EXCLUSIVE: There’s a visual in HBO’s All The Way when the powerful Georgia Sen. Richard Russell registers the fact that his protégé Lyndon Johnson has sacrificed him, and Dixie, on the pyre of the Civil Rights movement. The camera moves from Johnson’s bespectacled, crinkle-eyed smirk to Russell’s once-implacable mask as it flickers, ever so slightly but unmistakably, with disappointment and resignation. It is a master class in subtlety as Frank Langella’s Russell and Bryan Cranston’s LBJ, formidable gladiators in the crude Colosseum of 1960s American politics, measure the triumph of the student who has vanquished his teacher. Jay Roach’s powerful film adaptation of Robert Schenkkan’s Tony-winning Broadway play will have its premiere Saturday (watch Dominic Patten’s review here).
All The Way is just one of three servings of Langella available these days, where he can also be seen as the unflappable Russian spy handler Gabriel on FX’s The Americans and, in inarguably the most complex performance of all, the title role of The Father on Broadway. In Florian Zeller’s play, translated by Christopher Hampton, Langella plays André, a willful Lear-like character sinking inexorably but defiantly in the quicksand of deepening dementia. The performance has earned Langella his seventh Tony Award nomination; he won his first in 1975 for Edward Albee’s Seascape; his second in 2002 for Mike Poulton’s Turgenev adaptation, Fortune’s Fool and his third as a later U.S. President, Richard M. Nixon, in 2007’s Frost/Nixon (the film of which also brought him an Oscar nomination).
Few acting careers cover so much ground with so much excellence as Langella’s. From his salad days off-Broadway on such seminal stages as the American Place Theatre to his 1978 matinee-idol success as the sexiest Dracula ever, to films ranging from the exquisitely odd Robot & Frank to the devastating Starting Out In The Evening, Langella makes gravitas seem ethereal, never leaden. When asked what it was like to play opposite Cranston, he said, “There is a very particular pleasure that comes from being totally transformed visually as an actor. Both Bryan and I immensely enjoyed entering the make-up room as ourselves and exiting as evocations of LBJ and Richard Russell — it gave us a very special rapport.” Langella already has lined up his next project: a revival of Arthur Kopit’s 1962 farce Oh Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feelin’ So Sad, to begin at the La Jolla Playhouse next season, with Broadway in mind.
We’ve talked on several occasions over the years; this time, we met in his dressing room at the Manhattan Theatre Club’s Samuel J. Friedman Theatre, where The Father continues its run.
DEADLINE: When we began discussing this interview, you mentioned the mail that you’ve been getting as a result of this performance. Let’s start there.
FRANK LANGELLA: Well, it’s full of extraordinary pain, compassion, and tears, actually. It’s from people who want to talk about dementia, who have lived with a patient — “my father,” “my brother,” “my cousin,” “my mother” — and what it was like to go to the end. I also went and visited a home, and that afternoon was sort of the same thing. It’s a condition about which people like to talk a lot, even more so than when they have a cancer victim in the family. Because the emotional commitment, if you are a caregiver, is staggering, it’s almost worse than the person who has it. Once the person who has it is gone into never-never land, these other people…it sounds selfish, but because the mail is so similar, it is extraordinary to me how important it is when the person you have loved a good deal of your life or has loved you, no longer knows you.
It is astounding how many people write, “and the day I realized she no longer knew who I was, was devastating”. You would think, now in the normal course of things, that your concern would be about the sick one, but this need we all have to be validated, to be loved, to continue to be loved, and this feeling of emptiness that comes over you when someone who all their life has said, “I love you, I want to see you, give me a hug, give me a kiss, take me to bed,” is gone, it devastates people, absolutely devastates them.
“I’m very attracted to soulless men. I’ve loved playing them, they’re marvelous, like Dracula in a way, although I tried to give him a soul. I feel very excited by playing men who are calculatedly trying to win and don’t suffer from the usual sentimental pulls of ordinary mortals.” – Frank Langella
DEADLINE: Since seeing you in the show, I’ve wanted to joke that “well, the last person I saw you play, who didn’t want to die, was Dracula.” How do you calibrate this performance — because it’s so critical, the calibration of André’s deterioration. That must be an extraordinary challenge.
LANGELLA: Because he is not able to remember moment to moment, I tend to take all 15 scenes as little one-act plays. You can’t be logical the way you were if you played another such guy. He doesn’t remember from scene to scene what’s happened. So I come out each scene fresh as a daisy and not carrying what I did before. When I found that in rehearsal, I thought I’d found a great gift to playing him — so that when he does reach the big scene, I try to be as unprepared for it as I can because he’s unprepared for it.
One scene he’s silly and funny and dancing, another scene he’s vicious and angry, another scene he’s cowering like a baby, another he’s being abused physically, another he’s being, in his mind, taunted. If you try to do the normal thing you do as an actor — well, scene one went well, it’s going to lead me to three — I think it weakens the immediacy of lights up, go. Go where you’re supposed to go that moment and don’t carry anything else through. The fact is that he, moment to moment, he doesn’t know what he’s going to do, so I try to keep the audience surprised as much as I can.
DEADLINE: In the final moments of the play, is there a kind of regression that he’s aware of, or is he just in the…
LANGELLA: Not for me, no. The final moments of the play are an on-rush of pain for Mommy, that’s really what they are. And having witnessed this in my own children, having seen my daughter go from A to Z in less than 10 seconds, having watched my son turn red in the face, utterly surprising to me, sitting there normally and suddenly he’s just racked with emotion — I call on that childlike ability our kids have, to just go bananas.
DEADLINE: Of seeing all the filters having dropped away.
LANGELLA: Yes. I remember my daughter throwing her head back at five or six years old, just wailing, sitting in the rain, while we were burying her parakeet who died. And just moaning and screaming her head off, and I was biting my tongue because it was so theatrical, it was so grand guignol. And then I said, having sat in the rain long enough, I said, “I think we should let Keetie go and why don’t I take you to McDonald’s.” And she said, “Could I have a large fries?”
DEADLINE: Why do you keep doing it?
LANGELLA: The play?
DEADLINE: The work.
LANGELLA: Well, it’s changed. Certainly what drove me in the early stages of my career was ego and ambition. Then a kind of real, true respect and love for the craft took over, and I have loved my career, can’t say my work, I don’t mean that self-servingly, but I love my work. And now in these years, I choose very carefully, and I choose things that are going to help me accept my own vulnerability and mortality.
I wasn’t the most vulnerable man in the world when I was young. I had defenses up and I had a lot of tools behind which I could hide, if that’s the right metaphor. And now, with each part and each play, King Lear and Nixon and A Man for All Seasons, Man and Boy, all these different characters I’ve played, they’ve all been different. They all are teaching me something. Every one of them is preparing me for the inevitable. And so I keep doing it because it is the best way I know to, one, peel the onion of self, and two, share that with people.
DEADLINE: Not long ago you played Gregor Antonescu, a charming monster of sorts, a powerful man seemingly without conscience in Terence Rattigan’s Man and Boy. I’m trying to figure out whether there’s some thread connecting the roles you’ve seemed to relish the most.
LANGELLA: Well I’m very attracted to soulless men. I’ve loved playing them, they’re marvelous, like Dracula in a way, although I tried to give him a soul. I feel very excited by playing men who are calculatedly trying to win and don’t suffer from the usual sentimental pulls of ordinary mortals. It’s great to play men who have a fierce, ferocious outlook about humanity and themselves. So I love that part, I love that part. And I love Rattigan’s writing.
DEADLINE: Well, there’s so much richness there.
LANGELLA: I will also say, Jeremy, that every once in a while you get lucky and you get a new play to do on Broadway, and I’ve done…you know, Frost/Nixon was new, Match was new.
DEADLINE: Seascape was new.
LANGELLA: Seascape was new way, way back. There isn’t any thrill that can match coming to Broadway with a new play. None. Any revival, like Man for All Seasons, and those, it’s wonderful to do them and investigate them, but to come to town with a play no one’s seen before, and a character no one’s seen is very exciting.
DEADLINE: Were there any interesting negotiations among you, Doug Hughes and the playwrights that you can talk about in creating this?
LANGELLA: I wouldn’t say interesting as much as I would say immensely collaborative in a way that doesn’t always happen. We were all of the same mind. Christopher and Florian came to the first preview and didn’t like the last 10 minutes, and they had legitimate reasons not to like it. You know, I put André in a diaper and had him almost non compos mentis for the last scene. Florian said “No, the thrill is to watch him fight until the last second. If you give in, we give in, but if we can watch you fighting it before that hand that’s going under the ocean as you’re drowning, if we can watch this struggle right up until he can no longer do it, it’s more poignant.” And we changed the ending on the spot. It’s been a great collaboration, and as you know, it’s not always that way.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk for a minute about The Americans.
LANGELLA: People are zealous about it.
DEADLINE: Was Gabriel a role easy for you to fall into?
LANGELLA: It’s in Brooklyn, I live in Manhattan, I’m not in a trailer in Burbank. What could be better? I like living home.Well, in television you don’t know where they’re going week to week. They don’t show you. At one point I thought they were going to kill me because there was a scene where I sort of got down on the floor and said, “I’m sorry. I need to sit down. I don’t feel well.” I thought oh, the next episode would be that I was dead. But so far they haven’t killed me. It’s a good year.