Over 160 theatregoers talked politics, television and confessions with Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, who took part in our exclusive question & answer session as part of last night’s sell-out Whatsonstage.com Outing to Frost/Nixon, now at the West End’s Gielgud Theatre after a successful run at the Donmar Warehouse and ahead of a subsequent Broadway transfer and planned screen adaptation (See News, 6 Oct 2006).

TV screenwriter Peter Morgan’s debut stage play, inspired by the bruising 1977 interview in which British TV presenter David Frost tried to get the disgraced former US president Richard Nixon to apologise for his crimes, is directed by Donmar Warehouse artistic Michael Grandage and designed by Christopher Oram.

With Nixon desperate to claw back some semblance of credibility after the Watergate scandal and Frost hoping to make the biggest career move of his life, the scene is set for an extraordinary confrontation, ending in Nixon’s public admission of his crimes after years of lies and subterfuge.

Michael Sheen stars as Frost and American Frank Langella (pictured with Sheen) as Nixon. The two men have been jointly nominated for Best Actor in this year’s Whatsonstage.com Theatregoers’ Choice Awards, in which the piece was also nominated for Best New Play, Best Director and Best Designer (click here to vote now!). The Whatsonstage.com nominations came in the same week as the production won the first-ever Editor’s Award, honouring “an outstanding contribution to the West End”, in the Evening Standard Awards (See News, 27 Nov 2006).

Highlights from last night’s discussion, which was hosted by Whatsonstage.com editorial director Terri Paddock, follow…

On how they become involved in the project

Michael Sheen: Peter Morgan had wanted Stephen Frears to make The Queen earlier than he did, and when Stephen said no Peter said, “okay then I’ll go and write a play”. It came to Michael Grandage and Michael wanted to workshop it because Peter was very under-confident about writing for the theatre, he was very nervous about it. He did a workshop at the Donmar which I took part in and (producer) Matthew Byam Shaw convinced him it was a great idea.

Frank Langella: Michael Grandage called me on the phone and said – it makes me laugh remembering what he said now – “Mr Langella, it would be so wonderful for the country if you came here”. I said I had to shift some things and I was very honest with him and said I think it’s a little Talking Heads and I’m not sure… And he said “no it’s a thriller, I see it as a thriller”. And the word thriller got me.

On thrills & confessions

Sheen: It is a thriller. We talked about it a lot in rehearsals and wanted to make sure that the audience had enough information so that they were completely drawn in. With something like this, about American politics and Watergate…. It’s one of those things here that you’ve heard of, but you always feel a little bit guilty that you don’t know exactly what the details are. So we wanted to get that across quite early on in the play so that the audience could go with the journey. At the beginning, there’s a lot of information to take in. But with all those allusions to the boxing ring and bull-fighting, the tension really ratchets up and you can see that there’s so much at stake for both of them, so it is really thrilling.

Langella: Nixon was one of the first politicians ever to make a confession, or whatever you want to call it, like that on television, and it broke him. Now they’re all confessing on TV, but he was the first to do it. I had so many prejudices about Nixon before this, saying he’s a liar and a crook, but now I have to find all the different dimensions of him because you can’t just put a stamp on someone. He may have been a liar and a crook, but he was other things too. I think it’s important to make him a character you can feel, not sympathy, but compassion for.

On portraying real people

Sheen: We were very clear that we didn’t want to be sticking things like wigs on as that just emphasises how much you’re not like the person you’re playing. Really – I know it’s a phrase that’s used a lot - you just want to get the essence of the character. With some real-life characters I’ve played, the way they speak is such an expression of who they are - for example Kenneth Williams and Frost. The way Frost speaks expresses his personality. So there are some instances when you have to be more precise; but then the danger is you don’t want to just be doing an impression. It’s about getting to the heart of what that person is about. I met Frost briefly a long time ago. Actually, Peter said he thought it was probably not a good idea to meet him during rehearsals because he said Frost is such a charming man I’d like him so much that I wouldn’t be able to play him warts and all and there may be some bits that I was less comfortable with playing. So then, of course, everywhere I went he was there, and I had to run and hide because I knew he would come up to speak to me.

Langella: I was determined not to imitate Nixon. I went to the library and did all the usual things, but the thing that affected me most was going to his home where he grew up. I was sat in his tiny bedroom which he shared with his three brothers, and I thought “wow, this little boy in this tiny room became the president of the United States”. That helped me a lot to find compassion for the character.

On David Frost coming to see Frost/Nixon

Sheen: Frost was very nervous when he first watched the play, and I think in some ways he was very relieved afterwards. He had things that he said were inaccurate, but he said he understood it was dramatic licence. It’s funny, people I’ve spoken to about Frost are very divided. There are some people who say he’s a great man and won’t have anything said against him, and there are some who say he has no morals. People say he’s happy as long as it’s a hit, and this has done well so he should be happy either way. I said to him after the show, “it must be so strange watching someone playing you at a pivotal time of your life”. And he said, “In the words of Yogi Berra, it’s like déjà vu all over again.” I always tell that story because I thought he said Yogi Bear. I went round quoting him as saying that and quoting Yogi Bear - I didn’t realise Yogi Berra was some baseball player! Now in retrospect Frost says he knew the only interview that really mattered was Watergate and so he let Nixon feel comfortable for the others.

Langella: Watching him on TV now, what I particularly admire about Frost is he’s absolutely fearless. And he always follows up. Many interviewers you can see they’re not listening to the answer, they’re thinking of the next question. But Frost does follow up, he’ll say “hang on, what did you just say?” And that’s how he gets such good results.

- by Caroline Ansdell