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

By Christopher Wallenberg
25 Aug 2012

Langella as Richard Nixon on Broadway.

When you were first approached about playing Nixon in Frost/Nixon on stage, you've said that you thought playing him wasn't in your bag of tricks, that you didn't think you could inhabit him? Did playing him end up being as challenging as you thought it would be?
Langella: Getting him was harder than any part I've ever played. Finding him was the hardest time I ever had in creating a character, in finding him. I was positive I was going to fall on my ass in that part — even through the final stages of rehearsal, before we faced an audience. I thought, I just can't find this guy. For a long time, I really felt that he sounded like Mr. Magoo. Or Jimmy Stewart. You know, wah, wah, wah, wah, wah. I couldn't get a noise. And I knew I didn't want to imitate him. I knew I didn't want to try to phonetically or in any other way capture his sound. It had to come from inside of me. So I just doggedly, every day, kept returning to the idea of what's going on inside of him. And then the character slowly developed out of that.

So was it hard to find him because he was one of the most complex characters you've ever played?
Langella: No, it was chiefly an obligation to his fame. I knew that I could have played him in any number of ways. But I knew I had to find a certain allegiance to capture a sense of him. I just couldn't go too far afield from his physical awkwardness, the kind of odd way he spoke. I knew I couldn't suddenly give him a Southern accent or make him, you know, incredibly graceful. I knew I had to honor certain things about him, and then I had to find deep within myself those qualities that I felt best projected him.

So were you disappointed when names like Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty were being floated for the film version of "Frost/Nixon" despite the fact that you had done it on stage and won a Tony Award for your efforts? Or were you resigned to losing out on the part considering the realities of Hollywood?
Langella: I thought that this was not going to be one of my successes. I thought I would play it for eight weeks in London, for a few hundred pounds a week, as a great sort of challenge to see if I could do it. I had no idea that it would then be a year of my life — first as the play and then another year as a film. So it was all gravy after the initial beginning of it. And I was perfectly prepared for it to be played by a leading movie star.

But you were thrilled when you landed the part in the film version, when they finally offered it to you?
Langella: I'm too old for thrilled. [Laughs.] I was pleased, let's put it that way.


Langella in the "Frost/Nixon" film.
© 2008 - Universal Pictures

You said in an interview a few years ago that when you were young, "you were emotionally very fragile. Easy to cry, easy to be hurt. Easy to feel unloved and unwanted." Is there something in the way that you've always felt things so deeply as a kid that led you onto the path to become an actor?
Langella: Oh, sure. When you can't speak, when you get all tongue-tied in front of a girl when you're young, or when you get scared of authority figures or you get resentful — any of the things you get because you're shy and awkward — one of the best places to take refuge, I suppose, is this sense that you're going to get lost in being somebody else. Then if you're smart, after a while you realize that being an actor does not mean running away from yourself; it means running towards yourself; it means embracing everything about you that's complicated and difficult and turning it into art. You know, using it as a weapon, so to speak, against the worst in you.

Do you approach your work on screen differently than your work on stage? What are the differences for you as an actor in bringing to life characters on stage versus characters on screen?
Langella: I now love being in front of a camera more than I've ever loved it. I think in the last decade I have really enjoyed film work more than stage work. I really love them both. And acting is acting. But the medium of film is very exciting to me now, because the effort to try to communicate something with just the raise of an eyebrow or a tiny look or a small gesture is very rewarding if you can manage it. So yeah, I love film work now — more than I ever have.