John Lithgow on Playing a “Flamboyant” (Yet Reclusive) Writer in James Patterson Audio Drama ‘The Guilty’

The Hollywood Reporter
The Hollywood Reporter

Fans of John Lithgow may not get to see his face in his latest role. However, hearing his signature voice in James Patterson and Duane Swierczynski’s Audible Original drama The Guilty contributes to a highly immersive audio experience.

The actor voices the reclusive, wildly successful writer Osmond Box, performing alongside Bryce Dallas Howard , Aldis Hodge , Corey Stoll, Marsha Stephanie Blake, Stephen DeRosa, Julie White, Danny Burstein and Peter Gallagher .

“There were so many elements there that appealed to me. James Patterson for one thing — the fact that Audible had invited him to experiment with audio drama, something that I’ve been doing my whole career, off and on,” Lithgow tells The Hollywood Reporter . “The extraordinary theatrical setting of this piece, and this larger-than-life character.”

The setting he’s referring to is Broadway. It’s opening night of Box’s new play, but it soon becomes a murder scene, and New York City homicide detectives are tasked with figuring out what is real, what is part of the act, and who, exactly, they should be investigating.

Lithgow, who has performed in numerous Broadway shows, notes that the setting was a world he felt very familiar with. “And I’m plenty familiar with larger-than-life theatrical characters, probably none quite as flamboyant as Osmond Box, but plenty that have approached that.”

Lithgow also praises the “ingenuity” of the story: “It’s meta: a play within a play, but the play is highly unusual — this mad genius, Osmond Box, invites everybody to an opening night of a play, but the play hasn’t been written yet. And he introduces the actors, and the actors don’t even realize they’ve been cast yet. It’s a completely implausible premise, but it is done in such a way as to make it plausible. When you can do that, then lure people into a whodunit murder story, you really have some great storytelling.”

The audio drama was recorded at Bell Sound Studios in Hollywood, where Lithgow was essentially by himself. “It was just me and the sound engineer because of all the COVID protocols,” he explains. Though the writers (Patterson and Swierczynski) and director, Stephen Brackett, were on Zoom so they could interact with Lithgow and vice-versa.

There are multiple key areas described in the story: the dressing room in present day, the performance onstage, and the atmosphere in the audience — which Lithgow describes as “packed” and “restless” — and even the orchestra pit, where there is a pianist. The audio engineers have, as he explains, made it very clear where the listener is at any given moment.

“You hear my voice resonating as if I’m in a great big hall, and then you hear the voices of the police inspectors, dry and business-like, in the dressing room, trying to figure out what’s going on,” says Lithgow. “Every element takes you through, including the music and the pianist in the pit.”

Lithgow — whose voice is extremely familiar to those who grew up watching him onstage ( Fiddler on the Roof ), on television ( 3rd Rock From the Sun ) or film ( Interstellar ) — told THR that people sometimes overhear him and recognize his speech before they have even seen him. “That amazes me.”

The actor, who has referenced in other interviews that vocal stamina and a hoarse voice can be an issue with audio performance, shared with THR that he experienced a medical incident earlier this year after noticing in January — some months after he recorded The Guilty that he was losing his voice. In March, an otolaryngologist diagnosed Lithgow with a growth on his thyroid that was putting pressure on his vocal cords. He subsequently had a “massive” operation, where a nodule “the size of a fist” came out.

“My voice sprang back to life,” he says. “Listening to The Guilty now, I do hear the voice — curiously, it gives a kind of richness.” (Lithgow also clarifies that this incident was not related to his work on The Guilty ).

Audio acting remains, at least in terms of logistics, “the easiest,” according to Lithgow. “You get in your car, drive to the studio, stand in front of a microphone and just act. You don’t have to learn your lines, you don’t have to rehearse, you just have to entertain.”

Having entertained audiences for five decades, Lithgow has ticked many things off his bucket list such as playing King Lear and working with Martin Scorsese. And yet, there is always more to come. “I continue to be the source of people’s bright ideas that never even occurred to me,” he says, giving the example that he never would have cast himself as Winston Churchill (in The Crown ) or Roger Ailes (in Bombshell ).

“You grow old as an actor, and if you can still do it, there’s a lot less competition, for one thing, and the roles get very, very interesting and nuanced. Old men and old women have their own drama.”

The Guilty will be available exclusively on Audible on Oct. 28.

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