From heroes to villains, Frank Langella finds the heart in them all
On Broadway, he's currently starring in "A Man for all Seasons" as Thomas More, the stubbornly principled British statesman whom millions revere as a literal saint.
In movie theaters, he's about to appear in "Frost/Nixon" as Richard Nixon, the elastically moral American president whom millions revile as an irredeemable villain.
But Frank Langella's approach to creating each character doesn't differ.
"Thomas More was a man fighting for his life," the actor says, sitting in a Manhattan hotel room just a few hours before curtain time. "And, to a certain degree, Richard Nixon was a man fighting for his life, for respect. What's important in each case is to bring across a sense of what motivated them to persevere."
What motivates Langella is a simple love of acting, in all its forms.
"I just kept going," he says of a multi-platform, nearly 50-year career that's included Edward Albee on Broadway and, yes, "Masters of the Universe" on screen (he played Skeletor). "And every time I was up against something I didn't know, I thought, well, this is a new arena," he says. "I'm going to have to learn how to box in it."
Langella was born 70 years ago in Bayonne, a place he remembers "as a little quiet town, that was its own place -- it didn't lead physically to anywhere else, and that was the charm." The family wasn't particularly artsy -- Langella's father was a businessman -- but the young boy still felt the pull to perform.
"The spur was probably what spurs most actors," Langella says. "Feeling like a freak in life, like you can't express yourself. Like you're not popular, you can't get a girl, you're the least appreciated member of your family. All that. And then a teacher says, 'Would you like to be in the school play?' And you get out there and you find yourself responding to it, and the audience responding to you and you think, Oh. This is nice."
The family moved to South Orange, where Langella graduated from Columbia High School before heading off to Syracuse to study drama. His parents voiced "expressions of concern -- the usual, 'But how are you going to make a living?'" -- yet remained supportive. "My dad even gave me $230, which I needed to go apprentice at the Poconos Playhouse," Langella remembers. "And that was a tremendous amount of money."
After graduation, Langella drifted back to New York, where he began the usual audition rounds, and fell in love with theater all over again -- the rehearsals, the camaraderie, the backstage life.
"Before we started shooting, Frank said to me, 'You know, part of the fun for me in doing this is being able to chit-chat and tell jokes, and I'm not looking forward to foregoing that,'" says "Frost/Nixon" director Ron Howard. "But what he suggested, and I embraced, was that he stay in character on the set. People actually addressed him as 'Mr. President.' It wasn't that he was in some diva mode; it was that he knew it would create that discomfort people had around Nixon. It was very effective. But I think it was hard for him."
Although Langella says he loves working in film now "very, very much," the movie industry has never been as natural a fit as theater was. His first trip to Hollywood was his talent agency's idea.
"I was 22 or 23, and they said, 'Oh well, let's send you out and see what they can do with you,'" he says. "And I got there and the studios had no idea. No idea. They kept saying I was a 'young Tony Perkins'... They never really saw you as an individual. Which is why I never lived there, and never tried to make my career there. I didn't want to be made into something I wasn't."
He made a sexy movie debut in 1970's "Diary of a Mad Housewife," all feline seductiveness, and had an antic comic turn that same year in the Mel Brooks comedy "The Twelve Chairs." But neither film was shot in Los Angeles, and Langella remained based in New York, where he lived the life of "a typically narcissistic young actor, working in the theater, trying to get girls and hoping for a good table at Sardi's."
A marriage (since ended) began in 1977, and two children followed; that was an enormous change. So was getting the lead in a revival of "Dracula." With its Edward Gorey sets, the production stylishly acknowledged the camp inherent in the material. But there was nothing comical about Langella's portrayal, a performance that eschewed the usual gore-and-goulash to take the monster to his tragic, Byronic core.
It won him a Tony nomination -- he's taken home the prize three times over his career -- and allowed him to return triumphantly to movies for the adaptation. He didn't feel so uncomfortable now.
"Every role I've taken on has taught me more about what's required," he says. "I think for me, on my first film, the challenge was just to exist on camera, just to simply be there. I used to think I had to do more ... And I came to understand that you can speak volumes in a second. I learned to let the lens find me."
He has also learned to embrace the challenges of the medium. Often, stage-trained actors will complain about the stop-and-start nature of filming -- the necessity of breaking a performance into bits and pieces. To Langella, though, it's just one more tool.
"I like all the things you have to overcome," he says, as a busboy noisily clears off a room-service trolley. "Like that fellow over there, not noticing we're trying to have a conversation. If you're zealous about staying true to the character, then you find a way to use it. If I were still playing Nixon, for example, and that fellow was doing that, I'd know exactly how Nixon would respond. And it would become part of the performance."
As he had with "Dracula," Langella had the luxury of first playing Nixon on Broadway, then recreating him onscreen. It's a rare honor to be able to do both -- "I think only Joe Ferrer did it twice, and he produced his films" -- and Langella counts himself lucky. Because he knows it almost didn't happen.
There was no doubt in anyone's mind, Ron Howard says, that Langella had inhabited the role from the first, London production. But he wasn't a "name," at least not to the money men.
"People felt like this was going to be a very risky thing to market," the director confesses. "And there was a period where we were considering a lot of well-known people. Stars were sending in their own audition tapes. And I got a call from Frank saying, 'Should I send one in? Just to get on the list?' And I said, 'You don't have to do that to get on my list.'"
"Many people were interested," Langella says. "Nicholson. Beatty. Spacey. Dan Aykroyd. And people say, 'Oh, it must have been very difficult to read that in the papers.' I was sanguine about it. I wanted the part, of course, but I understand the profession. I understood that if the right international star came along, they were going to go in that direction. But in the end, I suppose they decided to just stick with what they knew."
"It just became clear that movie audiences deserved to see what Frank had to offer, and that anybody else was going to be in his shadow," Howard says. "Of course," he says with a laugh, "it knocked a few more million off the budget (I was allowed). But it was well worth it."
Langella's performance is terrific (and more than matched by Michael Sheen's, as interviewer David Frost) and grounded in details. ("We went through three wigs, and several people, before the hair was right.") Yet it's not mere mimicry. Yes, Langella gets the ex-president's famous rumble of a voice, his nervous grimace of a grin. But he also captures the man's spirit, a complex combination of combativeness and insecurity.
It's an accomplishment that has people talking about an Oscar nomination. It's "nice to hear" the actor admits, but he swears it's something he neither obsesses over nor studiously ignores.
"What would be the point?" he asks. "I don't think you should close your ears to anything. If you do that -- 'No, don't tell me, don't show me, I don't want to know' -- then you're closing off part of your life. I read my reviews. If they're highly praiseworthy, I'm pleased. If they're deeply critical, I look to see if there something useful to be learned from them -- which rarely happens, I'm afraid... I want to know. But, at the same time, none of it defines me."
As always, he says, it's about the work -- and the next role.
"I'd like to do Lear, before I become too decrepit," he says. "And if I do, I'll first watch every 'King Lear' I can find. And why not? There are moments in 'A Man for All Seasons' that are direct steals from what Paul Scofield did. If it works, I'm going to use it ... Still, it's not about simply recreating something. It's about trying to bring my unique take to a character. Like Dracula. Or Sherlock Holmes. Or Quilty, who I did in 'Lolita.' There are a lot of them, actually."
"I guess," he says with a smile, "I've really been a very lucky duck."