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Robot & Frank – Frank Langella interview (exclusive)

Robot & Frank, Frank Langella

Interview by Rob Carnevale

FRANK Langella talks about making Robot & Frank and what appealed to him about playing an ageing career thief who is suddenly given a robot.

He also discusses working with a young director like Jake Schreier, what he looks for in roles, how he views the current state of Hollywood and why he thinks Nicole Kidman is a true movie star and actress in the old fashioned tradition.

Q. What appealed to you about playing Frank?
Frank Langella: Oh, that he was my age, and he was not a supporting character sort of looking in on the two young people or the funny comic of the day. It was his story and all the various things that happen to you at my age were being written about and I was being given a co-star that was a robot. And I thought: “My, my, that’s something I‘ve never done before.”

Q. I gather you got to read with your nephew? He doubled for the voice of the robot on-set?
Frank Langella: [Laughs] Yes, yes. Well, my nephew sort of wants to come into show-business. He was 21 at the time and he had just graduated college. I said: “There’s no budget to this movie. There’s nothing. There’s just a small little movie.” But he said he’d love to come on it. So, they put a head set on him and he was running around parking cars and one afternoon I said: “Here, read the robot lines off-camera…” So, he did.

Q. One of the things about Frank is that the arrival of the robot actually gives him a new lease of life and enables him to carry on with his career. Is that one of the luxuries of being an actor that, unlike a lot of other professions, you can carry on acting for as long as the roles keep being offered?
Frank Langella: Well, I will carry on acting as long as I have breath and as long as I have energy and as long as I can remember my lines. Those are the basic things you need to be an actor. I’ll never retire unless something happens to me and I can’t do it well. If I can’t do it well I don’t want to see the public to see me wasting away in front of them. I’ll just retire and I’ll write.

Q. And do you enjoy mixing it up between film and theatre?
Frank Langella: Lately, the last five years I’ve had really wonderful parts in movies. I’ve now three more in a row coming up. I’m working now in Nice, then I’m going to work in Salt Lake City and then I have another one at the first of the year. So, I’ll be making movies for the next four months or so. But I’ve got a play in mind too.

Q. On Broadway?
Frank Langella: Yes.

Q. Would you come back to the West End?
Frank Langella: I don’t think so. I think the chances of my coming back here are very, very slim. Frost/Nixon was a remarkable happenstance. And also, truly, I’m not being disingenuous… I really believed, truly believed, and I said this to my agent because I turned down a big television series to do Frost/Nixon, and he said: “My God, they’re offering you thousands of dollars and now you’re going to get £200?” I said: “Look, it’s a little theatre in Covent Garden and no one’s going to hear about it or see it and I’m too interested in the character not to try and see if I could make it work. It’s eight weeks. I’ll be back soon.” But it took two years of my life in the end [with the film].

Robot & Frank, Frank Langella

Q. How much fun did you have writing your memoir?
Frank Langella: Oh that was fabulous. I loved it. All of my writer friends are very angry with me because I just decided to write a book and then it turned into a success. I wrote it very quickly. The re-writes took a long time but the actual writing of it… there are far more people to write about. There might be a sequel… We’ll see.

Q. Were you surprised by the reaction it got?
Frank Langella: Yes, I was very, very gratified. It’s now in its third print and we’re just about to put out the paperback and it just stays steady. If you look at Amazon, it has enjoyed very steady sales. The publisher’s tell me I’ve sold very, very well.

Q. Coming back to Robot & Frank, how was working with a first-time director like Jake Schreier? How does he compare to other directors that you’ve worked with?
Frank Langella: Wonderfully. He’s a very smart young man. Both of them are – Jake and Christopher [D Ford, screenwriter]. What I love about Jake is he has this sort of old man mentality. He has an old world feeling about films and what he wants to say and how he wants to say it. He’s just not cool in the sense of how Hollywood young directors are about finding the in thing and the right gimmick and the right… let’s put together this fat comic, or work with that vulgar young actress, or let’s do another movie about young sex. It’s such a bore and Jake isn’t interested in all of it. He wants an interesting subject. He wants to direct movies about human beings interacting, not just the typical Hollywood type of thing.

Q. Do you look for directors that allow you to collaborate a lot?
Frank Langella: I look for material. If I love the material… my agent gets calls all the time and my agent says to them: “Don’t talk to me about money, don’t talk to me about co-stars, talk to me about the part and the text. That’s what Frank’s first thing is. If he likes the text then he’ll meet the director, if he likes the director, he says yes.” And it’s true. I read it and if I like it I take a meeting and then I say ‘OK’.

Q. Given your appreciation for words and books, where do you stand on one of the ideas behind the film and technological advances, which are threatening to make books obsolete? Is that something that makes you sad?
Frank Langella: Sad isn’t the word. It’s just something I accept as inevitable. Look, I recorded my book and it’s selling beautifully. And I’m very happy that Kindle exists because it means somebody can take my book and two or three other books on a plane trip with them and not have to lug… as I do, I lug real books because I like to touch them. But it’s the way we’re going and I think it’s foolish to make yourself sad about it.

Robot & Frank

Q. So, if your daughter gave you a robot, would you object?
Frank Langella: My daughter wouldn’t give me a robot [smiles]. But I wouldn’t object if I was given as robot who would clean the house, take out the garbage and do all things I’m sometimes asked to do.

Q. What do you think of the current state of Hollywood? You alluded to it when you mentioned brand films…
Frank Langella: Look, it’s generational. I grew up watching films in the ‘40s and the ‘50s and the ‘60s and stories about people and families. I grew up on a lot of war films and people waiting for their loved ones to come back, the door opening and people running into each other’s arms… The Best Years of Our Lives and all the Frank Capra movies and the John Ford Westerns and the great movie star era of Clarke Gable and all those great people. And it was always something to aspire to when I went to the movies. I was like: “I want to be like that guy… I want to kiss that girl. I want my family to be like that.” Now, your age and younger… it’s kind of hard to go the movies and fall in love with a lot of huge guns and noise and cars rolling over each other and heroes who all look alike! They all look the same… even the actresses, they all have the same mop-like blonde hair.

Q. So, it is hard to find films like this?
Frank Langella: Not lately, no. I don’t understand it [laughs]. Lately, there’s more than enough work for me, more than enough. Chris Plummer and I just made a movie together called Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, which is about when Muhammad Ali wouldn’t fight in the Vietnam War. Chris and I are on the Supreme Court and we were talking… he and I are working more than ever, both of us. Fortunately, he’s 10 years older than me so I don’t lose any parts to him. Or maybe I do… I don’t know [laughs]!

Q. What is Grace of Monaco like?
Frank Langella: I’m having a wonderful time. I really am. This director [] is fascinating. He did La Vie En Rose and Nicole [Kidman] is a genuine movie star in the old fashioned tradition of actress and movie star. She’s a very good actress.

Q. You mentioned watching films when you were younger and wanting to be that guy and kiss that girl. Which are the ones you’ve since managed to do that with? And taken the most pleasure from?
Frank Langella: [Smiles] Well, I didn’t because by the time I grew up they’d moved into their older years. As I say in my book, I have always, since I was 14-years-old, had an immense fascination with Rita Hayworth and to work with her in The Wrath of God and to have a relationship with her for a brief period was fascinating to me. All the people in the book were people I, at times, never dreamed I would meet. But that’s what one of the gifts of being an actor is – you get to.

Q. What would you say is one of the best times you’ve had on a movie set? And would Robot & Frank come close?
Frank Langella: No, because Robot & Frank was difficult to do. It was hot and steamy and we only got my co-stars for brief periods of time. One of my greatest memories was my very first film, which was called The Twelve Chairs, which Mel Brooks wrote and directed and I was the new kid. It was great to be the new, young kid on a movie. It took seven or eight months in Yugoslavia and Mel and Anne Bancroft were great friends. I just loved that movie. I laughed my head off for seven months.

Read our review of Robot & Frank

Read our interview with director Jake Schreier