Frost/Nixon star Frank Langella says he's not playing Richard Nixon — he's playing us.
"The demons that haunted him have stayed with me because they haunt me, they haunt you, they haunt everybody," Langella says.
The veteran actor, 70, stars as the tormented former president in Ron Howard's film version of the Broadway hit Frost/Nixon. It's about the combative 1977 series of interviews with British TV star David Frost (Michael Sheen, The Queen) that came to be seen as Nixon's sole moment of accountability.
"He represents that part of our nature that holds us back, that thing which causes us to take something great, get to the very top of the ladder, even find yourself president of the United States, and some voice in your head says 'You don't really deserve to be here,' " Langella says.
Nixon had been paid $600,000 for the interviews, and the contract meant he could not back out, even under withering scrutiny. A verbal duel broke out, with Nixon at one point acknowledging wrongdoing and at another defiantly declaring, "When the president does it, it's NOT illegal" — a view still debated today.
The movie, opening Friday in limited release, goes beyond issues of politics or power for Langella.
"Nixon is the poster boy for self-destruction," Langella says. "The more I worked on him, and the more I tried to dig into the deepest part of his nature, I saw every friend I have who succeeds and then suddenly drifts too much, or succeeds and falls prey to drugs, or succeeds and ruins their marriage or fights with their boss.
"All of us have this quality. It's like we can't take too much happiness."
He's almost in one of those positions himself.
In addition to Frost/Nixon, he's starring on Broadway in the revival of A Man for All Seasons, playing the polar opposite of Nixon: Sir Thomas More, a martyr to conscience who submitted to execution rather than support what he regarded as abuses of power by King Henry VIII. (The show ends its limited run Dec. 14.)
More is "a practical man. He's not a bliss-ninny," Langella says. "He dies for his principles. … What an interesting notion for Richard Nixon to sit down with Sir Thomas More."
All this comes to Langella after a long career, often as a leading man on stage, often as a monster in the movies — from 1979's sophisticated resurrection of Dracula to 1987's cheesy Masters of the Universe (playing Skeletor) to the predator Clare Quilty in 1997's Lolita.
He recently has had a run of memorable character roles in films such as 2005's Good Night, and Good Luck, as CBS executive William Paley; the newspaper editor Perry White in 2006's Superman Returns; and the aging novelist in last year's Starting Out in the Evening.
Frost/Nixon, by playwright and screenwriter Peter Morgan (The Queen, The Last King of Scotland), earned him a Tony Award (his third) during the Broadway run, and his work in the movie is heavily favored for an Oscar nomination.
It almost didn't happen.
'The part was not mine'
When the movie was being developed by Howard and Universal Pictures, there was talk of keeping Sheen but having an international movie star take over the role of Nixon. "It wasn't a question; it was a fact," Langella says. "The part was not mine."
Sitting in the shadowy restaurant of the Hotel Plaza Athénée on Manhattan's Upper East Side, Langella is mellow and meditative. He points toward the ceiling and says: "I was offered this role upstairs in this hotel in the same suite I am in now. Ron Meyer, president of Universal Pictures, called me on the phone and said, 'Frank we'd like you to join us.' And I said, 'Where are you?' "
Langella thought he'd wanted to meet for drinks. "He said, 'No, we'd like you to do the movie.' "
As Langella was playing Nixon on stage, rumors surfaced about who might get the role on screen. "I heard, 'It's going to be Jack (Nicholson).' I heard, 'It's going to be Warren (Beatty), and Kevin Spacey has done a tape …' "
Langella had accepted the fact that he wasn't the guy. Then came that call from Meyer. Langella thanked him, then walked into the other room to tell his daughter, " 'They just offered me the movie,' and she jumped up and down, and I said, 'Well, that's nice.' … I'm an old person now," he says, smiling.
Howard, who had signed on to direct after seeing Frost/Nixon during its London preview run, says Langella was always on his list, but they wanted to explore all options. "Frankly, as both guys went on with the play, and as Frank came to New York, it was pretty clear anyone else was going to be walking in his shadow," Howard says. "He was providing a pretty hard act to follow."
Langella says he tried to tap into what many friends and associates of Nixon had described as a pathological insecurity.
"There's something about this man so alone, so isolated and so uncomfortable," Langella says.
One true anecdote in the movie is when Nixon tries to unnerve Frost by asking, "You do any fornicating last night?"
To Langella, it's further evidence of Nixon's awkwardness.
"He didn't only say it to Frost. He said it to construction workers and big rough guys. He'd try to be a regular guy. You'd think he could have just said, 'Did anybody get laid last night?' But he couldn't. He had to say it in that clinical way."
Langella said some of his most important research was visiting Nixon's birthplace at the Nixon Presidential Library & Museum in Yorba Linda, Calif., and sitting for an hour in the closet-sized room the boy once shared with three brothers. He says a part of Nixon probably never left that space.
On the museum grounds next to the house is the Army One helicopter Nixon used to depart the White House on his last day of office. Langella shot close-ups there for the film and says it was especially poignant to look over at the bedroom window, just out of camera view, while re-creating that scene.
"What you walk around with are the first two to five years of your life," he says. "What Nixon had was a horrible kind of existence and a lack of belief in himself, with a father who whacked him on the back of the head all the time and told him he wasn't as good-looking as his brother, wouldn't get girls and would never amount to anything."
A bit of mystery
Though many actors have played the 37th president over the years, "Langella takes it to a larger-than-life place," says Kris Tapley of the Academy Awards blog InContention.com. "At first, it feels like he's playing Nixon the idea more than Nixon the person. Then he got underneath the skin of that idea and that drama; he really sold it for me."
So who is the real Langella?
In A Man for All Seasons, the character More is asked by one of his eventual betrayers: "How much do you know about me?" And the answer is, "Whatever you let me know."
When it comes to himself, Langella would rather you know nothing. "Believe me, I have as big an ego and I'm just as vain as any other actor. But why the hell should you guys know that?" he jokes. "That's for the people in my life to have to deal with."
"I truly, truly, truly — and this is without any kind of artifice — I really truly want you to know Richard Nixon and want you to know Sir Thomas More, and the less you know about me, the more you will enjoy them."
This much is public record: He was born and raised in New Jersey. He and his wife of 20 years divorced in 1996; they have a son and daughter, now grown. For the late '90s until 2001, he dated Whoopi Goldberg after they starred together in the basketball comedy Eddie. Otherwise, he has kept his personal life low-key.
His career was just starting as Nixon's was ending. As a young man, he paid Nixon's resignation and the Frost interviews little attention. "I was only interested in two things," he says with a laugh. "One of them was work."
His film breakthrough was in 1970's Diary of a Mad Housewife, and he won his first Tony for Edward Albee's Seascape in 1975. He later starred in Dracula on Broadway, giving the vampire count a sexual possessiveness that made the 1979 movie a hit. It's a role he still hears about from fans. "It was like being Elvis Presley for two years. It was like being a rock star," he says.
In the 1980s, his movie career waned, but one high-profile performance was that skull-faced villain Skeletor in 1987's Masters of the Universe, based on a hit toy line and cartoon his children watched. "In the end, they couldn't care less," he says. "I had a screening for them, and they both fell asleep!"
Langella made his Hollywood comeback as a character actor when Ivan Reitman cast him as the sinister White House chief of staff in 1993's Dave, with Kevin Kline as a regular-guy doppelgänger president.
"I was ice-cold in movies. I couldn't get a job," Langella says.
Even in the rough times, he has tried to enjoy the work he did get.
For example: "I loved playing Skeletor, and people sometimes say, 'Aren't you embarrassed?' Not in the least! I loved my performance in that. I worked very hard to make him as exciting as I could. It was a great paycheck. But it was also delicious."
He also wrote some of his own dialogue, including this question to Dolph Lundgren's muscle-bound hero: "Tell me about the loneliness of good, He-Man. Is it equal to the loneliness of evil?"
The actor pauses as an idea occurs to him. "Sir Thomas More and Richard Nixon," he says. "I am playing in both of these men the loneliness of good and the loneliness of evil. Jeez, I never thought of it before."
Langella starts to laugh: "The parallels between these two … Who would have known Skeletor would be the precursor?"