A Roundabout Theatre Company production running at the American Airlines Theatre on Broadway, "Man and Boy"—with its savagely corrupt businessman and its homosexual overtones—is a timely play. And Gregor is the latest in a long list of complex, contradictory, and unappealing characters Langella has tackled during his close to 50-year career: Think "Amadeus" and "The Father" onstage, "Dracula," and most notably, "Frost/Nixon" on stage and screen.
"I like monsters; I like mystery men," Langella says in his dressing room before a preview performance. "It's a cliché among actors, but it's true: The most rewarding characters are those who are relentlessly without a conscience, those who travel a journey, start as one thing and through the progress of the evening become something else. That's always interesting. The challenges are breath, focus, energy, and the commitment to a certain kind of evil. This man is determined to survive at all costs, even at the cost of his most intimate relationship, which is with his son. He has a trophy wife and an assistant but really lives to make money. He's a sociopath. It's my job to find those moments of vulnerability without breaking the fabric of who he is."
Wearing dungarees and sneakers and eating nuts out of his cupped palm, the 6-foot-2, 73-year-old veteran actor is at once casual and patrician, reserved and forthright, steely and amused—whether he's talking about the loss of dignity in the social arena, the blurred line between what's private and what's public, or industry trends and the art of acting. He points to a series of aphorisms pinned to his dressing room wall, including "Mean It" and "Leap Empty Handed Into the Void."
"That's what you should do as an actor," he says. "Learn your lines, know what they mean, mean them when you say them, and then take it where it takes you. I was once told I act in the wilderness and that I have no point of view. I've come to trust that something will emerge from the wilderness. I like going in every which way during rehearsal. I usually work from the inside out, but sometimes it's the other way around. I may rehearse at top energy or top speed, and then the next day I'll play it low-key. It's all a big cauldron. I throw everything in, see what works, and then do less and less. It starts as a minestrone and then becomes a simple broth. A food analogy," he chortles, cupping more nuts into his mouth.
Whatever Langella's method, it's working, asserts "Man and Boy" director Maria Aitken. "He arrives with energy, stagecraft, and presence," she says. "And to this role in particular he brings authority, a diabolical charm, and a willingness to explore his dark side."
Adam Driver, who plays Langella's tormented and beleaguered son, notes, "One of his many great qualities onstage is his fearlessness to forget. He walks on and is absolutely fearless with rediscovery, even if that means sacrificing moments he knows are 'working.' "
Born and raised in Bayonne, N.J.—"and proud of it," he says—Langella began his journey of self-reinvention at an early age. Knowing he wanted to act and determined to lose all regional and ethnic traces in his speech, he assiduously listened to the records of John Gielgud, incorporating as much of the actor's vocal style into his own as possible. Indeed, years later he told Gielgud about his self-improving activities as a youngster; the legendary actor assured him he had succeeded in freeing himself of any Italian-American, New Jersey accent. " 'You're well over it, dear boy,' " Langella mimics.
After graduating from Syracuse University, where he majored in drama, Langella ventured into the professional world, where a major challenge was learning how to be more collaborative and cooperative. He admits he was "obstreperous, arrogant, and stubborn." He adds, "Just because I might have been right about something doesn't mean I shouldn't have been more careful. I stopped that in my 50s. No, I don't think that was late. The fact that I stopped at all is remarkable. A lot of actors carry their worst habits to their graves."
Nonetheless, Langella says belief in oneself is the key to a successful career, and indeed, self-destructive behavior comes from a lack of belief in oneself. Equally important, an actor needs to believe in the project and truly want to be a part of it. As Langella tells it, back in the day when he auditioned, if he wasn't drawn to the role or script, his audition reflected his lack of enthusiasm. The most successful auditions were for roles he especially wanted, such as the scheming chief of staff in the comedy "Dave," which he says was a major career boost. Langella made his Broadway debut in "Yerma" in 1966 and was cast in his first film, Mel Brooks' wild "The Twelve Chairs," in 1970.
Despite the auspicious beginning, his career has been defined by many ups and downs and dry periods when he had neither work nor representation. But he never toyed with the idea of doing something else nor even questioned his talent. "When I had difficulty getting work or representation, I told myself it was not a reflection of my ability, but rather a reflection of my demeanor or manner, or it was luck of the draw. I never felt, 'Now I'll go do trash.' My motto is 'Never give up, never give in, if the dream is still strong in you.' If the need to act is so strong it wakes you in the middle of the night, then stay with it."
He adds, "If you think you'd kind of like to be an actor because it'll get you laid, or you'd kind of like to be an actor because it'll make you famous, or you'd kind of like to be an actor because it'll make you lots of money and you won't have to work much, then you shouldn't be an actor. You should be a commercial commodity."
'A Distinguished Actor'
Langella is aware that most actors don't have the option of being a "commercial commodity." Even he is not getting as many commercial offers as he once was, not that commercial success was ever his ambition. "I've been burdened and stuck with being a 'distinguished' actor," he says with just a hint of irony. "I've never been commercially minded. I like to do what I like to do, and my career has been slow, steady, and long." Though he has appeared in a number of big-budget movies, including "Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps," he is most identified with classical revivals and is not afraid to take on roles identified with major actors—such as Bela Lugosi in "Dracula" and Paul Scofield in "A Man for All Seasons." Langella also enjoys working in indie films. Among his favorites: "Good Night, and Good Luck," and especially "Starting Out in the Evening," a haunting and unlikely love story in which he plays an aging and nearly forgotten novelist.
That said, Langella has appeared in his share of moneymaking projects that were dull and for which he was overqualified. But at the time he had alimony payments and children in private schools, he recalls. Now that he is no longer encumbered in that way, his choices are based on personal aesthetics and instinct.
"Frost/Nixon," which started its illustrious journey as a "little play in England," is a perfect example, he says. At the time, he had also been offered the chance to appear in a half-hour series and a pilot for an hourlong series. For Langella the choice was a no-brainer: The "little play" was of far greater interest. Even before "Frost/Nixon" came to his attention, he says, the prospect of sitting in a trailer in Burbank for five years was totally unappealing. He turned down the 30-minute series, and though he agreed to do the pilot for the 60-minute series, he would commit himself no further. The pilot he appeared in was not picked up; the 30-minute sitcom turned into a big hit. Still, he has no regrets.
"Frost/Nixon" was one of the greatest stage and film successes of his career. "It's what I say to young actors: 'Hunt quality. It's getting harder to find, but you'll stick around if your name is associated with quality.' So whenever I'm at a juncture, I'm more likely to do that rather than take a role in a film or TV series playing the CEO of some company supporting one of the comedy stars of 'SNL.' 'Let's get that older distinguished guy. He can be behind the desk.' I'm offered a lot of those parts. They're boring, they pay a lot of money, and I turn them down. Not out of any nobility, but this"—gesturing around his theater dressing room—"is where I get my kicks."
Career Strategies are 'Utter Nonsense'
Like many actors, Langella acknowledges it's much harder to launch an acting career today than it was when he was starting out in the 1960s, difficult and competitive as it was even then. First, the number of actors attempting to enter the field has grown exponentially, and getting seen is that much more difficult and complex. Gone are the days of pounding the pavement and knocking on producers' doors. Yet Langella feels the strategies young actors use today—from hiring managers and publicists to promoting themselves on Facebook—are unnecessary.
Langella has only one agent and on occasion retains the services of an attorney if he's grappling with a complicated contract. But he does not have a manager, press agent, or stylist. Equally foreign to him is the whole world of networking and social media. Careers are not forged by "making contacts or being at the right place at the right time," he points out. "They want you or they don't. Yes, I know actors who have slept with a casting director or director and gotten a role as a result. But that's not what leads to a sustaining career." He reiterates the importance of belief in yourself and the public's belief in what you have to offer in the theater. "It's my job to transform an evening for 800 people and make an audience forget their day. It's not rocket science, and it's not a cure for cancer, but if I can do that for two and a half hours—then all the stuff about making contacts is utter nonsense."
It's not only actors new on the scene who agonize over career strategies, image boosting, and the right self-positioning. These misguided notions exist throughout the industry, regardless of the actor's age or status, Langella says. He describes visiting actors in Beverly Hills who live in gated communities where one must buzz even to get on the grounds. "These are people locked inside velvet cages, and it's sad," he comments. "And then you have those dinner conversations where they talk about how someone wasn't willing to pay their price, so they decided to pass. They are stretched and pulled and dyed and holding on like crazy to something that is long past. I feel doors should be open metaphorically and literally to whatever is right for you at the moment. I'm not going to fix myself to look like 63. Why would I want to? I would have to compete with 60-year-old actors. There are fewer actors my age."
He feels it's no accident he has gotten the best roles of his life over the last 10 years. He cites with pleasure the film "Robot and Frank," to be released in 2012, in which he plays an aging and difficult dad whose adult kids install a robot in his home as his caretaker. And at the moment, he's having a fine time playing Gregor, contemplating the man's twisted psyche and the consequences he faces for his actions. "Whatever your toy of choice, know that one day the battery will run out," Langella says. "We all pay on some level for whatever choices we made. Toward the end of life, people tend to feel they made the wrong choices, but they probably made the right choice at the time."
Asked how he would redo his career if that were possible, Langella pauses. "I wish I had said 'yes' more often. I was self-protective and fairly precious. On the other hand, I landed okay."
"Man and Boy" continues at the American Airlines Theatre, 227 W. 42nd St., N.Y., through Nov. 27. (212) 719-1300. www.roundabouttheatre.org.
- Appeared in such Broadway productions as "Fortune's Fool," "Present Laughter," "Hurlyburly," "Seascape," and "Design for Living"
- Film appearances include "Diary of a Mad Housewife," "Those Lips, Those Eyes," "Lolita," and "Superman Returns"
- Received three Tony Awards, three Obie Awards, and three Outer Critics Circle Awards, as well as Golden Globe, Emmy, and Olivier nominations
- His memoir "Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them" will be published by HarperCollins in March 2012.