Frank Langella's latest colourful role

Playing a character dealing with dementia doesn't stop Frank Langella raging against the dying of the light. He talks about the latest role in his colourful life.

Frank Langella. Photo / AP
Frank Langella. Photo / AP

Langella has shared stages, screens and beds with an illustrious array of actors, intimately essayed in his memoirs, Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them.

Langella's latest co-star has no name to drop. It is neither man nor woman. It is a robot, asexual and therefore immune to the 74-year-old actor's still-considerable charm.

This odd coupling occurs in the coincidentally titled Robot & Frank, a low-tech fantasy set in a near-future - some would say now - when books and personal connections are obsolete.

Langella's Frank is an ex-jewel thief grappling with dementia, whose son distances himself by installing a caretaker robot that the old man doesn't want. Man and machine bond through Frank's larcenous instincts, with the robot (voiced by Peter Sarsgaard) serving as accomplice, and gradually something deeper.

In a performance stirring awards buzz, Langella creates another late-career portrait of an aging man in a changing world, after playing a disgraced US president in Frost/Nixon, an author's making his last stand in Starting Late in the Evening and an honest stockbroker in Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps.

Each role is slower, greyer than the dashing rake Langella began his movie career playing, in 1970's Diary of a Mad Housewife, and in his Dracula (1979) that could be retitled Vlad the Seducer. He doesn't get the girl any more, but at this stage in life Langella's roles could be worse.

"I try to resist (characters) where he's got tubes up his nose laying in a hospital bed," Langella said by telephone from New York," or the CEO standing behind a desk saying, 'You will not marry my daughter', or playing straight man to some TV comic making a dumb movie - those kinds of horrible parts. I just don't want to be in those kinds of pictures.

"You get a script like (Robot & Frank) in which there is a charming and rather unique story; how could you say no? It's better than being told I'd have to shoot a gun or be violent toward a woman or spew a lot of vulgarities," he said. In other words, none of the indignities expected of stars in modern cinema.

It was suggested to Langella that he is like his most recent role - men who remain steadfastly in the past while grudgingly heading toward the future.

"There is a pattern you've slightly uncovered that I've never thought of until now," Langella said. "I tend to be drawn to fighters, against aging or the system, or political correctness, or having to be like everyone else. One reason is that you grow less tolerant of artifice - certainly I do - and more interested in honesty."

That's obvious in Langella's first published book. Dropped Names is elegant gossip about 65 celebrities Langella knew, all dead since he didn't wish to embarrass them.

He's candid about affairs and flirtations with Hollywood temptresses Rita Hayworth, Elizabeth Taylor and Bette Davis, reveals the huge egos of Charlton Heston and Yul Brynner, and characterises Paul Newman as "dull" and Richard Burton as "a crashing bore".

"I didn't want it to be a whitewash," Langella said.

"Before I wrote this book I made myself read other memoirs. I thought: Jesus, how could you be in this business all these years and never dislike somebody, or have affairs? That's what life is; it's messy and complicated, and that's what people are."

Langella pokes, prods and occasionally eats humble pie, recounting occasions when he met his acting idols and brusquely learned how stars shouldn't act. Like the time he attended a party and Oscar winner Rex Harrison, a lion of the British stage, walked in. Langella approached Harrison, hand extended in greeting. Harrison curtly said, "Thank you," and flung his coat over Langella's arm, as if he were a servant.

The sting never lessened, and the lesson was learned by Langella, who is now the venerable thespian aspiring actors seek out for advice or at least fleeting confirmation.

"Never do I brush them off. Never am I unaware that they feel it may be the only chance to talk to somebody they admire. I try to give them as much time as possible, and I ask them about them: 'What are you doing? How long have you been an actor?'

"I always leave them by saying: 'Never give up, never give in.' And they beam a big smile, like somebody's telling them the opposite of what their mothers are telling them, which is: 'Go out and get a job,' or 'Marry that girl and settle down.'

"Actors like to hear - and should hear - they should never give up their dreams."

Who: Frank Langella
What: Robot & Frank
When: Opens at cinemas on Thursday

- TimeOut / AAP

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