Frank Langella: On Playing Nixon

On the set of "Frost/Nixon," actor Frank Langella was treated with cool deference and even called Mr. President.

Creating a mock presidential aura was essential, Langella tells Peter Travers in an interview on ABC News Now's "Popcorn with Peter Travers." During filming, Langella said, he looked on enviously as the crew joked together, but felt the isolation necessary to create the sense of discomfort and loneliness that he sees in Richard Nixon.

Langella has become finely attuned to Nixon's self-destructive nature through his portrayal of the character that has stretched over a year in both London and New York stage productions, and finally in the film "Frost/Nixon" that's currently in theaters.

"He represented to people the worst in their natures," Langella told Travers. "They wanted to ridicule or caricature him, none of which I did. He doesn't need to be further made fun or disgraced because he did it to himself."

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"Frost/Nixon" forced the actor to delve repeatedly into Nixon's darkest elements expressed in the film's narrative focus: the post-impeachment interview with journalist David Frost. A tug-and-pull between the two iconic figures ensues where Nixon seeks redemption for the dismal end of his presidency while Frost is determined to root out every painful detail.

Langella explained that Nixon's misguided handling of Watergate "came out of some emotional need to tumble back down the ladder because he was always more comfortable climbing it than being on top of it."

The actor managed to keep the "Bunsen burner" of intensity roiling -- a task which became especially challenging with Director Ron Howard's philosophy of over-shooting. Some scenes stretched across days and up to 40 takes. Genuine passion for the role fueled the actor's stamina.

"It's probably the single best adventure I've ever taken inside of a character's mind. There have been a few others in my life. 'Sherlock Holmes' was one, 'Dracula' was one. I loved going into the world they lived in," said Langella. "But I don't think anyone is going to beat Nixon for the sheer complexity of persona."

The undertaking of playing Nixon drove Langella to the president's childhood home in Whittier, Calif., as part of the research that included "stuff you can't find on the page."

Nixon's tiny attic bedroom, then shared with two other boys, wasn't tall enough for the actor to stand in upright. Langella describes the power of this moment in his coming to understand Nixon's ruthless treatment of his foes, a characteristic that carried him from his humble beginnings all the way to the White House, and then out of it again.

Perhaps the key to Langella's long acting career also starts in his childhood bedroom in Bayonne, N.J. "I was a terribly, terribly introverted, shy, messed up middle kid. In that, I am like thousands of actors. Most of us really started because it was a way out of our misery in real life," he said. "So I created another person." The first of which was an on-stage elf he played at age 7.

"If you really wake up any actor at three or four o'clock in the morning and say 'Why are you an actor?' He'll say the reason he started to be one was an escape route. It was a way to get away from yourself," said Langella, reflecting on his 47 years of acting experience. "And then, the longer you act, you realize it's a skill, a craft. And you act in spite of those neuroses, not because of them."

Langella so thoroughly acquired a mystique beyond his roots that Mel Brooks once joked, "You're like a prince without a country," recalled Langella. "No one believes I was born in Bayonne, New Jersey. Even I didn't for a long time." His uneasiness with his background has retreated. "Now, I'm very proud to be a New Jersey Italian boy."

Recently Langella switched titles from Mr. President to Lord Chancellor. The actor is back on Broadway in the revival of "A Man for All Seasons" as Sir Thomas Moore, the medieval politician turned martyr turned saint.

Langella said he's drawn to characters dealing with universal moral themes in large dimensions, a fascination that effects his selection of roles, perhaps most famously with his 1979 portrayal as the Count himself in "Dracula."

"You were the first sexy Dracula," Travers told him.

After his interpretation, the romantic became linked to the vampyric, an idea certainly in vogue again. Turning the sinister vampire into a deadly Don Juan was Langella's trademark twist.

"It was similar to what happened with Nixon, the determination simply to not do a cliché," responded Langella. The actor was determined to foil the stereotype of Nixon on both stage and screen. He says the difficulties between the two mediums were technical, not emotional.

"You have to keep a fire burning inside of yourself as great as the fire you had on stage," he said. He may have ratcheted down the physical acting for the camera, he said, opting for an eyebrow raise instead of a sweeping gesture, but the core power remained the same.

"That was the real challenge, to keep this thing churning inside of me for 16 or 17 hours day as opposed to two hours a night," he said.

Come awards season, critics speculate Langella's fiery portrayal could draw in numerous votes for his work in "Frost/Nixon."