PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Peter Morgan
By Robert Simonson
February 20, 2007
Frost/Nixon playwright Peter Morgan has a thing for famous figures.
He began attracting notice with his teleplay to the 2003 Stephen Frears television film "The Deal," which looked at an episode of political wheeling and dealing involved British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The same year, his treatment of the life of King Henry VIII aired on "Masterpiece Theatre." In 2006, he proved his affinity for larger-than-life public personae with three simultaneous projects: the movie "The Last King of Scotland," about brutal Ugandan dictator Idi Amin; "The Queen," a film about Queen Elizabeth and Tony Blair's reaction to the death of Princess Diana; and the play Frost/Nixon, which uses the famous set of 1977 interviews between disgraced President Richard M. Nixon and British interviewer David Frost as the setting of stage drama. The latter, a hit in London, will begin Broadway performances March 31 and open April 22 at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre. Morgan talked to Playbill.com from his hotel room in Hollywood, where his screenplay for "The Queen" has been nominated for an Oscar.
Playbill.com: Frost/Nixon is your first play. You've written several teleplays and screenplays. What made you decide to make this project a play?
Peter Morgan: It's my first professional play. Theatre is what I started writing and I wrote plays when I was at university. It wasn't the foreign land that it would have been. I felt comfortable with the structure of this play. I'd been there before. I decided to write it as a play, because it never occurred to me as [anything else]. I understand what intrigues people [in show business] — commissioning editors and so forth in film and television. And I didn't think this would ever excite them. And I never wanted this to be like an HBO thing. I thought that would take the history too seriously; it would be too portentous.
Playbill.com: What brought you to the subject matter?
PM: I had seen in 1993 a television profile of David Frost. It was a two-hour profile in which five minutes touched on these interviews, but even from the five-minute excerpt, I just thought, "God, that looks interesting." Something about the combination of their personalities, they struck me as such polar opposites. And yet, you got the sense that they were both chasing the same thing, some form of rehabilitation. It just struck me as a terrific intellectual boxing match.
Playbill.com: Did you then go and find the entire interview and view it?
PM: No, that wasn't the first thing I did. The first thing I did was think, "OK, what a great format for a drama." But it wasn't until I had written "The Deal" and "The Queen" and was confident enough in myself to write public figures in that way that I had the confidence to address this material as actually Frost and Nixon. I had previously thought, "OK, I'll use the idea of a conspicuous interview as the premise of a drama in which the people aren't Frost and Nixon, but are people I make up." Having written "The Deal" and "The Queen," I thought, no, no, no — it's so much more interesting to actually take on Frost and Nixon.
Playbill.com: Did you seek out some of the original participants in the interview?
PM: Oh, I found them all! When I decided to do it as Frost/Nixon, by that point I had become accustomed to the rigor of research. So I set down to the process of tracking down each and every one of the participants. That was just a fantastic journey. I'd never been to Washington, D.C., before. I'd never really thought about post-war American politics before. I didn't know how the Upper House and the Lower House were structured in America. This was three years ago. I did meet Kissinger. I met Diane Sawyer, all the research team that had been writing Nixon's memoirs. I went down to San Clemente, to the Nixon Foundation, the Nixon Library.
Playbill.com: Have any of the protagonists come to see the play?
PM: Oh, yeah, are you kidding? I'm in touch with all of them. I have good relationships with all of them. I think it makes them quite emotional, because none of them have been in touch with one another in 30 years. I have been the glue, as it were. They've all aged very well, and they've all survived.
Playbill.com: Michael Sheen, who plays David Frost, is an actor well known to the London community. But who came up with the idea of Frank Langella for Richard Nixon?
PM: I was adamant that it should be an American. Anthony Hopkins playing Nixon [in Oliver Stone's film] — I really hadn't cared for that. Not because he isn't a fine actor, but there's something so iconic about the wound that Watergate inflicted on the United States, that the idea that an outsider should play that makes no sense to me at all. I said to the director and the people at the Donmar, "Really the only thing I insist on is that Nixon be played by an American. He has to be an American and we have to be intimidated by him." One or two of the actor names people came up with, I knew they wouldn't be physically intimidating. Nixon is a Goliath. The success on the play will hinge on us and the audience not wanting to get in the ring with this guy. He's got to be both intellectually and physically intimidating. The play sort of works with us going in on Frost's shoulders. He takes us in. He's like us, he's sort of unprepared.
Playbill.com: Do you think the reaction of the American audiences will be different? Will we be more interested in Nixon than Frost?
PM: I think that's true. It's interesting what happens: whenever I go to America, people say "So, I hear you've written a show called Nixon/Frost!" And I say, "No, it's called Frost/Nixon" And they say, "Oh, right. Well, I hear Nixon/Frost has been quite a hit in London." It's a subliminal thing, it's not intentional. You can always tell when Americans are in the audience in London, because there's an early line where Frost says, "Can you imagine if I can get this interview before Mike Wallace and all those guys, what a get that would be?" The size of the reaction is enormous, because no Englishman knows who Mike Wallace is.
Playbill.com: Looking at your work, aside from the fact that you often dramatize actual biographical figures, it seems you like to examine the theme of power and the uses and abuses of it.
PM: Yeah. I think so. I think I've been caught with my fingerprints all over that subject, so to deny it, I'd just look like an idiot. I don't quite know where it comes from. Even in the earlier things I've written, I was attracted to powerful figures always. I've always thought that, if it's a choice between writing about the leader or the foot soldier, some dramatists go to the foot soldier and some to the leader. I always go to the leader.
Playbill.com: It's clear to us in the U.S. that Nixon has become the most dramatized President in recent history. Tony Blair seems to fill that role in England. You've dramatized Tony Blair at least two times. Why do writers want to get inside his head?
PM: Well, Blair is, on the face of it, a much less interesting character than Nixon. With Blair, my own response is one through disappointment. I was very invested in Blair. So were people of my generation. The disappointment of Blair is therefore enough to send dramatists rushing to their desks to hammer things out. I'm certainly intending to write a third installment on Blair which will come to grips with what the hell is going on there.
Playbill.com: Have you met him?
PM: I haven't. He's been good enough to write to me, to congratulate me on the Golden Globe win, and he said when he works up the courage to [see] the film "The Queen," he will get in touch to tell me what I got right and wrong.
(Robert Simonson is Playbill.com's senior correspondent. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.)