Actor Frank Langella poses for a portrait during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. / Larry Busacca/Getty Images
After blabbing famous friends Liz Taylor, Paul Newman and Jackie O in this year’s memoir Dropped Names, Frank Langella, 74, plays a man with Alzheimer’s disease in the new comedy Robot & Frank. A chat:
Are you as grumpy as your Robot & Frank character? I have a core sense of optimism. Otherwise, I don’t think I would have stuck around in this profession for as long as I have.
Would you like a robot companion? I wouldn’t mind having a robot mow the lawn. That would free up the gardener to do more aesthetic things. But for love and affection, I prefer human beings.
What would surprise people about you? I cook.
If I dropped in for dinner, what would I get? A bowl of pasta with garlic, oil and cauliflower, a nice bottle of wine, crunchy bread and a salad with avocados, apples and feta cheese. It’s an easy meal and you can do it in 20 minutes.
Will there be a sequel? Probably not for at least three years. The original book had 115 subjects, but many weren’t quite as well known. The publisher felt we should hold off (on the other 49). I go around to parties now, taking people’s pulses.
Some critics complain that you are coy about your conquests. Far from that, I’m being discreet. The book is not a biography. If it were, I’d certainly have said more and would be really honest. The book was about them, with pieces about where and how I was at the time.
In your book you say, “Today’s young male stars seem a sexless set of store-bought muscles set below interchangeable screw-top heads with faces of epic blandness--sheep trying to look like bulls.” Any young actors you actually like? Johnny Depp is a complete original. I also like Adam Driver, who’s in HBO’s Girls. He’s a one of a kind and not conventionally handsome. When I do masters’ classes for young actors, I always say, “Celebrate the thing about you that’s different, even if it’s the thing people tell you will hold you back. Those qualities and differences will make you become a success.” If you think back to the actors I grew up with, Gary Cooper didn’t look like Cary Grant. Cary Grant didn’t look like Clark Gable. Van Heflin, Tyrone Power, Jimmy Stewart, Robert Mitchum — all these guys were individuals, and they all at 35 looked like grown men, not like pretty boys with muscles.
What’s the best time of life for a man? Your 30s are wonderful. You’re out of the 20s and the tremendous urge of all your senses, and you’re still at your great strength and power. Then your 40s bring with them the feeling, “Now I’ve got to really put my energy in other places.” If you make it into your 70s, which I’ve just done, you can look upon them as adventurous years where you no longer bother yourself with the silly fears you had in all the other decades. You also hope not to receive that phone call when the doctor says, “Come back to the office. We’ve found something.”
Are you hard to intimidate? When you’re on the Earth this long, the intimidation factor lessens.
Most useful advice you gave your two children? Six words: “Never give up. Never give in.” If you want something, pursue it. I went through terrible periods, with no agent, no job. Those fallow periods would come after enormous periods of success. All I thought was, “The successful period didn’t last. The failure won’t either.”
Tell us about your childhood in Bayonne, N.J. I grew up in a family of wild, emotional Italians--two floors of them. There was my brother, sister, parents, dozens of uncles, aunts and cousins. My grandparents lived on the floor above. Above them was an attic where nobody ever went. I created my own little stage up there and lived in that world. That’s where I began to change the way I sounded. Everybody needs an attic, where they can sit and dream and hope when they’re young.
Pet peeve? When I was a kid, solitude was going down to the park, sitting by the water and throwing stones. Now, solitude to kids means locking themselves in their rooms with headphones on, ruining their eardrums and communicating at a distance. That’s not solitude. Teenagers today seem impatient and unable to handle simple human contact.
In your memoir you say that to be a movie star, you need to be a monster. What do you mean? To move ahead of the pack, you need to have a very strong sense of self. Often other people consciously or unconsciously need to somehow get hold of your dignity. If you let them do that, you’ve lost. You must maintain your dignity and your integrity at all costs. Although they may give you trouble in the beginning, people respond to you when you are firm, sure and definite. “Monster” is meant in a really good way.