Any drama coach will tell you "the villain is the hero of his own story."
That being the case, one of the biggest self-penned "heroes" is undoubtably Smallville's Lionel Luthor, portrayed by the eminent John Glover. As the menacing single dad of not-yet-evil Lex, Lionel's had quite a busy time of it these past four seasons. He's lost a son, had the Luthor mansion collapse on top of him, gone blind, been sent to prison, and endured a stabbing by inmates.
Despite all the setbacks and mayhem, Lionel still maintains his focus on *winning*. That's bad news for Clark Kent, but great news for followers of the series. Lionel's fans are legion, referring to him online as The Magnificent Bastard. It's hard *not* to root for poor Lionel -- much like Wile E. Coyote, he's always got a newer, more-devious plan to outwit the Last Son of Krypton.
Last week, I spoke with John Glover about aspects of Lionel's character, and what it's like being in the midst of an iconic television series.
I don't know if you've had a chance to look at the site --
John - I didn't - - I just got back from Vancouver last night.
Okay, you must be all in after something like that.
John - No, no, no - - I'm used to it. It's what I do. I go back and forth from L.A. to Vancouver. To be Michael Rosenbaum's dad, so it's all worth it! [laughs]
Well, my site follows the history of single dads on television, and from what I can tell - I mean, I have almost 200 single dads on the site - - I think you qualify as probably the worst single dad on TV...
John - Yes, we do have a - - dysfunctional relationship, don't we?
I guess that's the most entertaining part, after all. I mean, we watch this week after week, and we think, "How bad can he be? How awful can it get?"
John - I've got to tell you: it's a *ball* to play, and Michael and I have a great time doing it. He's a terrific actor and he's got a great sense of fun -- we just finished a few scenes yesterday. His joy is to play with them, and the key is *play*.
There's a great chemistry between the two of you on screen and it does transfer over. I'm sure you rehearse a lot together. I guess over these past years you've been able to learn how to play with each other.
John - Yes, I guess that sort of happens now. But it happened like that from the beginning, I guess. On television you don't really have that much time to rehearse -- you come in and block a scene for shooting -- but it just sort of happened between us. It was quite wonderful. And the writers picked up on it after they saw it and it's still continuing.
Your role came about in the second season?
John - Well, I was hired to do the pilot. This was to set up the back story of Lex. I didn't play with Michael in the pilot - I just played with the younger actor that they hired for the day the first meteor shower happened in Smallville. I was doing a lot of theater that year, and they had me back I think seven or eight times to do some other stuff, not a lot -- and then I guess they felt it was successful, so they contracted me for the second season. Then some *real* kind of plot started happening--I think that was this season I went blind. The end of the first season, I think, it was the season the mansion fell on me. There was a big tornado - two tornadoes, I think it was, and then I woke up blind at the beginning of the second season -- *that* was when things started happening. And then the third season, you know, I had him put in the mental institution and was giving him shock treatment -- so it really is Gothic!
Definitely he's not remembered fondly at Father's Day.
John - Oh yes.
Now when you were first booked to be on Smallville -- and I know you've done other comic book things such as Batman and Robin and things like that -- was it -- how did you feel when you found out that you were going to be part of the Superman universe? I'm sure this question has been asked of you thousands of times, but I assume when you were young, you read Superman comics ...
John - You know, I didn't -- I knew very little about Superman! I used to watch the TV series when it was on -- you know, "faster than a speeding bullet" and all that, so I knew all about that, but that really didn't go far. I know nothing about the mythology. I was told that Lionel wasn't part of that, I think.
Yes, you are more of a new creation ...
John - ... which was very freeing, because I didn't know anything about it, so I was much freer to create anything. I think that freed the writers up, too. The stuff they've come up with is so wonderful, but I knew little about any of that. I did the Riddler voice on Batman, but I know nothing about the backstory, and of course in the Batman movie I've played Dr. Woodrow-- but there *is* a Dr. Woodrow, I think.
That's true - - there is one, but it seems like Lionel is just a peripheral relationship in the comic book. He's never really addressed, but you *knew* there had to have been something, or some *one*, behind Lex...
John - Yes, but that's great for me.
There is a cliche that a villain is a hero in his own story ...
John - Oh God, yes - - that's so true.
My question is: how do you see Lionel seeing himself as this hero in his story?
John - The first director to really instill that in my mind is Fred Zinnemann - - the guy who directed High Noon and The Nuns' Story--I was in a movie directed by him called Julia with Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave and I played a sort of smarmy bastard. It was one scene, but Mr. Z said to me, "this man thinks of himself as a very noble character," and it made such sense to me that he didn't think of himself as an asshole as he came off, so I remembered that and what I've tried to do is give Lionel a kind of love and pride in his name, the name of Luthor and the power that's associated with it, and to try to instill that strength in his son. The scene in the pilot -- I don't know if you'll remember -- but they are in a helicopter and the son is terrified of flying and it just infuriates Lionel that the son is afraid of things. So that's what I've tried to do as the series has grown - tried to make my son stronger. Tough love, they call it.
Now what you're doing on the acting side is fleshing out the character -- do you have a lot of interaction with the writers? Do you get much interaction with the writers?
John - We talk some, but they pay attention to what the actors put--you know, it's a very nice collaborative working relationship with the writers. I think they look at what we bring to the scenes that we play, and they see what works, and we go from there. So I guess it's a kind of a symbiotic relationship.
It seems that you discover the character as you work on him. Are there elements of Lionel that you hadn't found when you first entered the character?
John - Well, they work gradually, and I see things that work gradually. For example, I had no idea I was going to be blind, and I had no idea how that was going to happen. That kind of went on for a while, and they watched what I did with what they had written -- and that could take us to other places. They would see how a scene worked, and I would explain, "It was me, trying to make my son stronger, to give him advice, to help him." So, they heard that, and took that "in heed." The part could have gone from a smartass to asshole. I've said a few things to the writers, but they have to look at what works.
On the Internet, the nickname for your character is The Magnificent Bastard.
John - I've heard that, yeah.
Is that OK with you?
John - Oh, that's great! I love that! Because that's not what I'm playing. I mean, I understand that as an actor, but what I tried to play is someone with a great deal of regard and love--tough love -- for my son who is not what I want him to be. I'm trying to make him what I want him to be. [laughs]
Now that you're deep in Smallville -- I'm sure that you're getting recognition on the street--I'm told it's different depending on what kind of venue you're in. In films, people are more reluctant to come up to you -- in soap operas people treat you more like family, and in television, it's somewhere in between. Have you had any interesting recognition stories -- of people recognizing you as Lionel on the street?
John - I guess the most interesting was the season after I had my head shaved--so I had a nice anonymity. One guy, I was in New York City, rehearsing a play, we were at Columbus Circle and this guy kept doing a couple of takes -- and then he did a big double take and said "Oh! I know who you are!" and then he said " I've got some questions to ask you... " and he asked me two questions about the plot -- which I didn't know the answers to, because the writers keep everything secret. He said, "Okay - the most important question --are you a good guy or a bad guy? " Which I thought was astounding, because it proved what I was trying to do with the role, that he wasn't just the villain, and this guy was picking up on it! He was confused about the character, which I think was wonderful. So, that was the most important one I've ever had. But most people I meet are very polite and respectful. Maybe they are a bit intimidated by Lionel, so they behave themselves [laughs]. I've been with Allison Mack when she's been jammed by other people --but they kind of stand back from me a bit. I think that's because perhaps they know who Lionel is and who Chloe is -- because they see us as to who we are on the show.
Does it get you good tables in restaurants?
John - [laughs] Sometimes! But sometimes it gets me sneers! It depends.
You and I are of an age where the location of our bottles of Advil and Alleve are increasingly important...
John - I'm a Tylenol man myself ...
I can imagine --this show is a lot more physically demanding than shows like 7th Heaven and other WB shows -- are you finding it a little bit harder to recover over time? You really do have to go to a lot of physical work on the show.
John - I do, and they give me a *lot* of physical stuff, which I'm quite happy for--but I find I have to spend more hours at the gym because I never know when they're going to give me a scene -- I remember I had a massage once and I thought, "Oh, I need a little more time to get ready!" To get the abs in shape, you know. But I've done pretty well. I've done pretty well, taking my clothes off - - I had a shower scene once--I don't know if you remember when I got - - I'm not sure if you watch the show...
I watch it occasionally.
John - When I was in prison, I was stabbed. I was in the shower alone with a guard, because there was a death watch out for me--but somebody got in and stabbed me. So, I had a shower scene, at my age.
You seem to be in great shape, but some of the things you go through--I can imagine it would be hard getting out of bed the next morning.
John - Well, it *has* been. We've been running through the woods, there have been a couple of fencing scenes, but so far, so good, thank God, knock on wood.
Do you have a lot of green screen time? Do you spend a lot of time acting in front of nothing?
John - No, I don't think I've ever been in the green studio. We re-shot the opening credits this year and I was in there. And this year, the green screen room is the Fortress of Solitude.
I would think that would be a lot of studio time for Tom in the green screen studio.
John - But I don't do a lot of green screen--Clark does most of the time in the green screen, but I haven't done any. But maybe this season, who knows? Because I'm more of the family man.
Yes, you've got more real locations. What is your typical week like? What is your shooting schedule--do you get a table read?
John - Oh no--it's because we shoot in Vancouver, and most of the actors from L.A. It's really a 10 day shoot, sometimes an 11 day shoot, and each episode is boarded like a small film, so the actors come up as they're needed. For Brimstone, we did a table read--we did a table read the last day at lunchtime of the previous episode, and everyone would gather there--we shot Brimstone in L.A., so everyone could gather there. But for Smallville, it's just too hectic. And Tom is usually never available because he works every day, so time wise it's just too busy.
I guess you have to manage to cobble together some rehearsal time while you're at the set on the day with whomever you're with?
John - No, we usually run lines in the makeup trailer, and then we come on the set and block a scene, and then shoot it. But by Season 5, mostly everybody knows who we are--it's done very quickly, television. In a series, there's not time. TV movies, if they are budgeted wisely, will have a week or so where they work, with costume fittings and usually sitting around a table. I guess it just depends on the director. It's getting quicker and quicker as, you know, things get more expensive. The budgets get cut tighter and tighter, so there's usually not time for that.
On your hiatus, do you still get to do other things? Do you do stage work?
John - I did--I went to New York this past hiatus and I did a play called The Paris Letter by John Robin Bates with Ron Rifkin--Ron Rifkin and I were the two main guys in that. I don't know if you watch Ron Rifkin, but he's Jennifer Garner's father on Alias. Have you ever talked to him? You should talk to him.
No I haven't talked to him yet. Maybe I'll mention your name!
John - Do that, because I think Ron would be willing to do that. He's a swell guy. The year before that I went to Philadelphia, to the Philadelphia Theatre Company, and did The Goat - - the Edward Albee play. So, each hiatus, I've done a play somewhere -- which has been wonderful.
I guess it's probably more rewarding, in an immediate sense - that you get immediate feedback from the audience.
John - Yeah, I mean, it isn't -- it's like using a different set of muscles. It's like going to the gym, you know, when you work different body parts. So, that's what doing a play is like. Television requires a certain amount of focus, and energy, and concentration - - and the theatre, of course, is of a whole other kind. So they all feed each other, I find, so I've been very lucky. Of course, it's also an effort - - I go and search those plays out.
I know that you've also done work with the Fine Arts department at Towson University -- you were a graduate there?
John - Yeah, I go back whenever I can. It's kinda hard with Smallville, though, because I never know when I'm going to have a week or so. I've done it every year so far. That's quite rewarding, too - - to work with those students. It's wonderful.
It must be fun bringing them the current state of affairs, not only from a performance standpoint, but from a career standpoint -- letting them know what the market's like and in the *business* of making TV.
John - It makes it kind of real for them, because a lot of what I hear from them is, "What's the one thing I can do to *make it* in the business?" And I try to explain to them: it's to love the *work*. If you can love the work--it's a rough career and they're a lot of us out there. If you can get into the idea that you're going to have a *life*, a *career*, as opposed to being a *star*. Enjoy the work, which I guess is true in any walk of life, eh?
Is there a reason why you are such a popular villain? It seems like most of the roles you wind up in, you're the bad guy, the nemesis of the star--is it something in your personality, your skills?
John - I don't know. The first big film thing I did when this started happening, I guess, was in 52-Pickup, where the real villains started. John Frankenheimer directed it, based on a book by Elmore Leonard. It was an incredible villain role, and I seemed to understand it--I kept reading and rereading the book and I got into the guy's mind somehow. It was quite successful, but from that, it's kind of typed me. I think a lot of it might be the sense of humor. I believe in a sense of humor.
That's true, you're always " evil with a smile..."
John - There is a kind of joy-- a joie d'evil. [laughs] I was a big fan of Doris Day when I grew up, so maybe that had something to do it, around the musical times, you know, I discovered her when she was still doing musicals at Warner Brothers. She was a big influence, so perhaps I bring a bit of her to my villains.
Is it gratifying or unnerving to go to a Best Buy or a Circuit City and see just stacks and stacks of Smallville series - - your work has become part of our television history now. Someday, 20 years from now, people will be watching Smallville reruns...
John - I guess I don't realize--I don't think any of us realize that right now. I mean, we're just doing this work now. We just wonder what's going to happen to us in the next episode, and how to play this, so I don't think any of us think about that right now. It's just what we do right now. I know that I've had a long career, I've been doing this a long time--at this point in my life I'm more recognizable, known to people now, than I have been in any other thing I've ever done. I've never really done a series before. Brimstone ran on Fox--we shot 13 episodes, but they put it on Friday nights so it didn't become very popular, and then they pulled the plug because it wasn't growing fast enough--but in Smallville, I haven't ever really played a part this long.
Is it easier now or is it more difficult to have this kind of pace on a series?
John - It's all little bit of both, really. There's a certain point where you say, "How do I bring this part that I've played before fresh, make it different?" And then there's the fact that, for five years, I've been this character, so I know the guy well, now. So, there is a certain ease with it: the challenge is to make him stay who he is, but make it *new.* But the writers take care of that by making so much interesting stuff for me.
Do you mind being Lionel? I mean, the next time you are on another show or anything like that, you worry that people say, "Oh, that's Lionel Luthor!" I guess that has its advantages and disadvantages.
John - Well, we'll see when that happens! I don't think I've been on film since I started with the show, because every hiatus I've done a play--so I've not done any film or TV show since I started. I guess I'll see when it's finished! [laughs] I'll call you when that happens!
Are you doing any voice-over work now?
John - No, I haven't done any of that in quite a while.
I was asking because a surprising number of Single Dads on TV wind up being the voice of a pill or some bank.
John - Oh, you mean for a commercial. I know that Michael does a lot of animation voice overs. He's the voice of The Flash. There's a wonderful woman named Andrea Romano - she directed the Batman series -- and, the two characters--two guys' names, and one sounded like Orson Welles?
Pinky and the Brain?
John - Yes! Pinky and the Brain - I did a couple of Pinky and the Brain episodes--I played with these voice-over actors, not the commercial people but the ones that do the animation - - they are just *astounding*. Michael's an incredibly talented man. He's very musical, and his mind is working all the time--he's got one of the most active minds I'd ever seen.
It must be great working with someone like that--you're working 10-12 hour days, it's nice having folks around that you can talk with like that.
John - He just got GarageBand on his computer - so every time we came off the set yesterday--we were up for two scenes yesterday, so we spent a half a day together--so he is learning GarageBand--that's his new mental challenge--so, we'd finish a take, and he'd be back in his chair composing a song, just trying everything--it was fascinating to us to see him attack it so... fearlessly!
Are you online frequently? Do you spend much time on computers?
John - Some - I email, and do a lot of music, so I take it to my hotel--but I will check out TVDads.com!
A show that lasts more than one season is a rarity. Smallville has managed to continue to attract an audience now for five years. As John suggested, it's a difficult feat to keep the show fresh while still maintaining the continuity of the characters. With the depth and breadth of the Superman universe to draw upon, Smallville should have a few more box sets to add to the shelves at BestBuy.
Here's a message from John Glover.