Patrick Page & Frank Langella in A Man For All Seasons
I was sitting opposite Frank Langella during a note session in the second week of rehearsal of A Man For All Seasons. Langella plays Sir Thomas More. I play King Henry VIII. Doug Hughes (our brilliant and astute director) gave me an excellent note on my entrance. I don't remember his exact wording, but essentially he said, very politely, that the entrance seemed uncertain and fussy. I agreed, and said that I was having trouble because, not being a king, I don't really know how to simply "stand there and be adored." Without missing a beat, Langella said, "Shall I show you?"
He was joking, of course. Langella has a vaudevillian sense of timing and a bloodhound's nose for humor on stage and off. He's humble and self-effacing—the most generous actor I have ever worked with—but there is little doubt that he knows what it is to stand and be adored.
Later, he gently took me aside and said, "You're the king. You don't have to do anything except walk in. When a king walks in the room everyone else feels compelled to do something. Everyone else gets self-conscious. Not the king. He stands there."
He should know. In my view, Langella is our country's greatest stage actor. Strike that. He is our country's greatest actor—a distinction that will be made crystal-clear when his towering performance in Ron Howard's film of Frost/Nixon enters the national consciousness in November. Apart from Meryl Streep, I don't think we have another actor who can do what Langella can do both on stage and on screen.
My problem is, I'm the king in this play, and I'm having trouble thinking of Langella as subject to me in any way. This is new to me. I've played lots of royalty in my time—Henry V, Richards II and III, Macbeth, Hamlet, Scar and many others. I've never had trouble finding my inner monarch. But this is Frank Langella.
I am not usually cowed by celebrity. Nor even by exceptional talent. I was comfortable enough with Denzel Washington in Julius Caesar. I think I could have acted the king opposite Brando or Pacino. But I never wanted to be those guys. As a young actor, I wanted to be Langella. In his elegance, his panache, his fusion of invisible technique and depth of soul, he embodied all I thought the American Actor should be. And he was Dracula. As a boy I was obsessed with Dracula, and Langella was definitive.
Later, when I came to New York I began to have opportunities to see Langella on stage, culminating in his Tony-winning tour-de-force in Frost/Nixon last year. That performance was the most complete fusion of self and character I had ever seen on stage. He was truly living under the imaginary circumstances. My boyish obsession grew into a mature artistic admiration.
Then I met him.
From the first time I encountered him, Frank (as I have forced myself to call him) has been aware of my hero-worship problem—and has done everything he can to help me with it. One day he came up to me and said, "I was talking to a reporter today who said he thought you were a young Frank Langella." Beaming, I replied, "That's what I've always wanted to be!" With impeccable timing, Frank said dryly, "So have I."
Of course, he doesn't want to be the young Frank Langella. Why would he? He is at the peak of his talent and the pinnacle of his career. By most accounts he's the odds-on favorite for the Oscar in 2009. But his joke made me laugh, and over time my situation got a little better.
At our first previews I felt good about our scene together, buoyed by the audience and by Frank's constant and loving encouragement. I became more expansive and started to have a bit of fun. Then, between a matinee and an evening performance Doug Hughes came to me and whispered, "Can I talk to you?" He took me down into a dark corner backstage and in conspiratorial tones said "I want you to remember who the star of this show is."
Damn! I'd gone too far! I was upstaging Langella! My apology was on the tip of my tongue when Doug finished his thought: "You. You are the star. Don't forget that. You are the king. Run circles around Frank. Remember, you are the STAR!"
Of course, I'm not the star. Not even close. The audience is there to see Langella. That's not what Doug meant. His point was that Henry thinks he is the star. Indeed he is the star in any room he enters. I have to believe that, and Doug gave me permission.
That night I played Henry VIII as if I were the star. The scene was quite different, and I experienced a kind of abandon and enjoyment I hadn't felt in a long time. That's what truly great direction can give you. It was the perfect note at the perfect time. Thank you Doug Hughes.
When I came off-stage I immediately second-guessed myself. Had I gone too far? Would Frank be angry? I was fretting right up to intermission when a beaming Langella popped into my room and exulted, "Now there's the King!"
I still think Langella is our greatest actor. Even more so now because of the leadership and generosity he has shown to me and every member of our cast. But now, thanks to his unwavering support and some excellent direction, I can hold my own with him on stage. Chatting between scenes one day Frank said, "You know, I don't think I've ever played a king. Presidents, CEOs. But no kings."
I said, "Well, Dracula was a king, in his way."
He smiled, "You're right. My favorite line in Dracula was, 'I am the King of my kind!'" The king of his kind. He is indeed. Long live the king.