Transforms in Frost/Nixon
by Brad Balfour
Few performances can rival veteran actor Frank Langella’s portrait of the late President Richard Nixon in the Ron Howard film, Frost/Nixon. Originally a stage play — based on the actual interviews conducted by British TV talk show host David Frost in 1977 — the cinematic version fleshes out the rawer theatrical version with the visual context of the period and a stronger sense of the social tone of those times. Though the 58-year-old actor looks nothing like Nixon except in the broadest sense, he brilliantly morphs into the late chief exec down his unique tics and grunts.
When the real interviews took place, former President Richard Nixon had recently traumatized the country with his criminal behavior in a quest for re-election that led to his subsequent resignation in the face of possible impeachment. Though it seems like a long time ago for those who did not live through those historical moments, Nixon’s utter disregard for the very rules and laws this country has fought to uphold led to the Bush regime’s equally callous disregard for the rights and values that we stand for.
So, it was both a challenge and a risk that Frost — a legendary interviewer in England, but one with a dicier rep in the States — was willing to take when he approached Nixon’s people with his mega-interview request. Figuring that Frost would lob softball questions and be something of a push-over, Tricky Dick agreed to do this one televised interview (especially because he was getting half a mil for it as well). The interviews took place, were unmitigated successes and were revelatory — almost as if they were the prosecutions that never legally took place.
Frost/Nixon — the play written by Peter Morgan (who also wrote this film version) — was also a huge success for Langella and won him various awards and nominations including a Tony for Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Play. The former New Jerseyan has won other Tonys — two for Best Featured Actor in a Play (Edward Albee’s “Seascape” and Ivan Turgenev’s “Fortune’s Fool”) — and was nominated for two other Best Actor Tonys (first in ’78 for the Edward Gorey-designed Broadway revival of Bram Stoker’s “Dracula” and in 2004 for Stephen Belber’s “Match”). Best known for his success in “Dracula,” he starred in John Badham’s subsequent film version opposite the late Sir Laurence Olivier. He has done his share of other films, but his stage work has made him a force to reckon with.
Considering the waning days of lame-duck President George W. Bush, this cinematic re-staging of the play offers insights into the current contentious and troubled presidency. By seeing it mirrored in Nixon’s equally disgraced fall and his subsequent belief that history will take a kinder view of him, it reveals something about what’s in the mind of the current President and how he feels about his own failures.
Was it different playing Richard Nixon in the movie versus playing him in the theater?
Yes, absolutely. A lot of those things are clichés like “you have to hit the back row on the stage,” and grander gestures — all of that’s true. Then comes the sort of relief of the camera because it is right here, and you know you can just raise your eyebrow and make an incredible point that you can’t do in the play. So, the chief difference is that you can go more internal in a film, and it’s wonderful. It’s quite exhilarating and releasing.
Did you wear more makeup for the movie version of Frost/Nixon than for the one in the theater?
Yes, but very little. It’s so subtle and so small, but it took two and a half hours to make it look like there’s nothing on my face at all.
Did it take a while to immerse yourself in being Nixon after you first got the material?
Oh, it took much longer than just the rehearsal period. It took all during the eight weeks in the first theater, and the twelve weeks in the second theater, and then it was Broadway, and then there was the movie, and I was always peeling that onion; always trying to find deeper, more profound elements of him.
How did director Ron Howard affect your process of doing the movie?
Ron was about as good as anyone I’ve ever worked with. He’s an actor’s director, someone who truly and completely wants the actor to shine. He wants the film to be about human beings and wants it to be about the soul of people. So, one of the greatest gifts he gave us as actors was: take your time, don’t feel any obligation to arc a scene, and play it in the rhythm you played it onstage, or in the time you played it onstage. [His attitude was]: “Just be the person, and I’ll cut it. I’ll come in for the moments we agree are the most valuable moments.” So, in that respect, I believe he was the perfect director for this piece.
In an age when fewer and fewer stage actors get to reprise their roles in the eventual film version, why was it so important that you and Michael Sheen (Frost) were retained?
I can’t speak for Michael, but I was very grateful that I was retained. It’s happened to me twice: with Dracula and with this part. And I don’t know if “important” is the right word. I wouldn’t say it is “important,” because world hunger’s important, this is just “the movies” and show business. But it is very heartening to have been asked to do it, because if you’ve lived with a character for that long, you’ll arguably know him better than any actor they might choose. And the shorthand on the set with Ron, Michael and I was incredible, because Michael and I have been together for eighteen months and we never discussed, “Oh you do that, I’ll do that.” We were able to pick up each other’s rhythms after having been in three rehearsal periods, and with three different casts over a period of eighteen months.
Was it hard going back from being Nixon and returning to being you again?
No. I always laugh when I read an actor say, “Oh, I did ‘Hamlet’ and I couldn’t lose the character for two years,” and I say, “Well then, you did it wrong.” You should be able to lose the character in a relatively short amount of time. It is, after all, a skill, and work. By the time I went out to dinner with friends and stuff, [the character] was gone. I would say in the movie he hung on longer because I was with him all day, sixteen hours…
There’s a sense of emotion and humor from Nixon in the film that isn’t normally associated with his public persona. Where did that come from?
I think that I became so protective of him. I became so compassionate towards him, so that every day I played him I was always thinking. And I stopped thinking “he” and started thinking “me.” It stopped being Richard Nixon — it became my creation. He lived with me for such a long time, and I was with him for almost two years, that it was my reacting to whatever was happening. [Nixon] got so deep inside me that no matter what Ron threw at me, like the dog, or a couple of scenes that were totally new, I just felt, “Oh, this is how he’d behave about money, or a pretty ankle, or a little funny-looking dog.” It became second nature to me.
Given Nixon’s insecurities, does it amaze you how successful he became in reaching the highest office in the land?
No, it doesn’t amaze me. My philosophy about that is, “If you have will power and strength, you can overcome. It’s actually the people who have the most to overcome, who usually go the furthest.” Some people pay the price for that, as Nixon did, because they knock themselves down, because they can’t handle what they’ve achieved. You’ll discover when you talk to really successful people that the vast majority of them were the runts of the litter. They were the middle kid, or the funniest-looking one, or the one that everyone thought would never amount to nothing. I was one of those kids. I was a four-eyed little kid and was very shy and backward; and I had to fight to come up from that. Whenever I wanted to go out with a girl, she wanted to go out with the football captain — she didn’t want a skinny little guy who wanted to be an actor. I was like, “What?” So, I had a lot to overcome, and the characters I play most of the time are people who are fighting large-scale, epic problems.
That scene when Nixon makes the midnight telephone call to Frost is so shocking. Then Frost speaks with Nixon and says, “It was a pleasure talking to you last night,” and Nixon has no recollection of it. Was that a fabrication or fact?
David [Frost] says no. The phone call didn’t happen, that’s clear. The greatest thing about that phone call is [screenwriter] Peter Morgan’s imaginative notion of what it would be like if these two epic monsters found a way to have a private time together, which they never did have — that intimate a time together — and what it would be like, what would Nixon say. Oddly enough, when I first read the play, I went to Peter and said, “I’m a little concerned about this phone call. It feels a little editorializing to me and feels like you are making a statement, so I’m not sure how organic I can make this.” Then after a week of performing it, I said, “I’ll break both your legs if you ever cut it!” It’s just too good a piece of theater. It’s just too marvelous a scene for an actor to play, and I came to love the phone call very much.
If Nixon were alive today, what would you say to him?
I’ve never been asked that question… I would try to embrace him. I would try to somehow get across to him that, “Living with you for so long, sir, I feel great compassion for your pain,” more than anything else. The thing that Richard Nixon needed more than anything else was a kind of deep and profound acceptance that he never got, probably, from his father. Lots and lots of men suffer from this. Lots and lots of men spend their lives looking for surrogate fathers who never gave them a sense of themselves as men, particularly in the puberty period when you’re just coming into your manhood. That’s really when you need your dad there. And I don’t think Nixon ever did.
Did you have that with your father? Or were you missing something like Nixon was?
Yeah; most men do. It’s the rare man who says, “Boy, I had a great dad. He was there for me all the time. We played ball all the time. He taught me about girls, about sex.” Most men will tell you, “I didn’t know what I was doing. I never had anybody help me. I had to swim my way through and figure it all out.” It’s a shame. There really should be a school for parenting.
The movie does make you sympathetic to Nixon, this monster. It really makes you feel sorry for the bastard.
Well, in one sentence you’ve called him a monster and a bastard. You see how totally and completely prejudiced you are?
Well, you said “these two epic monsters.”
Well, I meant monster in the larger sense. But that’s ingrained in you to think that way, and you don’t have any right to judge him that way. You’re not walking in his shoes. If you think Nixon is a monster and a bastard, what do you think of the presidents we’ve had since? That’s the thing: it’s very easy to use these words about this man, and very facile, because we live in a time where it’s sound-bite time. Let’s see… Richard Nixon? Monster, bastard. Anna Nicole Smith? Dumb, blonde. We just do it. We just narrow everybody down to a tiny little spectrum, and you really can’t, and you really shouldn’t. I do it too, though, because it’s really fast, and it’s really quick. It would’ve been totally uninteresting of me to play him as a drunk, or as a crook. Those were two facets of a very, very complicated man, and we mustn’t forget that he was a brilliant statesman. [Nixon] was an extraordinarily intelligent man. I spent hours and hours of reading his books. His hopes and dreams for this country in foreign policy were extraordinary, and what he did in China and other places was wonderful. It would be a shame to let all that [go to waste] — history has done it, and he brought it on himself. Nixon was not destroyed by anything or anyone but himself.
It was surprising how much laughter occurred in viewing the film; it had a lot to do with the great dynamic and rapport between you and Michael. How was that established?
We met in July of 2006 during the first day of rehearsal at the Old Vic. He walked into the room with all that curly hair and a beard, and he must’ve thought what I thought: “Gee, this guy doesn’t look like anything like that.” He doesn’t, and I don’t. We had, just as it does with every actor, probably about a week or two to suss each other out and get comfortable with each other’s styles and rhythms. We work absolutely differently — completely differently — but at some point, our styles blended, and our sense of each other as actors became very sharp and keen. For an actor I’ve spent more time with than almost any other colleague, we’ve had fewer discussions about who was going to do what. We just did it.
Did you ever speak with Nixon’s family, or any people associated with his administration?
I met the Cox family, who came to see the play. Tricia [Nixon’s daughter] didn’t come, but her husband, Edward Cox, and children came. People who worked for Nixon came to see the play and [some] came backstage. I talked to Frank Gannon [who worked in the Nixon White House and worked on his memoirs] and had 10 hours of phone calls all during the time before I left for London. I talked to Barbara Walters, and to Mike Wallace — anybody who interviewed him I went to see as well. And someone would come backstage and say, “I was on his staff during…” this and that. Frequently, people came in in tears, and it was very rewarding that they would remember their boss in that sense. They would all come in with a little anecdote: “He’d like to take everyone to Trader Vic’s once a year.” And somebody on the staff said, “Oh God, Nixon would say we’re going to Trader Vic’s and we all knew we’d be sitting around, holding drinks with umbrellas in them, and listening to the boss tell the same stories he told a year ago!” [Laughs.]
Did you ever speak to Good Morning America’s Diane Sawyer [who had been on Nixon’s staff]?
No. I know Diane socially, but I’ve never met her related to Nixon. Apparently, she didn’t talk to anybody about it. Nobody got a word out of her.
Is the film more relevant now given the failings of the Bush administration?
I don’t think this film is a political movie. I think it’s a movie about survival. It’s a movie about two men who are trying to resurrect their careers, trying to outfox each other, and each of whom is having a particular emotional crisis, and that’s universal. That’s in all of us. So, I don’t think Universal is unaware that this is a political figure in a very political time, but I think the movie stands as a movie about two men trying to win.
How do you feel about an Oscar campaign for this film, and in particular, for your role?
Well, I’m doing what I think I should do, which is part of my job, which is to help promote the film so people can go and see it. I don’t think any of this has anything to do with somebody checking your name off. I’ve been voting at the Oscars for over 30 years and I’ve never voted for someone because someone said something interesting at a press conference or told a funny joke on Jay Leno: “Gee, I was caught naked on the balcony of the hotel!” — you know, all those dumb things that actors say. [Laughs]
Do you feel it should only be what’s on the screen?
That’s what I vote for. In the end, I watch all the performances and say, “That’s the one that got me.” I’m fully aware, maybe not everybody does that, but it can’t be in your mind when you’re doing this. I’m working every night so I haven’t been able to see much, but I will see everything.
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Copyright ©2008 PopEntertainment.com. All rights reserved. Posted: December 8, 2008.