Frank Langella won a Tony for playing a very unappealing Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon, but that wasn’t his only run as the “bad guy” of a play. In fact, Langella is currently starring in a revival of Terrence Rattigan‘s 1963 play Man and Boy with the Roundabout Theatre Company at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway.
Langella’s role is that of Gregor Antonescu, a villainous father with a Bernie Madoff-ish background attempting to reconnect with the son he believed dead. But Langella isn’t afraid of playing villains… in fact, it appears that he prefers them.
Langella tells NPR, “These men who are monstrous, so to speak, are enormously, enormously rewarding to play — much more so than a good man… there’s so much more that you can draw on when you play a man who’s complicated, difficult and downright mean, as this man is.”
How does he pull it off? Langella doesn’t think of these type of roles as total villains and using that as a cue to ham it up, as many actors do. He explains, “I have to see it all from his point of view. I can’t judge him. I can’t say, ‘Oh, how terrible of him to do this, wink wink, let me find a way to soften what he’s doing.’ ‘Cause when you’re inside yourself, no matter what you are, you believe in what you’re doing. You don’t say, ‘I just screwed somebody over in business. … I’m a really mean person.’ You lie to yourself and tell yourself all the reasons why it’s OK for you to do what you do. Even a serial killer does that. We’re all very quick to judge anybody else’s cruelty and very quick to justify our own.” The power behind Langella’s performances result from his acting following his mantras that he pins to his dressing room wall. First: “The cathartic possibility of the theater needs nothing more than the actor and the stage.” In other words, Langella doesn’t believe that a production necessarily needs anything more than an actor and a stage (so we won’t see Langella as the Green Goblin in Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark?) He says, “You can have theater with all of those things, but you can’t have the cathartic possibility of theater — that thing that lifts you beyond yourself as an audience member. You really just need the platform and the actor, another piece of humanity, sharing his humanity with the audience.”
Second: “Mean It.” “”Don’t open your mouth if you don’t mean every word you’re saying.”
Third: “Leap empty-handed into the void.” What’s that? Langella clarifies, “It’s the hardest thing to do. It takes a lot of work and a lot of time and a lot of competence to finally know that if you’ve learned your lines and you understand what they mean and you’re ready to go and you fixed the costume and the light’s OK, you just walk out onstage, and you leap empty-handed into the void, and you see what comes back to you.”
At the end of the day though, Langella knows that an actor has to be able to leave his or her part behind on the stage. He suggests, “By the very nature of repeating it and discovering it, I do get more and more affected by the powerful emotional connection the father and son have in the last moments of the play and what his life is like. It happens onstage, and I let it happen onstage, and it often fills me with great sadness. But when it’s over, it’s over. I don’t carry it with me.” This is a skill he doesn’t see in every actor, adding, “I remember a young actor told me once that it took him a year to get over playing Hamlet, and I said, ‘Well, then you did it wrong.’ It should take you until your first glass of wine at the restaurant later on to get over it.”
Nonetheless, while Langella is very concerned about his performances, there are a few things he isn’t concerned with: namely his appearance, aging, and his legacy. He ends the interview by concluding, “I haven’t done any plastic surgery or any plugs in my head. I’m letting my hair go as it goes, and I’m trying to age gracefully into my profession as well as life. I think it’s madness to try to be what you were. It’s great to have been it. I’m glad some of it’s on film. I’m glad some of it’s recorded. But I certainly feel more liberated with each decade not having to worry about those things anymore.”