Vet adapts historical drama from stage to screen

Over a year and a half, Frank Langella had been wowing theater audiences and critics in both London and New York with his commanding portrayal of former U.S. President Richard Nixon in Peter Morgan’s play “Frost/Nixon.”

When it came time to film the movie version for director Ron Howard, Langella, who had won a Tony Award for the role, had to adapt to the intimacies of film.

“Ron helped bring Nixon several scales down in theatricality,” says Langella. “Nixon was a realer and far more poignant man in the film. I liked that very much.”

Encouraged to play scenes he was viscerally familiar with in new ways — taking longer, speaking softer, forgetting a need to keep a full house engrossed — Langella felt even more wedded to the inner life of a scandalized ex-president who was attempting to rebuild his reputation by agreeing to be interviewed for television by British personality David Frost (Michael Sheen).

“I can boil it down to three words: moment to moment,” he says. “It freed me to do the smallest, littlest things, tiny reactions and off-the-cuff line readings that practically fell out of my mouth. Ron was the perfect director for me, because he was very protective of the humanity.”

By getting to play Nixon with less stagelike presentation, Langella — whose research took him to Nixon’s own San Clemente home — says he came to have even more compassion “for what it must have been like to get up every day after such humiliation, brought on by yourself, for how much he must have thought those interviews would resurrect him.”

Working again with his stage colleague Sheen was, he says, no different in transitioning to film.

“We had a rapport that was slightly uncanny,” he says. “I don’t think we ever once needed to say, ‘If you do this, I’ll do that.’ We rode that train with each other quite comfortably.”

Part of Langella’s job, of course, required delivering dialogue already performed on tape by the original source. But re-creating Nixon from the interviews didn’t worry Langella.

“Once I did all the research, which was quite thorough and took me a long time, Nixon was my Nixon,” he says. “He wasn’t the Nixon of the tapes, or the Nixon of caricature. People have a right when they’re sitting in the moviehouse to think they’re watching a human being, and not an impersonation.”

Favorite film this year

The French film “Tell No One.” “You really have to watch it carefully and closely. It’s a wonderful unraveling.”

Best advice

“Try as best you can to associate your name with things of quality.”

Inspiration

“I’m inspired constantly by people who take responsibility for themselves, who rely on willpower to get them through, and who don’t blame. This is a time when few people do that.”

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