Frank: Langella: The Frost/Nixon star tells Wendy Mitchell why his on-screen portrayal of Richard Nixon had to be deeper and quieter than his stage performances
The Frost/Nixon star tells Wendy Mitchell why his on-screen portrayal of Richard Nixon had to be deeper and quieter than his stage performances
Frank Langella had the best possible preparation for playing Richard Nixon in Ron Howard’s Frost/Nixon. He played the former president on stage for 10 months in London and New York. And then he let it go and showed up fresh on the film set.
“I purposely didn’t think about the transition from stage to screen,” says the 70-year-old actor. “I walked on set with as clear a head as I could. I didn’t try to hold on to anything I’d done for the theatre. I just had to stand in front of the camera and find him.”
However, before he started the play, he did plenty of research. “I was surrounded by everything (to do with) Nixon I could find. I went to where he lived when he was a boy, I spoke to everyone who knew him,” Langella recalls.
“The man became so real to me - his loneliness, his isolation. Nixon is a marvellous cauldron of human foibles and problems. It was a lot of exciting grist for my mill.”
Langella nails the Nixon mannerisms but does not play the role as an impression. “I’m not a mimic, I didn’t want to do an imitation,” he says. “It was about finding his soul. If you haven’t found the soul of a character, you can’t play him. And from there you have to allow your own insecurities and demons to come into it. You’re not just doing a caricature, you’re creating a person.”
The role has a unique physicality as well. Langella says with a laugh: “I’m sorry to say those jowls were mine. You have to have a total lack of ego to play a part like this.”
Peter Morgan’s screenplay covers the same territory as his play: David Frost’s interviews with the disgraced former 37th US president in 1977. Langella and Howard talked about how his on-screen Nixon would need to be “deeper, quieter and more introspective” than the stage Nixon.
Tony-winning theatre veteran Langella got his first big break in film in 1970, with Diary Of A Mad Housewife, and went on to memorable roles such as the title role in 1979’s Dracula and recent projects including Good Night, And Good Luck and a standout role in 2007’s Starting Out In The Evening.
He regards Frost/Nixon as one of the highlights of his decades of work - but does not want it to be his last big role. “I see it as one of the greatest heights of my career, but I still have the ambition to play more great roles - and there are a lot of great roles for older men.”
After a career spanning more than 50 films, the actor played his first lead role in Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor. Wendy Mitchell reports
Richard Jenkins has appeared in more than 50 films and has had a solid career “playing fathers, lawyers and cops”, he says. But his first lead role, in Tom McCarthy’s The Visitor, was something special. “I’ve had a wonderful career, but at this time in my life, to be given this gift is extraordinary,” says the 61-year-old actor, whose credits include Intolerable Cruelty and Flirting With Disaster but is perhaps best known as the deceased father in HBO’s television series Six Feet Under.
“I had met Tom and then two years later he said, ‘Here’s a script, I wrote this part for you,’” Jenkins recalls. “That hasn’t happened to me before. It’s incredibly flattering, but then I thought, ‘What if I read it and don’t understand it”
“And then I read the script and I was floored. It’s the way he approaches the story and the characters and puts it all together,” he says. Jenkins’ Walter is a lonely professor who befriends a young immigrant couple (Haaz Sleiman and Danai Jekesai Gurira) in New York. Walter starts to open up as he fights the immigration system with the young man’s mother (Hiam Abbass) and learns to play the drums.
Lots of discussions with McCarthy helped clarify the character, as did a two-week rehearsal before the shoot. “This was me preparing for my first lead and getting to know Tom, and also getting to know Hiam and Haaz and Danai,” he says. “Rehearsals to all of us were really valuable.”
One challenge was portraying Walter’s interest in African drumming. “I played the drums when I was young but I was awful,” Jenkins laughs. “So shooting that was nerve wracking but that’s the joy of it.”
After The Visitor, Jenkins appeared in Step Brothers, Burn After Reading and animated feature The Tale Of Despereaux. And now he has shot James Keach’s Waiting For Forever, Jonathan Segal’s Norman, and Lasse Hallstrom’s Dear John. He is back to playing fathers in each of these but points out: “It’s not always the same guy, I’ve never been typecast.”
Jenkins says he is still getting used to the newfound attention The Visitor has brought him. “It’s just weird, that’s so new to me, and unexpected. I didn’t think about it when I was making the movie. All I knew is that I had to do the best job I could for Tom. He had fought for me as his choice and I didn’t want to let him down.”
The editor of Gus Van Sant’s Milk tells Wendy Mitchell about the thrill of working with the director and his determination not to be typecast
Hollywood has a tendency to typecast editors the same way it does actors - which isn’t always accurate,” says Elliot Graham, the editor of Gus Van Sant’s Milk.
”X-Men 2 was my big break and I loved it; I’d grown up reading comic books. But I also love films like The Godfather and Lawrence Of Arabia. Just because I got my start doing action, that didn’t mean I couldn’t do dramas.”
He had long admired Van Sant’s work and was introduced to the director by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. It turned out to be an inspiring working relationship with Van Sant. “He’s open to trying anything and everything,” says Graham. “Gus is particularly open to trying all kinds of new avenues and it’s a remarkable experience working with him. I’d work with him again in a New York minute.”
Graham worked on Milk in traditional editing rooms, but also cut some of the film at home on his laptop as, he says, “you get tired as an editor being in the same small, dark room”.
He also enjoyed cutting part of the film at Van Sant’s Portland warehouse, a large open space that he calls very “Gus-style” with old couches and antique furniture everywhere. “It was nice to be in that environment,” he says.
The editing process lasted nine months, with Van Sant a frequent collaborator once shooting had stopped. There were several unique challenges cutting Milk, starting with the 1970s setting, which inspired the use of a lot of archive material and news footage. “That was definitely a challenge but it was also like a present,” Graham says. “It brought the film to whole new levels - giving it a sense of place and also expanding story points in a way that’s very real.”
The archive material had to be blended with the new footage so as not to be jarring. “Even shooting on 35mm, Harris (Savides, DoP) and Gus captured a very naturalistic look, it felt quite real. Harris gave the 35mm a related look to 16mm - it wasn’t too lush and glossy.”
Graham was also careful not to get in the way of the film’s stellar performances, particularly Sean Penn’s lead role as Harvey Milk. “You absolutely have responsibility as an editor not to screw it up,” he says. “We knew Sean was going to give an extraordinary performance and it’s not like he needs your help to put that together, but you just want to make sure you do it justice.”
The Golden Globe-nominated actress tells Mike Goodridge how she approached playing the damaged addict at the centre of Rachel Getting Married
I’d love to say I had to stick my feet in fire every day in order to get myself to cry and that I lived on the street. But the writing is so fine in this movie that the character appeared to me from the first time I read it.”
So says Anne Hathaway, the Hollywood golden girl who gave a revelatory dramatic performance as the damaged young woman Kym this year in Jonathan Demme’s Rachel Getting Married. Already a Golden Globe nominee for the film, she is looking ever more likely to secure her first Oscar nomination.
“My instincts about Kym pretty much never changed from the first time I read the script but I had a year to research my character and to really understand the recovery community and talk with addicts and families of addicts, read books and go to (Narcotics Anonymous and Alcoholics Anonymous) meetings.”
But Hathaway explains that a month before shooting, she had a breakthrough. “I realised the only way to play Kym was not to editorialise her to people or try to make people like or even love her. She is so complex I didn’t want to decide for other people what they should like about her, but just to be her. When she’s confused, let her be confused. When she’s obnoxious, let her be obnoxious. When she’s broken, let her be broken.”
“I realised the best way to play this character, and probably all characters, is not to manipulate the audience,” she continues. “I think the reason why this movie resonates as an honest addiction movie is because no-one’s heartstrings are being tugged. It doesn’t try to answer any questions, it doesn’t follow a traditional movie formula, and as a result it feels so real.”
But the actress, who is currently filming Tim Burton’s Alice In Wonderland, has no pretensions that what she does is anything but acting and illusion.
“I didn’t understand what it was like to be a princess,” she laughs. “I didn’t understand what it was like to be a rodeo queen (in Brokeback Mountain) and, no, I don’t understand what it’s like to be an addict. But I’ve got a very powerful imagination, and I try to answer every question I could in order to give an honest, truthful, respectful representation of addiction.”