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LAFF 2010: An over-the-top evening with John Lithgow

June 21, 2010 |  7:39 pm

For some actors, less is more. John Lithgow isn't one of those actors.

“I walk through life looking at people,” Lithgow said in a recent telephone conversation. “So often you see this outrageous over-the-top-behavior of real people. Whenever I see that it’s like ‘Great.’ People behave in insane ways and that is the best stuff to make drama out of when people snap.”

Besides, he adds, he comes from a theatrical background. “And I keep reverting to it,” he explains. “I almost feel like I am not doing my job if I am not using all my equipment. I think that is what has given me my reputation of being an over-the-top actor. It’s not something that troubles me in the slightest. I’m willing to go for it.”

And Tuesday at the Regal Cinemas, the Los Angeles Film Festival is presenting “Over the Top: An Evening With John Lithgow.” LAFF will be screening "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai," W.D. Richter’s wild and crazy 1984 sci-fi spoof in which Lithgow played Dr. Emilio Lizardo, an Italian scientist whose body is possessed by a maniacal alien, as well as the episode “Terror at 20,000 Feet” from the 1983 “Twilight Zone: The Movie.”

Lithgow points out that there is a subtle art to acting big. “The very first thing is that it’s very important to track the authenticity of big emotions and make sure they are completely motivated and completely called for,” he says. “There is a certain amount of trust involved. You count on working for a director who will use it properly.”

He also gives directors and editors a “fine excess” of emoting and “let them cut out what really is unwatchable” -- like in his Golden Globe award-winning turn in the past season of Showtime’s “Dexter,” as serial killer Arthur Mitchell.

“The very first scene of this 12-episode arc is an appalling scene that is so disturbing and troubling that it defines the character,” he explains. “As alarming as that scene is, they cut it in half because it was so much more appalling than that. I sort of knew they can’t possibly use all of this, but let me give it to them. Besides, it’s formed with me stark naked.”

It was “Twilight Zone” where Lithgow turned a corner in his career. George Miller (“Mad Max”) directed the sequence based on the classic TV episode starring William Shatner as an airplane passenger who becomes increasingly hysterical when he believes there’s a monster on the wing of the plane. “That was a real kind of benchmark for me,” he says. “I couldn’t do enough for him. He was giving me notes that said ‘Your face should look like it’s about to crack.’ It was wonderful for me because I was so accustomed to almost self-consciously keeping my acting small for film. My instinct is to perform to the back row of the theater, but not even that was enough for George Miller.”

-- Susan King

Photo: John Lithgow, left; Peter Weller, "The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai." Credit: 20th Century Fox

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