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."

Frank Langella

"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."

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