'Robot and Frank:' Langella teams up with a robot
Frank Langella is an actor's actor, a veteran who has segued effortlessly from stage to movies to TV for years. The 74-year-old performer has won multiple Obie and Tony Awards, and was Oscar-nominated for his performance as Richard Nixon in 2008's "Frost/Nixon." And he's not slowing down. This year, Langella came out with "Dropping Names," a dishy and well-reviewed memoir, and has several movies in the can, including "Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight," an HBO film in which he plays Supreme Court Chief Justice Warren Burger. In "Robot and Frank," opening Friday, Langella stars as a retired cat burglar who teams up with a robot to pull off a multimillion-dollar jewel theft. He spoke with Newsday.
"Robot and Frank" is a truly offbeat film. Is that what attracted you to it?
What appealed to me was there wasn't any violence, any sex and it was an original idea. You don't get many of those.
You play a man who is in the early stages of Alzheimer's. Did you draw on personal experience to create the character?
I'm in that generation now, and I'm losing a lot of friends. I know it's coming, I just called on the things I've seen around me. I had a friend who was diagnosed at 70, and one day he was just gone from us. The ephemeralness of life, and the ease with which it goes, is always a surprise to us. It can change in five minutes.
In your book "Dropping Names," you seem to be down on the crop of young actors working in films today. How come?
I referred to so many young actors who don't have the chiseled personalities of the people I grew up with, they had offbeat features -- people like Spencer Tracy, James Cagney -- they weren't as homogenized as a lot of the actors today, who are being cast more on a kind of all-around look; they're trying to please a vast amount of women about 13 years old. It's not just us -- our politicians are better-looking. The days of Truman, Johnson, those days seem to be going.
Are there other differences you see in the acting game between now and when you broke in?
It's far more insecure today for young actors coming up than it was for us. None of us looked like each other -- Dustin Hoffman, Christopher Walken, Al Pacino -- and I don't remember it being as fraught with profound insecurity as I see now. All these young actors I work with, their choices, their worries are more complicated than mine were, and they all have lawyers, agents, managers. They are surrounded by handlers, and all those people have a say in the decisions the young actor makes. Back then, there wasn't this feeling of make or break with every choice you made. None of us went from make or break to international stardom.
You're a big guy [6-foot-3] with a deep, rich voice. Has your physical presence ever inhibited your choice of roles?
Every actor is limited by his physical presence, good or bad. You look a certain way, and if you're not able to look another way, well, no one will cast me as someone who's too short. You're not a victim; if you accept it, you can have a wonderful career.
How has aging affected the kinds of roles you're getting these days?
There's not a lot to say that's positive about getting older, but you do step past your vanity and your need to step past your looks all the time. It opens you up to all sorts of parts you wouldn't be cast in [when younger]. I'm embracing this stage, not trying to fight it.
You grew up an Italian kid from Bayonne, N.J. Do you still relate to that background?
Everybody starts out exactly who they are geographically. Very often actors tend to run all around the map, but eventually you come back to what you are. I'm an Italian boy from a small town in New Jersey who made his way. If you deny your essential roots, you're making a mistake. And the older I get, the more I call on them. I'm Italian, and I love being Italian. And I have never for a second in my life experienced prejudice.