John Lithgow is a devilish delight in the black comedy Beatriz at Dinner. Directed by Miguel Arteta (The Good Girl) and written by Mike White (Orange County, School of Rock), Beatriz at Dinner is a satire about class differences. Beatriz (Salma Hayak) is a Mexican immigrant that works as a massage therapist at a healing center. She is a Buddhist, extremely spiritual, with a deep respect for all living things. Her car breaks down at the mansion of a wealthy client (Connie Britton) and her husband. Beatriz is invited to stay for dinner instead of calling a tow truck.
The dinner is a victory lap for a billionaire real estate developer, Doug Strutt (John Lithgow). Strutt is an obnoxious tycoon with a lot of media publicity. He at first mistakes Beatriz for a maid, then proceeds to ask if she is in the country illegally. Beatriz starts drinking and gets into a verbal sparring match with Doug. She is the voice of the poor working class. He is a one percenter, a so called job creator, who sees Beatriz and her ilk as just whiners to be exploited. Their arguing hijacks the entire dinner and puts the other guests in an extremely uncomfortable situation. Just when you think it can’t get any worse between Doug and Beatriz, the story takes a hard turn into dark, unexpected territory.
John Lithgow is a master thespian, truly one of the great actors of our time. His near fifty year career spans theatre, television, and film. His eloquent persona and genteel humor has made him a favorite of mine since I was a small child. I can still remember watching Harry and the Hendersons at the movies. His portrayal of Doug Strutt in Beatriz at Dinner is the rare villain in Lithgow’s repertoire. But as in every performance, he excels and dominates the screen. He plays Strutt as a Trump-esque character, devoid of empathy, obsessed with money and power. Who is this tiny Mexican woman who dares challenge his world view? Beatriz at Dinner is truly pertinent during these divided days.
John Lithgow surpasses expectations. A towering figure, he speaks softly and gently, a professional actor in every sense. Our interview with him did uncover an interesting tidbit about the film. Amy Landecker, who plays his fourth wife, was actually the second actress in the role. She took the part after the preceding actress left because of her father’s death. A little investigative work easily uncovers who she is, but I am leaving her name out of the interview. Mr. Lithgow did not mention her name out of respect, so we will do the same. Please see our full interview with John Lithgow below:
Is there anything good about Doug Strutt? Does he have any redeeming qualities?
John Lithgow: Sure, any character you play, you’re on his side. You do have the third eye that looks at what an appalling creature he is, but you have to look at what’s good about him. I suppose it has to do with his comfort with himself. I would say he’s self satisfied not smug. He loves his life. He enjoys his power. He’s quite charming. He does have a sense of humor. He laughs a lot. He’s approachable. He’s tough. He’s not thin skinned. He can take anything you throw at him.
Do people like Doug, the 1%, have a right to complain? Are they the job creators that give the masses wealth?
John Lithgow: Of course they do, they are people as well. Doug takes about what he does and what the world needs. He absolutely believes that. The larger idea of the film is how separated we are from each other. If we are ever going to save this society and the world, there has got to be a way for us to work together. That may be more than we can ever hope to achieve, just because of human nature. It is so rare that a man like Doug and a woman like Beatriz would ever converse with each other, let alone be at a supper together. There is a gulf between segments of society. What’s gone very wrong with our politics, and I hate to bring politics…
It is pertinent though…
John Lithgow: You cannot watch the film without thinking of where we are at politically. The problem is that people are pulling farther apart, rather than make an effort to get back together. There have been remarkable moments that united this country. It makes everyone feel relieved. Then because of economic stress, political shifts, we get wrenched apart again. I think it’s cyclical. I am an optimist by nature. There are moments, the period after 9/11, the way we responded. The election of Barack Obama. There are moments where the country felt good about being American. I’m waiting for that to happen again.
Mike White is such a brilliant writer. Did the director allow any deviations from the script? Was there any improvisation here?
John Lithgow: No, it was done exactly as written. Mike is a terrific writer. One of his great skills is offhand small talk. Dialogue that doesn’t look like it was written at all. He’s just superb.
This is a tremendous cast filming a small movie in a mansion. Please talk about the process and what it was like on set?
John Lithgow: We didn’t rehearse much. We gathered together for one afternoon. We read through the script. There was a bit of talk, but it all came so naturally. Everyone understood their role. Miguel creates a remarkable atmosphere. He’s the ultimate host. He’s kind of like a first grade art teacher. (laughs) He makes you feel so happy. He encourages you to be free. He lets the actors take the lead. It’s almost as if he’s enjoying watching the movie as it’s being made. Then he’ll come up and try the slightest different colors. It’s very often for you to try and play against type or expectations. That’s why Connie Brittons character is so brilliant. A good hearted person, with the best of intentions, creates an impossible situation.
How long was the shoot?
John Lithgow: I would say twenty-five to twenty-six shooting days, more like four weeks.
Before the election?
John Lithgow: Yes, it was last September. It was an enormous house, high up in Malibu. You’ve see the gorgeous vista. That’s where we hung out. We all worked every day because it was an ensemble piece. The only day I came in late was Salma’s birthday. I missed the mariachi band that Miguel hired. (laughs) We had little presents, games, and toys, from him, every few days. He would draw wonderful little things. Congrats on week four, we like what you’re doing, he was just an adorable man.
Are directors ever intimidated by you and your body of work? Is there any trepidation given someone of your esteem notes?
John Lithgow: Well, I don’t know. I hope not. You would have to ask them, but they have no reason to have trepidation from me. I subscribe to the great George G. Scott quote, “All actors are in trouble. Directors who don’t help are a pain in the ass”. We all need help from directors. We are all equally insecure. I was nervous at the first table reading…
Really, you still get nervous after all these years…
John Lithgow: Of course (laughs), I’m as flighty as anybody. You put a lot out there. I’ve been through the process a lot. When I play a major role, it’s my instinct to create a nice atmosphere. People in the major roles dominate the tone of an entire film. To my mind, it’s much easier to work creatively when everyone’s friendly.
Doug ignores Beatriz, think’s she’s the maid, until at dinner, after she’s had a few, she decides to speak up. That’s a great scene. How was the dinner shot?
John Lithgow: It’s great isn’t it? Miguel shot a few masters then he would come in and shoot closer in. He used people’s reactions well. David Warshofsky, who plays the head of the household, number two in the money hierarchy, has that wonderful moment when she won’t shut up. She’s a little tipsy, promising everyone backrubs. You see David go, “What the fuck is going on here. How are we going to deal with her?” (laughs) It’s so subtle, the flick of his eyes, but it tells volumes.
It’s obviously a satire, but I was shocked by how dark the film is.
John Lithgow: Yes, it darkens as it goes on.
Yes, it goes to a dark place. The turn for Beatriz is very interesting. What was it like working with Salma Hayak and watching her performance?
John Lithgow: It was perfect casting. They wrote it for her. In many ways she is like Beatriz. She has a big heart. She is very smart. She’s fearless. She will go right ahead and say what she thinks, in the best possible way. It’s never offensive, because it always is so real and true. She’s great to work with. In every case we had the script. It was interesting because there was another actress that played my wife. This hasn’t come up.
Wow, really, what happened?
John Lithgow: Yes, I can’t mention her name, but she’s a wonderful actress. Her father died. She had to leave. Things were so urgent, every shooting day was so precious. They had to replace her instantly. She’d only shot a few scenes.
So it wasn’t major because the filming had just began?
John Lithgow: No, it was pretty major. Bam, in came Amy Landecker. She had worked with Jay Duplass on Transparent. She was there the next day. It was like nothing ever happened. She was fabulous, but very, very different from the previous actress.
How did that affect the dynamic?
John Lithgow: That cast was a kaleidoscope. You move on thing and the entire picture changes. It was another equally vivid picture. There was a moment we realized things were different, but this was still it. The other actors enclosed her, and just like that, we were having a slightly different dinner party. (laughs)
Beatriz at Dinner is in select theaters and VOD on June 9th. From Roadside Attractions, the film stars Salma Hayak, John Lithgow, Connie Britton, David Warshofsky, Jay Duplass, Amy Landecker, and Chloe Sevigny.