For over four decades, Frank Langella has been one of the country’s finest actors, one of those “master thespians” that we usually only see come out of the United Kingdom, and in recent years, he’s been having somewhat of a resurgence with a key role in George Clooney’s Good Night, And Good Luck and who could forget how he played Perry White in Bryan Singer’s Superman Returns?
In Andrew (The Talent Given Us) Wagner’s adaptation of Brian Morton’s Starting Out in the Evening, Langella plays aging author and college professor Leonard Schiller who has been working in vain on his fifth novel for over a decade in hopes of completing one more piece of work before he dies. When he agrees to be interviewed by an eager young grad student named Heather, played by Lauren (“Six Feet Under”) Ambrose, he starts exploring parts of his past that he was hoping to forget, distracting him even further from finishing his novel. Lili Taylor plays his soon to be 40-year-old daughter Ariel, who is going through her own personal crisis after reuniting with an ex-boyfriend (Adrian Lester) who she knows will never want to have children with her.
ComingSoon.net had a rare chance to sit down with Langella and discuss the movie as well as reprising his performance as Richard Nixon for Ron Howard’s heavily anticipated film of Peter Morgan’s hit play Frost/Nixon.
ComingSoon.net: Did you wear a lot of makeup to make yourself look even older for this?
Frank Langella: We did nothing. I mean, let me think. No not a thing. I just gained a lot of weight. I’m about twenty-five pounds lighter than when I was when we shot the movie, but no. No makeup. I don’t think I needed it.
CS: Was a lot of it just getting into the right mood, since you’re playing someone older than yourself.
Langella: I mean, he’s not far away from me, but I’m not quite in my seventies quite yet. It was more attitude I think than anything else. I hope.
CS: Did you read the book or know about it before accepting the role?
Langella: Andrew didn’t want me to read the book.
CS: Do you want to go back and read it now afterwards?
Langella: I have it now. He gave it to me now and I’m going to read it just for the pleasure of reading it, but Leonard was based, for me totally on the screenplay.
CS: What element do you find intriguing about this script?
Langella: It’s humanity I think more than anything else, the actual resonance of the story. It resonated to me profoundly because I’m getting up there in years too and I’m looking at my own choices in life and what I want to do in the future. I have a very different life than Leonard, completely different, but it still resonates with me in terms of my generation, my age, my feelings about what in the past I can learn from.
CS: Have you ever experienced any sort of actor’s block because you’ve been doing it for so long?
Langella: No I haven’t because I don’t have to start well, I do have to start blank in a particular way, but every part is a new challenge and I sort of accept the block as necessary. I don’t call it a block, I call it a wilderness. I just go in and say, “Okay, this is new territory. I’ve never been here before. I’m going to be terrible. I don’t know what I’m going to do.” I’ll stumble around, and something will happen and I’ll go, “Oh, okay.” I’ll build on that and I’ll change. So I’ve never had a block where I couldn’t act.
CS: I heard that the film was shot in just eighteen days, so was there an extensive rehearsal process before shooting?
Langella: Between Andrew and I there was. Andrew and I worked for three weeks on Leonard’s trajectory and on what it is we thought Leonard’s steps were; where he was going, and thank God for that. It was my suggestion because I said to him, “You’ve made two movies. I’ve made about sixty now. There’s no time to stand on the set and debate how a scene should be played. You know? We have to know Leonard’s throughline.” And then we were able to get the actresses to come in and work for a couple sessions so that we were able to spend time with Lili and Lauren and we were able to form things. So we had a good sense when we hit the set what we wanted to do so we didn’t have to stand around and go, “Let’s take a break and think about it.” There wasn’t any money to do that.
CS: Could you talk about the relationship between your character and Lauren Ambrose’s Heather? Obviously there is a big age gap and they want different things from each other. Can you talk about how their relationship develops and how you saw it?
Langella: Well, I think when you’re a man in your seventies and you’ve chosen to shut down on life for such a long period of time and somebody comes along and stirs you up, you’re really resistant to it. It’s just, “Let me have my toast and my tea and let me live my life as I’ve chosen to live it. It’s very ordered and I know what I think and I know what I feel. I don’t want anybody to stir me up.” But you’re still a man and you’re still alive and you still have all sorts of feelings and ambitions. Somebody comes along and says, “You know, you were really once great and I really like you.” You begin to wake up a little bit. You begin to feel things you haven’t felt in a long time when someone drags you awake, which is what I think the essence between Heather and Leonard is. I can’t speak for her of course, but I can speak for inside of him. He allowed himself to be seduced on a lot of levels.
CS: How was it working on the set as far as the relationships between the actors while doing the scenes?
Langella: We just did a little Q ‘n’ A with the National Board of Review and I said that one the great things about this film was that there wasn’t much time to mess it up. We had limited money, limited time. There wasn’t a lot of time to fool around with it and change it and do lots of takes and do all sorts of things. I was there every day and the other actors came and went. Each actor who came in was so specifically rooted in their character and what it was that they wanted to project with their character and I was able to just look at Lauren, or Lili, or Adrian, who I think is wonderful in the movie. Adrian Lester who plays Casey. Every one of them came onto the set with a very distinct point of view about their character. And all I had to do was listen. I never talked to Lauren once about, “If you do, I’ll do. What do you think? Should she be? Should I be?” I just reacted to her and she reacted to me. And that’s exciting because you don’t know what’s in the other actor’s mind. And I didn’t want to know because these two characters are combatants in a way. And each, each is jockeying for his own position. So it was very exciting. And with Lily, the same thing because with Lily’s character, I’m so deeply in love with my daughter and Lily and I just sort of feel into each other very easily.
CS: Were you surprised that your nude scene got a PG-13 rather than an R-rating?
Langella: You mean a glimpse of my penis is not worth an “R”?
CS: Apparently. Not sure if I’d want younger women to go see it.
Langella: My daughter has seen it.
CS: What did she say to you afterwards?
Langella: She loved it. Well she would, your own daughter. My daughter is twenty-four. She is a lot younger than Lili’s character, but she was moved by it.
(Note: The next two paragraphs deal with specific plot points in the movie and may be somewhat spoilerish not that anyone who reads them who hasn’t seen them movie will know what is being discussed.)
CS: At one point, your character lashes out at Heather. What was that about?
Langella: Well, it means something different to everybody.
CS: I know. I want to know what it meant to you.
Langella: I can’t tell you what it meant to me. I don’t want to characterize it because I don’t want to imprint what it means and then people will watch it and say, “Oh that’s what it means.” It means whatever you want it to mean, and I don’t like that answer most of the time because I think, “Oh for Christ sake. Just tell me what it’s about. Don’t play that game.” But it’s such a personal thing how a person reacts to a particular kind of betrayal. There are all sorts of things he could have done or said and I thought the choice to do that was particularly original and unique, so I was quite happy to do it, but I had a personal reason.
CS: Is Leonard in denial when he says, “I don’t want to keep writing the same book.” Are we supposed to just dismiss that or accept that maybe she’s right, that maybe only his first two novels were great? What’s going on with Leonard when he says that?
Langella: Someone told me a long time ago, “Never attack anybody’s defense for living,” and I think that’s probably a true statement. Certainly a true statement in relationship to what she’s trying to do. She’s trying in the brashness of youth to say, “You backed out. You did this. You did that. You’re not realizing that your wife’s infidelity did this to you.” He’s saying, “Stop telling me,” and he doesn’t want to hear it. Most of us don’t want to hear it. I’m sure you’ve been in a position where you’ve said to somebody, “I’m going to tell you this for your own good.” It’s just bull. People don’t want to hear it.
CS: The fact that he doesn’t want to hear it, doesn’t mean that it’s not necessarily true. Are we to assume that he is in denial and that she may be right?
Langella: I think that from her point of view, she’s doing what she thinks she needs to do to wake a man up, but she’s not necessarily doing it for his good. But from his point of view, he’s saying, “Please don’t tell me what my purpose is and please don’t tell me why I live the way I live my life.” I think when you get up to these years it’s very, very difficult to change, and very difficult to see, very difficult to accept change. I know it’s true in myself and I’m very different than Leonard. I try very hard to change and to grow. You’re asking a man who’s been stuck in a particularly deep, dark mud for a long time to break free. It’s a lot to ask.
CS: Do you think younger audiences can get something out of this movie? Obviously, there’s something that can be said for people in their forties or fifties who might not be thinking that they have many years ahead of them. Do you think younger audiences can get something out of this as well?
Langella: I hope so. I don’t know whether I would have when I was in my twenties even gone to see this because you think, “Oh well it’s about an old guy.” But there’s a universality in this film. If it could be seen by young people I think there’s something to be gained. I know every young person that I’ve spoken to. Some of them have tears in their eyes after the screening say, “It’s my grandpa,” or, “It’s my father,” or, “It’s my uncle,” or, “I’m scared it might be me.” One of the beauties of the picture, I mean I know this is all about me coming and praising something I’m in for the sake of people seeing it, but the fact of the matter is, I don’t do this that often, this movie is really truly a beauty. I think in its simplicity and its elegance, and its attempt to say something. There’s no violence, there’s no sex, there’s no guns, there’s no vulgarity and it cost a half a million bucks and we did it in eighteen days. So it’s a worthwhile project to praise.
CS: The ending of this movie is very hopeful. Do you have any thoughts about whether or not Leonard ever finishes his book?
Langella: I think he starts and I think life being what it is, he could write two pages and fall over dead, or he could finish the whole book, you just don’t know. But the point is, he starts again. That’s the point.
(Potential spoilers over)
CS: Do you feel that you’ve been getting stronger roles in the last few years, or just different type of roles?
Langella: Yes, because I’ve developed too as a man. I’ve grown and changed and gotten older, and there were certain parts that were available to me that are no longer available. There’s a whole host of new things available and I’m excited by those. It’s been an incredible two years for me, just a wonderful series of events.
CS: You were talking about acting in the wilderness as a way to conceptualize starting out. Is this different than it was for you twenty years ago? How has your acting technique changed?
Langella: I’m really less precious about it than I used to be. When you’re young and first starting out, and even in the middle of the career, you can be terribly precious about your art and what you do and the theater. Nor do I feel that it’s a business or a job. I still very much revere it and love it, but it’s work like any other job and you come in and you do the basics and you do what’s required and then you hope that inspiration comes and that magic comes. You don’t start out working for magic. Like anything else, like a great sculptor, he picks up the chisel and he goes, “Bonk” on a big block and then months, years later, there’s this magical thing, but he’s just going, “If I don’t chip this way, if I don’t chip that way, I will ruin all I did. Now I’ve got to fix it.” That’s what I regard acting as. It’s really work, it’s wonderful work and rewarding work when you get it right.
CS: It was great to see you on Broadway in “Frost/Nixon.” You’ve done it on stage for so long, how has it been transitioning that to a film?
Langella: Ron Howard was very respectful, very, and he was actually adamant that the script be preserved almost to the word, and it was, maybe in addition of I think maybe ten or twelve minutes of outside stories about Nixon and Frost and what happens in their private lives. Patty is a character and I play the piano in it. You’ll see me getting into the helicopter and you’ll see me walking through Yorba Linda and Casa Pacifica. What he did was, he mixed in some of Nixon’s private life and some of Frost’s so we know when the combatants come together, more about them.
CS: Did you use some of the same staging?
Langella: That’s all I’m going to say.
CS: When you’re working in a play, you have a chance to night after night evolve your character, to find nuances, and different elements, and the character’s passions in different ways. Do you miss that when you’re working on a film?
Langella: No, because I feel very, very strongly that you have to not compare anything to anything. This is where I am today. I’m sitting in a chair talking to you now. When I was on the set of this movie, which was almost two years ago, I was in a room on the Upper West Side, it was very hot and we only had a limited amount of time to accomplish something. I adjusted myself to whatever the requirements were. I didn’t let myself think about, “Gee if this were a play, I would be able to.” I just did what was required. That gives your adrenaline a certain kind of energy. In the theater, even in the theater, I don’t think if I’m doing something, “Oh tomorrow I’ll fix this,” or, “I’ll get another shot.” It’s immediate. I have to do it. So the thing I tell myself, “I must do this now,” is the best possible thing I could tell myself whether or not I’ve got three takes, or three hundred like with “Frost/Nixon,” I did it three hundred sixty times. But I never thought while I was performing onstage, “I’ve got it tomorrow night.” I just thought, “Give your all right now.” So when a director says to me in a movie I just give my all and I don’t worry about the fact that it’s not this, or not that.
CS: Do moments stay with you more from the characters that you develop over a long time?
Langella: Yes, they do. A lot of them do. I haven’t seen this picture yet on a movie screen. I’ve only seen it on a little, small TV screen. Andrew showed it to me a few months ago. But yeah, there are a lot of things about Leonard that will be with me always.
CS: If I’d gone a third night to see “Frost/Nixon” and I’d gone the third to last night, would I have seen a difference?
Langella: Oh yes, an immense difference. I couldn’t qualify it for you, but I could say that because when you play something for close to a year, when you like to grow and evolve as I do, I don’t play it by rote and I just don’t just go out there and do an automatic performance. I give as fully a live and committed show as I can you would’ve seen a real growth, but I can’t tell you what it is.
CS: What did you think of the theatre where you performed it on Broadway? The acoustics seemed a bit off, I thought.
Langella: Of all the theaters that we played at, which was the Dunmar and the John Gielgud and the Jacobs, the Jacobs was the hardest.
CS: What is the difference between your level of consciousness of self when working on stage vs. on camera?
Langella: When you’re in front of an audience, you’re not alone. So you’re conscious of response, and conscious of waiting for a laugh, or waiting for reaction, or holding for the beats of the scene or another actor. When you’re on the camera you can in fact, in your mind, become alone. There’s just a lens and in a way the lens becomes like a lover that you talk to and share the deepest part of you with. When you’re onstage you have to make your style a little bit more presentational, a little larger. Having just done it back to back, stage to screen within a week, there is a particular kind of pleasure that comes from being able to talk something you’ve done live in front of an audience quietly to a camera.
CS: If you weren’t acting what would you do?
Langella: I will eventually stop and write more than anything else.
CS: What would you write? Fiction?
Langella: Everything. No, not fiction. Fiction doesn’t interest me. Essays, short stories, my own memoirs, probably a one-man show at some point that I’ve been putting together in my head for five or six years. Anything that occurs to me.
CS: Essays about what?
Langella: Anything, anything that occurs to me, anything that I see. I write a lot now and I just put it in a drawer and I look at it years later and go, “What is that about?” But, no, not fiction.
CS: Did Warner Brothers give you a contract to play Perry White in another movie?
Langella: Yeah, I’ve got two more to do.
CS: Could one of them be the “Justice League” movie? I think some people would love to see that consistency.
Langella: I don’t know because I think both with the strike and the fact that they haven’t come up with a really great story yet, I don’t know when the next “Superman” is going to be. But my guess is that it probably won’t be until next year.
Starting Out in the Evening opens in New York and Los Angeles on Friday, November 23.