RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Actor Frank Langella spent nearly two years of his life as Richard M. Nixon, on stage in the play "Frost/Nixon," and now in the movie. "Frost/Nixon" tells how, in 1977, British TV personality David Frost landed the interview of a lifetime with the disgraced former president. The movie plays out as a verbal duel that one character calls the "trial Richard Nixon never had." Michael Sheen plays Frost to Langella's Nixon.
(Soundbite of movie "Frost/Nixon")
Mr. MICHAEL SHEEN: (As David Frost) Are you really saying that, in certain situations, the president can decide whether it's in the best interests of the nation and then do something illegal?
Mr. FRANK LANGELLA: (As Richard Nixon) I'm saying that when the president does, it that means it's not illegal.
MONTAGNE: His Nixon has already earned Frank Langella a Golden Globe nomination and talk of an Oscar. He joined us recently from New York. Good morning.
Mr. LANGELLA (Actor): Good morning.
MONTAGNE: So many of us feel like we know Richard Nixon, or think we know Richard Nixon, in something of a caricature. You sort of don't really look like him. So, how did you begin to inhabit this man?
Mr. LANGELLA: Well, obviously, I couldn't have played Richard Nixon if I was five-foot-two and cute and adorable. I had to be big and hulking, sort of the way he was. But once all of those obvious things were - the tests of those were passed, I did with him what I do with any character I play: which is, where is his soul, and what is his soul? And when you approach a part that way, it entails becoming him, really, truly, simply, becoming him, so that you think, move, breathe and act the way you feel a man in this situation would.
That informs a great deal of what happened to me physically: My body began to slump; my voice began to get lower. There was a certain way in which my voice began to pitch; there was a way I looked at people, watched them; the way in which I wore glasses, held onto them; the shuffle that I noticed that he had. And in a way, it's a very difficult thing to describe, because as an actor, you're not always consciously aware of things that are happening to you; they're just happening to you. You have to not be afraid, when you're an actor, to just be floating around in a kind of an embryonic fluid of creativity - let's call it that - and hope that when you get born...
(Laughing) Something resembling the proper human being comes out.
MONTAGNE: There's something I've read. I gather it isn't your natural way to stay in character, but that in this case, you did, to a degree stay, in character on the set.
Mr. LANGELLA: Mm-hmm.
MONTAGNE: I read that sometimes the crew would address you as Mr. President.
Mr. LANGELLA: Oh, not sometimes, absolutely 100-percent of the time. There are - I would think the majority of people who worked on this film never met Frank Langella; they only met Richard Nixon. I like to clown around with the crew. I really enjoy it, and there's long waits on film sets. And you know, sometimes I'll start a card game or play Scrabble with somebody or backgammon, and I couldn't do it with Nixon. I felt that if I wasn't presidential in their minds, it would take a little of the shine off of the relationship. So, I would longingly look sometimes through the distance of the set and see actors I really like and enjoy the company of - like Kevin Bacon and Sam Rockwell and Oliver Platt, who are funny guys - having a great time over a cheeseburger or a doughnut, and I couldn't join them. I just couldn't.
MONTAGNE: It actually sounds a bit sad.
Mr. LANGELLA: It was lonely, and it was lonely in the exactly the way I needed to be lonely. So, for 31 days - the cinematographer called me Mr. President, and all the actors did. I can't think of another role I would play where that dynamic would be as important as it was. But it was a very smart thing to do, because the soul of Richard Nixon was the soul of a man terribly isolated, really unable to communicate with other people.
MONTAGNE: I'd like to play a brief scene for our listeners at Nixon's villa by the sea in California. It's actually a place that he's in a sort of exile. The isolation here is really on display. He's talking to David Frost, who is ebullient and a partygoer.
(Soundbite of movie "Frost/Nixon")
Mr. LANGELLA: (As Richard Nixon) You know those parties of yours, the ones that I read about in all the papers? Do you actually enjoy those?
Mr. SHEEN: (As David Frost) Of course.
Mr. LANGELLA: (As Richard Nixon) You've got no idea how fortunate that makes you.
Mr. SHEEN: (As David Frost) Oh.
Mr. LANGELLA: (As Richard Nixon) Liking people.
Mr. SHEEN: (As David Frost) Mm.
Mr. LANGELLA: (As Richard Nixon) Being liked. Having that facility, that likeness, that charm.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. LANGELLA: (As Richard Nixon) I don't have it. I never did.
There are a lot of people like this who are not terribly at ease in the company of men, and even in Nixon's case, not even at ease in the company of animals. As is - there's a little scene in the movie where he pets a dog, and he's not even able to embrace that dog with real genuine affection and love; it's sort of a distant embrace.
MONTAGNE: Hmm. Yes, he's seems to get almost close to touching and then kind of pulls back a little bit.
Mr. LANGELLA: Yeah. It's not easy for him.
MONTAGNE: There are people to this day, and actually plenty of them, who think of Nixon as pure evil.
Mr. LANGELLA: Hmm.
MONTAGNE: That is not the Nixon that you embody.
Mr. LANGELLA: No. You look at all the events of a life, and you look and think, this homely, shy, impossibly awkward young man, he grew up in a tiny house - which I spent a good deal of time in alone - in a small room, with three boys, two of whom died; with a father who was not particularly loving or encouraging to him. I find those things very compelling. I find the ooze out of which we grow either does or doesn't come back up later in life and reclaim us, and in this instance, I think it did reclaim him.
MONTAGNE: So, that's what you have to say to anyone who might say, you didn't make him bad enough.
Mr. LANGELLA: Yeah. I'm - I've heard enough of those things like, oh, he's too sympathetic. But sympathetic was never in my mind, not for a minute. It didn't even occur to me to say, oh, this might make people like him more. I think if there's a word I could use, it would be a sort of fair compassion, trying when he was, in fact, competitive and hostile and calculating and cruel, to allow that to happen, and when he was distant and confused and isolated and lonely, allowing that to show. None of us is one thing, none of us.
MONTAGNE: Thank you very much for joining us.
Mr. LANGELLA: My pleasure.
(Soundbite of music)
MONTAGNE: Frank Langella plays Richard M. Nixon, in the new movie" Frost/Nixon." And this is Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Renee Montagne.
LINDA WERTHEIMER, host:
And I'm Linda Wertheimer.