Frank Langella: commander in brief

Frank Langella played Tricky Dick onstage in London and New York, but he was almost passed over for the big-screen 'Frost/Nixon.'

"I became obsessed with finding his soul," Frank Langella says of former President Richard Nixon, whom he portrays in Ron Howard's "Frost/Nixon," from Universal. "He's a living, walking, breathing Rorschach of the worst of our nature. Every one of his desperately sad neuroses was on display."

It's lunchtime in a Manhattan restaurant, and none of Langella's own neuroses can be seen. At 6-foot-3 and 70 years old, he's an intimidating figure onstage but surprisingly gentle in person. He smiles at a passing child in a grandfatherly way that contrasts starkly with the prickly role he plays.

"Frost/Nixon" matches Langella against Michael Sheen as David Frost, the English talk show host who interviewed Nixon extensively after his 1974 resignation -- something the film depicts as a defining moment for both men.

Langella won a Tony Award for the role in Peter Morgan's play, which he performed on Broadway and in London's West End. Despite that, he says he almost didn't get the part in the movie.

In the fall of 2006, Howard went to see him at the Donmar Warehouse Theatre in London. He was impressed, but "other casting choices needed to be explored," the director says. "There were some pretty exciting actors with great track records and stars, and a couple of people who sent in tapes experimenting with the character."

Langella called Howard to make his pitch. "I said, 'I am sure you know that I would like to play this part,'" the actor recalls. "And he said, 'You're brilliant in the part, (but) let's just let life unfold.'"

Months later, "Frost/Nixon" had moved from London to Broadway, and Langella "had accepted that they were going to go with someone else." In fact, he says the role was offered to Jack Nicholson and Warren Beatty, who both turned it down. And then on April 23, 2007, a day after the play opened on Broadway, Langella was told he won the job.

When the play closed that August, Langella flew to Los Angeles to begin wig fittings and to walk the set with Howard. A conversation ensued about how to bring the intensity of the stage performance to the screen. "The trick is finding the inner life in a richer, more visceral way," Langella says. "However honest you are being about a character on the stage, you are being honest in a way that the person in the very last row of the balcony is feeling."

After an arduous trial-and-error period, Langella and makeup artist David Anderson determined the sort of teeth, eyebrows and moles that should be used to create a physical verisimilitude of Nixon. In the end, they opted to "take away, take away," Langella says, to avoid caricature.

"I had my implants taken out, and had false ones screwed in," he says of a process that took two hours a day.

He meticulously studied footage of Nixon, absorbing "every flicker of his eye." As part of his preparation, Langella even spent time in Nixon's childhood home on the grounds of the Richard Nixon library in Yorba Linda, Calif. "I lived in it for a day, just thinking, 'Dick Nixon grew up in this room.' "

Langella also spent an afternoon reading Nixon's copy of Charles de Gaulle's "The Edge of a Sword," about what a leader should be. Nixon had even written notes in the margins. "How deeply he wanted to be a great man," the actor reflects.

He insisted on bypassing the cliches associated with Nixon -- such as his fondness for liquor -- and so he never holds a drink in the film. But because Nixon was an accomplished pianist, Langella learned to play the piano just for one scene, something he is particularly proud of.

"I became fixated with watching him closely, a section of an interview to see where I could find artifice or manipulation," he says. "Nixon's ability to shift things around, his resentment and anger for and disdain for Frost. I ran all his interviews with Barbara Walters and Mike Wallace. ... Ron said, 'Give me your highlights.' I would walk on the set with 5-by-7 index cards, and he would look at (them). And he would make sure those moments were honored and looked at."

Nothing had a deeper influence on conjuring Nixon on set than the actor's request to be treated as the president from the moment he opened his trailer door. "It's one of the most self-preserving, smartest choices I've ever made," he says, noting that his fellow cast members were more excited than fazed by it.

Shooting on a Culver City soundstage, principal photography was supposed to last 40 days, but Howard says it took only 38 because Langella and Sheen knew their parts so well, each only flubbing one line during the entire shoot.

Reflecting on the shoot at Artie's Delicatessen on Manhattan's Upper West Side, not far from his home, Langella is much softer looking in person than he appears in the film. He appears so comfortable in a relaxed tan suit and crisp white shirt that he seems to be a living counterpoint to the former president. He happily devours an early afternoon breakfast of tea, juice, scrambled eggs and potato pancakes.

"This man was so uncomfortable," he says of Nixon. "And I am not that way. I'm an Italian, fairly gregarious person who loves kidding around with actors and pulling games on the set."

This fall he is doing that on Broadway, where he is playing Sir Thomas More in "A Man for All Seasons." And one suspects the theater remains his real passion.

That enthusiasm began when he was a child. "I was a skinny kid with horn-rimmed glasses. I was a mess," Langella says of his New Jersey upbringing. "I found myself on a stage and realized from then on that's what I wanted to do." He first acted in school plays at age 8, went on to study theater at Syracuse University, and then found work in Boston, and ultimately in New York.

Langella was already 32 and had been working on the stage professionally for more than 10 years when he got his first shot at a film role. In 1970, Mel Brooks had offered a lead in his second film, "The Twelve Chairs," to Albert Finney, Peter Sellers and Alastair Sim. When each actor turned him down, he grudgingly gave the part to Langella, who was then acting in a play with Brooks' wife, Anne Bancroft. "Oh, f--- it," Brooks said. "You play it."

Two films later, Langella was acting opposite Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth in "The Wrath of God" when Watergate broke; but Langella only noticed the scandal in passing. "I was a young actor doing what young actors do," he says coyly.

While he enjoyed steady and acclaimed work on the stage, his film career has been marked with inconsistency. Movies such as 1993's "Body of Evidence" and 2001's "Sweet November" are entries in a long list of forgotten disappointments.

He got more attention for dating Whoopi Goldberg after his 20-year marriage to magazine editor Ruth Weil ended than for many of his roles.

But now he seems to have turned a corner. After garnering critical praise for his strong performance as William Paley in 2005's "Good Night, and Good Luck," Langella also impressed as the lead in 2007's "Starting Out In the Evening." And now he's garnering awards buzz.

The character he played still intrigues him, and he says that over the run of the play and the movie he has learned "not to forgive Nixon, but to stop judging."