Life Advice from John Lithgow

What's the best advice you ever received?

My dad told me something that was, in a way, negative and cautionary. He was a very estimable producer of classical theater, and he said, "Listen to the audience, and listen to critics. It's often very hard because sometimes audiences hate you and critics pan you. But listen to them — they're the ones you truly learn from. Everybody else has an agenda."

What adventure changed your life?

I joined a summer travel camp in France after my junior year of high school. It was my first time abroad, and I can trace my enthusiasm for traveling and other cultures to that summer. It was also when I was a serious painter; I spent the whole summer painting French landscapes and town squares, and I made out with my first girlfriend.

What role most shaped your career?

There have been a few. I won a Tony Award for my Broadway debut, in 1973, in a play called The Changing Room. That was a gigantic life-changer. Ten years after that, it was The World According to Garp, and then Third Rock from the Sun about 10 years after that. Also, I would say that The Crown has been a big life-changer.

In it, you play Winston Churchill. Which historical figure do you identify with?

Shakespeare. Theater is the path for everything I've done, so he's my man. He was an actor but also a creator. If he were alive today, he would also be making movies and TV. He did everything. He wrote Hamlet, but he also wrote The Comedy of Errors, a farce. He wrote Titus Andronicus, a horror film if there ever was one.

What have you learned from dressing in drag?

Every time you're scared to do something, you should do it. Whenever I've felt that, it's been a colossal breakthrough. When I was in a Boy Scout troop at age 12 or 13, we put on a show at the end of camp. It was a cornball version of the old melodrama of the villain, the hero, and the damsel in distress, where the damsel is tied to a railroad track and the hero saves her just in time. And which role do you think I was cast in?

I remember thinking, "Oh my God, this might be a serious mistake." An Eagle Scout untied me, carried me off, and then fell on his ass. All the Scouts roared with laughter. It was like an explosion, and I remember being elated by it. I was a shy kid and an inept and clumsy Scout who didn't earn many merit badges, but, boy, that was the night I became a star.

You often play the bad guy, too. Is there a villainous side to you?

My eagerness to please sometimes gets the better of me. If you go through your life being completely truthful, everybody will hate you, and something I deeply fear is being hated. This comes from being a third child and living in 10 different places growing up. I was always arriving in a new school on the first day of school and was just innately fearful of conflict. You get very good at winning people over quickly. But that can also make you a little bit devious because you're constantly persuading people that you're utterly likable.

What's the trait you most despise in others?

Hypocrisy. I'm having a lot of trouble with contemporary politics because of this. I have a taste for horror, and right now our politics is accommodating that taste.

You've been married 35 years. Any advice?

Don't get married too young, for starters. Both my wife and I did that. Neither of our first marriages lasted because neither of us quite knew who we were at that age, in our early twenties. Wait until you're a grown-up. And marry somebody whose company you prefer to anybody else's in the world.

What have you learned about money?

Not a damn thing. And my wife is an economic historian. You would think she is very crafty with money, but as it turns out, the shoemaker's children go barefoot. Money is just a low priority for me. I'm more interested in good work than a big bank account.

How should a man handle vanity as he ages?

I'm as vain as the next person, but I've made so much fun of myself over the years, and that's very salutary as you grow older. One of my favorite moments from Third Rock was a scene in which we all ended up in a hot tub drinking martinis. Something outrageous happened, and my character was shocked by it. So I stood up to my full height out of the tub in a tiny little bright orange Speedo and yelled, "Have you no shame!" Well, I gave up shame years ago.

John Lithgow is a Tony-, Emmy-, and Golden Globe–winning actor. He stars in the movie Beatriz at Dinner, out this month.