Frank Langella talks about his role in indie ‘Robot & Frank’
In some minds, the road from Count Dracula to Richard Nixon is a short one, but throw in some 40-odd personalities in between the two and you get just part of the versatile 50-year career of Frank Langella. (His 2012 memoir, “Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them,” offers up some serious dish on the many people he’s worked or cavorted with along the way.)
This year, he starred in “Robot & Frank,” an indie film that received big critical acclaim when it opened this summer. Set in the near-future, the movie features Langella as Frank, a former jewel thief in the early stages of dementia. Forced to accept a robot caregiver from his son, he soon realizes that it can be taught the tools of his illegal trade, bringing back an old spark — and a new heist plan — for Frank. The DVD comes out Feb. 12. “I think it will do well,” Langella says. “So many of the older generation will want to see it comfortably at home.”
Langella spoke by phone from Paris, where he’s working on “Grace of Monaco.” The lush, old-fashioned movie, starring Nicole Kidman, is also shooting in Nice, Brussels, Italy and, of course, Monaco. “It’s a hardship. Somehow I’m enduring,” he notes dryly. After that comes another indie, “Parts Per Billion,” to be shot in slightly less glamorous Michigan — in December.
You’re working as much now as ever.
More. It’s a very rewarding feeling. For the most part, I’ve really tried to choose things that would cause me to grow as an actor. I’m 74, and there are, for some reason, more parts available to me in these years than I ever thought would be. I’ve been very lucky. Also, I like first-time directors; I don’t think I’d work as much if I didn’t. The next film is with a first-time director, so was “Starting Out in the Evening” and “All Good Things” — about six in the last decade. First-timers are great to work with.
Their enthusiasm is infectious. There was a rain scene in “Robot & Frank,” and we had no time, no special effects, no machines, so [director] Jake Schreier was standing off to the left of camera, with his thumb on a full-out open hose, trying to make rain on my head. I was very touched by that.
The robot was voiced by Peter Sarsgaard, but not until months after you finished filming. Who spoke to you while you were shooting?
Sometimes we had a young lady inside the robot suit, but it was 95 degrees most of the time and she would keel over, so we couldn’t do that much. Sometimes the director would read the robot’s lines, or an [assistant director] or my nephew — whoever happened to be standing around. There was no consistency on the set, which was OK with me, because the robot already had a character in my mind. Then when I saw the film, Peter was so absolutely perfect, I thought, ‘Well, there’s the magic of movies for you.’
How did you create the robot’s character on your own?
I didn’t find it difficult, because the robot was a robot — it wasn’t as if I would need a particular line reading. With a human actor in front of you, they can go one direction or the other, and you should adjust yourself to that. In my mind, the robot was always going to have a particular point of view. So I could play opposite what I believed it was saying.
Frank objects strenuously to the robot, but in many ways he’s the harder one to warm up to.
One of the things we tried very hard to do was not sentimentalize it, not have Frank turn into a sweet, loving old man. We wanted to keep him exactly as he was. He wasn’t a particularly great father, he liked stealing from insurance companies, he wasn’t about to change, and the robot wasn’t going to make him sweet and cuddly.
But, without giving too much away for those who haven’t seen it yet ...
Those who have not seen it yet are legion ...
... a bond develops between them.
He has found a relationship that he can tolerate. When you get up into my years, and you look at what you’ve decided is the strongest, most powerful relationship in your life — whether it’s a spouse or booze or an animal, whether the decision you’ve made is good or bad — it is everything to you. At this point, the robot is everything to Frank, not for sentimental reasons, but because it’s the thing he can relate to.
From the Emmys to the Oscars.
Get our revamped Envelope newsletter, sent twice a week, for exclusive awards season coverage, behind-the-scenes insights and columnist Glenn Whipp’s commentary.
You may occasionally receive promotional content from the Los Angeles Times.