Influences: John Lithgow

Photo: Mackenzie Stroh

Your father was an itinerant theater producer. But what other stuff did you pick up from your family?
Thirties and forties jazz—there was always Benny Goodman in the household. My dad made sure to take us to see Louis Armstrong play in Dayton, Ohio. I think I was around 8, and it was only half full and yet he gave it all he had. And I remember my parents dancing to Glenn Miller in the living room. My mother’s greatest pride and joy were her children and her Charleston.

What about books?
Dad used to read to us from a big, fat book of short stories called Tellers of Tales, which was edited by W. Somerset Maugham: De Maupassant and Conan Doyle and Poe and classic short stories, “The Monkey’s Paw,” P. G. Wodehouse. The book was so old that the binding had had to be replaced with this red tape, like gaffer’s tape. My dad passed away last year, and I stayed with him for a month. And I used to read him stories at night from that very same copy. When I was a teenager, I remember the extraordinary feeling of accomplishment for completing Vanity Fair. I don’t think it was even for school. And I actually read Dostoyevsky’s The Idiot—I could never do it now. I’m a very slow and ponderous reader, but I’m dogged.

You originally wanted to be a painter—which artists did you admire?
Oh, God, so many. When I was 13 years old, I went to visit my aunt and uncle in Washington, D.C., and they just deposited me at the National Gallery. I would go from Rembrandt to Picasso—I remember that experience so vividly. I would love to paint like Wayne Thiebaud or Diebenkorn or Lucian Freud. If I had to go in and steal a painting from the Met, I would steal a Vermeer.

What inspired you to switch to acting?
By the time I got to Harvard, I had been in about twenty Shakespeare plays, since my dad produced mostly Shakespeare festivals. My very first role was when I was 21⁄2 years old; I was one of Nora’s children in A Doll’s House, with my father playing Torvald.

You also write children’s books. What were your favorites?
This fantastic set of bright-orange books called Childcraft. Terry Turner, who created 3rd Rock From the Sun—we are uncannily alike in the way we think. And we came to this revelation one day that both of us had that Childcraft set.

Your musical Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is based on a caper movie. Did you like those growing up?
I loved them. Topkapi and Rififi and The Sting. I love a good con. Probably Lavender Hill Mob is my favorite of all. Alec Guinness, who is my favorite actor, plays a mousy little bank teller who is absolutely reliable, but for all those years he devises a plan for stealing gold bullion.

What one musical blew you away?
I saw a production of Pacific Overtures in Chicago a couple of years ago, acted by ten men on a bare stage with four musicians. I had seen the original production, which I remember as gorgeous, opulent, and incomprehensible. This was simple and spare, and incredibly powerful intellectually. Out came the power of that writing, loud and clear.

Who is your artistic antithesis?
I’m very much a sort of academic theater actor—very trained. I rely on rehearsal. I’m not deeply intuitive. Sean Penn is an actor I deeply admire, but the two of us are very different. Nor would we ever be competing for the same role. Nor do I think Sean Penn would ever be starring in a Broadway musical. He’s not that frivolous, and I deeply respect frivolity.

Influences: John Lithgow