Frank Langella: A Career 'Like A Chekhov Play'
This interview was originally broadcast on Aug. 16, 2012.
Frank Langella's career has not been an upward trajectory of success — and he likes it that way. He's had memorable roles on stage and screen, and times when he couldn't find work, or even an agent.
Now 75, Langella tells Fresh Air's Dave Davies, he's never been hungrier to act.
In the futuristic film Robot & Frank, Langella plays an aging ex-burglar whose caregiver is a robot. Frank's children hire the robot (with the voice of Peter Sarsgaard) to tend to Frank as he experiences symptoms of dementia. At first, Langella's character hates the robot, but he slowly warms up when he realizes the robot can get him back into the theft business.
"He becomes fond of the robot only because it is a tool for his wicked, wicked ways," Langella says.
Langella got attention in the 1970s with his performances in Diary of a Mad Housewife and Dracula. In 1993, he played an imposing White House chief of staff in the comedy Dave, and more recently, he earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, a role he also performed onstage.
Langella was drawn to his latest role, he says, because he had to be honest opposite a machine.
"It was only going to feed me back the information it had been fed," he says.
And Langella says he liked the unsentimental nature of the story.
The robot "enables Frank to get back some of his vigor and youth, and do the thing he loves most, which is to steal from the rich."
On the unsentimental relationship between his character and the robot
"I think the movie would be less successful and less appreciated, for that matter, if in fact we went in the direction of, here comes love, here comes a warm cuddly relationship; [that's] not realistic in my mind. ...
"What we tried to achieve was the notion of what's going to happen to all of us in the near future — every one of us is going to go through aging and all sorts of processes, many people suffering from dementia. And if you put a machine in there to help, the notion of making it about love and buddy-ness and warmth is kind of scary in a way, because that's what you should be doing with other human beings. So having the robot stay exactly as it always is and having Frank use it for nefarious purposes, I thought was wonderful."
On what the movie made him ponder
"I know I'm closer to the end than the beginning, so I'm trying to be far more conscious of any time wasted, which I still waste, as everybody does. But because it's inevitable and because there's nothing I can do about it, and I was taught at a fairly young age — not young enough, I wish I had learned earlier — that to waste any time on the inevitable or the thing you cannot control or fix is absolute nonsense. ...
"What the film has done for me is made me much more keenly aware — even though it's a cliché these days that machines are taking over our lives — [it] made me much more keenly aware of how we all miss contact with each other."
On the ups and downs of his career
"My career has been really very much like a Chekhov play, which is, it just ebbs and flows ... It's not like exposition, and then the plot turns, and then there's a great big climax and then a denouement, it's been wildly up and down. And I've liked it that way — great, great periods of enormous success, and then even sometimes greater periods where I couldn't get a job, I couldn't get an agent even, where you just feel like somehow you're not going to pull out of whatever the slump is that you're in.
"So the thing I think I had in my back pocket that a lot of actors don't have is that I trained myself for the stage. There was never a period in my life when I couldn't do that. ... I didn't run to bad television or do commercials or things like that, I went on the stage and played great roles. The movies would be dead to me for three, four, five years — nobody wanted me, and then suddenly, something would come along and start a whole new period."
On taking on Nixon's voice in Frost/Nixon
"I didn't think Richard Nixon's particular way of being was in my bag of tricks. I just didn't think I was going to be able to find quite the soul of this guy, and it was enough reason for me then to decide to do it. ...
"And it was a very painful three or four weeks. I sounded like Mr. Magoo for a certain period of time, then I sounded a little bit like Jimmy Stewart ... but it was when I sat and watched Richard Nixon in slow motion that I began to get into his soul and to his heart, and then what I sounded like didn't matter to me. Then a noise began to come out of me that was a result of what was in my imagination going on inside him."
DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies, in for Terry Gross. Our guest today, Frank Langella, has been acting for a half a century. He's had memorable roles and other times when he couldn't find work or even an agent. But at 75, he's still busy with his craft.
Langella received attention in the '70s with his performances in "Diary of a Mad Housewife" and "Dracula." In 1993, he was an imposing White House chief of staff in the comedy "Dave." And more recently, he earned an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of Richard Nixon in "Frost-Nixon," a role he also performed on stage. He received his fourth Tony Award for that performance.
Langella won critical acclaim last year for his starring role in the film "Robot & Frank" from first-time director Jake Schreier. It's now out on DVD. The film is set in the near future, and Langella plays a retired cat burglar living alone in rural New York. He's beginning to experience some dementia, and his family's getting concerned.
In this scene, his son, played by James Marsden, has arrived at his home to introduce him to a new home health care aid, which happens to be a robot.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "ROBOT & FRANK")
FRANK LANGELLA: (As Frank) You have got to be kidding me. I'm not this pathetic. I don't need to be spoon-fed by some goddamn robot.
JAMES MARSDEN: (As Hunter) Dad, this - it's not like that. It's new. It's more like a butler.
LANGELLA: (As Frank) You're going to leave me with this death machine?
MARSDEN: (As Hunter) What's the problem? It's a robot.
PETER SARSGAARD: (As Robot) Hi Frank, it's a pleasure to meet you.
LANGELLA: (As Frank) How do you know?
DAVIES: Frank Langella, welcome to FRESH AIR. It's great to have you.
LANGELLA: Thank you.
DAVIES: At the heart of this is the relationship between your character and the robot, whose voice is played by Peter Sarsgaard, but I understand that wasn't dubbed in until later, right?
LANGELLA: Much later, actually several months, maybe six months after we finished the film.
DAVIES: Yeah, so how did you interact with the robot that's such an important part of the film?
LANGELLA: Well, the robot was a universal sound to me in my head, my imagination of what a robot would sound like and how the robot's rather disassociated voice would sound. So I always played to that, no matter who was reading the lines off-camera. So I never had any - people kept saying to me don't you wish now that you'd had Peter's voice, which he does beautifully, but it really would not have mattered because the robot was somebody I made up in my head.
DAVIES: Was it disconcerting to be interacting with this person in a robot suit, but as you say, your relationship is really with this voice in your head? That seems like a challenge.
LANGELLA: Well, I've acted opposite human robots on occasion.
LANGELLA: So it wasn't disconcerting at all. As a matter of fact, it was rather freeing in certain ways, because Frank the character feels very strongly about this robot, negative and then somewhat positive, although never sentimentally in love, which I thought would have been a cliche to do.
That robot becomes very useful to him. It enables him to sort of get back some of his vigor and youth and do the thing he loves most, which is to steal from the rich. But I didn't find it disconcerting; I found it rather exciting, in a way, in a strange way, to try to be as honest as I could opposite a machine and opposite something that wasn't ever going to change no matter what I did, it was only going to feed me back the information it had been fed.
DAVIES: Right. I thought we'd listen to a scene here. I mean, this is at a point a little farther into the film, where some of your character's reluctance to deal with the robot has been overcome because the robot is, after all, a home health care aid and has, you know, gotten you on a regular diet and some healthier food and exercise. And so your character's mental acuity is beginning to come back, and he gets interested in resuming his old career, which as you say is stealing.
LANGELLA: And he gives me enemas, and that'll always bring back your mental acuity.
DAVIES: I trust that was not re-enacted on the set?
LANGELLA: No, it was not, mercifully.
DAVIES: And of course, your character, you're the Frank in the film, teaches him how to pick locks, and he's a robot, and he's good and learns to do it. And they have - in the scene we're going to hear, they've already done one job, they broke into the local library and stole a rare book so that your character, Frank, could give to a librarian he's sweet on, played by Susan Sarandon.
And now here he is in the room speaking with the robot and considering another heist. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC, "ROBOT & FRANK")
SARSGAARD: (As Robot) I'm sorry, Frank, but I can't agree to let you risk another burglary. Let's focus on the garden instead.
LANGELLA: (As Frank) Look, the library was strictly a smash-and-grab job.
SARSGAARD: (As Robot) Smash and grab? You didn't even give Jennifer the book.
LANGELLA: (As Frank) I'll give it to her some other time. Maybe I'll invite her over for dinner or something. Meanwhile, going after one of these rich yuppies, it's a whole different story.
SARSGAARD: (As Robot) You can't predict that, Frank.
LANGELLA: (As Frank) Isn't this something you're supposed to encourage? Look, without the library job, I'd just be down in the dumps watching you dig up my lawn. Instead, I'm at a party with a beautiful woman. You know, I don't want to lose that again.
SARSGAARD: (As Robot) Maybe we can just do the casing portion as a research project.
LANGELLA: (As Frank) And if I've covered everything so that it's basically zero risk?
SARSGAARD: (As Robot) You would have to be very thorough, Frank. I'm a strict judge.
LANGELLA: (As Frank) OK, OK.
DAVIES: And that's our guest Frank Langella with the robot played by Peter Sarsgaard in the new film "Robot & Frank." Is it fun to hear the finished product with Peter Sarsgaard's voice?
LANGELLA: No, it's absolutely the opposite; it's agony. I'm sitting here in agony because so much of what you do in a film is visual, and not to see the face, not to see the pauses for the emotional life is agony when you're an actor listening to it. I don't think Peter would mind because he's absolutely wonderful, and it's that marvelous sound he makes, but I didn't like the sound of me at all.
DAVIES: Really? Huh.
LANGELLA: No, but then I'm very critical even when I watch a film. But, you know, something that's done for the radio or done for recording is one thing, but when you're doing something in front of a camera, there are all sorts of beats and rhythms in it that you can't possibly get when you listen to it.
DAVIES: Right, so anything we play is just not going to measure up to what it should be.
LANGELLA: Not for me, no.
DAVIES: Yet there's - this is a first-time director, right? Jake Schreier, and the writer is Chris Ford, young guys writing about an older man. Did - what appealed to you about the project?
LANGELLA: Well first of all the story. I couldn't resist the story. I loved it, and I thought it was intelligently written. But I thought it was missing the heartbeat of what it's like to be in your 70s, which is where I am. So we all had a very, very, very long luncheon. I said immediately I'd like to do this, but may I tell you what it's like to be 70.
And these two guys sat and listened for a long time and asked a lot of really smart questions, and I said if you would be willing to incorporate some of the inner life of a 70-year-old man into this, so the audience of in what way and how he neglected his family and his kids, what he's feeling, just about being in his 70s, with or without this illness, which he totally denies - I'd like to do it when I see it.
And they sent me back a script that was very sensitive to the things we'd talked about. So I said yes immediately.
DAVIES: Did it make you think about what's ahead, you know, in your own health? I mean you have grown kids who probably, you know, worry about their dad at times.
LANGELLA: No more than I did earlier. The only thing that's different now is I know I'm closer to the end than the beginning, so I'm trying to be far more conscious of any time wasted, which I still waste, as everybody does.
But I - because it's inevitable, and because there's nothing I can do about it, and I was taught at a fairly young age - not young enough, I wish I'd learned it earlier - that to waste any time on the inevitable or the thing you cannot control or fix is absolute nonsense, and I can't control the clock ticking.
What the film has done for me, and what I hope it will do for people who watch it, is made me much more keenly aware, even though it's a cliché these days, that machines are taking over our lives.
It made me much more keenly aware of how often I miss, or we all miss, contact with other and how easy it is to rely on these things to get a point across: I'll just send an email quickly; I won't answer the phone; I'll do that in writing; or I'll sit and listen to a message being read to me live while I'm sitting there rather than deal with whatever the thing is.
Machinery is going to make us, I think, less sensitive to each other, less empathetic to each other because we can turn to the machine to take care of something that's, you know, not particularly pleasant, and I think that's a big danger and a worry.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Frank Langella, and we'll continue after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR, and our guest is actor Frank Langella. He stars with Susan Sarandno and Peter Sarsgaard in the film "Robot & Frank," which is now out on DVD. You grew up in Bayonne, New Jersey. What kind of neighborhood was it? What kind of kid were you?
LANGELLA: Middle-class, extraordinarily shy, awkward kid; very skinny; very short, cropped hair; big, horn-rimmed eyeglasses; middle kid; not able, much, to express himself. Consequently, I became an actor...
LANGELLA: You know, it's an old story.
DAVIES: I cannot imagine you as shy and awkward. When did you get the acting bug?
LANGELLA: At about seven, maybe earlier than that, but I started - I got on a stage when I was about six or seven, in a school pageant called "Lazy Town." I wrote about it in my book. I wrote that I didn't know what a stage was the first time I walked onto it, and I didn't know what the wings were the first time I stood in them, but I did know I was home.
That is a blessing about as great as you could give a young kid, which is to have a calling, something that you think you're right for and want to do. When I graduated college, I'll never forget my graduation night sitting amongst all my buddies, fraternity brothers and guys in my classes and things, some of them in agony because they had no idea what they were going to do.
And I already had a job in a little theater in Boston, and I had my car all packed up, and I drove away the next day and was in rehearsal that afternoon.
And that was one of the things I was spared growing up, you know, all the agonies of being a kid, all the - you know, it's going to - how can I ask a girl on a date, I don't want to enter that room, I'm not as good a ballplayer as the other guy, what - all the things that all of us go through. One of them was spared me, which was what am I going to do with myself. I knew, and boy was that a - that was a blessing.
DAVIES: Did you have a Jersey accent? I read that you...
LANGELLA: Yes, I did. I had a very strong New Jersey accent, and I got rid of it by listening to John Gielgud albums, a record - actually one particular, "Richard III," that Sir Lawrence Olivier did, '54, '55, I think, and I was taken with Gielgud's voice.
And so I imitated it in my attic in New Jersey over and over and over again, and pretty soon I sounded like, you know, in the middle of Bayonne, New Jersey, in South Orange, here comes this little British lord.
DAVIES: Yeah, what did your friends think of your John Geilgud thing?
LANGELLA: Well, they were not particularly interested in it, really. They didn't pay much attention. You know, the kid who wants to be an actor is not the kid a lot of people want to be around, especially - particularly girls.
They want to be around the captain of the basketball team. And the friends you tend to make when you want to be an actor at that age are all the other misfits in the class, you know, all the strange kids, the ones who wanted to be in the theater and things like that.And it was an odd bunch but not many of them in Bayonne. It was only when I got to college that I began to find more like-minded people.
DAVIES: Right, you went to Syracuse and studied acting, right?
LANGELLA: Yes, I did.
DAVIES: Early in your career, you were in "Diary of a Mad Housewife" and then the Mel Brooks film "The Twelve Chairs," which is one of my all-time favorite movies. And I don't know if people know about it. How did you get that role?
LANGELLA: I got it because Ann Bancroft and I had done a play together called "A Cry of Players," it's about young Will Shakespeare. And she and Mel were just married, and I was just married, and the four of us, my former wife, deceased wife, and Mel and Ann, became very close.
And Mel was putting together "The Twelve Chairs" while he was putting "The Producers" in place, editing it and opening it. So I was at all the screenings. I was at the very first screening of "The Producers," and the degree of laughter was beyond anything I'd ever heard before or anybody had.
And while he was thinking about doing his new movie, called "The Twelve Chairs," he had hired Alastair Sim, who was a great English character actor, Albert Finney to play the young male lead and Peter Sellers to play the priest. And one by one all three of those actors fell out, for different reasons, and Mel got more and more angry and more and more upset. And I said I'd just seen "Oliver!" with an actor named - oh God he's got...
DAVIES: Ron Moody.
LANGELLA: Ron Moody, and I took Mel to an afternoon screening of it, and he said there's my Vorobyaninov. And Annie said: I saw a really funny roly-poly little fat guy on television called Dom DeLuise, and I think he'd be great as the priest, and then that was Dom's part. And one afternoon, he was going through all the different - he'd just worked with Gene Wilder, and they were talking about maybe Gene playing the young male lead and a whole bunch of names.
And I don't know if I can say this on NPR, but I'll say it, and you'll cut it: Mel suddenly turned to Annie and said oh (beep), let Frankie do it.
LANGELLA: And that's how I got my first movie. I just got it in that sort of offhanded way. And I looked at him, and I said: Are you serious? I've never made a movie before. He said yeah. And that's how I got the job. And he paid me next to nothing, but I had 10 of the greatest months of my young life, all over Yugoslavia, just - we became such a great, tight group of crazies.
DAVIES: Well, I have to play a scene early on. I mean, the movie is set in the Soviet Union in the late 1920s, and this - what we hear is there's a member of the - a former member of the Russian aristocracy, played by Ron Moody, who has come into this town because he's learned that he may be able to figure out what happened to his family's jewels, which would be worth a fortune.
LANGELLA: And then he crosses paths with you, you're this sort of adventuresome kind of scam artist working his way through the Soviet Union, smart guy, and you don't know this aristocrat, but you sense that there's something here that might be lucrative. And in the scene we're going to hear, you're in a room together. You've just grabbed a piece of paper of his, which is the list of jewels that he's looking for.
DAVIES: And he's trying to get it back from you and keep him out of his plans. Let's listen.
(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE TWELVE CHAIRS")
LANGELLA: (As Ostap Bender) Oh, how very impressive. This ought to fetch quite a lot.
RON MOODY: (As Ippolit Vorobyaninov) Please give me that paper. It's personal property.
LANGELLA: (As Bender) Oh, haven't you heard? There is no personal property in the Soviet Union. Everything belongs to the people.
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov ) Will you please give me that paper? It's a private matter, and I am not at liberty to discuss it.
LANGELLA: (As Bender) Yes, of course, of course. One shouldn't interfere in private matters. It's considered gauche. There you are. Now, I must be off.
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov ) Where are you going?
LANGELLA: (As Bender) Ah, the eternal question, (unintelligible). Well, if you must know, I am (unintelligible) off to gossip with the secret police.
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov ) Secret police?
LANGELLA: (As Bender) Well, what can I do, old cock? After all, I am a patriotic citizen of the Soviet Union. It is my sacred duty to turn you in. Now maybe if you weren't such a selfish pig we could do business.
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov ) I can't.
LANGELLA: (As Bender) I'm going.
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov ) Wait.
LANGELLA: (As Bender) Why?
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov ) Let's talk.
LANGELLA: (As Bender) About what?
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov ) Things.
LANGELLA: (As Bender) What things?
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov ) I don't know. The situation.
LANGELLA: (As Bender) I am going.
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov ) Wait.
LANGELLA: (As Bender) Why?
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov ) Let's talk.
LANGELLA: (As Bender) About what?
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov ) It.
LANGELLA: (As Bender) What's it?
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov ) You know.
LANGELLA: (As Bender) I know what?
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov ) What we're talking about.
LANGELLA: (As Bender) We're talking about nothing. I'm going.
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov ) You mustn't.
LANGELLA: (As Bender) I must.
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov ) Why?
LANGELLA: (As Bender) A reward.
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov ) What reward?
LANGELLA: (As Bender) For turning you in.
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov ) Wait.
LANGELLA: (As Bender) Why?
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov ) We'll talk.
LANGELLA: (As Bender) About what?
MOODY: (As Vorobyaninov) About the diamonds, the diamonds, the diamonds.
DAVIES: It still makes me laugh. That's from "The Twelve Chairs," that's Ron Moody and our guest Frank Langella. Well, it was, I just think, a wonderful film.
LANGELLA: I do, too. I'm very happy for it to have been my debut film.
DAVIES: What was it like working with Brooks on it - and Dom DeLuise?
LANGELLA: Oh, staggering, really, really funny because I was such a novice, and I didn't know. The first day I was called on the sense, I didn't work for four or five hours, and like a total naïve ass, I said: I don't understand, I got here four hours ago. Why am I still waiting? And the whole crew looked at me like I was nuts. And it took me not very long to figure out that that's what movies are about.
But Mel had a relentless, relentless anger about working there because he couldn't get any laughs out of the crowd of people and out of the crew. Most of them didn't speak English.
DAVIES: This was in Yugoslavia, right, yeah.
LANGELLA: Yeah, we were in Yugoslavia, and he was used to getting big laughs and making jokes, and these people just stared at him as if he were a stone statue. And he wanted what he wanted, and he wanted it in the way he wanted it. So after a while, watching him, frustratingly, trying to get what he needed from a group of Yugoslavians who didn't find him in any way amusing was really great to watch.
And he was wonderful to me, and Annie, his wife, was on the set with us all the time, and Mel's - Dom DeLuise's wife and mine. People came - no, mine wasn't there. Kate came and went all the time. It was just a wonderful time to be making a movie in a foreign country, to be 28, 29, whatever I was at the time. It was exciting.
DAVIES: Frank Langella will be back in the second half of the show. His film "Robot & Frank" is now out on DVD. Here's a song from the Mel Brooks' film "The Twelve Chairs." I'm Dave Davies, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Dave Davies in for Terry Gross. We're listening to my interview recorded last year recorded with actor Frank Langella, whose career on stage and screen goes back five decades.
Last year, he starred in the film "Robot & Frank," which also features Susan Sarandon and Peter Sarsgaard as the robot. It's now out on DVD. Langella's other films include "Diary of a Mad Housewife," "Dracula," "Dave" and "Frost/Nixon," which earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor. He also played Nixon on stage and won a Tony Award.
I read at once in an interview, and you said that in your early years as an actor, you described yourself as obstreperous, arrogant and stubborn. Does that get it? I mean were you a hard guy to work with?
LANGELLA: Yes, I was. I made the mistake of believing - as so many young actors do, and many young men do, and women too, I suppose - that because you feel you're right about something it gives you the right to behave badly, or stubbornly or arrogantly to make your point. I think it's a function of youth and I give a wide berth to young actors who are like that these days. The notion that what you feel is the right way to do something or how to do it is the correct way, can make you walk around with blinders on and give you very little understanding into the feelings of the person opposite you, who has their own point of view and their own way of expressing themselves. And so I was, I was a very forceful young man, very strong minded and very strong-willed, and I've moderated that over the years a great deal. I'm not entirely free of it, but I'm still strong minded, but I think I'm a lot more tactful about it now than I used to be.
DAVIES: In the '80s you did a lot of theater. Was that by choice or was it because movie roles weren't coming?
LANGELLA: My career has been really very much like a Chekhov play, which is, it just ebbs and flows and, you know, it's not like exposition, and then the plot turns, and then there's a great big climax and then a denouement. It's been wildly up and down. And I've liked it that way - great, great periods of enormous success, and then even sometimes greater periods where I couldn't get a job, at one point I couldn't get an agent even, where you just feel like you're somehow you're not going to ever pull out of whatever the slump is that you're in.
The thing I think I had in my back pocket that a lot of actors don't have is that I was - I trained myself for the stage. So there was never a period in my life when I couldn't do that. So I did. I didn't run to bad television or do commercials or things like that, I went on the stage and I played great roles. And the movies would be dead to me for three, four, five years - nobody wanted me - and then suddenly, something would come along and start a whole new period.
And as I left my juvenile period and then went into my leading man years, and then when my leading man years were fading along with my hair and waistline, suddenly I began to get offered very interesting character roles, which kind of started with "Dave," the Ivan Reitman film I did, about the president. And that began what was what I think I am in now is my character years.
DAVIES: Well, I do want to talk about "Frost/Nixon." There's a moment that I think we're going to let our audience listen to. And this is, you're playing Nixon. This is, of course, after his resignation. He's unhappy living in the West Coast and trying to figure out what he'll do and how he'll restore his reputation. And this English talk show guy David Frost has proposed to pay him a bunch of money for a series of interviews. Not so clear that he can raise the money and pull it off, but Nixon is interested. And in the scene we are about to hear, you, as Nixon, has just given a boring speech at a convention, I guess, to put some money on the table. You tell some stories that are not particularly interesting and you're speaking afterward with your aide Jack Brennan, who is played here by Kevin Bacon.
(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE "FROST/NIXON")
LANGELLA: (as Nixon) I can't stand it, Jack. Reducing the presidency to a series of banal anecdotes. I feel like a circus animal doing tricks. And I thought I made it clear, I didn't want to take any questions on Watergate. Get it? Soon as it came to question time, all those sons of bitches ever want to hear about is Watergate. It's as if all my other achievements have ceased to exist.
KEVIN BACON: (Jack Brennan) Well, sir, you're going to get a chance to talk about them sooner than you think.
LANGELLA: Yeah? How?
BACON: Frost got there. He got the money.
BACON: I understand most of it's borrowed - that his friends have bailed him out. But the point is, we start taping at the end of March.
Really? Now that's terrific. How much time is devoted to Watergate?
Twenty-five percent. Just one of four 90-minute shows.
LANGELLA: What are the other three divided into?
BACON: Domestic affairs, foreign policy and Nixon the man.
LANGELLA: Nixon the Man? As opposed to what? Nixon the horse?
BACON: Well, I imagine it's some kind of biographical piece.
LANGELLA: I can see it now. The father that neglected me, the brothers that died. Spare me. Still, now, the fact it's come together, now, that's a good thing, no?
BACON: Mr. President, it's fantastic. Frost is just not in your intellectual class, sir. You're going to be able to dictate terms, rebuild your reputation. If this went well, if enough people saw it, revised their opinion, you could move back East way, way earlier than we expected.
LANGELLA: You think?
BACON: I'm certain.
LANGELLA: It would be so good to go back to where the action is. You know, the hunger in my belly is still there, Jack. I guess it all boils down to Watergate, huh?
DAVIES: And that's our guest Frank Langella with Kevin Bacon in "Frost/Nixon." You played this role, of course, on the stage, as well as in the film. I read you were a little reluctant to take it on initially. Is that right?
LANGELLA: Yes, I've said a number of times that I didn't think - I didn't think Richard Nixon's particular way of being was in my bag of tricks. I just didn't think I was going to be able to find quite the soul of this guy. And it was enough reason for me then to decide to do it, which was well, so if I fall on my ass, I fall on my ass.
And it was a very painful three or four weeks. Really, I was like, I sounded like Mr. Magoo for a certain period of time, then I sounded a little bit like Jimmy Stewart and I, you know, I kept - and it's not new information but it was when I sat and watched Nixon in slow motion that I began to get into his soul and into his heart, and then what I sounded like didn't matter to me. Then a noise began to come out of me that was as a result of what was in my imagination, going on inside him.
DAVIES: How do you explain that, that the slow-motion Nixon kind of unlocked it for you?
LANGELLA: Well, I was at the Museum of Radio and Television. I asked the lady there if she'd be good enough to give me some tapes on him. And she said how many do you want? I've got thousands and thousands. And she brought in a big wagon and I got a sandwich and an iced tea, and sat and plugged in the Watergate shows and watch him. And then I got up to go to the bathroom and I pressed the button and when I came back I pressed slow motion as a, in an accident, really. All the wonderful accidents that happen to you as an actor, and that was one of the great ones for me. And I watched his eyes and the way his mouth moved and his hand gestures in slow motion. And suddenly I began to see what he was hiding. I began to notice the ticks much more vividly than I had normally, because we had all seen so much of him that you grew used to it. But when you watch him in slow - when you watch anything in slow motion you're going to see something a little waiver in the eyes, a little strange smile, whatever. And that's when his heart, when the soul of the man, as I perceived him, began to take shape for me and then I began to think well, maybe, maybe I can find a way to do him.
DAVIES: Did you talk to a lot of people who knew him? Did you read a lot of stuff?
LANGELLA: Yes, I did. I actually - the first calls I made were all to journalists. I took Barbara Walters to lunch. I took Mike Wallace to lunch. I spoke to Henry Kissinger about him, at length. And Henry said to me, you know, I'll never see the movie and he didn't see it for two years or so. And then one night at dinner he said to me, I finally saw it. And he was very, very fond of Richard Nixon. And everyone I met who had been around him - I actually talked to the Clintons about him too - everyone who had been around him said very much the same thing, that this was a man about as profoundly uncomfortable in his skin as anyone they'd ever met, usually with a little prepared text of what he was going to say. And when he'd finished asking the first question and the second and the third, would turn to the daughter and ask a question to her and then to him, then he was gone. He just wasn't there anymore and didn't want to be there anymore. Everyone said the same thing. His discomfort in himself was staggering. And that's...
DAVIES: Is it different doing him on stage than in film?
LANGELLA: Oh yes, immensely. The first day we shot this film, I played the first scene, which was ultimately cut, which was Nixon's resignation. I think I did three or four takes and I thought well, I'm ratcheting it down to camera; I'm not doing a stage performance. And Ronnie - Ron Howard - came up to me and said, you know, you played all three of those scenes at exactly three minutes and 20 seconds and I've got lots of film and lots of time. Go your own way. Don't, you know, stare at the other person five minutes longer, five seconds longer. You don't have to be so loyal to your, the rhythms of your stage performance. And it was probably the single greatest note he gave me. He freed me to play it for the camera without any worries about am I, you know, am I getting myself there on time so the next scene can start. And that's - it's one of the rules, of course, of movies, is you don't have to do what you do on the stage.
DAVIES: We're speaking with Franklin Langella and we'll continue after this short break.
This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
DAVIES: This is FRESH AIR. And my guest is actor Franklin Langella. He's stars with Susan Sarandon and Peter Sarsgaard in the new film "Robot & Frank," which is now out on DVD.
You don't like hearing audio clips of your movies. Do you like watching your movies?
LANGELLA: No I don't. I try not to. First of all, it's - just imagine going up to your attic and pulling out all those black-and-white photographs of yourself at six and then 12 and then 14, then 30, then 50, then 60, now 70. It's no fun to watch yourself getting older. And also you're always disappointed - at least I am because the process of it is more exciting, really than the result. The result is never ever as good or even as powerful as it is when you're doing it. And the process of doing it is many ways much more exciting than the result of it.
DAVIES: And when you're doing theater, you get that process night after night, you don't have to look at it.
LANGELLA: Right. You don't and also you get the full story in one night. You know, you go from beginning, middle to end. It's not been chopped up pieces.
DAVIES: As an actor, right? You wrote a book last year, "Dropped Names." Kind of not the standard memoir. It's a set of vignettes of your encounters with famous people. Kind of curious, why you chose to write that book. I mean there are a lot of interesting stories here.
LANGELLA: I wrote it because when I was trying to write my biography at a younger age, not that much younger, but I got bored with... I was in this play, I didn't win this award, I didn't get this part. This was what was going on. But when a fascinating person - and I've been really lucky, I started in 1960 in the theater - when a really interesting person crossed my path, I couldn't stop writing about them. So, a year or two ago, when Jill Clayburgh died and my traveling companion was a young woman who had never heard of her, I was very taken aback by that. And I wrote a piece about her. And then I thought, you know, I in this 50 years I've been doing this, there's so many extraordinary people in the 20th century I was lucky enough to meet - not just actors but, you know, royalty and politicians and social people and a whole world of fascinating human beings - and I had impressions of them, all of them. And so I thought I'll write a book about those people.
DAVIES: Do you want to share one of your favorite stories with us from the book?
LANGELLA: Yeah. I like very much the story of an actor that nobody remembers anymore called Cameron Mitchell. I made a television film with him and we discovered halfway through the making of the movie that I was wearing a jacket that he had worn when he was a young leading man some 25 years before in a major movie. And now he was doing a terrible television show.
And the story is longer than this, but the makeup lady, the costume lady, picked it up off my chair and said, Cameron, look at this. Frank is wearing a jacket with your name sewed into it from a movie of 25 years ago. And Cameron was now an overweight, I'm afraid, heavy drinking actor who had really rolled, sadly, to the bottom.
And she pushed the jacket onto him and it didn't fit him. It was three sizes too small for him. So he started dancing around kind of like a silly clown and I could see in his face that he was in agony about this; that his youth was gone, his career had fallen apart, and I felt a tremendous wave of compassion for him.
And everybody else thought it was funny. And I just walked up to him and told him I needed the jacket for the next shot and I took it from him and put it on. And when his name came up in the memoriam section at the Academy Awards that year that he died, a number of years later, there was a little spattering of applause.
And somebody else's name came up and they got a bigger hand and somebody got nothing, and even in death there was this rating system to the performer. And what I wrote was that it was a room full of people at the Oscars believing that whatever jacket or dress or gown or tuxedo they were wearing that night was going to fit them forever. And I think that that's the one that resonates with me most because I think it's true of a lot of us.
You know, we kind of believe at the top of our game that it's always going to be like this. And we have to keep reminding ourselves that it isn't, for better or worse. Sometimes it gets much better. Like this is the best time of my life. But it can get terribly sad for people who keep trying to hold onto the thing they were initially loved for. So that - that story means a lot to me.
It's not the most famous person and it's not the ones that everybody else writes about, the prurient ones or the sexual ones or the angry ones, but that's the story I like the most.
DAVIES: Well, Frank Langella, it's been great to have you. Thanks so much for spending some time with us.
LANGELLA: Thank you, Dave. It was a real pleasure. And if you really, really care about me, you'll cut all of those...
LANGELLA: ...all of those, and you'll just stick in some songs from somebody else.
DAVIES: Can't promise it.
LANGELLA: I know. I'm not expecting that you will.
DAVIES: Frank Langella starred last year in the film "Robot and Frank" which is now out on DVD. Well, we didn't cut any of those film clips I forced Frank Langella to listen back to, but we do have a song about robots.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ROBOTS")
FLIGHT OF THE CONCHORDS: (singing) The distant future. The year 2000. The distant future. The year 2000. The distant future. The distant future. Is it a distant future. The year 2000. We are robots. The planet Earth has been taken over by the robots. We have made some significant changes. There are no more elephants now. And there are no more stairways; just ramp access. We no longer say the word yes. Instead, we say affirmative to sound more futuristic.
(singing) Affirmative. See? There is only one sort of dance now - the robot. Oh, and the robo boogie, we do. Oh, affirmative. Two dances. Yeah, yeah, affirmative. Oh, and there are no more humans. Finally. Robotic beings rule the world. The humans are dead. The humans are dead. We used poisonous gases and we poisoned their gases. The human's are dead. He's right; they are dead.
DAVIES: And that's a song from Flight of the Conchords, the New Zealand music comedy duo whose songs are the basis of the HBO show. Coming up, John Powers reviews a documentary about searching for a hidden meaning in the Stanley Kubrick film "The Shining." This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.