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'Dexter': John Lithgow talks about life as the Trinity Killer

December 7, 2009 |  1:06 pm
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It was hard to imagine how “Dexter” could get any creepier, but somehow, Season 4 guest star John Lithgow made it happen. Lithgow plays Arthur Mitchell, the Trinity Killer. Lithgow has played plenty of villains in his long and colorful career -- and plenty of comedic characters as well, including in several albums and productions for children. I caught up with him before the season finale of “Dexter” airs Dec. 13 on Showtime.

How was Arthur Mitchell described to you when the role came up?
I was offered the part on a Wednesday night, and Thursday morning I heard this long pitch from Clyde Phillips and John Goldwyn (Clyde is “Dexter’s" show runner, executive producer and head writer) to lure me into playing the role. They told me the story to make it as suspenseful and compelling as they possibly could. So, I heard this great round-the-fireside ghost/suspense story. As a result, I knew everything about the season, and nobody else did. The only other person who did was Michael C. Hall, and he doesn't like to be told too much ahead of time. I had this extraordinary secret for three months, and even the directors didn’t know what was coming next.

What about him was different from other villains you've played?
I've played a lot, but many of them have been fairly one note and been in a single movie. This is 12 little movies, and it's extraordinary how carefully they've calculated the gradual revelation of his character. He’s far more than one-dimensional. Even in the first episode, you see him commit this horrific murder, and it looks like pure evil, but the next time you see him, he's in that scalding shower, torturing himself with remorse. Something’s going on: there's a lot more going on here than just sadism and evil. As all these different episodes came out, you saw all these different colors: There were these huge revelations like he’s got a family, he’s a churchgoer, he’s a volunteer home builder, he's a horrible family man, he’s NOT the Trinity killer, he kills young boys. All of these things add a new facet to his character. To me, the most fascinating thing is that he's an evil man who does not want to be evil. In that sense, he's sort of a mirror image of Dexter, just a much, much more extreme case.

When do you think he's scariest?
When he's being so nice. I think by far the scariest scene of the whole 12 episodes is Thanksgiving dinner when he's being the gentle patriarch: “We always like to say what we’re thankful for,” and you just know this is not going to end well. I even chuckled when I say, “Well, nobody said they were thankful for me.”  That tension between his nice outward demeanor and whatever's boiling inside him is really disturbing.

Which were your favorite scenes that you were in? 
Thanksgiving, for sure. Also, the first 10 minutes of the next episode is a fantastic piece of writing. It follows immediately upon the end of the last: that was the scene that the whole 12 episodes were building up to. This is where Dexter and Arthur finally know who the other one is. First, Dexter was trying to figure out who Trinity was, then you're waiting for Trinity to figure out who Dexter was.

Sometimes Arthur’s so evil, it’s perversely humorous. Were any of your scenes accidentally funny? 
We laughed ourselves silly throughout the Thanksgiving episode. It was so extreme, but we knew it was going to be a classic horror scene, just the velocity of it. We go from saying grace to me on my back with Dexter on top of me about to slit my throat in 2 1/2 minutes. There's a sort of giddy rush to that. It's also a very funny show. It follows all the rules of comedy. Dexter is constantly revealing these ironic asides that are just hilarious. It's one of the things that makes it possible to have a hero who's a serial killer is that it's redeemed by comedy. ["Othello’s"] Iago also is a wonderful comic character, and he's profoundly evil.

Other than Iago, who are some of your favorite evil characters of stage or screen?
The great evil creation of the last 10 years has been Tony Soprano, and I see a lot of similarities between Dexter and Tony. Obviously, there are a lot of huge differences, but he's a captivating character. You can't get enough of Tony Soprano: Even when he was slapping a Russian prostitute on the butt or killing people in the most gruesome manner, you're still with him all the way. I think Michael C. Hall and James Gandolfini are both great, smart actors who really understood that duality, that's what made it so hypnotic.

What's more fun to play, funny or bad characters?
They're all equally fun. It's just great fun to switch gears and surprise people. This is the first major piece of work I’ve done on TV since “3rd Rock From the Sun,” and I just love the fact that it’s the exact opposite. My character on “3rd Rock” would walk on the set and people would laugh; here people recoil in horror, and I’m really not that different!

Are there any types of roles you haven't played that you'd like to?
I always said I would never play anyone short, and then came [“Shrek’s"] Lord Farquaad. There’s always something new that I hadn't thought of. I'm usually the subject of someone’s brainstorm. I get very surprised by the things people offer me, and I just get excited about the next thing I do. The next thing I’m doing is a two-character play called “Mr. and Mrs. Fitch” with Jennifer Ehle. It’s not like any character I’ve ever played before: It's like American Noël Coward, a wonderful comedy about contemporary journalism.

Who's a tougher audience: adults or children?
That's a great question! Children are a tougher audience, but they're so fantastically open and spontaneous and responsive to a berserk excess; you have to control them. They’re a thrilling audience, and that's why I continue to entertain them: I don’t have to, but it's so much fun, and it’s an enormous challenge. They're not better, but they're more entertaining -- they’re so easy to fool. I'll do something for little children in concert and walk out to sing my first song with a little derby hat on and finish and introduce the next song and somebody in the band will pull on my sleeve and remind me to take off my hat. I'll say to my kids, “Oh, I do this all the time! I forget to take my hat off. Please make sure you tell me if I do it again.” Of course, I make sure to wear sillier and sillier hats and I forget to take them off. The kids absolutely scream at me “Take off your hat!” I say, “What? I'm not that fat.” They think this is so hilarious and great, they have no idea I'm doing a number on them. They're the most trusting and stupid audience. It's just fantastic. With kids, it's total suspension of disbelief. There’s a real science to it, how to keep their attention. You lose them for one moment -- a simple thing, like make sure they can't reach your shoelaces. If they untie your shoe, that becomes the big event. It’s kind of like a lion tamer. The slightest thing can lose that huge monster, the audience. In fact, there's a real correlation to performing with adults. I think it's good for an actor to entertain children.

Is that in fact you on Twitter? What do you like about it? Whose do you enjoy reading?
I was actually told to start Twittering. I'm writing an autobiography and my publisher said this is a good way to begin building interest, even a couple of years before you get done. I don't really interact an awful lot, but I follow a couple of friends of mine. I enjoy Jim Gaffigan and Michael McKean. They’re so fun and funny: I know it's them. I don't answer anybody back, though. There is an overwhelming response to “Dexter” stuff, and so I love to feed people little bits of that. It's just a curious way of communicating with people: It’s one-way, but it's good for letting people know what I do. I went and did my one-man show in England in October and people came from all over England to see it. I have a sort of cockeyed life, but it's sort of interesting to put it out there.

Do you have time to watch TV? What do you watch?
I don’t watch much television. I’ve gotten seriously into some of the best cables series: “The Sopranos,” “Mad Men.” I'm a sports junkie, but I have to be judicious, or it will swallow all my time. That's about it. I don't watch a lot of television, but I have spasmodic periods where I'll get completely into “The Office” or “30 Rock” or something, but I'm not very loyal. I always used to love watching “3rd Rock”: That was the only show where I loved watching myself -- I used to think I was hilarious!

-- Claire Zulkey

Photo: Randy Tepper / Showtime

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