Thesps strive to mimic what makes leaders unique

One election season may have ended on Nov. 4, but with the preponderance of actors playing real-life politicians in this year’s films, it’s a safe bet the awards season will have a political aura, too.

There’s Josh Brolin and James Cromwell as presidents George Bush junior and senior in “W.”; in “Milk,” Sean Penn plays San Francisco city supervisor Harvey Milk, who was the first openly gay man elected to public office; and Frank Langella essays the vilified ex-president prepping for a revelatory TV interview in “Frost/Nixon,” based on the Tony Award-nominated play.

Langella has a shot at being the second thesp to be nominated for lead actor for playing Richard M. Nixon. Anthony Hopkins’ turn in Oliver Stone’s 1995 film “Nixon” gave him the third of his four Oscar noms.

If Brolin, Langella and/or Cromwell are to get a nod, they’ll be entering an exclusive group. Only four actors have been nominated for playing a president. Besides Hopkins, there was James Whitmore as Harry Truman in 1975’s “Give ‘em Hell, Harry,” Alexander Knox’s Woodrow Wilson in “Wilson” (1944) and Raymond Massey’s legendary 16th president in “Abe Lincoln in Illinois” (1940).

Stone’s film took a Shakespearean sweep in exploring Nixon’s life up to his Watergate shame, but writer Peter Morgan’s “Frost/Nixon” takes the unusual step of examining a president removed from Washington, D.C., and out of power. Langella says it made for a fascinating approach for an actor playing such a public and impactful figure.

“How do they fill their lives?” asks Langella, who originated the part onstage in London and then in the Broadway production, and won a Tony for it. “A president like Nixon, who was out of office in disgrace and looking to rebuild his life and position in the world, was, in fact, more interesting than playing somebody who was in office dealing with whatever political agenda. The film is more about success in America than a political film.”

For Brolin, the challenge was covering almost 40 years of George W. Bush’s life, from drunken frat boy to leader of the free world on the brink of war, from disappointing Establishment progeny to the guy who wanted to do his president-dad one better.

“It’s almost like you have 10 different characters, through all these different milestones,” says Brolin, who says he had to discard Bush’s public image as a polarizing figure to find what might have been resonating inside him as he stumbled upward. “Democrats and Republicans alike, they’ll either defend him or say he’s some kind of sociopath. But they never talk about the human aspect of him, and that’s ultimately what I wanted to do.”

It’s why Brolin didn’t set out to be a mimic when it came to Bush’s twang, regular fodder for comics from Will Ferrell to Frank Caliendo.

“As much as I can laugh at Caliendo, who’s a genius, after 15 or 20 seconds it’s over. I wasn’t trying to get a laugh. So you start working on the voice cosmetically, but it’s got to be hooked into an emotion.”

Cromwell, who has also played President Lyndon Johnson and Sen. Charles Keating on film as well as fictional presidents, agrees that his goal when portraying a famous figure such as George H.W. Bush isn’t to have someone in the audience turn to a friend and say, “Gosh, he sounds like just him.” “That means they’re not in the scene,” he says.

Long a figure in politics, casting Cromwell to play a man whom he disagreed with on nearly every position might have seemed an odd choice.

“That wasn’t the draw to the film,” he explains. “The nature of my character and his relationship to his son is that it’s not political. As I got more into the part, I knew that my opinions didn’t serve me, so I had to find something else. I hope I found it in that he feels guilty, that he has expectations no one can live up to, and he’s not seeing W for what he is.”

Sean Penn, on the other hand, plays slain gay-rights leader Milk with equal physical and emotional realism, as a way of honoring someone who is a hero to a community and less well-known to the public at large. Besides, Milk’s cause defined him and his time.

“What was stunning about Harvey was that he was the movement,” says “Milk” producer Bruce Cohen. “It guided what he tried to accomplish and how he behaved. Sean’s talent is that he synthesized all that.”

It probably goes without saying that politicians are also often actors, well-versed in the donning and shedding of personae. In preparing to play Nixon, Langella says the greatest thing he learned was “not to believe 100% of anything these guys say to me on the television screen. The second before they walk out in front of an audience, a change happens according to what it is they most want us to feel about them.”

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