Frank Langella has been choosy about the roles he decides to play on the big screen. Meanwhile, he has cultivated a remarkable career in the theater, winning three Tony awards, including one for best actor this past June for his instantly legendary portrayal on Broadway of President Richard Nixon in the play Frost/Nixon. And now Langella is also getting incredible applause for his latest film role in Starting Out in the Evening, which is directed by Andrew Wagner and costars Lili Taylor and Lauren Ambrose, both from the television hit Six Feet Under. Langella plays Leonard Schiller, a writer whose world is turned upside down when a zealous graduate student convinces him that he will be reinstated in the literary spotlight if she does her thesis about his work. The New York Times raved about Langella’s performance, explaining, “There are not too many screen performances that manage to be both subtle and monumental.” I recently sat down with the actor to discuss his latest work.
What was it, in particular, that attracted you to the character? Well, you know, I’m not as old as Leonard, but I’m getting there very fast. And his singularity-I’m very attracted to characters that are singular in the way they approach life and the attitudes they have about work. I’m very attracted to loners and characters that have epic problems and conditions in their lives. I wanted to explore what factors in life happen that either cause you to rise to the top or sink, emotionally. What are the things that cause you to slam doors all the time and say, “I don’t want human relationships anymore, I don’t want to keep trying to get better in my work”? And usually it’s because you have been battered or hurt or disappointed in yourself or others. Personally, I try really hard to keep going, which is why I wanted to explore this man who is a sensitively intelligent man-a kind person with old-world standards-but why did he limit his life to as little as he possibly could?
This is a very literary, quiet film; it’s so rare in today’s cinema. I was so shocked when I saw it at how brave this director is to let you all sit and watch human beings talk to each other and also while the camera sits there on the face while the face thinks, while the face has a notion or an idea. And then I say something to another person who has another idea and they say it back. Now we live in an age when directors have a fear of just letting the camera sit on human faces and watching them think, react, and feel. Directors feel they have to constantly bombard us with special effects or, even in dramatic films, that they have to keep the camera moving. Andrew doesn’t do that. He doesn’t do that at all.
Was it helpful that you and most of the actors around you are theater people? Yes, it was helpful because almost every actor in it was New York-based and therefore understood what it meant to play a different character every night in a play. We worked very fast-and the script has a lot of dialogue. These were actors who could memorize two or three pages and not be intimidated by having to get them done by six o’clock.
You and Lili Taylor, who plays your daughter, have incredible chemistry. I love my daughter more than any other human being on the planet, and Lili Taylor has similar qualities to my own daughter. There is a humanity and there is a sweetness and a kindness in Lili that is profound. We never met before. We had very little rehearsal time, and I would just speak to her and she spoke back. She’s a stunning, stunning actress.
What was your reaction when you first read about the intimate scenes between Heather [Lauren Ambrose] and Leonard? She’s less than half your age. Well, actually, we had many, many debates about whether or not Leonard and Heather actually consummated that relationship, and we prefer to leave it up to the audience to wonder whether or not it was the beginning of something or that they have made love one time, and then the next night he is like a little boy when he hands her the key. Like all other things in this film, it was very important to Andrew and myself not to lay it on you, not to make it utterly clear that they had a sexual encounter. Sex was certainly an element from Heather’s point of view, an element she wanted to bring into the relationship.
It’s rare when an actor who creates a role onstage gets to play it on film. How do you feel shooting Frost/Nixon with Ron Howard directing? I was thinking about this the other day. I had two incredible pieces of fortune, which is I did Dracula 30 years ago onstage and filmed the movie. Now I’ve gotten to do Richard Nixon in the movie-that is very unusual. I have to be very grateful to Jack Nicholson, who passed on the role because he said he couldn’t memorize those lines. And Warren Beatty couldn’t quite make himself say yes. I’m extremely grateful to them.
Starting Out in the Evening opens in Santa Barbara theaters this weekend.