Entertainment

01.20.14

John Lithgow on the Sundance Film ‘Love Is Strange’ and Gay Rights in Utah

In Ira Sachs’s splendid New York City drama Love Is Strange, John Lithgow plays one-half of an elderly gay couple that’s torn apart for reasons beyond their control.

It’s fitting that Love Is Strange is premiering in Utah.

Directed by openly gay filmmaker Ira Sachs, the movie centers on Ben (John Lithgow) and George (Alfred Molina), a couple of nearly forty years who are forced to live apart after George is fired from his job as a chorus teacher at a Catholic school for marrying his partner. While they look for an apartment—which, in New York City, is no easy task—Ben crashes at his nephew Elliot’s (Darren E. Burrows) place, much to the chagrin of his wife, Kate (Marisa Tomei), and teenage son, Joey (Charlie Tahan). Meanwhile, George is forced to sleep on the couch of Ted (Cheyenne Jackson), Ben’s other nephew and a hard-partying gay cop. It’s a tender tale about two old folks, deeply in love, who are torn apart by circumstances.

Love Is Strange made its premiere at the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. And Sachs is no stranger to Sundance. His film Forty Shades of Blue took home the Grand Jury Prize in 2005.

And Utah, meanwhile, is a battleground state in the fight for marriage equality. Back on Dec. 20, a federal district judge overturned the state’s ban on gay marriage, deeming the law unconstitutional. But, on Jan. 6, the Supreme Court ordered a halt on new marriage licenses issued for same-sex couples while that judge’s decision is appealed. Meanwhile, Utah Gov. Gary Herbert is adamant that his administration will not recognize same-sex marriages—even though Utah’s state tax board has allowed same-sex couples to file joint tax returns. 

There’s nothing wrong with accepting people’s homosexuality. It doesn’t do any damage. All it does is treat people with more respect than they’ve culturally been accustomed to.

Golden Globe and Emmy-winning actor John Lithgow, who’s long been a proponent for marriage equality, sat down with us to discuss his new film, the gay rights movement, and much more.

I was walking into the Eccles Theater yesterday to see the premiere screening of Love Is Strange and, since it doubles as a high school, these two young girls, who couldn’t have been older than 15, had set up a little table outside for the Gay Straight Alliance. It was a really nice sight.

High schoolers? That’s remarkable.

And the film is premiering here in Utah, since it’s become a battleground state in the fight for gay rights.

I think it’s a very good sign that it’s a battle in Utah. It didn’t used to be a battle because no one had the courage to come out or to declare himself or herself as gay. Now, it’s a battle, and people are standing up for their rights. It’s the nature of a revolution—there are revolutionaries, and now there are revolutionaries in Utah. I’m on the side of same-sex marriage and marriage equality. I’m not a gay man, but I grew up in a world of gay men and women in the theater and the arts. Some of my best friends—no, I would say my best friends—are gay people, so I’ve grown up in a very accepting mode with homosexuality. But I’m also a very empathic person and I understand people’s discomfort with homosexuality—with “the other”—and as a character actor, I’m accustomed to playing people with all sorts of inclinations and impulsions. I’m fascinated by the differences in people, but I’m also tolerant of them. The beautiful thing about this film is that it comes down on the side of tolerance and acceptance.

Homophobia and fear of, like you said, the “other,” really stems from a fear of the unknown. My Aunt has a lot of gay friends, and they were always around the house when I was a kid. We’d play charades and stuff in the living room. If you get to know gay people—or any person, for that matter—you’re probably not going to be intolerant.

Everybody is related to some gay person. Everybody has a gay person who’s a good friend and a lot of people don’t even realize it because, culturally, it’s a covert thing. And that’s wrong. Nobody in society should have to hide who they are, or feel like they’re second class citizens in any way. It makes me feel good that if this film is seen by a lot of people and is successful, it will nudge those people in the direction of acceptance. There’s nothing wrong with accepting people’s homosexuality. It doesn’t do any damage. All it does is treat people with more respect than they’ve culturally been accustomed to.

I was speaking to Lee Daniels who called the gay rights movement “the Civil Rights Movement of our time.” We are in Utah, and there’s another documentary here, Mitt, about Mitt Romney, who’s famously against gay rights. Why do you think there is so much resistance to gay rights on the part of mainly Republicans?

I can’t even begin to speculate. We all grow up with inherited genes and inherited sensibilities, and they run very, very deep. My parents were good ol’ FDR lefties, and my Dad was a man of the theater who produced and directed classical repertory Shakespeare festivals in Ohio. I grew up in a world with an extraordinary variety of people of various backgrounds. But a lot of people don’t grow up that way. A lot of people grow up in a very protected world, and they want to keep it that way for their reasons. But who knows how it falls out politically. I do know that young people are way ahead of older people. I remember that in 2004, I was rehearsing for a big Broadway musical in San Diego, and a same-sex marriage ban was enacted in some state, and I was asked about gay marriage, and I said, “Ten years from now, we are going to look back and wonder what the big deal was. People will be married, people will be accepted, and the gay lifestyle will not be thought of as wrong in any way. We’ll laugh at ourselves right now.” And it came to pass! I feel like I was speaking wise beyond my years. But with society, it’s like turning around a big tanker to change sensibilities that way.

It takes time.

And it takes leadership. With Obama, it took him awhile to come around, but he came around. And you can’t go back from something like that.

It was really Biden who forced his hand on gay marriage.

Biden made him! Yup. But you know it was what Obama believed long before he ever said it. He just had to behave politically. But it really moved things down the field. He’s made a big difference.

I viewed Love is Strange as more of a New York story than a gay-themed one. It seems like these two characters are torn apart because of the economy, and because the real estate market in New York City is impossible.

Yes! That’s what Marisa [Tomei] was saying. As far as she was concerned, it was a movie about New York real estate. I love New York. I lived there all through the ‘70s, and have lived in L.A. since the early ‘80s, but come back all the time to do theater. My wife is a professor at UCLA in Los Angeles, but otherwise, I’d be right back living on the Upper West Side. The theater is my power center, and I love doing it in New York. But Ira himself said it was a love letter to New York. He’s a gay man who first felt completely comfortable when he got to New York, having grown up in Memphis, Tennessee.

When did you and Alfred know that you had such special onscreen chemistry?

Alfred was set and another actor was set in the role I ended up playing—I won’t say whom, out of respect for him—but I think he made the mistake of his career not playing the part. So, when I was offered it, a splendid actor had been set to play it so certainly I was interested. And Alfred and me are old friends. We met in the early ‘90s and have lots of mutual friends, have had suppers together with mutual friends. We just really, really like each other, and I greatly admire his acting onstage and on film. He’s a very courageous actor. It was an act of faith for both of us.

And you have been doing more films of late. Is this a conscious choice?

I have been doing more films since doing a lot of theater after 3rd Rock From the Sun—playing small roles in This Is 40, The Campaign, and Rise of the Planet of the Apes. Nice films, but small roles. I was offered a small part in a big movie and a big part in this small movie, and they were shooting in the same time period. I was all set to do this one because it meant so much to me. Fortunately, my agent pulled off a magic trick and I got to do both—this, and Interstellar. I was almost ready to forego probably the biggest movie of next year. That’s how much this movie meant to me… Don’t tell Chris Nolan!

I won’t! So did you shoot this before Interstellar?

No, Interstellar came first. Ira came all the way to Calgary where we were shooting Interstellar to work with me for two days on the script—to his great credit. They couldn’t possibly be more different films. Oh, and what a wonderful guy Matthew [McConaughey] is. Just a delightful man. He really deserves everything that’s coming his way.

Are you gonna see Joseph Gordon-Levitt during the festival this year?

I already have seen him! Saw him Friday night and he threw a big party. It doesn’t surprise me that he’s such a big-time actor now. Back when he was working with us on 3rd Rock, he was surprisingly grown-up—such an adult teenage boy. Now, as an adult, he’s still a kid. It’s a wonderful thing. He’s hung on to all the fun of the 3rd Rock days.