If you love Kendrick Lamar or swoon to Cole Porter (or dig both; and why not?), you are surely a connoisseur of rhyme.
John Lithgow gets it. The multi-award-winning actor has penned his second book of satirical poems, one that arrives fairly fast on the heels of last year’s bestseller “Dumpty,” about President Trump and his administration’s cast of characters.
If the title doesn’t give it away, “Trumpty Dumpty Wanted a Crown: Verses for a Despotic Age” (Chronicle Books) is a barbed — but also playful — bit of business. It’s an often bravura exercise in twisted, doggerel verse with an unapologetic political bent. Foils include Mitch McConnell, William Barr and Kelly Loeffler but also players who’ve exited stage right and may require jostling to recall. Lithgow’s happy jostle. It’s sure to have its partisans and, just as predictable, rile its detractors.
On the evening of Sept. 27, the actor-author-painter-singer-poet will welcome guests into his home for the first installment of Local Theater Company’s virtual series, “Living Room Local.” With this COVID-19-nudged series, the Boulder theater company aims to offer the insights of a master class in craft with the zest of a cocktail party.
Lithgow plans to read a poem or two from “Trumpty.” But nothing in his vast career is off the table. Which means he may visit – with prompting from virtual attendees and the moderator, yours truly — his Tony-winning performances (two) and the characters who lead to his Emmys (six), among them Winston Churchill of “The Crown” and Arthur Mitchell of “Dexter.” The serial killer remains so deeply, so calmly sinister, that to call up his memory still stirs dread.
His screen career — from “The World According to Garp” to “Footloose” to “Terms of Endearment” — too, is rife for reflection. Last year, Lithgow co-starred on the big screen as Fox News mastermind and sexual harasser Roger Ailes in “Bombshell,” opposite Charlize Theron’s Megyn Kelly, Nicole Kidman’s Gretchen Carlson and Margo Robbie’s fictional composite of a new hire to the Fox New empire.
The books of verse aren’t Lithgow’s first foray into writing. Children’s book author and entertainer are among his many pursuits. The “Trumpty” illustrations (by the author, natch) evoke the deftly casual nature of kids’ book art but match the scathing wit of the verses they accompany. When Lithgow hopped on the phone last week, he was in the midst of helping a couple of filmmakers turn some of the illustrations into short animated films.
“I’ve ordered myself a lightbox and I’ve been animating away,” he said, delight infusing his trademark, oh-so-precise cadence. Here’s more of what he had to say. (This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.)
Q: Animation is very labor-intensive, isn’t it?
A: It’s not labor at all. We’re all doing it for the fun of it.
Q: You wrote much, if not all, of “Trumpty Dumpty” during COVID, yes?
A: And I don’t think I could have done it had I not been sheltering in place. I was working, doing my best to write poems while I worked, but I really didn’t think I was going to make it. Because it is a big job — 32, 33 poems — trifling poems, but they’re really hard to write. The meter and the rhyme; it would keep you up nights, tossing and turning, trying to find a rhyme for God-know-who — Giuliani? Anyone who writes doggerel lives their lives trying to think of rhymes.
Q: Why do rhymes delight us so much?
A: You know, I’ve thought a lot about that. It’s because they go off like little firecrackers. You know a rhyme is coming anytime you get to the end of a stanza, but you hope the best rhyme of all comes at the end of a poem. And it’s just a surprise. “Omigod, yes, of course!” It captivates you and holds your attention in a remarkable way.
Q: During a podcast about the first collection, you mentioned how the poems were also markers of a kind of history.
A: All of my poems are about news items, which, if you follow news, you know them very well. But you don’t, know them in rhyme. Not only that, you may have forgotten about the subject of the rhyme — and boom! — it brings back the memory so vividly. And it sticks.
“Omigod, yes, Harold Bronstein (the president’s personal physician until 2015), I’d forgotten all about him.” There’s a rhyme about him and there’s a caricature of him stuck in a tub. I bet people remember him better than they would have.
Q: You said before that actors are empathy machines. How so?
A: Roger Ailes is a really good example. I did what I could to find people who loved Roger Ailes. I asked them what they loved about him. It’s essential to know that if you’re playing him, as the hero or the villain of the story. A villain is so much more interesting if you get some sort of insight into his or her compulsions, that extra dimension.
A compulsive evildoer doesn’t want to have that compulsion. He hates that compulsion, but he has to act on it. And I’ve had to go through that process quite a lot of times because I’ve played a lot of villains. I’m a character actor, and they hire character actors to play the villains. So it’s a subject I’ve thought about, and God knows talked about a lot.
Q: Who did you find to help with Ailes?
A: I tracked down an old friend. In the 1970s, he was a friend of mine and he was Roger Ailes’ producing partner back when Ailes was trying to produce theater in New York. We talked for 40 minutes and he was so upset about the conventional wisdom about Ailes. He said, “Nobody knows — or tells — about what fabulous company he was, what a great roaring sense of humor he had. He was a man who was capable of provoking a forty-second fit of laughter.”
And I thought, Wow, that’s something completely other than what I knew about Roger Ailes. And you take that to work and you just can’t wait to share it with the director and the writers.
Q: Have you learned things about power that you would not otherwise know playing historical figures like Winston Churchill and Ailes?
A: I don’t know that I learned anything from playing these parts. I’ve certainly learned a lot of information about Churchill and Ailes and these characters. What I bring to it is my own curiosity about them. And I think that makes them more interesting performances.