John Lithgow Pet Sematary Interview

In the Pet Sematary remake, John Lithgow takes on the role of Jud Crandall, played so famously by Fred Gwynne in the 1989 film. Gwynne leaned into the heavy Maine accent the character possesses in Stephen King‘s novel – but don’t expect Lithgow to copy that. During a Pet Sematary remake set visit, Lithgow discussed his approach to portraying Jud – a neighbor who inadvertently sets off a terrible chain of actions.

Lithgow has been in the business for nearly 50 years, appearing in films such as All the Jazz, Blow Out, Interstellar, and yes, Shrek. And that only scratches the surface. Being in his presence is slightly surreal – he’s imposingly tall, and having seen him for so many years on the screen it’s a bit jarring to then catch sight of him in person.

Decked out in a plaid shirt and dirty overalls, he greets us kindly inside one of the trailers. Adding to the surreal nature is the fact that Lithgow is sporting some rather ghastly make-up for a particularly gruesome scene he’s shooting today – his skin pale and blotchy. He’s soft spoken, his words perfectly enunciated. A warmth radiates from him. He’s grown a heavy beard for the role, and in a nice added touch, the makeup department has stained the mouth area of his beard yellow with nicotine. Just as in King’s novel, Lithgow’s Jud is a heavy smoker.

“We all talked about [the Maine accent],” Lithgow tells us, “and we even tried it different ways. I did a whole reading with a Maine accent. I personally felt that even people who are from Maine, even actors who get it absolutely right – an accent like that kind of takes you out of the story. I myself think that, especially how they have reimagined this script, which is changed from the book, to the first film, to this – it has evolved and Jud has become a more serious character, in a sense. He is a character in the pull of a kind of deep, deep regret, deep guilt, great longing, great feelings of loss, love. And because of that, I just felt he had to be a very genuine person. Listen, I have Boston roots. My father was born there, all my uncles and aunts were from there, I went to Harvard and I know Boston well. I can do an accent. But as soon as I start, that’s all you’re listening to.”

This genuine approach to the character underlines the fact that Lithgow is taking this seriously – this is no frivolous role for him. He’s inhabiting the character.

“The first you see of Jud – he’s a gruff and forbidding, almost scary character,” Lithgow continues. “You don’t know who this character’s going to be – but his first scene is with a 9-year-old little girl [Ellie Creed], who is a very unusual 9-year-old girl, but she really warms to this character and he warms to her. And suddenly, you see this kind of forbidding guy, who for some reason can enchant a child. He just, he can really connect with a child – I mean really connect, talk to her about death, talk to her about what it’s like to be a little girl moving to a new town. He’s like Mr. Rogers. He’s got a strain of Mr. Rogers in him – the last thing you expect from this character. And that’s the first you see of him – and before you see his demons. I just love the fact that all those things are going on with him.”

Lithgow is one of several people on the set that day who underlines the fact that Pet Sematary is a “serious film”, and that has me excited. Everyone is approaching this Stephen King adaptation as if they were striving to make the best movie possible, and I can’t wait to see the end results.

The actor goes on: “You know, when you make a horror film, the emotions have to be so authentic and everything that happens in the story has to really come out in various deep emotional needs from the characters. And that’s built in to the way [directors Dennis Widmyer and Kevin Kölsch] have reimagined this story. You believe these feelings and you identify strongly with these characters and their needs, their longings, their feelings of love and anger, you know, and regret. You know, you’ll find this quite a serious film when the time comes.”

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This is an excerpt from our larger Pet Sematary set visit report, which you can read herePet Sematary opens April 5, 2019.

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