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.