TWO TERMS AS NIXON
Veteran actor Frank Langella first stepped into former President Richard M. Nixon’s shoes in 2006 with Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon” on the London stage. The play, which chronicled the preparations, negotiations and shooting of the famed 1977 interviews between Nixon and British TV journalist David Frost (Michael Sheen), was an unbridled success. The following year, Langella and Sheen reprised their roles on Broadway, earning Langella, 71, the Tony Award for actor in a play.
And now Langella is in the running for an Academy Award for his Nixon portrayal in the Ron Howard-directed film version, which again costars Sheen.
Langella, who recently closed on Broadway in the revival of Robert Bolt’s classic “A Man for All Seasons,” chatted about his life as Nixon on the phone from New York.
How would you describe Nixon?
He is a modern-day Lear, isn’t he in many ways? He is about as larger-than-life a figure as one can think of in American politics. There aren’t very many of them. You might think of Tip O’Neill as a great larger-than-life figure, but not a tragic figure. Certainly [Franklin] Roosevelt had a larger-than-life quality but he didn’t have that tragic element that Nixon had.
One of my favorite scenes in the film is when Nixon has had a few drinks and he calls Frost up on the phone and rants about his childhood, his political situation and his feelings about the privileged. Did Ron Howard shoot that scene in just one take or was it shot piecemeal?
We made an agreement the day before, after we had sort of staged it and set it up, that I would do the entire speech. . . . I said, “Why don’t we just go for a master, a long master shot?” I don’t know what the scene is, maybe 2 1/2 or 3 minutes or maybe longer? It’s a great speech and I didn’t want to break it up. We did it 16 times in a row fully. Once we felt we had the master of it, he cut it up and tried stuff in the chair and stuff at the window. But I wanted to get the feeling of the whole scene all the way through first.
How do you have to alter your performance from stage to screen? Is your performance smaller because of Howard’s frequent use of close-ups?
I had to go deeper, deeper, deeper into him. It wasn’t a question of smaller; it was a question of deeper. I didn’t do more thinking and more research. I had had my fill of research by then. I felt I knew what I wanted to know about him. I knew the camera was going to be as close up on me as it could possibly be and my goal was never for there to be a flicker of anything false that would appear in any way to be actor-y. That made it more difficult because when you are playing someone that is as far away from you as you can imagine he is from me, you have to be deeper and so inside the character that you are never false. Since Ron likes to shoot it from many angles and many ways, it meant staying in that character 14 hours a day every day.
Did that take a toll on you to sustain Nixon for so long?
It didn’t take a lot out of me -- it just required profound concentration. Once I was in the trailer I could put my feet up, but on the set I stayed Nixon. It was good for me, good for Ron and I think good for the company. As we found out, whenever you are around someone like that, a Nixon-type character who is also the president, everybody behaves differently in their presence. So everybody behaved very differently when I was in makeup and on the set.
In what way?
There was no familiarity. Nobody came up and chatted. It kept my sense of isolation going wonderfully. I would look over sometimes and see five or six of the actors standing around the crafts table eating bagels and thinking to myself that in most movies that is where I would be -- eating and making jokes and talking about the day and what we read in the paper. I couldn’t. I would get up and leave and walk back to my trailer. The more isolated I remained, the better it was for the character.
Acting with Michael Sheen for so long, there must have been a shorthand with the two of you?
We have spent so much time rehearsing these parts and playing them, we didn’t need to have a language. We just played off of each other very well. We understood each other’s rhythms and heartbeats. It was a very easy collaboration.
How did Howard direct you both since you knew your characters so well?
He was very, very anxious to understand what was going on in both of us separately. He talked to each privately because Nixon and Frost were combatants and had separate agendas. We kept our agendas secret from each other. Ron kept whatever work he did with Michael secret from me and vice versa. It was great because it was like walking into a boxing ring every single day that we needed to shoot the interviews. It became very, very exciting.