The three-time Tony-winning thespian and best-selling author shares his thoughts on celebrating more than 50 years in the business.
Actor Frank LangellaOriginally aired on April 9, 2014
Tavis: Frank Langella made his stage debut back in 1963 in an off-Broadway production of “The Immoralist.” Since then he’s won three Tony awards and nominated for an Oscar for his portrayal of Richard Nixon in the movie “Frost/Nixon,” great film.
He’s just completed a critically acclaimed turn as King Lear in both the UK and New York, and now he can be seen in the new movie, “Draft Day,” about the very ruthless world of big-time football.
We’ll start out conversation first with a clip from “Draft Day,” which he stars in with Kevin Costner.
Frank Langella: Never heard of her.
Tavis: What motivated you to do this one?
Langella: Oh, money.
Tavis: Money. (Laughter)
Langella: Because -
Tavis: I love you. You’re so candid and so honest all the time.
Langella: Well because they – a five-year-old Chinese girl knows more about football than I do. I knew absolutely nothing about football, but I made two films for Ivan, I’m very fond of him.
We did “Dave” together and we did, oh, I don’t know – the movie where Arnold gets pregnant, I forget – “Junior.”
Tavis: So since you’re not a football fan, although you play this quite well, we’ll come to your role here in a second. Since you’re not a football fan, I can only assume that means you may have embarrassed yourself a few times with all of the cameos made by real football stars who were in this movie.
Langella: Oh, I did. Every time, because I don’t know those people.
Tavis: (Laughs) Like who did you not know?
Langella: Well this gentleman walked up to me, we had four lines together. I said, “Are you a player? Do you work in the – ?” He said, “Yeah, my name’s Ray Kelly.”
Tavis: Ray Lewis.
Langella: Lewis – see?
Langella: It’s even worse. (Laughter)
Tavis: No, he’s a pretty good; he was a pretty good football player.
Langella: A very charming man, a very interesting man off-camera, too. Very interesting.
Tavis: I thought it was a good movie, a really good movie, because it’s one of those movies – I was afraid that it was going to be a movie that you could only enjoy if you were a football fan, and it’s not.
There’s so many storylines here about so many of life’s challenges that we all face. I thought it was very textured.
Langella: Yeah, I do too.
Tavis: So you can enjoy it if you’re not a football fan, like Frank Langella.
Langella: It was also a happy set, and sometimes you’re not on a happy set. I’ve been on a lot of sets the last two years. This was an easy, happy set. Ivan’s very good at it, and Denis Leary is a terrific personality, and Kevin’s a very generous actor, and I love Jennifer Garner.
Tavis: First time -
Langella: And I meant all that too, what I just said. (Laughter)
Tavis: First time, to my mind, that I’ve ever seen you in a film, and I’ve seen most of your stuff, first time I’ve seen you in a movie where I never saw the whites of your eyes. You keep those -
Tavis: Put that shot back up, Jonathan. You keep your sunglasses on from the first scene to the last. We never see your eyes.
Langella: No, never.
Tavis: Was that your decision?
Langella: Yes, and I actually made the decision in the middle of the first day I shot. I shot I think it was the television interview, and I had them on. And Ivan said, in a break, “When are you going to take them off? At what point will you take them off, so I can be prepared for it?” I said, “In three weeks, when I’m finished shooting,” which I didn’t know I was going to say.
He said, “No, no, no, we’ve got to see your eyes.” I said, “People have been looking at my eyes in movies for 52 years,” and I thought the glasses gave him a distinctive look.
Tavis: So for those who haven’t seen the movie, you – well, it’s not out yet. It’s about to come out. You play the owner of the Cleveland Browns.
Tavis: So you went into it not being a football fan, but what was your takeaway about the ugly world of football when you finished filming?
Langella: Well my takeaway was since I’m a very cynical person, the same as it is in my field. So much is about money, even my facetious remark, “Money,” isn’t quite true. It was really my affection for Ivan.
But my takeaway was that it’s just become, as has my profession, an absurd amount of money being paid to people who are talented, but so outsized to ability, with actors and athletes, that it distorts the very excitement of what creativity should be, what a creative football player should be or a creative artist should be.
Tavis: Did you enjoy playing Mr. Molina?
Langella: Yes, I did. Yeah, I did, very much. Also, I enjoyed Kevin, because he’s very easy and very smooth, especially in sports films, about which he is really remarkably smart.
Tavis: So I was just thinking, walking into the studio, that if this movie has a big opening, then it is possible that in just a few days from now you will be in three movies in the top 10 at the same time. You’re in “Noah.”
Langella: Well I’m in Noah as an 80-foot monster.
Tavis: But you’re in there.
Langella: My voice is there, yeah.
Tavis: You’re in there, yeah. All right, so you’re in “Noah,” that Muppet project is out now.
Langella: Yes, I’m a priest in the Muppets. I marry Ms. Piggy.
Tavis: So you go from monster to priest. See, you’re a great thespian, man. (Laughter) You do it all. You’re in “Noah,” you’re in the Muppet project, and you’re in this.
So if this does well, you’ll be, like, in three movies at the top 10 at one time. You a bad man.
Langella: Yes, but none of them are my movies. I’m just a little cog in a very big wheel. But then I’ve got four more movies coming out in the independent world. It’s been a good year for me.
Tavis: Why you working so hard at this chronologically gifted age?
Langella: Well I’m asked to do things that are varied and different. I like to work on the stage. “Lear” was an enormous – I hate the word, but “challenge” is the only word you can come up with.
Then also at this particular time in your life, if you’re asked to play opposite Gena Rowlands and you’re asked to play opposite Glenn Close and then Ms. Piggy, how can you go, (laughter) how can you say no?
Tavis: Can’t say no to Ms. Piggy.
Langella: Yes, you can’t say no. (Laughter) So I’ve admired Gena Rowlands my whole life, so I was asked to do a movie with her and with Glenn, and they’re interesting roles. I’m always doing something in the theater, always.
Tavis: Speaking of the theater, so everybody loved you in “King Lear.” At this age – you used the word challenge a moment ago. How big a challenge is that, and why put yourself through that? That’s a lot of stuff to memorize.
You’re live, you can’t do a second, third take. How do you, why put yourself through that at this age?
Langella: Well actually, the question, Tavis, is why not put yourself through it, really. The question about everything in life, particularly when you get to be 76, is why not put yourself through it.
I think the danger of my generation and certainly some of my colleagues is oh, I’ve been there, oh, I’ve done that – why bother? But my feeling now at this age, and I’m lucky, I’m healthy and I’m in relatively good shape, is if I don’t do it now, when am I going to do it?
Also, Lear presented something to me that I thought was universal in everybody, which is who are you when you take off your crown? Who are you? Because we all wear crowns of some kind.
Either it’s I’m a movie star or I’m a famous athlete or I’m this, and I know you love me because of my crown, but the whole play is about a man who says I don’t want to be king anymore, but I want all of you, my daughters, to tell me that you love me, and how much you love me, and how much you’re going to keep loving me. He discovers that it wasn’t him they loved at all, but his crown.
Tavis: There’s a great Black poet who put it this way: “We wear the mask.”
Tavis: Yeah. To your point now, at this age, are you still – speaking of “King Lear – ” are you still learning things about yourself?
Langella: Yes, I am – well I can say really, truly that I have never learned so much about my failings as a man and as a father sometimes, and as a friend, and as a human as when I played Lear, because I had to face what he goes through if I wanted to play it well.
I had to face within myself all the things I didn’t do and wasn’t while I was wearing my own crown. What playing him did for me was force me to look at my own and remove it and try – someone wrote a great article in “The New York Times” a few months ago about men of my generation have to be, and it sounds Pollyanna but it’s not, have to be kinder.
You get kinder when you get into my age range. You think back to how really unkind you were, and how cynical you were and how you tossed things away and you tossed people away, and you didn’t care because you were climbing some mountain that you thought you needed to be on top of.
Tavis: So when you come to that realization, at this age, in part courtesy of your playing King Lear, how do you navigate forward? How do you redeem the time, or is that not possible?
Langella: How do you mean by “redeem the time?”
Tavis: Redeem the time – how do you make up for, how do you address now at this stage those failings, those mistakes, those missteps, those things that you wish you had been, or is that not possible at this point?
Langella: Well certain things happen to you. When I closed in “King Lear” I went into a period of depression for about three weeks, and every actor I’ve talked to who’s ever played a major, major Shakespeare role has done this.
It really rips you to shreds, it just does. I don’t mean that in any kind of oh please – I’m very strong. But it does, if you want to play the truth of it. So what happens is I don’t know if “redeem” is the right word.
You go through a period of regret about your own failings and the things you didn’t do in your twenties, thirties, forties, fifties, and sixties. You go through a period of anger at yourself, and where and in what way have I let people down in those earlier generations.
Without sounding like some soft-shoe salesman, you do make a decision to say I think these last couple of decades better be filled with compassion, humanity, kindness, continue the self-journey, and try to be more curious about others and look at them, thinking they’re wearing a mask they don’t even know they have on.
Without trying to pierce it or attack their defense for a living, try to react to them differently than you would when you were younger. Because when you’re younger, you kind of do that, you back up against somebody’s defense and you hit them with your own.
Tavis: That sounds like advice you were just offering to me, since I’m just a few years behind you.
Langella: A few? You’re many more than few.
Tavis: Yeah. But that’s good advice, though. The question is always how do I get what you just said? How do folk younger than me get what you just said now, as opposed to waiting until we play King Lear to figure that out? Because I’ll never play King Lear.
Langella: I say this to my daughter all the time. You can only lead by example. I made lots of mistakes with my kids when they were little, trying to tell them what they should think at 14, 19, 25, 30.
You can’t. You can only lead by example, and you can only say it might be better for you if. But nobody can do anything until they’re ready to do it. So you can sit down with a strong-minded young man of 24, as my son was at a point, and say now listen, this, this, this, and this.
All he’s doing in his head is going, “When is my father going to shut up so I can go out and grab that girl and get in the back of the car?” (Laughter) “Leave me alone. Let me be 24.”
I think there’s a virtue in that. I think the opposite, the opposite of what I’m trying to do now, when you’re younger, is to try to spare kids being kids. They have to go through it.
If you try to say let me warn you about this – you want to smoke a little weed? Smoke it. You want to drink a little bit? Drink it. I just have to hope you survive. I have to hope you make your way through.
Tavis: I don’t want to overstate this, but it sounds to me like if you take your craft as a thespian seriously, as you do, then it almost forces you, it coerces you to grow up.
It puts you face-to-face with your own humanity and the humanity of others, if you’re playing the right kind of roles, I suspect, and if you’re taking it seriously. Am I wrong about that? Am I overstating it?
Langella: No you’re not wrong, but there’s an opposite side to it.
Langella: Which I unfortunately find is true in most actors. You have two choices. You either unzip, get naked, theoretically, and look at yourself as a result of the work you’re doing, as a result of Lear and the part I’m about to play in the theater, and you use what you’re learning from that evisceration – is that the right word? – of self.
Or you do what I observe many actors doing, which is you cling desperately to the thing for which you were initially loved, and you keep on trying to reproduce it. It’s why you see so many facelifts; it’s why you see so much Botox. It’s why you see so much toupees and all that stuff.
Because the other side of the coin is a terrible fear of facing it, and believe me, it’s frightening. When I identified with what I thought Lear’s problem was and saw it in myself, it was devastating.
And Lear has two choices, just like I did. Lear’s choice was I go grab my crown back, start a war, get my kingdom back, or I face myself. By the time he does, he loses the one creature that means the most of him, his daughter. She dies in his arms.
Tavis: You seem, and maybe this didn’t come easy, maybe it did, you tell me. But you seem so well-adjusted to this notion of aging.
Langella: Well there’s no choice.
Tavis: Well there is a choice. Everybody’s not as well-adjusted to it. Some people go through hell, struggling and fighting, as you just pointed out, with aging.
Langella: No, but I do. There are periods when I do. It’s still amazing to me, and will be so unto death, what your inner feeling is about yourself, and then what you catch in the glass as you walk by Madison Avenue and you see your grandfather looking at you through the glass of a store.
I go, what’s my grandfather – oh, it’s me. (Laughter) Because I’m walking there and I’m 28, and I have a full head of hair and I’m very thin. In my mind I’m in a place that’s different.
Then I see what my physical life is, so it’s – there are times when there’s nothing you really want to be less than old, but it’s so well-balanced by what you’ve learned about yourself and what you learned about the world, and how few things rile you up anymore.
Tavis: What’s the best part of it for you?
Langella: Of being old?
Tavis: Yeah – you’re not old. Getting older.
Langella: Getting older? Probably this, probably what we’re talking about. Probably this shedding of the crueler side of my nature, the shedding of the more competitive side of my nature, the acceptance of it.
There is a thing called the death wish, you know, a literal thing. It doesn’t mean you want to die. It just means however we’re built, as we get into these years, some inner part of you does begin to accept the fact that you’re heading towards the end, and there’s a peace that comes with that.
So I would think the best part for me about being older on the days when I’m not unhappy about it are all those things. Are a certain, “Let it go. Just let it go, Frank. Don’t make such a – don’t get uptight about these things. They’re so unimportant.”
Tavis: See, in part, there’s a selfish reason for my asking you all these questions, aside from the fact that I can listen to you talk for hours, and I always learn from you when you come on this program.
Langella: Thank you.
Tavis: But selfish reason for that, Frank, is that I’m turning 50 later this year, and I’m starting -
Tavis: – for the last year, really been wrestling with this, and I’m starting to get more frantic about the time and making the best use of the time. Because the reality is, although you are not a good example of what I’m about to say, it seems to me that there are only so many years in our lives where we can push out our best work, our most productive work.
Because as you get older, your energy isn’t the same. You don’t move with the same speed. Your body changes, all these things happen.
Langella: Why should you?
Tavis: To your point, you can’t avoid that. Which means if you’re turning 50, as I am later this year, that window is going to close at some point on the best moment to push out your best work.
Langella: I wouldn’t agree with you.
Tavis: You don’t think so?
Langella: No. The window will never close. There’s nothing like the bravery and the strength and the extraordinary optimism of a five-year-old child in a cancer hospital, fighting to live. It’s there inside the spirit.
The year has nothing to do with it. I just delivered a eulogy for almost my oldest friend. I knew her for 53 years. Woman named Bunny Mellon, who died at 103.
Tavis: Oh, yeah, great philanthropist.
Langella: Yes, great, and she died at 103. My last conversation with her was 24 hours before she died, and she said, when I knew there were dozens of things wrong with her, and I knew she had hours, really, she said, “Darling, call me soon.”
That forward-thinking curiosity – see, the thing I think that will keep you young, first of all, the year doesn’t matter, is curiosity. I think that’s what can take you to my age and further.
The minute you lose that in a way and start thinking the way you were just talking about – oh, I’m going to slow down, I’m going to – it’s a waste of time. But it’s exactly how I thought at 50.
I honestly think that through decades – I’m so different now at 76 than I was at 66, and certainly immensely different. When I was your age I had two small children.
My last kids were born when I was in my forties, so I still had little kids around me, which gave me the illusion of feeling younger. But 50 is incredibly young, Tavis.
Tavis: Well if it’s about curiosity, I got tons of that.
Langella: You sure do.
Tavis: As you can tell by my questions.
Langella: It’s why you’re such a good interviewer.
Tavis: Well, I appreciate that.
Langella: Because you’re interested in your subjects.
Tavis: That I am. I thought I heard you whisper a moment ago – I don’t want to miss this – that you’re working on going back on the stage?
Tavis: Another project? What’s this next one, or can you not talk about it yet?
Langella: No, no, I can talk about it.
Langella: I optioned a play that was written in 1961 called “Oh, Dad, Poor Dad, Mamma’s Hung You in the Closet and I’m Feeling So Sad.” (Laughter) It’s about -
Tavis: That’s the full title?
Langella: That’s the title.
Tavis: (Laughs) I love the title already.
Langella: It starred a great actress of her time named Jill Van Fleet, and I’m going to play her role. I’m going to play a woman, because I’ve always wanted to.
Tavis: You’re going to play a woman?
Langella: Yeah. We read it yesterday in New York quite successfully.
Tavis: What do you mean when you say you’ve “always wanted to?”
Langella: I’ve always wanted to play a female, always.
Langella: I can’t explain it. Particularly this female in this play. I don’t know, I just want – it’s my job. I’m an actor. So why shouldn’t I investigate how I would present myself as a female, how I’d move if I had breasts and that particular shape of hips and long hair.
This particular woman is a powerful, strong, monster, really. It’s not camp at all. I’m not going to do a camp version. I want to inhabit that sensibility.
Tavis: Obviously you think you can pull this off, having never done it before.
Langella: Of course. (Laughter)
Tavis: Of course. I only asked because you talked earlier about the challenge of Lear. This sounds to me like it might rival Lear in terms of challenge.
Langella: Well yesterday we did a reading of the play in New York, and I said to the gathered investors and producers that I got together to see if they wanted to put money in it, “I don’t want your imaginations to be too challenged,” so I put on a pearl necklace and earrings and painted my lips red.
Even just that alone gave me such feeling of excitement and adventure – where can I take this woman?
Tavis: So -
Langella: As opposed to “Can I take this woman.” (Laughter)
Tavis: I will be in New York to see that.
Tavis: Yeah, I will not miss that.
Langella: If we get the money.
Tavis: I’m sure you’ll get the money. I want to see this. Can you get this, Jonathan? I just want Mr. Langella to see that I put this picture on the table here, which is not here, of course, most nights.
I want him to see that I got the photo that he sent me. I don’t know if you can zoom in on that or not, but it’s a picture of Frank Langella reading his book, “Dropped Names,” which is now in its fourth printing.
On the table in front of him is a copy of my book, one of my books, my mug from my TV show, another picture of the two of us on this set. So all these things concerning me are down here -
Langella: Out of focus.
Tavis: – out of focus, I should add, yes, out of focus, and his book is clearly in focus, and he wrote to me, “Dear Tavis, as you can see, I like to keep the important things in focus.” (Laughter) “Till next time, all best, Frank.”
So thank you for that gift, I appreciate that. Just wanted to let you know that I did receive it.
Langella: Well I loved making the picture.
Tavis: Your daughter’s a great photographer.
Langella: I think I was playing – yes, my daughter’s a great photographer. She took the picture on the back of the book.
Tavis: On the back of your book, yeah.
Langella: Yeah. I was playing Justice Warren Berger when I took that picture in New York, in a movie about the Supreme Court.
Tavis: Well thank you for keeping the right things in focus.
Seriously, I’m glad you came on, as I always am.
Langella: Oh, I am too.
Tavis: Such a delight to see you.
Langella: A pleasure, always.
Tavis: Thank you.
Langella: Thank you.
Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching. As always, keep the faith.
“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.
[Walmart sponsor ad]
“Announcer:” And by contributions to your PBS station from viewers like you. Thank you.