Frank Langella: Nixon Will Stay With Me
Frank Langella won a Tony (his third) for his riveting portrayal of President Nixon in Frost/Nixon on stage. Now he's taking a shot at Oscar gold as the film version of thehistory-making debates between the ex-President and talk show host David Frost hits theaters.
In the meantime, Langella is collecting rave reviews for his return to Broadway in therevival of A Man For All Seasons and has been named one of Barbara Walters' 10 Most Fascinating People of 2008.
The respected stage and screen actor talks about how the role of Richard Nixon affected himand his thoughts on how politics is treated in the media today.
Q: If Nixon had been the President today, would the Watergate scandal have forced him toresign?
A: I don't think it would have been regarded with anywhere near the shock and surprise thatit was 40 years ago. In those days, the press had a bit more honor and distance from politicians,but now we've lost it all and the leaders of our countries don't appear to be statesmen anymore. Wehear a lot, 'He's just one of us. She's just one of us.' And it all leads to our politiciansappearing on talk shows and comedy shows and watching themselves being made fun of or making fun ofthemselves. I prefer it when a statesman is slightly distant. And for better or for worse, Nixonfor the most part had that image
Q: Do you think he was unfairly treated by the media?
A: When he said, 'You won't have Nixon to kick around anymore,' he meant it. He really got itfrom the press. They never gave him a break. He was made fun of, I think, more than any livingpolitician in our history.
Q: Was it challenging to portray him?
A: I doubted my ability to do it in the beginning. It seemed like a very high mountain toclimb. Some characters from the first day are a beautiful fit. You have a sense of them and yourrapport with them is great. It took me a long time to find a rapport with Nixon. But I wasdetermined that I would not in anyway caricature this man or disgrace him or judge him.
Q: What surprised you the most about him?
A: That he had a sense of humor -- even if it was regarded by many people as terribly awkwardand inappropriate. But there were times when he was incredibly charming and disarming. All we eversaw was this awkward, somewhat ill at ease man who couldn't even get pets to come up to him. He wasa man who just was not happy in his skin. But in private moments he could be very much at ease andkind of funny in a charming, odd way.
Q: You stayed in character all the time you were on the set, didn't you?
A: I was Nixon from the moment I left my trailer in the morning. I've never done that beforebecause I like the rapport on movie sets. I love talking to the crew and I like telling dirty jokesto the actors but I couldn't do it. I felt it was the right choice for me. I was called Mr.President by everyone for those 35 days of filming. And there was a quiet whenever I was aroundbecause I was very deeply the President and the cast responded to it.
Q: Did you understand why Nixon basically sabotaged his life and career by sanctioning theWatergate break-in?
A: I came to understand that no matter how high you climb, myself included, anybody elseincluded, there's always a voice somewhere saying to you, 'You don't deserve this. You have noright to be here.' And there's a conscious part of you that is saying, 'I'll just start smokingagain.' Or 'I think I'll just have another drink.' Or 'I'll start fights with my wife.' Or 'I'llget my boss mad at me.' And you don't do it consciously. You don't wake up in the morning and say,'I'm going to ruin my life.' You wake up in the morning when you've ruined it wondering how you didit.
Q: Did Nixon stay with you after filming ended?
A: Other characters never do once I've played them, but Nixon will stay with me. There wasjust something profoundly tragic in the epic sense about what he did to himself that is a reminderto me constantly to keep vigilant about not giving into the worst of my own nature. That part ofhim will always be with me.
Q: What's guiding you in a career that's still growing strong after many actors your agehave retired?
A: To stay alive. To stay alive andâ€”I wouldn't have said this maybe 15 or 20 years agoâ€”to beas loving a person as I can. When you get up in years you realize there are two things that count,love and work. That's it.