When he took the role of this season's bad guy on the Showtime series Dexter, two-time Oscar nominee John Lithgow accepted an interesting challenge: To be as frightening as possible. As the Trinity Killer, Lithgow plays an even-more-demented serial killer than Dexter himself, and over the course of the season, he transforms from being Dexter's mentor to being his most menacing rival. Audiences are fully on board with Lithgow's performance—last week's episode topped 2.1 million viewers, a record for the series and a ten-year high for Showtime. We talked to Lithgow about what it's like to play such a monster, his nude scenes at age 64, and the highly anticipated, top-secret season finale, which airs Sunday.
You hear that appalling story of the California man who abducted a young girl, kept her for 18 years and bore children by her, and you think, “That’s insane. How can a human being behave that way?” Well, a character actor hears that and says, “It turns out I’m not over-doing it after all.”
The Daily Beast: Clyde Phillips, executive producer of Dexter, pitched you the role of Arthur Mitchell, aka the Trinity Killer. What did he say that sold you on it?
John Lithgow: It was just about the best suspense story I’ve ever been told in my life and Clyde gave me a terrific layout of how it would work. It’s so brilliantly calculated. Certain lines like “Hi, Dad.” [When we learn Christine, a reporter, is Trinity’s daughter.] And in this week’s episode when I just say, “Hello, Dexter Morgan.” [When Trinity discovers Dexter’s real identity by following him to work.] You don’t get moments like that on TV. Of course, he made me take a vow of silence. None of the cast or directors knew what was coming. So I had this curious secret all to myself.
The Daily Beast: You were very naked in the first episode of the season. People always ask women who perform nude scenes what their stipulations were. You’re 64 years old. Did you have stipulations?
Lithgow: They present you with a contract that’s sort of a permission slip, and you can either sign it or not. I don’t hesitate to do nudity as an actor if it’s done well. In fact, I did full-frontal nudity for an extended scene in my Broadway debut in The Changing Room. You have to overcome enormous self-consciousness, but nudity is about the strongest thing you can do in an acting performance. It’s the most unsettling or the most comic or the most sexual. In my case, it’s about the most horrific. And because it’s in the first five minutes of the series, you have the sense from the very beginning that this character is going to be very, very alarming. And for that reason, I knew it was justified. I wish I looked better nude, but I’m an old man and I’m overweight.
The Daily Beast: How did you get into character to be that horrific?
Lithgow: The great tension with Trinity is that his cover is being a genuinely good person. He’s a deacon of his church, a Habitat for Humanity do-gooder, a loving family man. But he’s also a tortured person. There’s something in him that absolutely compels him to repeat the ritual of his family’s deaths. Even when he’s killing people, you see this agony. It’s pure torture for him. You asked how I prepare for it, well, I think it all out and then I just act it out.
The Daily Beast: You’ve had such a diverse career. You played a transsexual in The World According to Garp, an alien passing for human in Third Rock From the Sun, Lord Farquaad in Shrek, now a serial killer. What do you look for in new roles?
Lithgow: I like to surprise people. What’s great about Dexter is that my character is so surprising moment to moment. It was surprising that I even took such a dark role, but also, in the context of the role there are larky moments. Remember when I was so excited about giving Dexter a surprise that I literally danced in the parking lot? I just love throwing in a touch like that. I look for every opportunity to mix comedy and horror and tragedy. I love catching audiences off-guard.
The Daily Beast: Dexter seems out of sorts at the end of this season. He’s out of control in a way we haven’t seen before.
Lithgow: You’re absolutely right. Trinity is such a monster that he finally makes Dexter anxious about his own identity. Until now Dexter has been so emotionless, but suddenly you see him banging the steering wheel of his car and yelling out to his imaginary father, “I am not like that man!” It’s more emotion than you’ve ever seen him express, and it’s because of the extremity of Trinity’s evil.
The Daily Beast: So Dexter is feeling human emotion for the first time. Is this Trinity’s main influence on him?
Lithgow: I think that’s accurate. He looks at Trinity’s life and says, “My god, he’s able to have it all. He’s able to live a double life. His family doesn’t even know what a monster he is.” But bit by bit he learns that Trinity is just as much a monster to his family as he is to other people, and that’s a real crisis for him. Trinity is actually a danger to his own children, and Dexter begins to fear that he’s going to be a danger to his child. These are pretty fascinating existential issues.
The Daily Beast: As serial killers go, are Dexter and Trinity realistic?
Lithgow: None of us knows what really makes a serial killer tick. However, as a character actor I’m always amazed by the extremities of human behavior. You hear that appalling story of the California man who abducted a young girl, kept her for 18 years and bore children by her, and you think, “That’s insane. How can a human being behave that way?” Well, a character actor hears that and says, “It turns out I’m not over-doing it after all.”
The Daily Beast: Is getting out of character ever a challenge?
Lithgow: No. It’s a perverse thing, but it is so much fun to do a role like this. You get giddy. You can’t sleep at night. You’re so excited about what you’ve done. It’s crazy, I know, because it’s so grizzly. And I love to watch it. I watch it and chills go up and down my spine.
The Daily Beast: Do you watch the show every Sunday night?
Lithgow: Yes, with my family. I sat with them a couple of weeks ago, and when Christine said, “Hi Dad,” they were thrown back in their seats by the surprise. And I was like, “Yes! Yes! We did it! It completely worked!” There’s this wonderful ten minutes after an episode airs when my family talks about what they think is going to happen next, and I just sit there like the Cheshire Cat with a smile on my face. They’d thought of everything, but nobody thought Christine was Trinity’s daughter.
The Daily Beast: If I were your child, I would be trying to get every bit of information out of you I could. Are they trying?
Lithgow: They try. But I throw out all these little hints and they don’t know if I’m misleading them or not. I’ve been doing it constantly for months. I would say things like, “What? Christine killed Lundy? Why would Christine kill Lundy?”
The Daily Beast: Your middle name is Arthur and your father’s name was Arthur. And now you’re playing an Arthur in a television series fraught with father issues—Dexter has just become a father and he’s trying to figure out how to be a family man. Is the name of your character a coincidence?
Lithgow: It’s interesting you mention this because I never made the connection. I don’t think [the producers] knew my dad’s name was Arthur. You’d have to ask them if they did that little bit of research. But you know, it also never occurred to me that on Third Rock From the Sun they called Jane Curtin’s character Mary and she was a college professor. I’ve got a wife named Mary who’s a college professor.
The Daily Beast: The structure of the show is that the bad guy dies at the end of the season. How do you build tension for viewers when everyone expects Trinity to die?
Lithgow: You don’t know for sure that I die at the end, do you?
The Daily Beast: No, and I don’t want you to die!
Lithgow: That’s the most interesting compliment I’ve ever received.
The Daily Beast: But seriously, the finale has been shrouded in secrecy–nondisclosure agreements have been signed, the other actors didn’t know how the season would end. Is there anything you can tell me about the final episode?
Lithgow: The title is “The Getaway.” Like everything else, they’ve calculated the title very carefully to create the most suspense and curiosity as to what’s going to happen. There have been so many twists and turns and surprises. They’ve created the feeling that absolutely anything can happen. Don’t forget, Trinity has already gotten away twice.
The Daily Beast: I heard a rumor you might be in the upcoming Smurfs movie. True?
Lithgow: I’ve been hearing that rumor for like three years. If they do want me to do it, I’m happy to do it, but nobody’s said a word to me about it. I just hear it through all these Wikipedia reports and things. Every few months when it reappears I call my agent and say, “What is all this?” And nobody has a clue. Who knows? Watch this space, I’ll probably end up as Papa Smurf.
A former editor of Men's Journal, Claire Martin has written for Outside, the New York Times, and the Los Angeles Times magazine.