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Frank Langella On Acting, Aging And Being Very Bad

'Man' Of Some Importance: Actor Frank Langella (left, with Adam Driver) anchors the Roundabout Theatre Company's Man and Boy, about a highflying financier whose empire hangs by a thread. (Joan Marcus)

Nobody glowers like Frank Langella. The man who brought Richard Nixon to life in his Tony Award-winning turn in Frost/Nixon and who was a true lizard in Seascape is now playing Gregor Antonescu, an acclaimed international financier who was exposed as a flagrant and successful fraud.

He's starring in a revival of Terrence Rattigan's 1963 play Man and Boy, which has its opening night Oct. 9. The play centers on the sudden reunion of the father (Langella) and the son he'd thought was dead. (Actually, the son's just living in Greenwich Village.)

It's not an easy reunion. Asked in the play if he has a conscience, Langella's character says he does — albeit one in a human shape, in the form of his estranged son. Langella says the love that his character's son has for him in the play is pure, and his character just can't handle that.

"The son is the reminder to him of the kind of dissolute life he lives," Langella says. "If he lets his love for his son in, and vice versa, he won't be able to do what obviously means more to him" — i.e., bilk people.

No Smile, But He'll Play The Villain

In Langella's dressing room in the American Airlines Theatre in New York, the actor tells NPR's Scott Simon that he gets a special satisfaction in playing characters a lot of other people find immediately unappealing.

"These men who are monstrous, so to speak, are enormously, enormously rewarding to play — much more so than a good man," he says. Not that there aren't rewards to playing heroes. "But there's so much more that you can draw on when you play a man who's complicated, difficult and downright mean, as this man is."

The key, he says, is not to see the character as a villain.

"I have to see it all from his point of view," Langella says. "I can't judge him. I can't say, 'Oh, how terrible of him to do this, wink wink, let me find a way to soften what he's doing.' 'Cause when you're inside yourself, no matter what you are, you believe in what you're doing. You don't say, 'I just screwed somebody over in business. ... I'm a really mean person.' You lie to yourself and tell yourself all the reasons why it's OK for you to do what you do. Even a serial killer does that. We're all very quick to judge anybody else's cruelty and very quick to justify our own."

Langella says he thinks the theme of Man and Boy would resonate even if its story weren't told against the backdrop of a financial scandal that will seem familiar to anyone who keeps up with the headlines.

"The man I'm playing is at the end of his road financially, and in his business life, he's desperately trying to save himself one last time, but the theme of the play is universal," Langella says. "I think it says, 'Why do we put up so many roadblocks to real love, real intimacy, real caring? Why do we search out things that only give us temporary satisfaction and rewards, when something quite pure and beautiful might be standing there, wanting our love?' ... You know, we go to a cigarette or a drink or rampant sex or making lots of money or possessions. And that's universal. Everybody, I think, suffers from that."

Words To Live By

There are words that stick with Langella — that travel with him from dressing room to dressing room.

The cathartic possibility of the theater needs nothing more than the actor and the stage.

In other words, who needs the smoke, bells and whistles of modern theatrical productions? They can get in the way of an audience's experience.

"You can have theater with all of those things, but you can't have the cathartic possibility of theater — that thing that lifts you beyond yourself as an audience member," Langella says. "You really just need the platform and the actor, another piece of humanity, sharing his humanity with the audience."

Mean it.

"Don't open your mouth if you don't mean every word you're saying," Langella says.

Leap empty-handed into the void.

It's Langella's favorite quote on the wall.

"It's the hardest thing to do," he says. "It takes a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of competence to finally know that if you've learned your lines and you understand what they mean and you're ready to go and you fixed the costume and the light's OK, you just walk out onstage, and you leap empty-handed into the void, and you see what comes back to you."

What You Leave Behind Backstage

Langella says part of growing as an actor is learning not to carry around the sadness of a character like the one he plays in Man and Boy after the show has ended each day.

"By the very nature of repeating it and discovering it, I do get more and more affected by the powerful emotional connection the father and son have in the last moments of the play and what his life is like," he says. "It happens onstage, and I let it happen onstage, and it often fills me with great sadness. But when it's over, it's over. I don't carry it with me."

"I remember a young actor told me once that it took him a year to get over playing Hamlet, and I said, 'Well, then you did it wrong.' It should take you until your first glass of wine at the restaurant later on to get over it."

Langella says he's found a kind of strength in recent years that he wasn't able to bring to the stage when he was younger.

"I haven't done any plastic surgery or any plugs in my head," he says. "I'm letting my hair go as it goes, and I'm trying to age gracefully into my profession as well as life. I think it's madness to try to be what you were."

"It's great to have been it," he says. "I'm glad some of it's on film. I'm glad some of it's recorded. But I certainly feel more liberated with each decade not having to worry about those things anymore."

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Transcript

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Nobody glowers like Frank Langella. The man who brought Richard Nixon to life in his Tony Award-winning turn in "Frost/Nixon" and was a true lizard in "Seascape," is now playing Gregor Antonescu, an acclaimed international financier who was exposed as a flagrant and successful fraud in the revival of Terence Rattigan's 1963 play "Man and Boy," which centers around the sudden reunion of the father, played by Mr. Langella, and the son that he said was dead. Actually, the son is just living in Greenwich Village.

(SOUNDBITE OF PLAY, "MAN AND BOY")

FRANK LANGELLA: (as Ross) Then I suppose I'm a very bad man.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) Oh, no? To be bad you must at least have some idea of what badness is.

LANGELLA: (as Ross) And I do. Eh, perhaps not and yet I have a conscious. I must or I wouldn't have tried so hard to drive it away.

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (as character) When did you have a conscious?

LANGELLA: (as Ross) Five minutes ago. It came in human shape. And I did. I drove it away.

SIMON: We've joined Frank Langella in his dressing room at the American Airlines Theatre in New York.

Thanks very much for being with U.S..

LANGELLA: You're more than welcome. Thanks for having me.

SIMON: And there's a small smile at your face. You're not exactly glowering now.

LANGELLA: Not yet.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LANGELLA: See how the interview goes.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

SIMON: Is there some special satisfaction in playing characters a lot of other people find immediately unappealing?

LANGELLA: Yes, actually. Yes, that's a very good question. There is. These men who are monsters, so to speak, are enormously, enormously rewarding to play. Much more so than a good man, you know, of a purely good man. There're certain rewards in that. But there's so much more that you can draw on when you play a man who's complicated, difficult and downright mean, as this man is.

SIMON: How much do you have to like a character to play him?

LANGELLA: Completely. I have to be totally on the character's side. I have to see it all from his point of view. I can't judge him. I can't say, oh, how terrible of him to do this - wink, wink - let me find a way to soften what he's doing. 'Cause when you're inside yourself, no matter what you are, you believe in what you're doing.

You don't say, I just screwed somebody over in business. I'm doing it. I'm a really mean person. You lie to yourself and tell yourself all the reasons why it's OK for you to do what you do. Even a serial killer does that. And yet, we're all very quick to judge anybody else's cruelty and very quick to justify our own.

SIMON: Can you let the conscience, your conscience show?

LANGELLA: You mean in this play or talking about in life?

SIMON: Yeah, but generally as well.

LANGELLA: Well, in this play, the conscience is in the shape of his son. He says my conscious comes in human shape. And it's the son that he can't bear to be around because the son is the reminder to him of the kind of desolate life he lives. And if he lets his love for his son in, and vice versa, he won't be able to do what obviously means more to him.

SIMON: In your mind, is the theme of the play newly pertinent given recent events?

LANGELLA: I think the theme of the play is universal. You know, I know that it appears to be about a financial scandal and that's the back story. In fact, the man I'm playing is at the end of his road financially and in his business life. He's desperately trying to save himself one last time.

But the theme of the play is universal. And I think it says: Why do we put up so many roadblocks to real love, real intimacy, real caring? Why do we search out things that only give us temporary satisfaction and rewards when something quite pure and beautiful might be standing there wanting our love and we go to something else?

You know, we go to a cigarette or a drink or rampant sex or making lots of money or possessions. And that's universal. Everybody, I think, suffers from that.

SIMON: You're speaking of the love of the son that he isn't able to...

LANGELLA: Yeah, that his son has for him is so pure and he just can't handle it.

SIMON: Now, when we walked into your dressing room, we noticed you've got some words of instruction that are framed and hanging up. And they say that they are yours, they don't go with the dressing room.

LANGELLA: They go with me from dressing room to dressing room.

SIMON: Is it possible to share a couple of them? Would you mind?

LANGELLA: Sure, you can read them out loud if you want to.

SIMON: This one: The cathartic possibility of the theater needs nothing more than the actor and the stage.

LANGELLA: Yeah.

SIMON: I mean, nowadays on stage they have smoke and whistles and people disappearing in boxes and...

LANGELLA: Yeah, but the quality is the cathartic possibility. You can have theater with all of those things. But you can't have the cathartic possibility of theater, that thing that lifts you beyond yourself as an audience member. You really just need the platform and the actor, another piece of humanity sharing his humanity with the audience.

SIMON: Mean it?

LANGELLA: Mm-hmm. Mean it is simple. You know, don't open your mouth if you don't mean every word that you're saying. The one you didn't read is my favorite, which is: leap empty-handed into the void.

SIMON: That's your favorite because?

LANGELLA: It is because it's the hardest thing to do and it takes a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of confidence to finally know that if you've learned your lines and you understand what they mean, and you're ready to go, and you've fixed the costume and the light's OK. And you just walk out on stage and you leap empty-handed into the void and you see what comes back to you.

SIMON: I certainly don't want to give away any - I don't want to give away how the play ends. But is it hard for you to carry that kind of sadness around night after night and today – twice, I guess, matinee and for evening?

LANGELLA: No, it's my craft. It's what I do. The play is in its I guess 16th or 17th preview and perforce by the very nature of repeating it and discovering it, I do get more and more affected by the emotional - powerful emotional connection the father and son have in the last moments of the play and...

SIMON: Yeah.

LANGELLA: ...what his life is like. But it happens on stage and I let it happen on stage and it fills me with often great sadness. But when it's over, it's over. I don't carry it with me. I remember a young actor told me once that he - it took him a year to get over playing Hamlet. And I said well, then you did it wrong.

(SOUNDBITE OF LAUGHTER)

LANGELLA: It should take you until your first glass of wine at the restaurant later on to get over it, and even shorter than that.

SIMON: Is there a particularly kind of satisfaction you take at this stage of your career?

LANGELLA: That I get up every day and I got here, that we're sitting here, that I'm healthy. That people still want to come and see me means a great deal to me. And that I...

SIMON: You're in your 70s now, right?

LANGELLA: I'm in - I'm 73.

SIMON: Is there some strength you can bring to the stage that you didn't when you were a young matinee idol?

LANGELLA: Yes. I'm over that and I'm grateful to be over it. You either get over it or you don't and a lot of my colleagues don't get over it. I, you know, I haven't done any plastic surgery and any plugs in my head. I'm letting my hair go as it goes, and I'm trying to age gracefully into my profession as well as life. I think it's madness to try to be what you were. You know, it's great to have been it. I'm glad some of it's on film. I'm glad some of it's recorded. But I certainly feel more liberated with each decade not having to worry about those things anymore.

I did a movie a number of years ago with a very famous actor, exactly 10 or 15, maybe 15 years younger than me. And I was really heartened by the fact and found it funny to watch him in the makeup chair and watch him look at the camera and look at where every hair was and how good his makeup was and all of that, and I could care less now. I mean I just put on my suit and go in front of the camera. But that's because I'm 15 years older and I'm no longer interested in that, and if he evolves the same thing will happen to him. It's very liberating to not be concerned with the things that used to matter so much to you, that then they got it the way.

SIMON: Frank Langella, thanks very much.

LANGELLA: My pleasure. Thank you.

SIMON: Frank Langella, backstage with us at the American Airlines Theater in New York City. Mr. Langella opens October 9 in "Man and Boy." Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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