Nominated this week for his portrayal of Richard Nixon, we talk to Frank Langella…
Having starred in over 40 films and 70 plays, Frank Langella is long overdue an Oscar and we’re willing to bet that this weekend’s big release “Frost/Nixon” will finally see the actor join the ranks of Hollywood’s finest. It’s hard to imagine anyone doing a better job than Langella in recreating his Tony-winning interpretation of the infamous president . He has all of Nixon’s mannerisms, vulnerabilities and caginess down to a tee. Here the recent Oscar nominee chats about film, theatre and playing the infamous Tricky Dick.
Q: How did you get the part of Richard Nixon for the play?
A: I was offered the part sometime in April 2006. I liked it a lot, but I wasn’t sure that I could do it and if the character was in my bag of tricks. So, I asked the Director of the play, Michael Grandage, for some time to think about it. Four weeks later I called him and accepted the role, and I am very glad that I did!
Q: Why are you glad that you did?
A: I have always in my career tried to choose quality roles over commercial ones, because I need to challenge myself. For me, there are two things worth fighting for in life: love and work. I initially saw this as 8 weeks in London, which I adore. And the truth is, at the time I had the possibility of doing another more lucrative job; but the fact that I was a bit afraid of “Frost/Nixon” made me want to go for it even more. Then it turned into a success twice, in London and later on Broadway in New York. When the movie came around, Michael and I jumped back on a plane again.
Q: What convinced you to accept the role?
A: Well, it’s always the words, because there is a great expression that says: “If it’s not on the page, it’s not on the stage.” So, if it isn’t there, in the writing, it will never be there. And I was attracted to playing Richard Nixon.
Q: What did you know about Nixon before you got involved in FROST/NIXON?
A: I didn’t know a lot about him except the clichés that he was a disgraced President that everybody made fun of, and that he was awkward. But in the course of the time that I spent with the character I began to feel tremendous empathy and compassion towards him, and a sense of near-like tragedy, as if it were a modern day King Lear: a man whose hubris and arrogance brought him down, being an architect of his own destruction.
Q: There aren’t really good guys and bad guys in this film.
A: That’s true. They are struggling people.
Q: What was your main concern in portraying Richard Nixon?
A: I made an attempt to never judge, condemn or disgrace this man, but to play him from his own point of view, because he didn’t believe he was doing anything wrong for a very long time.
Q: In what way do you believe he could have been the victim of his own success?
A: Unfortunately, most people feel they have to pay themselves back for success in some destructive way. It is part of human nature to get to a certain point in life and get frightened, angry and scared, and then you do something to undermine yourself: you drink too much, take drugs, fight with your boss, lose all your money, wreck your marriage, have a terrible time with your kids. Later you wake up one day, look around, and there is this disastrous minefield of a mess that you have made of your life and you don’t even understand how you did it. I feel that some people just can’t handle success; it’s too difficult for them. My take on Nixon is that he got to the very top of the ladder -he was a brilliant politician with a brilliant mind- and a little voice inside him said: “You don’t deserve this.”
Q: How do you think that attitude affected the Watergate scandal that ended his presidency?
A: Instead of doing what he should have done, which was to pick up the phone and call the Justice Department to say that these men were in there doing a burglary in his name, which he didn’t agree with -and it would have been over in a day- he decided to cover it up and got more entrenched in paying people off; because he thought, in his arrogance, that he could sweep it under the rug.
Q: What research did you do to prepare this role?
A: Endless! And I am very glad I did it because then I could dismiss it and throw it away. You are not interested in sitting in a movie and watching my research; you are only interested in watching what’s going on in my eyes and in my heart. So, after I absorbed all the information, I just played the man. I never thought about playing history or fact -just emotion, because I think that’s what people respond to.
Q: When did you meet Ron Howard?
A: I met him when he came to see the play. And I didn’t know him very well, but I sensed that he had a strong feeling about me. I felt the part had to be mine.
Q: How is he as a director?
A: Shrewd, but in the right way. He is a very intelligent director, and he is smart about what he does best -which is to understand the humanity of characters and how to tell a story. Ron is a very good storyteller and he knows that what you want to see when you sit down in a theatre is what’s going on in peoples’ eyes.
Q: What did he bring to FROST/NIXON?
A: Ron Howard was the right man, at the right place and at the right time for the job. It could have easily gone in several directions that were wrong, but he directed the film caring about the characters and paying attention to their emotional lives.
Q: What was it like to work with Michael Sheen once more, but in a different medium?
A: Michael does an excellent job! And by the time we walked onto the set we had gone through three casts of actors, two directors and many hours of rehearsal, and we were both very strongly and deeply connected to our men. So, it was organic. From the moment we sat in our seats he was David Frost and I was Richard Nixon, and we watched each other like hawks in exactly the right collaborative way that actors should.
Q: So, how different is the film to the play then?
A: Substantially, actually. Every scene that was in the play was shot, but not all of them were kept.
Q: How would you describe Nixon’s relationship with Jack Brennan, his right hand?
A: It’s actually my only relationship in the film. I have no relationship with my wife and my children, because Nixon lived in his own little cocoon. I have no relationship to Frost at all, except for our combat (though Nixon was probably envious of Frost’s youth and virility). So, my loyal attaché is Jack, who is the only person my character related to.
Q: What did you think of Kevin Bacon’s performance as Brennan?
A: During the shoot we didn’t relate as men, but as characters, because I kept Nixon alive all the time. I think Kevin played his part with great sensitivity. And the way his character looks at Nixon -and we see his love for his boss, his sense of protection and his anger at this man being so vilified- is beautifully done.
Q: Why do you think Richard Nixon accepted to do these interviews with David Frost?
A: I think he wanted to climb back up and he wanted money. $600,000 in 1977 is millions today! And this was an opportunity for him to review his career and his triumphs, because every President needs to be sure that history views him in a particular way; which is why they spend a great deal of time, energy and money creating a record that they believe is their record. So, a great deal of what Nixon does in these tapes is precisely that because, as I think I say in the film: “No one can understand what it’s like to resign the presidency.” And no one can.
Q: What would you have asked Nixon if you had been in Frost’s shoes?
A: I’m not sure I would have asked him anything; but I might have said: “Sir, without being presumptuous, I think I understand what motivates a lot of the things you do. And I think you were in these areas, brilliant and incredibly intelligent, but I regret that you let yourself be overwhelmed by the demons that haunt you and conquer some of the worst things in your nature. And, if you like, I’d be perfectly happy to introduce you to a good psychiatrist!”
Q: Do you think Nixon would have enjoyed this film?
A: Yes, and I hope he would have said that finally somebody had shown him as a complicated man who wasn’t a caricature.
Q: What is the theatre for you?
A: It is an opportunity to communicate with other human beings. I’ve just finished playing Sir Thomas More on Broadway and I got a thrill every night communicating his out-of-date belief in the power of your own conscious and the principle of being true to it. A loyal person is a person that is more bound to be loyal to his conscious than to any other thing. That is an out-of-fashion idea, because most people today are bound to the politically correct thing or to what will make them more money or move them ahead in their careers. But Thomas More says that a man’s soul is himself, and if he isn’t true to his soul he isn’t true to his conscious. So, why live? And that is a hard message to get across, because as time has gone on people are less and less interested in that. They are more interested in the facile way of getting ahead. So, being on a stage doing that every night, whether it’s playing Thomas More, Nixon, Sherlock Holmes, Dracula or any number of roles that I have done, gives me a chance to deal with people on that level. Hopefully I send them out the door with a great experience because it gives me back a great experience too!
Frost Nixon is at Irish cinemas everywhere now
Watch out for more Frost Nixon interviews next week on Movies.ie