Frank Langella discusses new film Robot & Frank

Frank Langella has had an extraordinary acting career but he’s just a regular guy, he tells Alistair Harkness. Could this be why his new memoir is such an incisive view of fame’s false allure?

Frank Langella is telling me about the time he unexpectedly met John F Kennedy. Specifically, he’s telling me about the impact this encounter – which took place in the summer of 1961 (and involved oversized swimming trunks, some flirting with the First Lady and being propositioned by Noel Coward) – had on his subsequent life. “I was,” he says “very lucky. I found myself at a very young age in the company of extraordinary people and to sit down with Jack Kennedy or Noel Coward was the beginning of my understanding that you’re not your title, you’re not your outfit, you’re not your fame or success, you’re just a person.”

It’s a lesson that has served him well. At 74, Langella’s late blossoming film career – an Oscar nod for Frost/Nixon, a run of great character parts in Good Night, and Good Luck, The Box, Superman Returns, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, a starring role in the forthcoming Robot & Frank – may give the impression of an actor who has patiently bided his time until Hollywood took notice, but as his entertainingly juicy, elegantly written memoir Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them makes clear, Langella has been anything but quiet.

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He’s had liaisons, run-ins and encounters both brief and long lasting, with a jaw-dropping array of people, ranging from the aforementioned Kennedys to Elizabeth Taylor, Robert Mitchum, Laurence Oliver, Elia Kazan, Paul Newman and Rita Hayworth. Not for nothing did the New York Times describe him recently as a “Sexy Forrest Gump or a beefcake Zelig”. His unblinkered view of celebrity has made him an incisive chronicler of fame’s false allure.

Indeed, when we meet in a private member’s club in London, he makes a point of telling me that people who are treated like “objects” because they’re famous appreciate, “if they’re interesting people,” being talked to like normal people. “The people who want you to kiss up to them, like Anthony Quinn or John Huston, are bores.” It’s something he says he instilled in his children, and he seems to be telling me so I don’t do the same with him. “You’re a person,” he says. “You and I are just guys. Get rid of your book and pen, get rid of my ‘actor thing’ and we’re just two men. And yet people tend to look at each other by what they’ve achieved, who they are, what their positions are in life.”

It’s an unusual thing to hear in an interview, but this attitude is, I think, why his memoir feels so vital. Of course, it helps that he writes with a sketch artist’s eye for detail, a product, he says, of a photographic memory rather than copious note-taking.

“I’ve been an actor since I was seven and I think you do the thing you’re meant to do in life, and you’re given the gifts you need. One of the gifts I was given was an almost photographic memory for behaviour.” To prove his point – or perhaps to worry me – he tells me he’s already memorised the way I’m sitting, the way I’m looking at him and the way I keep waiting for him to stop talking so I can ask another question. “If I ever have to play an interviewer, I’ll remember,” he warns.

As it happens, the subject of memory is at the heart of the film we’re supposed to be discussing. In Robot & Frank, a near-future-set buddy comedy/drama, Langella plays a curmudgeonly cat burglar who trains his domestic robot to help him perpetrate crime. As the film progresses, though, we gradually learn that his character, Frank, is dealing with Alzheimer’s.

It’s a wry, funny, unsentimental take on dementia, largely because of the way Langella plays Frank in the moment, even when the moment is lost in a fog of confusion. Having written movingly about Rita Hayworth, who was beginning to suffer from the same condition when he worked with her on her final film, The Wrath of God, did he draw on his relationship her to play Frank?

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“No,” he says. “I didn’t even know dementia existed when I met her. I certainly didn’t know about Alzheimer’s. Very few people did.” Instead he found inspiration closer to home. “I live on the upper West Side of Manhattan in an old pre-war building which is full of people who’ve lived there for 40 or 50 years. A lot of the older people in my building are suffering from all sorts of things and I look at their eyes and how vacant they can be, so I always make a point of looking at them and saying ‘good morning’ and they light up because no-one pays attention to them.”

That need for personal one-on-one connection is one of the themes of Robot & Frank, but it’s something Langella seems to have sought out most of his life. He may joke that growing up as the gawky middle kid in an Italian-American family in Bayonne, New Jersey, was tantamount to being raised by a pack of Italian wolves, but he doesn’t think it a coincidence that he found his calling the moment he volunteered to play an elf in a school play. “I wanted love and attention,” he says. “When I was seven and my hand went up, it was because I felt unloved and un-looked at.”

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As he got older he began to realise that acting was a craft, but it still took him a while to learn that his initial reason for doing it was unhealthy. “I had to learn to fight the desire to be popular,” he says. “The need to be loved is probably the most destructive quality in any of us. You shouldn’t be afraid to be disliked or for people to disagree with you.”

Listening to this, it’s hardly a surprise that his portrayal of Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon proved so compelling. Where most actors have attempted to play the disgraced president as a man riddled with insecurity, Langella played him as a reflection of our own self-destructive impulses. Given the success he had with the role, though, it still feels strange that he wasn’t prominent on our screens before the noughties. “I didn’t do many blockbusters when they started,” nods Langella, although he does smile when I bring up his performance as Skeletor (opposite Dolph Lundgren’s He-Man) in 1987’s Masters of the Universe, one of his rare early excursions into mainstream cinema. “I loved Skeletor,” he says. “I still love him. I worked very hard to make Skeletor an exciting villain for my four-year-old.

If he sounds sanguine about his career, there’s a reason. “You have to understand that the things that I tell you are from the perspective of a 74-year-old. When I was 32 and 33 I was an arrogant, young leading man, really, really full of myself. And competitive.” He’s not kidding. He initially turned down his first Broadway role – in Edward Albee’s Seascape – because Albee wouldn’t give him above-the-title billing.

“I actually behaved more like a star before I was one. And once I was one, I realised there’s nothing to this: I need to be more like a person.”

That realisation was another reason he didn’t chase a Hollywood career early on, although, as he points out, “it also didn’t chase me”. Still, he has fond memories of his salad days, running around New York with the likes of Christopher Walken, Al Pacino, Jon Voight, Jack Nicholson, Robert De Niro, Dustin Hoffman and Gene Hackman. “We were all there at the same time and none of us looked like anyone else. We all looked individual and unique and didn’t get in each other’s way.” He sighs. “Nowadays young actors kind of look alike. They have these faces that are kind of bland.”

Don’t mistake this for bitterness. He’s just been working with Nicole Kidman on the Grace Kelly biopic Grace of Monaco and reckons she has plenty of old-fashioned movie star appeal. Similarly, George Clooney – who cast Langella in Good Night, and Good Luck – is a “total throwback to guys like Clark Gable.”

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In fact, the only actors he’s genuinely contemptuous of are the ones who let money stand in the way of a good part. “The worst thing I’ve heard in the last few months was a story about a famous actor who is having a great deal of success at the moment but will not meet a director or read a script unless he’s guaranteed a million dollars. That’s not an actor, that’s a businessman.”

Langella doesn’t think this way. If he did, he wouldn’t get films like Robot & Frank. “You know, the clock is ticking for me as it is for you,” he says. “But I have less time, so I’m not going to walk away from anything that intrigues or excites me over money or billing. It’s nonsense.”

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• Robot & Frank screens at Glasgow Film Theatre, 24 February, as part of the Glasgow Film Festival, and goes on general release on 8 March. Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them by Frank Langella is available now from Harper.