Observing Part 3

August 20, 2012 Frank Langella

How do you understand people? What they are thinking? How to see into their minds, all those coils of brain matter, with thoughts flashing between the nerve endings? How to figure out their motives? How to persuade them to change? Questions that have confounded me throughout my career. If only we had a window into their brains. I have written before about the power of observation. I think the ability to focus closely on people may be the way to understanding them.

Yesterday I listened to Frank Langella, the well-known actor, explain how he worked to portray Richard Nixon in the movie and play Frost-Nixon. The program is called: “Frank Langella: A Career ‘Like A Chekhov Play.’” You can pull up the entire transcript at NPR Fresh Air. How he described getting into a role struck me as an important technique. Here is the excerpt I am interested in:

“LANGELLA: Yes, I’ve said a number of times that I didn’t think – I didn’t think Richard Nixon’s particular way of being was in my bag of tricks. I just didn’t think I was going to be able to find quite the soul of this guy. And it was enough reason for me then to decide to do it, which was well, so if I fall on my ass, I fall on my ass.

And it was a very painful three or four weeks. Really, I was like, I sounded like Mr. Magoo for a certain period of time, then I sounded a little bit like Jimmy Stewart and I, you know, I kept – and it’s not new information but it was when I sat and watched Nixon in slow motion that I began to get into his soul and into his heart, and then what I sounded like didn’t matter to me. Then a noise began to come out of me that was as a result of what was in my imagination, going on inside him.

DAVIES: How do you explain that, that the slow-motion Nixon kind of unlocked it for you?

LANGELLA: Well, I was at the Museum of Radio and Television. I asked the lady there if she’d be good enough to give me some tapes on him. And she said how many do you want? I’ve got thousands and thousands. And she brought in a big wagon and I got a sandwich and an iced tea, and sat and plugged in the Watergate shows and watch him. And then I got up to go to the bathroom and I pressed the button and when I came back I pressed slow motion as a, in an accident, really. All the wonderful accidents that happen to you as an actor, and that was one of the great ones for me. And I watched his eyes and the way his mouth moved and his hand gestures in slow motion. And suddenly I began to see what he was hiding. I began to notice the ticks much more vividly than I had normally, because we had all seen so much of him that you grew used to it. But when you watch him in slow – when you watch anything in slow motion you’re going to see something a little waiver in the eyes, a little strange smile, whatever. And that’s when his heart, when the soul of the man, as I perceived him, began to take shape for me and then I began to think well, maybe, maybe I can find a way to do him.

DAVIES: Did you talk to a lot of people who knew him? Did you read a lot of stuff?

LANGELLA: Yes, I did. I actually – the first calls I made were all to journalists. I took Barbara Walters to lunch. I took Mike Wallace to lunch. I spoke to Henry Kissinger about him, at length. And Henry said to me, you know, I’ll never see the movie and he didn’t see it for two years or so. And then one night at dinner he said to me, I finally saw it. And he was very, very fond of Richard Nixon. And everyone I met who had been around him – I actually talked to the Clintons about him too – everyone who had been around him said very much the same thing, that this was a man about as profoundly uncomfortable in his skin as anyone they’d ever met, usually with a little prepared text of what he was going to say. And when he’d finished asking the first question and the second and the third, would turn to the daughter and ask a question to her and then to him, then he was gone. He just wasn’t there anymore and didn’t want to be there anymore. Everyone said the same thing. His discomfort in himself was staggering.”