With his new film and many great roles on the horizon, Frank Langella is enjoying a career high.
Photo by: Bryan Bedder/Getty Images
Frank Langella will have his 70th birthday in January, but that's not the only reason for him to celebrate. After several decades as an actor, with a career that has spanned all mediums, Langella is enjoying some of the best roles of his life. He recently wrapped production on Ron Howard's film version of Frost/Nixon
, in which Langella reprises the role of the disgraced former president that won him a Tony Award earlier this year. He is about to start shooting Richard Kelly's The Box
, opposite Cameron Diaz and James Marsden, a script of which Langella says, "Every actor who read it wanted to be in." And he is set to reprise his role as newsman Perry White in director Bryan Singer's sequel to Superman Returns
But it's the character of once-great author Leonard Schiller in Starting Out in the Evening
that's on Langella's mind. In the movie, an ambitious graduate student (Lauren Ambrose) disrupts Schiller's quiet existence with the promise that she can revitalize his career. It's the sophomore effort from director Andrew Wagner, whose debut film, The Talent Given Us
, starred Wagner's real-life family and was a Sundance favorite. Langella clearly has an affinity for Leonard -- as do critics, who have already started making Oscar predictions about the actor's touching, nuanced performance.Back Stage
: What was it about the character of Leonard that spoke to you?Frank Langella
: Oh, so many things. I'm not as old as he is, but I'm not that far away from him. So I was able to feel enormous compassion for a man who had checked out of life. Not in a bad way -- he didn't become a drunk, didn't become a gambler, didn't waste his life on drugs. He lives quite honorably, but he lets the exigencies of life, the little side things that happen to you, derail him. He allowed himself to give up, and who knows what he could have achieved? That was profoundly moving to me. And the notion of trying to play that unostentatiously was intriguing to me. How can we do this without it being too angst-ridden? Those were the chief things that propelled me to play him.Back Stage
: Had you seen Andrew's other film?
Langella: Oh, yes. I don't think I would have done Starting Out in the Evening if I hadn't seen some of his other work. I loved The Talent Given Us. Loved it. It was a big factor in me deciding to do this one. But it was mostly the words on the page; how could you resist this script? The script came to me, and I said I wanted to see The Talent Given Us. I saw it, and I said, "I have to meet this man." We met at a restaurant and talked for hours.
Back Stage: Was it decided then and there you would do it?
Langella: No, it wasn't, actually. At the time we met, he had no start date, no budget, and nobody else in the movie, and no plans in a coherent way to do it. He said, "Can I tell people you're interested?" And I said, "No, because I don't want you to raise money on me and then I might decide not to do it." Then he called me one day and said, "We're together; we're going to do this." I said, "Well, then you and I need to have meetings every single day to get to know each other and the character." And we did. What he never told me was that five days before shooting, he had lost all the money. So they had to scramble, get in favors, and get the money to do it. And he did it.
Back Stage: And you weren't aware of this?
Langella: I knew nothing about it. I was just involved in, "I'll wear these glasses, I'll get this hat" -- all my things for Leonard.
Back Stage: When did he reveal this to you?
Langella: Just today. [Laughs.] Just today I found out the movie was hanging by a thread.
Back Stage: This film was shot in 18 days. Was that a daunting prospect?
Langella: No, because Andrew and I had worked a lot prior to the 18 days, and I was very conscious on the set, as was he, that we needed to get what we needed in a very brief time on very little money. And that does something for you, creatively. It sparks you. It makes you more keenly aware that the only thing you should be doing is striving for excellence. When you have hours and hours and hours to wait on a big-budget movie, and the leading lady's trying on 85 different pairs of shoes, and some other actor's in his dressing room getting high -- when all those elements are there, you realize how cynical moviemaking can be. You have too much available to you. We had nothing available to us, nothing but the words on the page, a skeletal crew, and a very gifted director.
Back Stage: How do you handle bad behavior on a set?
Langella: I've changed. I walk away from bad behavior and just say to the producer or director, "That's got to be changed, or I won't come back out." I don't engage in it anymore. And I see it a lot, and I'm always disheartened by it. There's no reason for it; I don't care what the excuse is. "I had a bad night; I got bad news." Never should you bring that to a set.
Back Stage: What do you hope for in a director?
Langella: I like simplicity; I like them to know what they want. It makes my life easier. I like directors who don't talk in hyperbole and don't go on and on about the meaning in everything. Just tell me to say that quicker, say that louder, say that slower, don't bump into that furniture. I like a director who knows what he wants and trusts me to deliver it.
Back Stage: How do you usually prepare for a role?
Langella: It's different every time. A friend of mine once said, "You act in a wilderness." And I think that's probably true. I like to feel as if I'm in the wilderness, somewhere I don't know. Because if I go, "Oh, that's it! That's how to do it, that's character No. 78," then you're doing a cliché of an old, doddering man. And I don't want to do that with any character I play. I played Perry White, and I never looked at anybody else's Perry White. I think there is a consistency of intent in how I think about a character once I've decided to play him, which is always: Where is his soul, and what is his soul about? Where does he want to go? When I was younger, I would often think of the physical elements first. I don't do that now.
Back Stage: Why did that change?
Langella: I think, as with any actor, there's a terrible tendency to keep on doing the thing for which you are initially loved. At a certain point, you lose your hair, you get a little heavier, and you're not quite the dashing man you were before. And the saddest thing is watching actors try to be that when they're not. I think you need to embrace change.
Back Stage: Do you treat all your roles with the same reverence, be it Richard Nixon or Perry White?
Langella: Yes. You have to have a particular respect for the comic book. I also wanted to do something with Perry White that I have never seen before, which was to give him a kind of seriousness of intent, an anchorlike quality. That's what Bryan Singer wanted, too. He didn't want the loudmouth, cigar-chomping guy who shouts, "Get in here!" And I said, "Good, because I don't think I can play that." So Perry White ended up being a solid, regular force at this paper.
Back Stage: Do you read every script you're sent?
Langella: I read everything I get if the sound of it and the intent of it and the people involved are people I'm aware of or made aware of their abilities. But I can't read everything; there's so much out there that is sheer dross, and you know it's dross from the get-go.
Back Stage: You're reportedly picky about your roles.
Langella: Very. There are only so many hours and days left, so why do anything that isn't thrilling you or at least interesting you? In the last few years, every part I've played is thrilling. If you go back a little further, there's 10 parts I've played in the last five years, and they've all been a great, delicious thing to play--and all very different.
Back Stage: You've been in this business a long time, yet you seem busier than ever.
Langella: It's very strange. This is a new kind of thing. And it's nice.
Back Stage: Do you still audition?
Langella: Hardly ever. But I would. If I really, really wanted it and a lot of actors my age were going up for it and the director said, "I don't see you in it," sure I would. But do I get a call to go in and take a meeting and audition? Not usually. Which is nice. It never really was a major part of my life, because if I ever had to get work through auditioning, I probably would not have gotten it. I always resented it and found it annoying, so I said, "I just won't become a star." It was too stressful. I auditioned for Dave and got that out of an audition. And a play in New York called The Old Glory. But the major roles I did not audition for. Several people auditioned for the role of Nixon in the movie and didn't get it. Established actors. So I think an actor should be willing to try to get a part.
Back Stage: Why were they auditioning people for Nixon?
Langella: There were actors who wanted the role who put themselves on tape. But they didn't get it. [Laughs.]
Back Stage: Did you know that was going on?
Langella: No. Not until they offered me the role did I know how many people had been angling to get it.
Back Stage: Does it feel good that you got it, or was it uncomfortable to know people had auditioned for your role?
Langella: It feels great. While I didn't think I would play the part in the movie, I was not discontent while I was doing it on Broadway. I was the last person to sign on to the movie. Everyone was cast. They were going to do it with Warren Beatty, but they cast me literally the day after the play opened on Broadway. By then, everybody else had been cast.
Back Stage: Does that get to you personally, or do you chalk it up to the business?
Langella: Not at all. I knew for months and months, and I accepted it. It's a business. At that point, they felt they needed someone with more of an international name. I don't know why Warren and Universal separated; I've never asked. Ron called me and said, "Would you like to come and play?" And I said, "Of course I would; thank you for asking."
Back Stage: What advice are you most asked for from young actors?
Langella: I'm asked all the time, "What keeps you in?" And my response is always the same: the work. If you love the work, and if you honor it and are responsible to it, you can take a little shit. But if you join the bullshit parade and live by it and say, "I know I can play this; I need this much money; I want this much in my deal," then you're going to be miserable and bitter. If you love to work and let the other nonsense flow past you, you're going to be fine.