At the Donmar Warehouse, Frank Langella (pictured) will play Richard Nixon opposite, as already announced (See News, 6 Dec 2006), Michael Sheen as David Frost in the world premiere of Peter Morgan’s play inspired by the bruising 1977 interview in which the British TV presenter tried to get the disgraced former US president to apologise for his crimes.
A multi award-winning Broadway veteran, Langella’s many New York stage credits include Match, Fortune’s Fool, Present Laughter, The Father, Hurlyburly, Design for Living, Passion, Amadeus, Yerma, Seascape, Cyrano de Bergerac, After the Fall, The Old Glory, The White Devils, The Prince of Homborg, The Tempest and Dracula, which was subsequently made into a film. His other stage credits include Les Liaisons Dangereuses, My Fair Lady and Scenes from an Execution.
Amongst his many awards to date, Langella has twice won the Tony Award for Best Featured Actor in a Play: in 1975 for Edward Albee’s Seascape and in 2002 for Turgenev’s Fortune’s Fool, in which he co-starred with Alan Bates in his last stage appearance.
On screen, Langella’s credits include Diary of a Mad Housewife, The Twelve Chairs, Lolita, Dave, The Ninth Gate, Dracula, 1492, Body of Evidence, Bad Company, Good Night and Good Luck and the recently released action blockbuster Superman Returns.
Langella was last seen on the London stage Over the Moon at the Old Vic five years ago. He starred opposite Joan Collins in the Ken Ludwig farce, but shortly after a critical panning, left the production amid rumours of backstage hostilities (See News, 29 Oct 2001).
The actor has returned to London to play Richard Nixon opposite Michael Sheen’s David Frost in the world premiere of Frost/Nixon at the Donmar Warehouse. Directed by Donmar artistic director Michael Grandage, it is the first stage play by Peter Morgan (whose television credits include Metropolis, Colditz, The Jury and The Deal, in which Sheen played Prime Minister Tony Blair) and is inspired by the bruising 1977 interviews in which the British TV presenter David Frost tried to get the disgraced former US president to apologise for his crimes.
Date & place of birth
Born 1 January 1940 in Bayonne, New Jersey.
Why did you want to become an actor?
Survival. Most actors will talk about the love of the craft, and getting girls and earning money, but I wanted to be an actor when I was younger because it was the only way I could express myself. As is true with almost every obstacle you have in life, the obstacle is the thing that pushes you forward. The obstacles I had as a little person walking around were so enormous that, in order to overcome them, I put my hand up when the teacher asked “who wants to be in the school play?”. I was terribly introverted. I had big glasses and I was a very unattractive little boy and not very good with people. But because I put my hand up and because I then got a part in the play, I survived, even with all my insecurities and fears and loneliness. On stage I thought, “oh this is home, this is where I’m supposed to be and what I’m meant to do”. Acting was the thing that helped me overcome my obstacles because out there I could be anything.
First big break
My first play in New York was a huge success, and then I had a charmed seven or eight years in the profession. I went from one hit to another Off-Broadway, six in a row I think. And then I had my first film, which was a film of Mel Brooks’ called The Twelve Chairs. That and another film called Diary of a Mad Housewife in the early Seventies were the things that got me better known. You know, I had hills and valleys like every actor, but I’ve been very lucky because every decade or so I’ve had something fly away, like Dracula in the late Seventies, Dave in the Nineties and Good Night, and Good luck and Superman Returns now. I like that when something wonderful explodes, because it means at my advanced age I’m still working and still viable.
Career highlights to date
In my recent life I would say Fortune’s Fool on Broadway is the highlight because my relationship with Alan Bates on stage and off was so particularly wonderful. The Broadway production of Dracula in 1977 was an extraordinary experience - it’s the only time I’ll ever know what it’s like to be Elvis Presley – that went on for about two years and then came the film. Diary of a Mad Housewife was a tremendously exciting event, and there have been other really extraordinarily wonderful productions of things. I’ve been involved in some 75 plays and 50 movies over my career. There have been so many great, great times.
I’ve been so lucky I’ve worked with well over a dozen truly great world-class directors, including Mike Nicholls and Adrian Lyne and Roman Polanski in film. When I look at the list, I’m just shocked. I’ve also been very lucky – and part of it is my being pretty smart choosing great material – to have done plays by the great classic writers and to originate roles by some great modern writers.
I love Peter Nicholls - I did his Passion Play - and I don’t think he quite gets the recognition he deserves. I loved doing Christopher Hampton’s Les Liaisons Dangereuses. And I love doing Shaw, Tennessee Williams, Arthur Miller and, of course, Shakespeare and all of the other great classic playwrights. Another modern playwright I like is Mike Poulton. I saw his adaptation of The Canterbury Tales for the RSC, all seven hours of it in one day.
What roles would you like to play still?
I don’t lust after parts and I’m glad I don’t. In that sense, I’m not like a lot of classically trained actors who want to run through all the great classic roles. I’ve noticed a pattern in my career. When I say yes to something, it’s because it has something profound to do with whatever I’m dealing with at that point in my own life. Looking back, I can see how the roles I’ve played have corresponded with what was happening with me during those periods. Playing Nixon has made me investigate what we all do to get in our own way. It’s incredible how, with the best intellect or best talent, best will or best understanding, some people can still continually shoot themselves in the foot. You look at people all the time and think, I know that person and now they’re broke, or now they’ve ended their marriage, or they’ve fought with their boss and got fired. You’re always the victim of the little stones that were laid down for you, probably by your parents when you were growing up, the things that made an impression on you. You grow up and you go to school and you get a degree and you get intelligent and successful and you make money and get married, but that little voice, whatever it is, is always still gnawing at you. Some people climb over the voice, some push the voice away, some people conquer it, and for some people, the voice gets louder as they get older. With Nixon, the voice in his head - which is a moment in the play actually –obviously got louder and louder and louder and he destroyed himself. He was President of the United States, and over something so ridiculously minor, he ruined his life having struggled so far to get to where he got.
What was the last thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the first?
I saw Evita, which I very much liked; I’m very pro-Michael Grandage. This has been a huge role to learn, so I haven’t had time to see much theatre here. I’m going to see Sinatra, because Michael Sheen’s girlfriend is in it, and Voyage Round My Father. On Broadway, the first thing I saw was a 1950s production of Auntie Mame at the Broadhurst Theater. It starred Rosalind Russell, who was a big actress in movies at the time. She came down these long steps down, said a line and got a big laugh and I said, “that’s for me”. Many many years later I was performing in a production of Amadeus at the same theatre. I was in my dressing room in between shows and I was leafing through the programme. There was a list of all the shows that had been there, and I realised I was now in the star dressing room that Rosalind Russell had obviously occupied all those years ago, and the idea of that circle closing was very thrilling for me.
If you could swap places with anyone (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
I’d like to be a woman for a day. I’ve always thought that would be wonderful. Actually longer than a day. I’d like to spend maybe a month as a woman to see what that experience is like. It might help me understand your sex better.
Favourite holiday destinations
One of the extraordinary perks of being an actor is where you get to go in the world for work. Places I’d like to return to are Sydney, Australia and Jaisalmer in India. I love them and I will go back.
Somerset Maugham’s The Moon and Sixpence is a very powerful book to me. This year I’ve read a great many books on American history and Nixon - I don’t know what else I’ve been reading! I’m so deeply involved in this role, when I’m doing this, I don’t do anything else. I read Jonathan Aitken’s Nixon: A Life, a book by Tom Wicker called One of Us: Richard Nixon and the American Dream and Nixon’s autobiography. I also read Charles de Gaulle’s Edge of the Sword, which is a fantastic book about leadership.
What might you have done professionally if you hadn’t become an actor?
A writer. I’m writing reminiscences at the moment about some of the great people I’ve worked with.
Why did you want to accept the role of Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon? It actually never occurred to me not to take the part, it was just a matter of scheduling and making sure I could do it, because the minute I read it I thought, “oh, I wonder if I can do this”. If you think that, then it’s a good enough reason to take it. Nixon is a very difficult person to bring to life theatrically because there are so many traps. You don’t want to just play him as the cliché crook or the cliché drunk or the cliché evil one or all the other things people do when they do Richard Nixon, and yet you still want to get the flavour of him so people don’t come away and think, “well, that wasn’t even remotely like him”. The challenge of trying to combine the essence of Nixon’s character with a three-dimensional human and what he’s come to represent, finding all those gradations, that was something I thought I’d love to try.
What are your own abiding memories of the real man?
I was certainly around and working in the theatre at the time of Watergate. Our rehearsal was called off so we could watch Nixon’s resignation. I remember very clearly being very anti him, of course, and thinking it was a momentous occasion in my young lifetime. Still no president has ever resigned and there’s never been such an extraordinary amount of… the word evil swirls around him so much. When I finally worked out that I could do this play, I went to the Nixon Library in California and sat with his staff. Then I went to the Museum of Radio and Television in New York and I sat for seven hours watching all the clips I could find of him. I talked to people who had worked for him and interviewed him to get a sense of him. I sat in his office and read his own notes written on the sides of speeches. And I went to the house where he was born and grew up with his brothers, I saw the tiny bed where he was conceived, and that gave me a great deal more than what my impression was when I saw him sitting behind a desk saying, “I resign the presidency of the United States”.
Has your research given you more sympathy for the man?
Sympathetic is a dangerous word. We have to remember that nobody is only one thing. It is so easy to take a great big rubber stamp saying “Bad President” and put it on his forehead. But in fact he was a man with enormous immortal yearnings. He wanted to be great. One of his gods was Charles de Gaulle and he loved de Gaulle’s booked Edge of the Sword. I actually had Nixon’s copy of it and I saw where he underlined the things that de Gaulle talked about that would make a great leader. He had this tremendous desire to be loved and to be a real major leader. He was also very much a victim of his own worst side. Some people you know can finally overcome the worst in them; he couldn’t. It was the worst in him that finally destroyed him. He was one of the most intelligent men of his time and one of the most knowledgeable in foreign affairs and he did a great many wonderful things but Watergate is his legacy. For someone who wanted desperately to be a great statesman figure like Winston Churchill or Franklin Roosevelt, it must have been terrible for him in those last years.
Do you have a favourite line from Frost/Nixon?
I have so many I cannot tell you. And to put them down on paper and have people read them and come and wait for me to say them would make me very self-conscious! The play is really chock-full because it’s fiction, but it’s also facts, based on transcripts. So many things that Nixon says in the play, I remember him saying live. I remember his speech to his staff and I remember his talking about “I gave them a sword and they stuck it in and they twisted it”. I wouldn’t say they’re favourites, but they’re resonant with me.
Peter Morgan is best known as a TV writer & this, his stage debut, is inspired by some very famous TV interviews. Why do you think it works as a play?
Peter has said in several interviews that he hopes people will forgive him his imagination and his flights of fancy. Anybody who wants to take a book and sit in the front row moment to moment and say “Nixon didn’t do that, Frost didn’t say that, they couldn’t have done that” is missing the point of theatre. Theatre is where you absolutely can go off on a flight of fancy. What Peter’s achieved in this play, which is very difficult to do, is to be very true to history - everything we say in those 1977 interviews is what they actually said - and also taken us to another realm. He’s hypothesised what it would be like, what the similarities of these two men are, how each is victim of his own needs and desires for fame and fortune, how each of them is ambitious and in certain respects venal and in other respects quite miraculous in how far they got from quite humble beginnings. And he talks a little about what’s happened in the time since. When you look at how television was back then and where it is now in 2006, it’s very interesting. It’s true that Nixon lost his earlier bid for the presidency because he had a heavy beard and he sweated. He became the first victim of the electronic age because, when the camera came in on him and Jack Kennedy, Jack Kennedy came off so much better. But in fact Nixon’s mind was better, Nixon’s debate abilities were better; he just didn’t look the picture.
What’s the funniest thing that happened during rehearsals of Frost/Nixon?
In the first week of rehearsals, everyone would come up and ‘do Nixon’ for me; the director, the writer, all the other actors would do the voice and whenever they could, they told Nixon stories. I finally said “look, there has to be a ban on this, I can’t have 12 people coming up to me shaking their jowls and deepening their voices and doing stuff like that”. I don’t intend to imitate him, I want to inhabit him.
You were last on the London stage in Over the Moon, when your relationship with your leading lady Joan Collins was the subject of intense rumours. What happened?
It’s gone. I have quite a wonderful ability for something to be over when it’s over; it just floats out of my brain. I don’t store things, I don’t dwell on them. And that was a long time ago. I’ve done about seven movies since then and about six plays. It’s like ancient history. We rehearsed Frost/Nixon at the Old Vic. The first day of rehearsal I sort of stopped, looked around and said, “oh the Lillian Bayliss dressing room, that was my dressing room”. It’s now an office space. After Over the Moon closed, I did Fortune’s Fool on Broadway and I remember sitting in the Lillian Bayliss dressing room reading the script of that for the first time. So that was wonderful memory.
How special is performing on the London stage for you?
I started coming to London as a teenager. I rode my bike in from Oxford when I was 17 and started going to the theatre here way back then. It’s changed in the past 40 years. London audiences - who were always notorious for being reserved as opposed to American audiences who love you and throw themselves at you immediately - have become far more enthusiastic and vocal, far more engaged, friendlier and warmer when they like something. Also there are so many more American actors coming over than there used to be. The Brits used to be less generous about our actors coming here, while a lot more Brits came to New York to work. Now I think it’s getting to be a kind of wonderful walls-down situation. The Atlantic was like the Berlin Wall for actors, and that’s changing. When I go into an actor hang-out in London, there are as many Americans working here as there are Brits – well, obviously not as many, but many more than there used to be.
What are your future plans?
I’m hoping to spend a couple of weeks in Italy. I have family there and I haven’t been in a few years. If a film that’s sort of in my future doesn’t happen, then I’ll have the time free when we close here and I can go to Italy.
Anything else you’d like to add?
My UK stage debut was a play I did ten or 12 years ago called Abradcadaver. It was due to go into the Wyndham’s but we closed in Plymouth. That must have been in the early Nineties; my kids were little and I put them in school here. Then was Over the Moon. I’m hoping this will break my run of two extraordinary flops here. I don’t want that be my pattern in England.
- Frank Langella was speaking to Terri Paddock
Frost/Nixon opens on 21 August 2006 (previews from 10 August) at the Donmar Warehouse, where it continues until 7 October 2006.