John Lithgow Said Playing Roger Ailes Was Like ‘Finding Sympathy For the Devil’

When actors take on a particularly insidious character, the key – it seems – is to find the humanity in the part. At the very least, the audience should have a greater understanding of why the character is the way they are. With BombshellJohn Lithgow faced the challenge of playing a real-life figure as controversial as the late Fox News CEO Roger Ailes. Here’s how he did it.

John Lithgow’s most famous roles are often villainous ones

john lithgow roger ailes
John Lithgow attends a Special Screening of Liongate’s “Bombshell” at Regency Village Theatre on December 10, 2019 in Westwood, California. (Photo by Matt Winkelmeyer/Getty Images)

Lithgow has played just about every kind of role imaginable. But a lot of fans probably know him from playing villains. For instance, the actor lent his voice to Lord Farquaad in the 2001 animated hit Shrek. And he played the villainous Eric Qualen in the 1993 action film Cliffhanger opposite Sylvester Stallone.

Fans of Showtime’s Dexter might also recognize Lithgow as Arthur Mitchell, aka the Trinity Killer, from season 4 of that series. Although the actor earned three Primetime Emmy Awards for his work on the long-running sitcom 3rd Rock from the Sun, he’s proven he can go dark when a role requires it, as Bombshell does.

His ‘Bombshell’ performance posed a particular challenge

Although John Lithgow’s performance as Roger Ailes doesn’t have the most screen time, 2019’s Bombshell does center on his character. The film depicts a dramatization of the fallout when numerous women came forward with sexual harassment accusations toward Ailes. Lithgow’s challenge, he told GQ in a recent video, was to uncover why Ailes inspired such loyalty and, thusly, achieved his power.

“The challenge was sympathy for the devil, finding what it is about this human being that is the source of both his power and people’s loyalty and even affection for him. My great confederate was Connie Britton playing his wife ‘cause you believed absolutely in her love for him and her devotion and loyalty to him.”

Moreover, Lithgow reconnected with an old friend who had history with Ailes. According to the actor, Ailes once worked as a theater producer in New York. He even helped produce the first production of the prize-winning play The Hot l Baltimore. And his friend’s insights helped Lithgow wrap his head around how to capture Ailes’ essence on screen.

‘The Old Man’ pits John Lithgow against Jeff Bridges

Never one to back away from a challenge, Lithgow’s latest role sees him share the screen with Oscar winner Jeff Bridges. The two veteran actors star in the FX drama series The Old Man, which debuted in June 2022 to strong critical response and consistent ratings.

On the show, Bridges plays a former CIA operative who becomes a fugitive from the law. Lithgow stars as the FBI agent hot on his trail. Fans of The Old Man can look forward to seeing the complex dynamic between the two play out more soon, as FX already renewed it for season 2.

RELATED: ‘Dexter’: John Lithgow Didn’t Believe the Trinity Killer Was All Bad