Frank Langella won his second and most recent Tony five years ago as a malicious, scheming Russian landowner in Fortune's Fool. His first Tony came in 1975, as a lizard in Edward Albee's Seascape. He also starred on Broadway (in 1977) as Dracula. Some people might wonder if all this was preparation for his role as President Richard M. Nixon in Frost/Nixon, the hit London play that opens on Broadway this month at the Bernard B. Jacobs Theatre.
"Actually, I’ve come to be incredibly empathetic — rather than sympathetic — with Nixon, very protective of him," Langella says. "Not of the event — Watergate — not of what he did that was wrong, nothing to do with whether he behaved in a possibly illegal way. He did. But I can't play the event. I have to play a man — a man who, after months of research and talking with his employees, I've come to know and understand. I've come to have compassion for a man who was very unhappy in his own soul, a man unable to breathe the very air most humans breathe, a man who on a daily basis would wake up with what he calls the voices in his head, the overwhelming ambition, the driving need to succeed."
Frost/Nixon is the story of how British talk-show host David Frost, after 12 days of face-to-face questioning, got Nixon to apologize in 1977 and admit he "let down the entire country" in the Watergate scandal. The author is Peter Morgan, a first-time playwright whose recent film work includes "The Queen," for which he received a best-screenplay Oscar nomination, and "The Last King of Scotland." The play's director is Michael Grandage. Frost is played by Michael Sheen, who was Tony Blair in "The Queen."
David Frost once said that it was impossible to really know the former president: "He was so impersonal. He erected a wall to stop other people from gazing into his heart, and probably also to stop himself from gazing into his heart." Langella agrees. "My long suit as an actor," says the man whose recent movie roles include CBS chief William Paley in "Good Night, and Good Luck" and Daily Planet editor Perry White in "Superman Returns," "has been to take on bravura, sometimes very showy and theatrical characters. I'm Italian, both as a person and as an actor. I tend to be expressive. With Nixon, everything is inside and unable to be expressed. He was really a deeply withheld man. Everything comes out in paranoia, suspicion, loneliness, self-loathing."
Playing a real, historical person is different from portraying a fictional character, Langella says. "You have to dive in with both feet to who and what he actually was. I resisted that for a while. I came to London armed with a great deal of visual research and I read a lot of books. I watched him. And then I thought, 'I'm not going to go in that direction.' But as days went by, I had no choice but to try to create his physical type, and to some degree try to create a look, a sense of it. There's no special makeup and no prosthetics. Then I threw it all away, as a sense of the character took over. I don't want to imitate him. I felt that if I can get to his essence, he'll come out that way."
Langella believes that Nixon's problematic personality, and his ambition, can be traced back to his father, who constantly belittled him. "Nixon was a victim of his father, who said his brother Harold was the good-looking one, the sexy one, the one girls liked. Nixon was made fun of as awkward, homely, physically unattractive. He fell in love with Pat Nixon at an early age, and she wouldn't have him. So he offered to be her driver when she went out with other boys. And guess what. He married her. And he got to be president of the United States."
And yet, Langella says, the same thing that gave Nixon that tremendous drive to succeed also "gave him a piece of himself that he couldn't conquer — the idea that he had no right to any of these things, to any success. The universal thing about him, that makes him and the play so fascinating, is that once he got there, all these little voices in his head, like the voices in all our heads, said, 'You're not as handsome, you're not as talented, people don't really like you, you don't have any right to succeed.' These voices come roaring back when you succeed, and they tell you all these things unconsciously."
The weakest among us listen to these voices, Langella says, "and we destroy ourselves. We unconsciously say that we better do something to put ourselves back in the familiar territory of self-doubt, self-loathing. And then once we destroy ourselves, we start climbing back again — because climbing is more comfortable than sitting at the top of the mountain. You can listen for the signs of it in yourself — you listen for, 'Uh-oh, it's going too well, I picked a fight with my boss, or with my leading lady, I did something unnecessarily self-destructive.'
"As Nixon says in the play," Langella concludes, "he brought himself down."