Held over at the Music Box Theatre, “Starting Out in the Evening” stars Frank Langella as a reclusive Manhattan novelist whose life is turned upside-down by a graduate student (Lauren Ambrose) of complex ambitions. Her interests in the writer become a series of puzzles to be solved by the main character.
Langella, who turns 70 next week, has received much acclaim for his work in director Andrew Wagner’s adaptation of a Brian Morton novel. In the Tribune, my colleague Jessica Reaves described Langella as “mesmerizing as a man teetering on the edge of obscurity, but whose pride and ego are battling mightily against the abyss.”
Langella says he received all of $3,000 in salary for the film, filmed in 18 days on a $500,000 budget nearly two years ago. This was prior to Langella’s storied stage run in “Frost/Nixon,” about the David Frost interviews with the ex-president. Langella’s turn as Nixon won him plaudits in London and a Tony Award in New York. Though the film version, directed by Ron Howard and adapted by Peter Morgan from his play, was supposed to star Jack Nicholson and then Warren Beatty as Nixon, the role eventually went to the man who created it on stage. Co-starring Langella’s London and Broadway stage colleague, Michael Sheen, the film opens late next year.
“Frost/Nixon” is not the sort of assignment an actor turns down lightly. “Starting Out in the Evening,” on the other hand, is the kind of thing good mature actors turn down all the time. But, says Langella, “my agent’s instructions are never to turn anything down over money, or billing, or anything like that. You can lose really great opportunities that way.”
The role of “Evening’s” Leonard Schiller required a full-on nude scene, and Langella has heard plenty about it in post-screening discussions. “The first question,” he says, chuckling, “usually is: ‘Where did you get the courage to stand up naked at your age?’ I take that both as an insult and a compliment.”
Schiller’s emotional insularity, broken only by the student and by his daughter (played by Lili Taylor), is not an easy, “active” trait to play. Langella conveys much of what he needs to with his eyes. The question that drove his interpretation, he says, was a simple one: “Why does someone of great talent retreat into himself?”
Conversely, he says, “What kept Arthur Miller, whom I knew very well, getting up every day and banging it out? Whether it was as good as his prime doesn’t really matter. He kept producing. He was always irascible and curious and writing something.”
Langella’s career has known great promise, considerable achievement, notable “fallow periods” (his phrase) and, lately, a heartening resurgence. “There have been demons the whole time--that’s why I’m an actor,” he explains matter-of-factly. “You act to try to lessen the noise. And eventually you discover, if you’re lucky, that acting is a skill and a craft, and not just a way of barfing up your neuroses.
“The demons that used to really taunt me and rule my life don’t anymore. And new ones come along: mortality, death, the questions. How long can I keep my energy? Will I be one of the lucky ones who isn’t felled by something debilitating?
“Looking back I’m proud I wasn’t afraid of embracing change. I think my work is more complicated now than it’s ever been. And maybe that’s because I didn’t ever decide: ‘This is what people want to see me do.’ ”