"This is a particularly good two years," Langella says of his reemergence as a film star. "I won't let it change me. I know better."
Photo Credit: By Lois Raimondo -- The Washington Post
You can look everywhere in Frank Langella's hotel suite and not see the trail of slime. An astonishment! Since the '60s, the actor has played slimebags, scuzzballs, silky lizards, oily seducers, scheming politicos, paranoid bureaucrats and various other infected humans in one form or other. He has made waitresses cry, presidents wince, women disrobe and housewives quite mad. He's sucked blood! He's played Richard Nixon! Surely he secretes something thick, mucus-y, incandescent and instantly fatal to the touch.
Whether as Count Dracula, or as the chief of staff who browbeat President Kevin Kline in "Dave," or even as a pirate named Dawg in "Cutthroat Island," where he almost skewered Geena Davis, he's been a tall, cool glob of human mollusk.
Yet here he is, and not a glint of putrescence in sight. Instead, what greets a visitor is a large man -- 6 feet 4, maybe 230 pounds -- who looks as if he could still go seven or eight rounds, or play linebacker, even though nearing 70. He's dressed not like some avatar of New York's further edges and a connoisseur of its styles of decadence, but more suburban dad: crew-neck sweater over a polo shirt, cargo pants, New Balance slip-ons. He'd look right at home in the Columbia Mall, walking around with his two adult children. It's only when you look carefully that you see in his dark eyes what the camera amplifies so chillingly: a cold intelligence, the gaze that bespeaks ferocity of passion and willingness to harshly speak the truth. The eyes suggest a moral compass that's infinitely adjustable, and a willingness to define what must be done and then do it.
But there's no sense of slippery, slimy slithery-ness at all, and curiously enough, there's no sense of slippery, slimy slithery-ness in his latest performance, in "Starting Out in the Evening." He plays Leonard Schiller, an aging novelist who became the toast of literary New York with his first book but now is a man the world has forgotten -- until the arrival of a questing, attractive, vital young woman, a graduate student with a love for the works of Leonard Schiller.
The Oscar whispers are beginning for this modest little movie that, as it turns out, is something of an anomaly in Langella's professional life. It enables him to be human, of flesh and weakness, not lubricated unction and glossy smarm.
More to the point -- or maybe the whole point -- it's just the first in what some people (though he is not one of them) are calling a Frank Langella renaissance or second coming, as it's the first of four movies in which, after many years as a character actor (after a few brief ones as a headliner), he's the star again.
"I'm lucky enough to find myself in four important movies with four important directors," Langella says. Besides "Starting Out in the Evening," he's got a film version of his Tony-winning turn as Nixon in "Frost/Nixon," a thriller called "On the Hook" and the film he's currently shooting, "The Box," based on a Richard Matheson short story by way of a "Twilight Zone" episode. Though he's worked steadily in the theater (a first love), his movie appearances have been off and on over the years, with long years of absence, followed by microbursts of activity.
"It's not that I've taken time off from the movies," he says with a graceful inversion of the question, restructuring it in a way that will become his interview trademark, "it's that they've taken time off from me."
His reframing of questions is the mark of a careful man, a precise man, not someone high on the octane of celebrityhood or egoism.
Langella is a survivor. You begin to suspect he'll never make the stupid mistake, give in to temptation, begin to believe his own reviews and publicity, or take himself either too lightly or too seriously. He's not acting to get somewhere else. He just wants to be an actor, not a director, a pundit, an impresario, a studio boss.
"I have a wonderful agent," he says, "who knew I'd be interested in ['Starting Out in the Evening']. He's not the kind of agent who's looking for ways to make more money for himself."
It can't have seemed propitious: a small film from a small book, all set in New York and essentially about inside-New York things, from a new director.
"I didn't want to meet the director, I wanted to meet the author. Of course they were the same person," Langella says of Andrew Wagner.
"He said to me, 'You are going to be in my movie.' I said, 'You have no budget, no time frame.' He just smiled and said, 'Yes, but you are going to be in my movie.' Several months later, I was in his movie."
Langella contrasts the short, frenetic 18-day shoot with the Hollywood style that has nurtured him for many years. But asked if the shoot was intense, he subtly reedits the question, finding the word "intense" inappropriate. "It was concentrated, not intense. When you wait for hours while your leading lady puts on her makeup and there is too much money and too many toys, that's intense."
Now, how does Frank Langella, who is, after all, tall and handsome and graceful, play Leonard Schiller, who is internal and intellectual? "Well, I've known some writers. I knew Saul Bellow, John Updike. I was close to Styron, Tennessee Williams. Gotten to know Gay Talese. Writers are my heroes. But what I actually think happened: I tapped into all of me that is Leonard. How can I look like him, how can I dress like him, what kind of glasses would he wear, what kind of ties? I wouldn't call it 'building a character.' He was a man I'd never portrayed, but I recognized him. I allowed him to run me."
And now Frank is suddenly hot in the movies.
"It's a surprise, I admit. I had begun to resign myself to 'And Frank Langella as Ned Brockett,' " his shorthand for the kind of awkward credits ex-stars get when they've fallen to character roles, in parts too small to be above the title but with faces too known to be hidden in normal actor listing. "I've always been around. This is a particularly good two years. I won't let it change me. I know better."
He has been around. His first film made him an instant star and set the paradigm that even now keeps him employed. He was George Prager, a narcissistic, self-serving writer with whom "the mad housewife" (Carrie Snodgress) had an affair in 1970's "Diary of a Mad Housewife." Impossibly handsome and self-assured, he swept her off her feet but never fell in love with her and, in the end, crushed her with the reality of his cold emptiness. Next, he starred in Mel Brooks's "The Twelve Chairs." Probably the highlight was his starring role in "Dracula," in 1979, opposite Laurence Olivier. He starred in the same role on Broadway.
"It was great. I loved that. I was Elvis Presley for two years."
But then, as he puts it with almost comic bluntness, "that went away."
So it goes in the movie business: You're the sexiest star in town, and then all of a sudden nobody answers your calls.
"I went back to Broadway and played Salieri in 'Amadeus.' Then 'Dave' " -- 13 years later! -- "got me back into movies, and it was the start of my character years."
In "Dave," he played the scheming Bob Alexander, the White House chief of staff who tries to cling to power by putting a look-alike in the Oval Office when the president is incapacitated. The stand-in, a temp agency owner (Kevin Kline) with an eerie resemblance to the Great Man (who's in a coma) brings common sense and humanity to the job, to Alexander's fury.
But the role was the beginning of the character years. "People said: 'He got bald. He got fat. What happened to him?' But it was all right. I enjoyed it. I remember later I was on the set waiting for a friend to arrive. He was still a star, and I was a character. And he was fiddling with his face, his assistant was there, they were all worried whether or not his cheek looked too fat and he needed more makeup or better lighting or whatever, and I was just worrying about my performance and I thought that was fine. Nobody is coming to see me because I'm cute. They're coming to see me because I can act."
Asked why he chose to take the "hard route" (live theater, independent films, lengthy return to New York) as opposed to the "easy route" (prosperity, film stardom, playing the silky lizard who makes waitresses cry forever), he once again gently rearranges the question.
"To me, the 'easy route' is really the hard route. It's [expletive] boring. You're so unchallenged. You wake up early, go to a trailer in West L.A., deliver dialogue you don't believe in and worry yourself to death about box office or ratings.
"To me, the 'hard route' is easy. You don't live beyond your means, you don't do a lot of things you don't believe in, you care about your work. I don't even have a publicist. I can read a page and go wow, let's do that. . . . It sort of stopped a dozen times. What do I do now? . . . But somehow, something always came up."
Frank Langella is on the cusp of 70 and things are still coming up.