NEW YORK — Frank Langella responds only half-kiddingly when asked if he wishes he had Richard Nixon to confer with over his role in Frost/Nixon.
“I talk to Nixon every day,” Langella says with the barest hint of a smile, “and he talks back. We communed.”
A lot. Even before Frost/Nixon began its 300-performance run from London to Broadway (with a Best Actor Tony award along the way) to its incarnation as a Ron Howard movie, Langella was absorbing the life and pathologies of the much-reviled 37th President of the U.S.
“I spent a fair amount of time in the little house in which he was born, and at his library,” Langella says. “There was something about this man that affected me more than any role I have ever, ever played.
“In that sense he talked to me all the time. I came out of my trailer always as Nixon, I never broke character on the set, the company related to me that way. They all called me Mr. President. When I came out of the trailer on the first day, the AD who was to walk me to the set said, ‘Good morning Mr. President.’ So for 40 days or so it was really wonderful, it’s good to be the king.”
The research was formidable. “I was at the Museum Of Radio & Television for 10 hours one day. I interviewed Mike Wallace, Barbara Walters, (Nixon staffer) Frank Gannon, anybody I could think of who knew him, talked with him, worked with him. I absorbed as much factual information as I could. And once you start playing the part all of that goes out of your head and you can start working on the essence of the man.”
Which is where what Langella calls “my sidewalk psychology” comes into play. Peter Morgan’s Frost/Nixon is a play about an interviewer and interviewee who each have everything at stake. By paying Nixon $600,000 to sit down for hours in 1977, the play’s Frost hopes to escape the straitjacket of his lightweight image and re-emerge as an interviewer with gravitas. For his part, Nixon sees the interviews — with the presumed puffball Frost — as the beginning of his redemption, his chance to explain away Watergate and do what he did best, overcome “those bastards.” As Nixon’s character says “the limelight can only shine on one of us. And for the other, it will be the wilderness.”
“Nixon was far more than competent, he was brilliant,” Langella says. “He had a great mind and aspirations toward doing wonderful things for the country. He was, I think, brought down by his inability to stay at the top. He preferred climbing the ladder to being on top of it. One of the things that drove this man, constantly, was ‘I’ll show them. I’ll show those mothers, I’ll get ’em and everyone who’s against me.’
“When he was then elected, some deep, dark part of him said, ‘I don’t think I belong here.’ I don’t think he woke up in the morning and consciously thought that. I just think that Nixon was always more comfortable swimming towards the big boat rather than being in it.”
Like Anthony Hopkins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon, Langella neither looks nor sounds like Richard Milhous Nixon.
When he was considering the role, he watched Stone’s film, and says he shared the same initial audience skepticism. “I sat there looking at him as Nixon, and thought, ‘Oh God, how am I going to do this?’ But then I looked past the physical obviousness and looked very hard into (Hopkins’) eyes, to watch that incredible mind of Nixon’s clicking and constantly making sure nobody got the better of him.
“I’m not a good mimic or imitator and I said this to the director of the stage production. ‘I’m not going to sound like him or do any of the cliches. I’m going to find a universality of pain and anguish and, in fact, an extraordinary stroke of meanness.’ I knew I had to seduce you all in the first two or three scenes and get you used to it.”
An indication of his versimilitude of the soul came from the parade of Nixon intimates who’ve seen the play, including Nixon’s daughter Tricia and her family.
“Tricia Cox’s whole family and her chldren all came, and quite a few members of his staff over the period of two years, and everybody was really, really wonderful about it,” Langella says.
“His granddaughter said, ‘I didn’t know Grandpa very well, but thank you for making him a person.’ Imagine how painful it must be for all of them to have their father and grandfather continually villified this way and caricatured so much.
“That’s not to forgive the crime, it’s to remember the person.”