked mighty hard on this accent! And it would have immediately taken me out of the story and I thought it was so important for people never to be taken out of this story, not for a second. 

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Image via Paramount Pictures

So, we just discarded it. I did experiment with it. We did an entire table read of the script in which I used just a little bit of it. You know, I listened to my aunts and uncles who’re all from Boston. My father was born in Boston. I went to Harvard. I know that accent. But, you can tell. If I played the part like that, there would be some… I even find it, in a really good movie like Mystic River or Spotlight. Something about that, you just know that everybody’s worked very hard to get it right and so, you’re not entirely listening to the character. Unless its a genuine person like Mark Wahlberg. He persuades me. 

Unless, you’re playing a comedy. You know? I just found it that important and they said, when they were pitching the idea of me playing the part to the studio, I presume it wasn’t very hard to persuade them but, they referred them to Interstellar. Which, in a way, I see the role in a somewhat similar way. Certainly, of a character who works from a sad core and who has a certain amount of wisdom and is capable of deluding himself, making wrong choices and I didn’t use any real accent in that too. It’s a tricky thing, choosing an accent. Play Winston Churchill and you better have it! [Laughs]

We were talking to Kevin and Dennis, and they said that you thought of the idea of rolling your own cigarettes? 

LITHGOW: Yeah. 

So, how did that idea come about for you? 

LITHGOW: It actually came through talking to the costume designer. We talked together about that. He smokes like a chimney, all through the book. You know, that’s almost a signature activity of his and I just thought that added that little bit of rural to him, you know what I mean? I needed those little indications of rural. 

My collaborators, my makeup artists and wardrobe… they’re really good. We all talked about the same issues, know what I’m talking about with you right now, authenticity is everything. It’s just got to be someone who, doesn’t seem to be all that acted. I also love the idea of making it yellow, because of my white beard, I thought it’d be great to stain the beard a little bit and stain the hands a little bit. Those little details are fun. 

It’s damn hard to roll the cigarette. I haven’t done it yet. I have to roll the cigarette next week. But, I’ve been practicing and I’ve had a coach. But also smoking, I’m not a smoker. That’s off the record. [Laughs] But, somehow or other, when you’re smoking a rolled cigarette, you automatically look more authentic. A little bit more country although, you just seen me play my first substantial smoking scene. How did I do? Did I do good? 

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Image via Paramount Pictures

Oh, yeah. It’s front porch authentic. 

LITHGOW: Yeah, right. Damn rolled cigarettes, they go out very quickly so, you have to smoke constantly. Anyway, that’s the kind of thing you discover as an actor, in your 70’s for the first time. 

How about the physicality of this role because, I actually did overhear you talking in between takes and, just the other day, you had scenes where you were crawling around. How’s that been for you? Has it been satisfying? Has it been fun?  

LITHGOW: It’s a shame you missed Friday, last Friday. That was a hell of a day. A hell of a day at work. It was incredibly hard. We got a huge amount done but, the hardest thing I did all day was, at 11pm after work, after working from 8am, and it was extremely physical. You know the story. The old man suffers at the end. It’s kind of like a turtle on his back, who has to travel about 10 feet across a living room floor. [Laughs] You’ll see.

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