Frank Langella, All in One Lifetime: From Shakespeare, 21, to Lear, 85

By Harry Haun
18 Jan 2014

Langella in King Lear.
Photo by Richard Termine

The most difficult thing about doing Shakespeare, he finds, is the abrupt demands that The Bard makes on his actors. "We all grow up thinking we need time to make emotional transitions, either in life or on the stage. 'I need a scene to set up the next scene where I find out she's dead or when I find out I have a disease.' Shakespeare doesn't give you that. He just tells you to change within the space of a speech — or a line. He asks you to go from A to Z without any logical, emotional jump. It tempts you to say, 'Well, this doesn't make any sense,' but then, when you throw yourself into it from Shakespeare's point of view, it's thrilling — when you realize you don't need those things. Lear is able to go from 'I love you' to 'I hate you' in his first scene in less than two lines when he turns against his daughter. In a modern play, there'd be a long scene and a slow build-up. So what it does to you if you embrace it — and I have — is to give you a kind of thrilling immediacy about acting in a way no other playwright gives you, which is 'I can just go. I don't have to think about the rest of it.'

"When playing Lear, you need to play it in 12 separate one-act plays. You can't play it as one play. You have periods of time when you're off, and the things that happen to you as a character offstage are extraordinary. When you leave the audience in one scene and don't come back for 15 minutes, major events happen to you, so you must bring on with you all the things that are required for that scene. The last four scenes Lear has in the second act are entirely different, like four separate plays."

Incredible as it may seem, given his remarkable vocal instrument, King Lear is just Langella's fifth (!) Shakespeare. "Well, I didn't want him," he said with a slight shrug, "and it's my loss because I think I'm enjoying this — as much as you can say 'enjoy' about Shakespeare. You don't 'enjoy' him as much as you're profoundly challenged.

"But I've had a lucky career. I've played everything — from Williams to Miller to Racine to Shaw to Moliere to Coward to Anouilh — great playwrights and great parts.

"But I don't have a favorite role. I have a whole bunch of parts I love playing when I played them. I loved playing Present Laughter, and I certainly loved playing Salieri for a year in Amadeus — that's just one of the great showy roles — and I actually liked young Will Shakespeare as an actor. It was a great part to play. And, of course, I love Dracula — a one-time-only experience. It was like being Elvis Presley for a year."

Next, in his year of Lear, he plans to explore that feminine side of the ledger, which spooked the Chichester execs. "I've always been jealous of the great female roles," he admitted. "When I see an actress biting into some wonderful Medea, I think, 'Gee, I'd love to be able to do that.' I always wanted to explore that in myself. Mind you, this would be a monster woman. I don't think I could get away with a delicate creature."

PHOTO ARCHIVE: Celebrating Three-Time Tony Winner Frank Langella

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Frank Langella in the 1977 Broadway production Dracula.
Photo by Martha Swope