One-on-One: Frank Langella and Ted Koppell

Nancy Keefe Rhodes 10/08/09More articles
(Frank Langella as Count Dracula)

Perhaps because it’s expanded well beyond a weekend, this year Syracuse University re-named its traditional Home-coming “Orange Central.” Head-liners included a talk last Friday in Hendricks Chapel by acclaimed fiction writer/SU alum Joyce Carol Oates. I suspect Oates, famous for her prodigious work ethic, didn’t make much reference to undergraduate hi-jinx such as “that night at the water tower.” But the audience did hear that phrase the night before at Syracuse Stage where two other SU alums held forth from resplendent Stickley arm-chairs. Having a good deal of fun for themselves between more serious exchange – and at one point playfully swearing when they remembered they were being filmed for a WCNY broadcast later – journalist Ted Koppell (’60) conducted a live interview of actor Frank Langella (’59) before a packed audience.

Koppell hosted ABC’s “Nightline” from its inception in 1980 until 2005, and is now a senior analyst for National Public Radio and the BBC. Besides taking some of his starring title stage roles to film – “Dracula” and “Frost/Nixon” – the versatile Langella starred in last year’s awards contender, “Starting Out in the Evening,” and has two films forthcoming, a “Wall Street” sequel and, opening November 6, the sci-fi horror movie with Cameron Diaz, “The Box.”

Those familiar with Koppell in recent years may not be able to tell he was born in northern England – not far, he said later, from Archie Leach – which helps account for his easy mimicry of the actor we knew as Cary Grant. But he started off the interview with a different reference, channeling British TV interviewer David Frost and asking Langella if he were “finally ready to apologize.” With this deft stroke, Koppell, who as a young journalist covered Richard Nixon’s China trip, added, “I knew Richard Nixon and you, sir, were the very embodiment of the man.”

Langella countered gracefully that he rarely looks at his own work.

“When you’re a young actor, you’re not reluctant,” he said. “You’re arrogant. But I’ve come to love the process more than the result. I never watch the rushes. I let the director make the choices. It’s very freeing to not worry.”

“Talk about the process,” Koppell said. “Everyone thinks they knew Richard Nixon. How did you go about learning the man? You made us – if not like him – at least care about him.”

“My aim was to have you empathize,” said Langella, adding that Nixon was “as tortured a character as any I’ve ever played.”

Langella said he watched news footage of Nixon, including the original Frost-Nixon interviews, at the Museum of Radio and Television. “After seven or eight hours I hit the slow motion button, and in that I could see his flicker of doubt and fear and anger.”

Langella first played Nixon on stage in London before eventually making Peter Morgan’s 2008 film. Before the stage production, he interviewed a number of people who’d known Nixon, including Henry Kissinger and Barbara Walters. He asked each to “tell me something visceral” about the former president, to which Walters had answered, “He walked as if he had no genitals.”

In taking the role to film, Langella said, he stayed in character the entire day on the set, something he’d never done before.

“I noticed at the White House that the moment the president comes in the room, everything changes. For 36 days, once I came out of the trailer, I was ‘Mr. President.’ Everyone had to be proper with me. Kevin Bacon, who played Col. Jack Brennan, especially related to me only as Nixon. By the way, Brennan said that Nixon and he fashioned that moment” – Nixon’s on-air admission of guilt with regard to Watergate – “so he gave them just enough.”

Koppell noted that Langella had told him before they came on stage that he didn’t like to talk about his personal life.

“I honestly believe I’m better off and you’re better off if you don’t know that much about me,” said Langella. “I’m totally opposed to celebrities sharing the deepest, darkest, as Farah Fawcett and Patrick Swayze did [before their deaths]. Grief is private, and so is joy. I am thinking of the Yeats poem, ‘To a Friend Whose Work Has Come to Nothing,’ here.”

To Koppell’s comment that such public sharing is an American trait, Langella answered, “Now the British do it too – they’re barfing all over.”

Nevertheless when Koppell wondered what Langella’s course would have been if not acting, Langella said readily that he’d be “in an institution.”

“I was too shy and awkward,” Langella said. “Acting saved my life. It’s a place you discover yourself. A professor here, Sawyer Falk, said to ‘act in spite of your neuroses.’ I wanted to act since the age of 7. I was in a school play. I stood in the wings and I knew I was home. That has never gone away.”

What had Langella gotten from Syracuse University?

“Not enough! I got Sawyer Falk,” he said; Falk was the University’s director of drama between 1927 and 1961. “And my fraternity, and a community of actors. I got to share an infirmary room with [football player and actor] Jim Brown. I was in bed with a cold and he was in bed with two blondes who had crawled in the window.”

Had Langella ever been ashamed of a performance?

“No, but I’ve been in some really bad movies!” said Langella. “In 1973 I was in a movie, ‘The Wrath of God,’ with Robert Mitchum and Rita Hayworth. I played the town despot.”

“I watched a film with you and Johnny Depp, directed by Roman Polanski,” said Koppell.

“Yes and at the end Johnny sets me on fire,” said Langella, who went on to comment on Polanski’s recent arrest in Switzerland on still-pending charges in Los Angeles of rape from some years ago.

“I was extraordinarily fond of him,” said Langella. “But he committed a crime. He is brilliant and charming and he should pay. Living in Paris for 30 years and skiing in Switzerland is not suffering.”

Koppell wanted to know if Langella had refused any roles he now regrets.

“Most I don’t regret at all,” he said. “Two I always regret, but I never say what they are because of the actors who took them. I wish I could have played Michael Corleone in ‘The Godfather’ and I was in second place for that. But Francis [Ford Copolla] was determined Al [Pacino] should play it and when I saw it, I knew he was right.”

Langella said that his own favorite movie remains “Gone with the Wind.”

“That’s so unbelievably cliché!” he laughed. “But it’s one of those films that makes you love movie-making. It has everything. And Olivia de Havilland’s performance is superb.”

Langella said that stage and screen acting are now equally pleasurable to him, for different reasons – the live audiences and immediacy of stage work and, as he gets older, “the idea of putting something profoundly human on film.” He also teaches master classes in acting and says there’s nothing as rewarding. Currently he’s working on “Wall Street 2,” a sequel to the first “Wall Street” film by director Oliver Stone.

“I’m mentoring the young actor Shia LaBoeuf and I play an old Jewish mogul who commits suicide. I had dinner with the financier George Soros and he described that world for me.”

Langella’s also starring in Richard Kelly’s “The Box,” which opens in early November. Koppell asked him how, after “Frost/Nixon,” he chose these roles.

“You really have to understand your position in the profession,” said Langella. “It’s tricky. I’ve had long periods of unemployment. ‘Dracula’ was a surprise. You stay at the table and you play the cards you’re dealt. The people who leave the table don’t succeed. If you stay, the aces come.”

Langella is also writing a stage show about performer Al Jolson and a memoir about people he’s encountered, and reading – Joseph O’Connor’s novel about the 1840s Irish famine, “Star of the Sea,” and the new account about John Wilkes Booth’s capture after his assassination of Lincoln, “Manhunt.”

“You just love it because it’s about an unhinged actor,” quipped Koppell.

Nancy covers the arts. Reach her at nancykeeferhodes@gmail.com.

CATEGORY: Performing Arts
TAGS: Ted Koppell, Frank Langella, Syracuse University Orange Central, Syracuse Stage
EDITION: The Eagle

Rating: 3.3/5 (7 votes cast)

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