Frank Langella Interview, Starting out in the Evening

Posted by: Sheila Roberts

MoviesOnline recently sat down with Frank Langella at the Los Angeles press day for his new film, “Starting Out in the Evening,” directed by Andrew Wagner from a screenplay by Wagner and Fred Parnes, based on Brian Morton’s Pen/Faulkner Award-nominated novel. Langella plays Leonard Schiller, a once-famous New York writer who is both shaken and emboldened when a beautiful graduate student (Lauren Ambrose) invades his solitude to mine his life for her thesis about his novels.

All that remains for Leonard Schiller (Langella) is to finish the novel he has been laboring on for almost ten years. With his four earlier books out of print, he has learned to starve himself of the desire for the success he was once so close to, though beneath this practice lives a yearning for his work to be rediscovered. His solitary writer’s life is shaken by the arrival of Heather (Ambrose), an ambitious graduate student who persuades him that she can use her thesis to spur a rediscovery of his work. But as her inquiry proceeds, Heather displays a profound personal interest in Leonard, which unsettles him and stirs up his long-dormant need for intimacy. Meanwhile, Leonard’s daughter Ariel (Lili Taylor) reconnects with her ex-boyfriend Casey (Adrian Lester), a man Leonard firmly disapproves of. Leonard’s encounters with Heather lead him down an unfamiliar path that threatens his writing, his health, and his relationship to his daughter. But in living out in the open, in the evening of his life Schiller puts into practice the core theme of his novels – life is not designed for our comfort but for our struggle, for in struggle there is growth.

Frank Langella’s career spans over four decades, and is a model of quality, excelling in range, power and versatility. He is truly an actor’s actor and has received great acclaim for his work in film and television and is considered one of the pre-eminent theatre actors of his generation. He has won three Tony Awards (and five nominations), five Drama Desk Awards, three Outer Critics Circle Awards, three Obies, The Drama League, and was inducted into the 2003 Theatre Hall of Fame. He has also won a Cable ACE Award, Best Supporting Actor from the National Board of Review, and has been nominated for an Emmy and a Golden Globe.

Langella is best-known for his bold and unconventional interpretations of larger-than-life characters, including Dracula (on stage and screen); Cyrano de Bergerac (which he played three times); and Sherlock Homes (which he played twice). Most recently, Langella has been acclaimed for his haunting portrait of Richard Nixon in “Frost/Nixon,” for which he won Tony and Drama Desk Awards. He recently reprised the role in Ron Howard’s film version of “Frost/Nixon.” He will appear again as Perry White in Bryan Singer’s next Superman film in 2008.

Frank Langella is a terrific actor and we really appreciated his time. Here’s what he had to tell us about his new movie:

Q: Your character is so closed off, were you able to relate to him in any way?

FRANK LANGELLA:Yes, I did. In many ways I related to him. I’m not as old as he is but I’m close. That was the first thing. We’re the same generation. And the second thing is you can’t get to these years in life and not have some sort of feelings about what you did wrong, what you did right, where you are, how close is the end, what am I protecting myself against, what am I afraid of, what are my preconceived notions of how to live. When someone comes along and shakes them all up, it does make you think in your own life what should I be doing, how should I be approaching my life now.

Q: What about playing a character who seems to internalize so much of what’s going on in his head? It’s a quiet performance in a lot of ways. Is that a tougher job or something an actor gets excited about doing?

FRANK LANGELLA: It’s not tougher. It’s…I don’t know what the word would be. I don’t like the word challenging because I think it’s always overused. But it does require of you a sort of consistency of intent from beginning to end when you decide that someone is as imploded as this man is, as old world mannered as he is, the way he dresses, the way he thinks, the way he speaks. It requires you to be vigilant about everything, every single moment, as opposed to someone who might be more freewheeling, who might have a big scene and then a crying scene and then a fight scene. He might be going in all different directions. He might have a love scene, might have a battle with some other male about something. When you play somebody who is as utterly closed off as he is, it does force you into a kind of conscious effort never to step outside of what his boundaries are. I found it actually exciting, not in any way limiting.

Q: It seems like you get completely immersed in the character. Did you make a conscious decision to stop yourself from talking with your hands?

FRANK LANGELLA: That’s a very good question. I did. The very first scene that I shot was the first interview when Heather comes to talk to him. Somebody shot a still on a Polaroid and I looked at it and I thought, “Oh, I must keep my hands in my lap. And I must cross my legs a certain way and hold my tea cup a certain way.” That’s the way my conception of Leonard would be and then once I established that for myself, I had to realize that I couldn’t do what I do. I’m Italian and I’m rather gregarious by nature and I couldn’t do any of that. I couldn’t gesture and say, “Oh Miss, you must…” I couldn’t do any of those things. He was very withheld.

Q: What, if any, preconceptions did you have about Andrew Wagner heading into the film and how would you describe his direction?

FRANK LANGELLA: I don’t know that I had preconceptions. I didn’t know him at all. I saw a film he did called “The Talent Given Us” which was a documentary style film about his parents so I knew he had talent. I knew he knew what to do with the camera. But I have to say that if you read what I read, if you get the sort of scripts most actors get, when you get a script like this, you very much want to meet the man who wrote it because it’s so literate and intelligent and the aim is so unlike the present day aim of most films. You don’t get vulgarity on the first page. You don’t get guns. You don’t get violence. You don’t get sex. And you don’t get staccato “Hey man, how ya doing? Watch out. Be careful.” You don’t get any of those things. You get speeches, people talking to each other, reacting, and then listening and then speaking back. And when you get that first, when you get the bible, then you’re anxious to meet the person. So I was very much on his side after I read it, very much, and then came to be more so after I met him.

Q: Did you have any reservation going into the character or any concerns or challenges in terms of filming the character?

FRANK LANGELLA: No, I had none. It’s one of the blessings about getting older as you really do lose all those notions about what will this do for me, what won’t this do for me, will it be this, will it be that. It just is the words on the page and the process and that’s very exciting, it really is, just doing it, just being in the day, and getting up every day and seeing if you can make this happen in 18 days. I pulled the clothes from thrift shops and changed clothes in the backs of men’s rooms in bathrooms, in restaurants and ran home to my apartment and changed clothes and ran back out again. It was wonderful. One time the producer picked me up in her car because the assistant’s car broke down on the highway. It was like making a movie like a barn, like Judy and Mickey [NOTE: He’s referring to Judy Garland & Mickey Rooney whose characters put on a fund raiser in a Long Island barn in the 1939 movie “Babes in Arms”].

Q: Your character is a novelist who is focused on writing which is a solitary pursuit compared to acting which is a collaborative effort. Did you sit by yourself and write to kind of get the feel of that?

FRANK LANGELLA: Andrew gave me assignments all the time. He would say, “Write a chapter of Leonard’s first book and then write a chapter about your own fears, and I started to do it and then it didn’t really work for what I do, didn’t work for my gifts whatever they may be, the writing of things down, because I write all the time anyway in my own way about things and one day I’ll probably publish memoirs and things like that. I’m solitary by nature because my work is so collaborative. I just finished a film two days ago, I start another one on Monday. It literally is hundreds of people every day. You get to the set and there are people in your trailer and make-up people and sound people and before you do a scene someone’s fixing a microphone, someone’s fixing the last little hair in the wig, something went wrong on your face, the lighting man is doing something, the sound man… You’re just surrounded and then suddenly there’s silence and you have to create the impression that you’re all alone. That can be very exhausting. So to play somebody who’s life was very solitary was rather easy. And to be on a film set with a skeleton crew – you know we didn’t have more than 6 people and there was no make-up of any kind and I pretty much wore similar clothes every day. It was really rather liberating. I really did feel very often when we were shooting it that we were alone. I was with the other actor and Andrew was there but you know there was no video village. He wasn’t watching it on a screen. He was right there next to the camera. The camera man had 2 assistants. There was only $500,000 to spend and it was spent wisely. It was spent on the right things.

Q: Does your theatrical experience inform how you prepare for a film role?

FRANK LANGELLA: Oh it does very much because when you’re a theater actor which I have done primarily in my life, you must prepare, you must be disciplined, and you must know your lines to your toes. All those disciplines come in very handy in movies which is easier to do because you can stop if you make a mistake, you can certainly do it more than once, and you can hone it and refine it. In the theater, you know, the gun goes off and you go and that gives you a certain kind of courage when you do another medium like movies where you know you have the luxury of doing it another time or changing your interpretation of it. But the preparation you do for a play, to answer your question, and the discipline you need to do a play night after night after night comes in very handy when…Not as much is required as often in a film so you’re really able to really take all the things that are required live in front of an audience 8 times in a week and put them into the lens because you’re used to doing that. And a lot of actors who don’t act in the theater and don’t have that discipline or understand it, some of whom are movie stars and deserved movie stars, need constant, constant, constant assurances and indulgences in order to get through a 4-line scene. I fortunately don’t have to because I have to play sometimes 80-line scenes.

Q: There’s a very dramatic scene when your character must depend totally on Casey. Did you have any qualms about the bathtub scene or the way it was shot?

FRANK LANGELLA: No, I had none. What do you mean by the way it was shot? The fact that you saw me naked front and back? I did a movie when I was 29 years old I think called “Diary of a Mad Housewife” and the director, now deceased, was named Frank Perry. He very much wanted me to do a nude scene with the actress who is also now deceased, Carrie Snodgress, and I wouldn’t do it. At 29, I was very precious about things like that. In your 60s, it doesn’t even occur to you. You just say “What was I protecting?” But most men feel that way when they’re younger. When you get older, it doesn’t matter. I think I was more concerned with whether or not people would find it uncomfortable to see a man my age fully naked and being picked up heavily by [Casey]. The joke I made was that Adrian Lester should have been in the bathtub because that’s the kind of person you want to see naked, you know, a beautiful young man. But I didn’t have any troubles with it at all. By then I trusted Andrew would make a discrete scene and I also knew that there was something…some instinct in me knew that it was profoundly right to see him that vulnerable and that unprotected. I just thought it was the right thing to do. You know these movies you watch where a woman has just made love to her husband and she gets up holding a sheet across her breasts? What woman does that? It’s so fake and phony. And I thought to be coy about it would be absurd and I wanted you to feel sad for him, for his broken body and for his embarrassment at having to be naked in front of someone he regarded as a competitor for his daughter’s love.

Q: Is it challenging to play that sort of frailty. As an actor, do you study that in other people or is it something you intrinsically know as a human being?

FRANK LANGELLA: It’s second nature for me now because I’ve been acting for 45 years. I’ve already memorized all of you. I’m not judging any of you or looking at you or watching you carefully, but when I walk into a room or when I talk to people, I can’t help it. It’s part of my job. You’re sitting like that, you’re leaning back, you’re holding the pencil like that, you’re staring at me in a particular way, he’s not said a word yet. So as an actor you are absorbing it really without judgment. It just goes into your head. And when I began to play Leonard, I realized so many of the things that I was doing was because I had observed it somewhere. I live on the upper Westside of New York and it’s full of old Jews. They’re everywhere. And old Italians. But a lot of old Jewish men. So on the way to the market, you know, there would be a Leonard Schiller with a hat just like that. I went out in the street and looked at men with their hats and then I went to a thrift shop and found a hat. And they wore vests and often ties in the summertime and very often I would see them coming home carrying two plastic bags of their food for the night. Some of them were widowed. Some of them had very feisty wives walking along and the guy was just going like that. So when he came into my life, I just drew on things I remembered and things I saw – the glasses, the cat, the hat, the tie – all those things were things I’d unconsciously observed the way a good painter does, the way a good writer scribbles a note down while he’s walking the way Trigorin does in “The Seagull,” making a note of whatever he said. It’s just part of my job.

Q: Throughout your career you’ve worked with good as well as bad directors. Have you observed a commonality amongst the bad directors that you’ve worked with?

FRANK LANGELLA: I’ve worked with great directors. Bad directors talk too much. The better the director, the fewer the words. Bad directors will just simply drive you into the ground with theory and idea and motive and what a scene is about and what it stands for. It’s nonsense. A good director will say, “Over there. A little faster, please. Not so loud. Maybe just do this.” I think maybe he’s one word and that’s it. The greatest sign of a director is his economy and his presence and his desire to listen to the actor – not in the sense of I am the actor-star and I tell you what to do, but in hearing the actor’s feelings about a part because nobody knows the part better than the actor. The director might know better by watching it what is the actor’s best take or how the actor is getting in his own way. He might know that, but he doesn’t know the character better. He can’t. In the last 10 years alone, Roman Polanski, Adrian Lyne, George Clooney, Ivan Reitman, Andrew [Wagner] and now Ron Howard. I’ve really been blessed with wonderful, wonderful directors.

Q: Your character goes through a series of transitions in the course of the film. How did you balance the romance between Leonard and Heather and how was it working with Lauren Ambrose as a young actress?

FRANK LANGELLA: Well it wasn’t very difficult because this is a man who has locked himself up in his apartment figuratively and literally now for some 30 years since his wife died and didn’t know why. And then someone comes into his life who says, “I’m going to challenge your way of life. I mean you wrote great books and then you stopped writing them and now you’re telling me you just decided to stop writing. Something must have happened in your life.” And he says, “No, no. Why do you keep insisting on that? Why do you think that because my life went a certain way that that had any effect?” He’s very, very short sighted about himself. And I didn’t find that in any way a problem. I didn’t find it difficult to resist Heather’s advances on any level – on the intellectual level, on the sexual level, the scene with the honey, and all of that. This was a man who felt long, long, long ago that he had shut down everything like that in his life and he was gentle enough to say, “I’m too old for this.” He’s a rare character. He really is. Most men at the age of 70-something with a pretty young girl who says, “I think we should take this relationship further” would jump at the opportunity. They’d be at the bucket of Viagra and try to hold their belly in. And he’s just saying this is not for me. I feel great affection towards Leonard for his worldly manners and his sense of propriety and appropriateness. Why I love this movie is because it has about it, for want of a better word, an old fashioned approach towards how people should treat each other and they certainly don’t in modern movies.

Q: You won a Tony for “Frost/Nixon” and now you’re going to play the role on screen.

FRANK LANGELLA: I played it. It’s over. We finished it on Tuesday.

Q: Was doing the movie fun for you or did you feel like you’d put this guy to bed already?

FRANK LANGELLA: Oh how could it not be fun when Ron Howard calls you on the phone the day after you open and says, “You know, I think you should come and do the movie.” I mean that’s really great. That was great and I loved every minute of it and I’m hoping we made a great film.

Q: Is it true that you’re going to take the play on the road?

FRANK LANGELLA: No, I’m done with Mr. Nixon. That’s enough. [Laughs] That’s a year and a half of my life. It’s enough.

Q: You’re returning to the Superman franchise in Bryan Singer’s follow-up to “Superman Returns.” When you appeared on the screen in “Superman Returns,” there was a wave of cheers from the audience who instantly recognized you and loved your performance.

FRANK LANGELLA: Thank you. That’s nice. I didn’t know that. I’ve never seen it with an audience. I saw it once with an audience in London and nothing like that happened. [Laughs] So thank you for telling me that.

Q: Is it still fun to do something like that?

FRANK LANGELLA: Opposite of what I described to you because what this movie cost is what Bryan spent in a day or a couple of days and even $500,000 per day would have made it a hell of a lot more expensive. Everything was possible on that film. The sets, as you saw, were staggering and it had its own particular pleasure but it was also long. I was in Australia for four months and poor Brandon was there for a year or more. But it was a wonderful experience. I didn’t put Bryan Singer on that list. He’s among the other great director that I’ve worked with.

Q: Are you doing “The Box”?

FRANK LANGELLA: Yes, that starts Monday. It doesn’t start shooting Monday but this is a movie that Rich Kelly is doing with Cameron Diaz and James Marsden and I. It’s an incredible script, a really first rate script and wonderful idea, totally different than “Starting Out in the Evening” or “Frost/Nixon” so I’m pretty lucky. It’s been a great year.

Q: Have you seen the Twilight Zone episode that it came from?

FRANK LANGELLA: No. If you don’t know, this is based on a short story written by a man who’s still alive -- he’s 80-something – called Richard Matheson who wrote a wonderful story called “What Dreams May Come.” And he wrote a Twilight Zone episode called “Button, Button” and it’s about a woman, Cameron, who is presented with a box by my character, a mysterious man who says, “If you and your husband decide to open this box, you’ll find a button inside. If you press the button, you’ll be given several hundred thousand dollars in cash, tax free, no questions asked, but someone you don’t know will die. You decide if you want to press the button or not.” And then of course incredible things unfold. It’s a really great story. I can’t wait to start.

“Starting Out in the Evening” opens in theaters on November 23rd.

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