Frank Langella hits Broadway in a saintly role

October 6, 2008 5:08:34 PM PDT
Frank Langella is in no mood to be messed with right now.

He has just returned from a breakfast meeting where the waiter tried to rip him off. The bill came back with not enough change, the guy likely figuring Langella wouldn't notice.

Trouble was, he did.

"So I cut his tip in half," Langella says, matter-of-factly.

"Now, my instinct was to leave him nothing," he adds. "But he did a good job, so I thought, 'You played your little game, so I'll lessen my reward."'

Fair enough. But how much, exactly, had this foolhardy waiter tried to pocket from the 6-foot-4-inch, three-time Tony Award winner?

"About 26 cents."

Forgive Frank Langella for being a tad tough these days when it comes to issues of morality He's currently playing a saint on Broadway - a real saint.

Langella, who last portrayed the venal Richard Nixon, has switched gears entirely to become Sir Thomas More, a man known for his righteousness.

As told in the play "A Man for All Seasons," More was beheaded by England's Henry VIII in 1535 after refusing to sanction the king's divorce from Queen Catherine. More, who believed God's law trumped Henry's, chose death rather than betray his conscience.

"This is a particularly interesting man because he sticks to his guns in a way 99.9 percent of us can't do. He loses his head for it," Langella says. "There's a reason why there's only a handful of saints."

Playing larger-than-life roles is nothing new to Langella, 69. In his career on stage and in film, he's tackled Dracula, Cyrano and Sherlock Holmes, Salieri in "Amadeus" and Perry White in "Superman Returns."

This time, he had to avoid the traps of playing a martyr: self-righteousness, ego and selfishness. "The more I try to find him, the more I realize how hard I have to work since I'm capable of all those things," he says.

"You know, one of the worst things anybody can do is to give in to the need to be popular or the need to be in the center of the going thing - the right haircut, the right look, the right political party. That's death to individuality. That's death to growth."

Before jumping into Robert Bolt's 1960 play, Langella was typically conscientious. He read all of More's works - including the book "Utopia" - and biographies of the man. He watched the film of the play, paying particular attention to the late Paul Scofield in the lead role.

"I do anything I can think of that will inspire me. And then there is a cut off point where all of those - every one of those influences has been absorbed - and now More and I are one," he says.

The play's director, Doug Hughes, has been impressed by Langella's work ethic and willingness to listen, and debate the fine points of sainthood deep into the night.

"I don't think anybody has a more flawless radar for the stage in terms of just knowing where he is on stage, knowing how to convey the most from a play," says Hughes. "It's an amazing career and it's a dedicated life and he's obsessed."

Langella's embrace of More offers a refreshing change from the darkness of Nixon, whom he spent most of last year portraying, first in London and then on Broadway in the Tony-winning "Frost/Nixon."

That play, a behind-the-scenes dramatization of David Frost's TV interviews with the former president in 1977, has been turned into a movie with Langella directed by Ron Howard. It's due out in December.

Asked how it feels to play such starkly different characters back-to-back, Langella smiles. He knows Nixon loses in the comparison with More, but is still possessive of his old role.

"Nixon, in his own way, who was a force of evil, still had a brilliant, extraordinarily gifted political mind," he says. "He then could not overcome the very thing that Sir Thomas says you need to overcome: Nixon could not take the high road. His greed, his political bitterness, his demons, which were so strong, overcame him."

Langella recalls the day "Frost/Nixon" ended its run after 137 performances on Broadway. It was a Sunday afternoon - Aug. 19, 2007, to be exact - and yet he couldn't relax. He was on a plane the very next day to Los Angeles for fittings and rehearsals for the film.

The transition, he thought, would be a snap. After all, he's done 45 films and 70 plays, and was confident he knew the difference between them. Plus, he already knew the script cold.

But though he tried to scale his performance to the camera, in his head were still the rhythms of timing from the stage. He zoomed though his first rehearsal, literally zoomed.

"I gave what I thought was a filmic performance. And Ron came up to me and said, 'It's great. I love it. But, you know, I've got a lot of time and I have a lot of film and I have scissors.' He liberated me," Langella says.

The addition of Nixon and More into the Langella pantheon makes sense. Meaty roles are his forte, including CBS head William Paley in the film "Good Night, and Good Luck," the evil presidential chief of staff in "Dave" and stage plays by Turgenev, Shakespeare and Albee.

"I'm not a regular guy," he says. "I'm attracted to epically flawed people because I'm flawed and because I've had to make my way, usually, outside the boundary. Since I was a very small person, I've developed a sense of always being in the other room and I could hear everybody laughing. I used to think, 'What's going on over there?' So I created my own singular world in my own head.

"When I look back at my choices, the whole list of these men who are on their own - Dracula, Sherlock Holmes, Paley, Nixon and now Thomas - I have an affinity with them. I understand what it's like to hear life on the other side of the door and not be a part of it."

That's not to mean Langella hasn't grown. He freely acknowledges that he was the opposite of More when he was younger - needing to be popular and sometimes compromising his ethics.

He's matured, he says. Take that earlier incident with the waiter, the one who stiffed him. It still irritates him.

"The funny things is, I think, 10 years ago I would have taken all my stuff and left - and left him nothing, to teach him a lesson," he says.

"And this time I went, 'OK, that's me getting down to his level.' He served me, he did well, he was good, he was attentive. He wanted a little extra. So the only way I could do it was to give him a little less."


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