Talk about your snappy little changes of pace! It's a wide swing of the pendulum that brings Frank Langella back to Broadway. Coming from his Tony-winning portrayal of Richard Nixon — suddenly realizing (and admitting) the error of his ways — in last year's Frost/Nixon, this season Langella plays Sir Thomas More in A Man for All Seasons, facing the chopping block rather than compromise his conscience when it runs counter to royal command.
The contrast of the disgraced ex-president and Henry VIII's doomed-by-his-ideals lord chancellor was hardly lost on Langella when Roundabout Theatre Company's Todd Haimes and director Doug Hughes pitched reviving Robert Bolt's Tony-winning Best Play of 1962: "I went, 'Oh, what a wonderful next part to play.' It's such the other side of the track."
Great roles gravitate toward Langella and, with his imposing voice and bearing, wear well on him. "I'm attracted to characters who deal with epic issues. I'm really not interested in characters who deal with things on a small scale. They just don't interest me, those men. Nixon, Cyrano, Prospero, Dracula, Shakespeare, Sherlock Holmes, Thomas More — men like that are grappling with huge themes, and I learn from them. I don't mean that in any disingenuous way. I really do. When you get into bed with one of these characters and you must find the very core of why they do what they do, it forces you to look at your own behavior, what you'd do or not do.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
"With Nixon, I really had to expose the very worst in my nature. With Thomas" — he chuckles here at his own candor — "I'm afraid I have to go really deep to find the good. Everything he does and says is about living up to the best in one's self. Most mortals don't do that. He's a great opportunity for me to go to that other side of my nature." The 16th-century poet Robert Wittinton wrote, "More is a man of an angel's wit and singular learning . . . a man of marvelous mirth and pastimes; and sometimes of a sad gravity: a man for all seasons." The season of Bolt's play is the royal mating one.
When Henry VIII opted to divorce Catherine of Aragon for Anne Boleyn, he asked More to argue his case to the Pope. Pleading private conscience, More passed, forcing the king to break with Rome and appoint himself head of the Church in England. Rather than recognize Henry as head of both church and state — as all England had, by oath — More retired, a deafening silence that had to be permanently silenced.
"There are few plays where you get to play true goodness," notes Langella, "to find a way where it's not cloying or sentimental or naïve or, actually, boring. Good, as we all know, can be quite boring. In theatrical terms, it's always better to play villains.
|photo by Joan Marcus|
"Thomas' central core is about staying true to one's private conscience. He says it many times in the play: A man's soul is himself. At one point a character says to him, 'Why won't you give in?' He says, 'You might as well ask a man to change the color of his eyes. I can't.' There aren't many men like that — in literature or in the world. "Thomas is a man who says, 'One, I'm an individual, and two, I'm responsible for my actions. I will not criticize or judge anyone else. I won't think less of you if you sign this oath, but you're asking me to do something against my private conscience. I can't do it. And I take responsibility for this — which means I give up my life for it.'"
The question of conscience was slow to surface in Frost/Nixon — onstage and, now, on screen. "We started the film 24 hours after we closed on the 19th of August last year. I got on a plane, and I was on a soundstage that Monday afternoon being fitted for a wig and costumes, then two days later into rehearsals. Shooting started with a whole new company — except for Michael [Sheen, his David Frost] — ten days later.
"There were two challenges. The first was to make sure Nixon became cinematic — that it's terribly intimate and still real and still hold on to the qualities I found for him onstage — and the other was stamina, because Ron Howard doesn't think in less than 20 takes — minimum — of anything. Even the simplest moments you do many times, so you had to take your Wheaties. I did the full telephone speech 16 times, from beginning to end, in a row in single takes on the same day. Which I loved, actually."
Rolling Stone critic Peter Travers caught an early preview and called Langella's turn what the theatre world was calling it a year ago: "the performance of a lifetime." The buzz is that Langella will, at long last, land that elusive Oscar to keep his three Tonys company.
|photo by Platon|
Another U.S. president inspired the strikingly stark, drained expression he displays in the ads for A Man for All Seasons. "What we didn't want to do was the usual: me in a tricornered hat with a chain around me, that sort of 'Masterpiece Theatre' look." The marketing people showed Langella a book of pictures taken by Platon, their choice of photographer. "Halfway through there was a photograph of Jimmy Carter looking that way — looking down and slightly away. It was as if he had been at the photo shoot and taken a moment to go into his soul. I said, 'That's what I'd like to achieve — a photograph of a man who is somewhere lost in a place where no one else can go, no one else can get to and no one else can understand.' And that photograph, which is now the ad, was the third picture in about a hundred that were taken that day."