Frank Langella Talks About Losing His Mind Eight Times a Week on Broadway (Q&A)

Frank Langella The Father Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Joan Marcus

"I would just say it's an occupational hazard," says the three-time Tony Award winner of playing an elderly man with dementia in 'The Father.'

In a stage and screen career spanning more than 50 years, Frank Langella has played parts ranging from Dracula to Richard Nixon to King Lear, from Sherlock Holmes to Skeletor. He's won three Tony Awards and landed a best actor Oscar nomination for Frost/Nixon. If he were British, he would have been knighted by now.

Despite keeping up a busy film and television profile that currently includes a recurring role on FX's The Americans and the film Youth in Oregon, which world-premieres at the Tribeca Film Festival, the actor frequently returns to the stage. He spoke to The Hollywood Reporter about his starring role in The Father, opening on Broadway April 14. In this powerful drama by French playwright Florian Zeller, translated by Christopher Hampton, Langella plays Andre, an elderly man afflicted with dementia and struggling to distinguish between what's real and what isn't.

You have some experience playing a character suffering from dementia. It was true of your role in the movie Robot & Frank, and I think King Lear also qualifies. Is this a distressing trend for actors of a certain age?

Absolutely. But I would take away the word "distressing." It is a trend. It's a part of being in your late 70s. I'm also about to open in a film called Youth in Oregon at the Tribeca Film Festival about a man who is traveling to Oregon to have euthanasia. I would just say it's an occupational hazard. Even my character on The Americans is suffering from some sort of disease. I would obviously prefer to play vigorous men because I am still, luckily, very vigorous. But they are challenging roles in terms of laying out humanity and my own mortality.

That must be true of your role in The Father.

I don't think I've ever been so frightened of a part as I was with Andre. I did everything I could in rehearsal to stay away from the darker side of it. It took me a long time to embrace it entirely.

Plays and films featuring characters with dementia seem to be everywhere these days.

My older brother is doing very well at the moment, but he's got it. It's the one diagnosis you can be given for which there is no cure yet and no remission. Once you're told you have it, depending on how compos mentis you are, you have to understand that you're heading toward oblivion.

You've done so many powerful dramas throughout your career. With its emotional depths, is this one particularly hard to play eight times a week?

Yes, there is no question. King Lear was a walk in the park compared to this. Going down the steps to go on the stage, I know I'm going to spend an hour and a half playing someone heading toward diminishment, and I know that many people in the audience, who audibly sob and cry, have some relationship with this. People who come backstage tell me, "My uncle, my grandmother, my wife, my grandpa." And even if they don't know a dementia patient, the older people are all dealing with their mortality. So the subject is a powerful one, and the conceit of the play is brilliant. I think the play is original in that you are put, as an audience member, in the same place that Andre is. You're constantly asking yourself, wait, is that the right girl? Did that happen before or after?

Do you ever worry you'll get caught up in your character's confusion? The play is so non-linear.

I worried until we'd done at least half a dozen previews. I don't worry anymore. I do the script twice a day before I go to the theater. But in rehearsal and the early previews, I said to [director] Doug Hughes that I've never had such problems. I learned Lear in about four weeks. This has taken me three months. I just had to keep pounding away at it. At the moment I can tell you with great confidence that I don't fear that I'm suffering from this disease (laughs).

Your commanding physical presence makes the character's frailty all the more moving.

Thank you. That may be one of the best compliments I could have received. Florian and I had long conversations when I first met him. I said, I am fit at the moment and would like to remain fit. I don't want to show the character going into a slumpy physical decline. I want the audience to feel that his mind is crumbling. The body will follow, of course, but the mind is crumbling, which I think makes it all the more poignant.

Throughout your career you've successfully balanced film and theater. How much does that balance factor into your choices?

When I was a very young man, about 23, I auditioned for a very well-known director who said, "I think you're talented, but I don't think I'll give you this role because you're not right for it. But I'll give you some advice. Try to make your name synonymous with quality. If you do, you'll last a long time." But the real truth of it is that I was never given the opportunity to be a major movie star. No role ever did for me what a franchise does or what a major box-office hit does. I've had many hit films, but none of them were in that category. I do know that I can't resist the theater. So part of it was a conscious effort, and the other part was that the dice weren't thrown that way. I'll never know whether I would have picked them up or not. So I can't be too noble, can I?

But playing Dracula on stage and screen certainly elevated you to matinee-idol status?

Only for two-and-a-half years. On the final day of shooting the movie I walked into my dressing room at Shepperton Studios, put the cape on the hook and said I will never put it on again, and I will never do anything related to it again. I didn't want to be one of those actors who lived his life known for one character. Frost/Nixon came along 25 years later and it became as indelible as Dracula, and I'm very grateful for that.

What are some of your favorite film roles?

A movie I did about five years ago called Starting Out in the Evening. A little film I did two years ago called Robot & Frank. A movie I did many years ago that nobody ever saw called Those Lips, Those Eyes, about a down-and-out actor in summer stock. I loved playing William Paley in Good Night and Good Luck. I loved Dracula, I loved Nixon. Look, I'm a lucky duck. I've also done so many great classic plays, in New York and in regional theaters. And I forgot, you can add Skeletor [in Masters of the Universe] to that list. I did it because my son was four years old and in love with He-Man. It was a fabulous part to play.