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Onstage or onscreen, John Lithgow keeps busy

John Lithgow (seen in “The Magistrate” with the National Theatre) says that British audiences are reserved but smart. “You get the feeling you’re performing for people who go to the theater 20 times a year on average,” he said.

JOHAN PERSSON

John Lithgow (seen in “The Magistrate” with the National Theatre) says that British audiences are reserved but smart. “You get the feeling you’re performing for people who go to the theater 20 times a year on average,” he said.

Few actors manage to remain as consistently busy as John Lithgow does, whether onstage or onscreen.

Lithgow, 67, who can currently be seen in Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40,’’ is performing at the Olivier Theatre in London in the National Theatre production of Arthur Wing Pinero’s Victorian-era farce, “The Magistrate.’’

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As part of the National Theatre Live series, “The Magistrate’’ will screen at the Coolidge Corner Theatre in Brookline Thursday at 7 p.m. and again on Feb. 4 at 7 p.m. The Globe spoke with Lithgow by phone while he was at a cafe in England.

Q. What was the appeal for you in tackling the title role of “The Magistrate,’’ before a British audience, no less?

A. Well, it certainly was the challenge of it, and the honor of being invited by the National to work with the company. I actually saw a fantastic production of it in 1969, when I was a drama student over here, starring Alastair Sim in the title role. It was a very, very vivid memory. The following year in summer stock I had the chance to direct, and I chose “The Magistrate,’’ and I even played a small role in it. Since then I’ve been in two productions of [Pinero’s] “Trelawny of the Wells.’’

Q. Do you find there to be any difference between British theater audiences and American ones, in terms of how they react, what they appreciate and don’t, what they laugh at or don’t laugh at?

A. British audiences are a little more reserved, I think, although they are very, very smart audiences. And of course there’s a tremendous theater tradition. You get the feeling you’re performing for people who go to the theater 20 times a year on average. They are innately less raucous. American audiences want to make sure they’re getting their money’s worth; they cheer, they jump to their feet.

Q. You seem to be constantly working, whether it’s onstage, on TV, or in the movies.

A. I’m a very lucky actor. I’m constantly asked. I don’t think I would work all the time if they weren’t constantly offering me jobs. I do feel as if I’m working more than is good for me. Right now, as I’m sitting here in this cafe, my back is killing me from the stress and strain of this performance [in “The Magistrate’’]. It’s hard work. But it’s irresistible. There’s no way I could pass up this chance.

Q. Can you tell me a bit about your theater activities when you were a student at Harvard? What was the most memorable production you took part in?

A. Ooh, there were lots. Those four years at Harvard, they were, no doubt about it, the most creative years of my life. I wasn’t studying theater or opera or ballet, but I did them all, in an extracurricular way. My first time singing onstage was “Utopia, Limited,’’ by Gilbert and Sullivan. I staged Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro’’ in the Leverett House dining room. I directed “The Beggar’s Opera’’ in the Adams House dining room. I played Tartuffe at the Loeb. I played King Lear. I directed many times. Anything you wanted to try, there was somebody who would let you do it.

Q. How do you adjust to the different rhythms of TV, stage, and movie rehearsal and performance?

A. They are very, very different disciplines, but I would say that in the most broad and general ways it’s a process that’s always the same. You build a performance. It’s a combination of an intellectual and emotional exercise. You just use different muscles. At the heart of it all, for me, is theater technique, because that’s where I came from. What I bring to television is the equipment I learned onstage. I’m a fairly theatrical actor, even on television. I’m fairly technical. I turn a movie crew into an audience. I’m always aware I’m performing for people, not a camera.

Q. Should every actor at least try comedy, for the discipline of it?

A. It is a great discipline. It’s a lot of fun doing comedy. Making an audience laugh is a very particular thrill. My background is Shakespeare. I did many summers doing different Shakespeare roles. He wrote “King Lear’’ but he also wrote “Comedy of Errors.’’ He wrote “Macbeth’’ but he also wrote “As You Like It.’’ Even in the tragedies, there’s a great variety of character roles. You have a different impact on the audience every night. I call myself a full-service entertainer. It’s all the same things. If you’re doing a scene of comedy or tragedy or horror, you’re still looking for the organic shape of the scene, the truth of what you’re doing. That’s what the tears come out of; that’s what the laughter comes out of.

Q. You’ve played some memorable bad guys, including the Trinity Killer on “Dexter.’’ What is it you enjoy about playing villains?

A. Well, I love overturning everybody’s expectations. That’s the fun of going from comedy to horror, that people are primed to react one way and you can jerk the rug out from under them and completely surprise them. In terms of playing villains, I never think of them as villains. I think of them as completely self-justifying people. Even the Trinity Killer. Here’s this man who has this terrible compulsion, who wishes that somebody would stop him. There was tremendous agony in his sadistic behavior. To me that’s an interesting way to approach it, as a man who doesn’t want to be the bad guy, or doesn’t see himself as a bad guy.

Q. Are some of your fans dismayed when you do play a bad guy?

A. It’s an equal number of people who say, “Oh, I loved you on ‘3rd Rock From the Sun’ to the people who say, “Oh, I loved you as Trinity.’’ I tell them, “You’re supposed to hate me in that!’’

Q. You’re presently appearing in “This Is 40.’’ What was it like working with Judd Apatow?

A. It’s a fantastic experience working for Judd. It’s so spontaneous, so improvisatory. He takes so much of what actors bring to the table. He turns on three cameras and never turns them off. You play the scripted scenes, and then he throws in other lines. He’s still yelling things for you to throw on. It can go on for 15 minutes; he never yells “Cut.’’ And from that he just winnows out what he needs. So his films are just full of comic surprises.

Q. You’ve played newspaper columnists on Broadway: a Walter Winchell-like gossip columnist in “The Sweet Smell of Success,’’ Joseph Alsop in David Auburn’s “The Columnist.’’ Why do you like playing journalists, of all things?

A. Because journalists are after the drama. The great journalist play was “The Front Page,” and I played Walter Burns in that. There’s a reason that athletes and journalists make great characters: They are in the drama business.

Q. Tom Hanks is about to make his Broadway debut playing a newspaper columnist, in “Lucky Guy.’’ Any advice for him?

A. Tom needs no advice from me.

Q. Any roles you regret taking?

A. There have been plenty of roles I’ve regretted taking, but I’m not going to tell you what they are. Chances are you haven’t seen them, either.

Interview has been edited and condensed. Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.
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