Frost/Nixon: Frank Langella discusses the meeting of minds
Richard Nixon wasn’t just a crook, Frank Langella tells our correspondent
Frank Langella didn’t expect to reprise his role as the disgraced President Richard Nixon in the big-screen version of Frost/Nixon. He had played him in Peter Morgan’s play in London and New York and knew the producers had approached another actor to take on the movie role. He wasn’t offended or crushed, he insists. “I’m very practical about these things, I understand the nature of the profession,” Langella says in his lovely, rich, precise voice. “When the call came through that I got the part I accepted it rather readily.”
The director Ron Howard must know he made the right decision. The movie is as electrifying as the stage version; more so as the freedom of the camera, the ability to see close-up the emotions and frailties of both Nixon and David Frost (played by Michael Sheen), helps to add to the unbearable tension of their televised encounters in 1977 that led to Nixon finally admitting wrongdoing in the Watergate scandal. Their parrying, gladiatorial contest is transfixing.
Langella, 68, makes Nixon, if not likeable, then empathetic. But, forgetting his complicity in one of the great political scandals for a moment, what a wily sod he seems. He first tries to freak out a nervous Frost by complimenting him on his “effeminate” slip-on Italian shoes. He spends the first hours of their encounters blathering on about minutiae so concertedly that Frost cannot interrupt him. It is only at the end when a revitalised, properly prepared Frost confronts him that he cracks.
The film is a fascinating study of concordant and contrasting egos and vulnerabilities; the men are not as different as you might think. At the time of their meeting they are both slightly washed up: Nixon is exiled from public life, Frost’s bright young star is on the wane. Both are seeking rehabilitation, have rampaging egos and are showmen at heart. In one charged scene, in which Nixon phones Frost late at night to destabilise his interlocutor’s confidence further, he suggests that both he and Frost are outsiders and victims of the Establishment. The interviews are a duel, certainly, but one rooted in dualities. Which damaged though swaggering man will come out on top? Only one can, as Nixon/Langella notes.
Langella found filming Frost/Nixon very different from performing on stage. “Ron was very specific about what he had in mind. No matter that I played this on stage 350 times, you have to reinvent it for the camera. We shot the first scenes, and they were taking two, three minutes. Ron said: ‘I have a lot of film in that camera and a pair of scissors. If you feel like looking at each other or sitting and staring or whatever, do it. He was saying: ‘Forget the rhythm of a stage performance’.”
He and Michael Sheen, who revisits his stage role as Frost, had to forget “all the things we did to play it to the back row in the theatre” – all the exaggerated movements and projected voices. “The camera was up your nose, it can pick up the tiniest tic on the face, the slightest raised eyebrow. The camera gives you the freedom to go much deeper.”
Howard was “relentless” in the filming, Langella reveals. “We rarely did less than 28 takes of any scene. He asked me to write down what the emotional highlight of each scene was for my character. This was wonderful. There were no long discussions. It was very useful shorthand. When we filmed the phone-call scene, on stage I would just say it. For the film we figured out how I could walk, look out of the window, while using the speaker-phone.”
Langella’s Nixon is a bully and a victim, an operator outmanoeuvred, shrewd but vulnerable, a crook with, as Morgan writes it, a conscience; irascible and humbled; a villain who feels wronged; bitter yet accepting. One of Nixon’s grandchildren who came to see the play told Langella: “Thank you for making my grandfather human.” Langella says: “It’s the nature of our culture to give things labels, but I wanted to give Nixon a humanity. I felt compassion for him. Looking at what he did compared to what is happening today . . . well, it’s like taking a couple of candies from the jar.” Langella says he is an “independent” voter, not tribally aligned to the Democrats or Republicans.
Langella has been acting since the age of 7. He grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey. “I knew what I wanted to do and didn’t go through all those torments young people go through. It’s clichéd but the stage was where I could be myself. It felt rewarding and right. Some of my friends from school didn’t find a calling. They made money. Now they’ve retired and play golf. You’ve got to have passion. I left college and immediately hit New York, pounding the pavements, as they say, between auditions and jobs.”
At 17 he came to the UK for the first time, to sing in folk festivals, and rcalls cycling from Oxford to London in the rain.
He did “rather well” in his 20s and in his 30s played Dracula to great acclaim. In recent years he has appeared in films such as Superman Returns and Good Night and Good Luck, though you sense (and his CV reflects this) that his heart is in theatre. He is currently playing Sir Thomas More in a stage adaptation of A Man For All Seasons in New York (where he lives) and says he always feels the facets of whatever character he is inhabiting very personally. “Both Nixon and More are so unique, riveting and individual. More loses his head over his conviction and conscience and Nixon loses his job because of venality and a lack of conscience. Nixon is painful in his own skin.” And this is visible in Langella’s performance: sweat gathering on the upper lip, his rackety, ill-at-ease gait.
Is Langella like Nixon in any way? “That’s provocative,” he says, laughing. “Yes. I have similarities with every character I play. As a younger man, like all actors, I was paranoid and suspicious – as Nixon is. I’m older now and not like that.” He has a melancholy air on the phone, and talks darkly of hard personal times. He has two children (both unmarried and in their twenties) but you sense – he won’t say – that he is alone, even disillusioned. He laughs wryly. “I do remember a Nobel prizewinner saying in his short acceptance speech: ‘Thank you, I suppose this, like everything, is a substitute for love.’ ” Langella has lived by the advice of one director who told him early on to associate himself with quality. “It’s been hard sometimes to watch some friends take more commercially-minded decisions [and become famous and rich presumably] but you’ve got to have faith. The rewards have been so much more than a country house. What else should you do?”
Four films and his stage commitments have interceded between Langella and Nixon since filming ended. “But I still think of him,” Langella says with real warmth, as if he’s talking about a dear friend he hadn’t seen for a while.