STAGE TO SCREENS: Tony Award Winner Frank Langella, Star of "Robot & Frank"

By Christopher Wallenberg
25 Aug 2012

Frank Langella
Frank Langella
Photo by Joe Fornabaio

Frank Langella acts opposite a robot in the quirky, touching new film "Robot & Frank." The three-time Tony winner talks about projects past and present in a wide-ranging interview.

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In a more than five decade-long career, Frank Langella has acted alongside a glittering array of famous stage stars and Hollywood A-listers, from Laurence Olivier, David Strathairn and George Clooney, to Whoopi Goldberg, Jeremy Irons, Alan Bates, and Ryan Gosling. But for his latest film, "Robot & Frank," which opened in New York Aug. 17 and rolled out to select cities on Aug. 24, Langella has a most unusual co-star — a diminutive plastic robot with a disembodied voice. (Often brought to life by a young circus performer wearing a robot suit.)

In the film, set in the not-too-distant future and directed by newcomer Jake Schreier, Langella plays aging former jewel thief suffering from the early stages of dementia while living alone in a house upstate. His daughter, Madison (Liv Tyler) is off trying to save the world. And his son Hunter, who drives hours to visit his father every week, finally insists that dad needs a live-in caretaker — a robot — or else he'll be forced to move him into a "memory center." The cantankerous Frank is at first annoyed and unnerved by his new spaceman-looking helper, dismissing it a "hunk of crap." But as the robot makes his soothing and surreal presence felt, Frank takes a shine to it. The machine (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) convinces Frank to eat healthier and exercise more. But as Frank's short-circuiting mind improves, his old larcenous self emerges. And he convinces the robot to help him execute a final elaborate heist, to which the robot reluctantly agrees. Frank's one human friend remains Jennifer (Susan Sarandon), the tender local librarian who the hardened old thief clearly adores.



Over the years, Langella's film and TV career has ebbed and flowed. While he now frequently seen as a leading man on Broadway, he's become a well-respected, go-to character actor on film — with roles ranging from Clare Quilty in Adrian Lyne's adaptation of "Lolita" to former CBS titan William S. Paley in "Good Night, and Good Luck" to a swashbuckling New York Knicks owner in "Eddie," where he met former flame Whoopi Goldberg. His most famous stage and screen role, of course, was this lusty Count Dracula — seen on Broadway in 1977 and on the big screen in 1979. The performance transformed Langella into a matinee idol and caused women in the theatre to faint at the sight of the smoldering vamp (apparently prefiguring the "Twilight" phenomenon).

Another high water mark of the Langella's career came in 2007 with his haunting turn as a disgraced Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon. For the 2008 big screen adaptation of the play, director Ron Howard considered major Hollywood names like Warren Beatty and Jack Nicholson. But he eventually settled on Langella, and the actor went on to pocket an Oscar nomination for his performance.

Indeed, Langella, 74, has recently enjoyed a late-career run of critical success as a cinematic leading man, albeit in mostly low-budget fare. Not only did he nab that Oscar nomination for "Frost/Nixon," but he earned glowing reviews for his performance in the 2007 indie "Starting Out in the Evening." As the retired teacher and nearly-forgotten novelist Leonard Schiller, locked in a May-December romance with an ambitious young grad student (Lauren Ambrose), Langella imbued Schiller with a magisterial combination of wisdom, wonder, and pathos that was as unsentimental as it was moving.

With his turn as Frank Weld in "Robot & Frank," Langella may have scored yet another late-career triumph. (Once again, he reaped the reward of being the producers' second choice, landing the part after Christopher Walken turned it down.)

Now in his eighth decade, Langella shows no signs of slowing down. This past spring, he published a delightfully dishy celebrity memoir, "Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women As I Knew Them." The book, which received admiring reviews, revealed insightful and not-always-flattering personal anecdotes about his experiences acting, socializing, flirting, and sleeping with a panoply of famous faces, from Elizabeth Taylor and John Gielgud to Noel Coward and Jackie O. The New York Times called it a "no-holds-barred eulogy somewhere between mash note and carpet-bombing" that "painted Hollywood and Broadway as teeming with vulgar, neurotic, and irresistible company."

Here, Langella dishes the dirt on the memoir, the new film, and his colorful career on stage and screen.

You've acted alongside a myriad of illustrious stage actors and major Hollywood stars during your decades-long career, from Laurence Olivier, Rita Hayworth, and David Strathairn to Jeremy Irons, Whoopi Goldberg, and Alan Bates. So was it a especially unique challenge acting opposite this inanimate, robotic creature with a disembodied voice? How in the world did you approach that?
Frank Langella: Well, I've actually acted opposite some live, animate creatures that had less to give than the robot gave. [Laughs.] It was actually wonderful to act opposite the robot. I enjoyed it because I had a very clear notion in my head how my character felt about the robot. So I didn't have to concern myself about interpretation. Frank felt a very particular way. So it wouldn't have mattered if whoever was saying those lines said them in Dutch, French, or Chinese, or whether they were male or female. The robot was the robot to me, and I had a very strong reaction to it.

How would you describe Frank's reaction to the robot? And how does it change over the course of the film?
Langella: Unsentimentally, guarded, determined, and very subtly becoming, if not dependent upon the robot, somewhat awakened by the robot. Because whether or not it's animate or inanimate, everybody needs nurturing and everybody needs validation and everybody needs to feel that something or someone cares. I think the subtle message in this movie that's set in the near future — in which more and more people in Frank's situation might find themselves being looked after by some inanimate object — is both terrifying and sobering. So Frank changes because something is combing his hair for him and making his meals and cleaning up around him and saying "You matter to me. I'll teach you to garden. We'll go for a walk." He changes. And also he discovers that he can teach the robot tricks that he knew in life. It's a sort of bittersweet message, which is that we all want connection. And our society and times are getting to the point where it may be that more and more people will be getting it from inanimate objects.

 

Langella in "Robot & Frank."
photo by Ruby Katilius - Samuel Goldwyn Films - Stage 6 Films

So does the film contain a critique about the ways that technology is supposed to bring us closer together, but also separates us from each in many ways?
Langella: Well, I think all of those cliches that are said by me and you and everybody are absolutely true. It's not making us closer. It just isn't. It's alienating us. More than alienating us, it's giving us the opportunity to satisfy just about every human interaction without another human being. I'm sort of surprised someone has not yet invented, you know, the sex machine, which was prevalent in the movie "Barbarella" [1968]. You just get yourself into a machine and get all the sexual pleasure you want, under your own control. I'm surprised that machine doesn't exist—and it will, I'm sure it will. Then people can say, "Well, I really don't need anybody. I can do everything on my own now." Which of course will be further sadness. But that's where we're heading.

 Continued...