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The real challenge in playing real people

Nixon, Weill, Joan Didion. Bios are big on Broadway; the trick is to act, not reenact.

June 10, 2007|Charles McNulty | Times Staff Writer

New York — IF there's any doubt that we're living in a golden age of creative nonfiction, the nominations for this year's Tonys, which will be awarded tonight, should squelch it. Have there ever been more actors nominated for playing real-life characters? Glancing through the names of performers and parts, one could be forgiven for thinking that the Biography Channel had recently been hijacked by a squadron of Broadway all-stars.

The roster for best lead in the play and musical categories includes Frank Langella as Richard Nixon, Brian F. O'Byrne as the radical Russian writer Alexander Herzen, Vanessa Redgrave as Joan Didion, Michael Cerveris as Kurt Weill, Donna Murphy as Lotte Lenya and Christine Ebersole doing double duty as Jackie O's eccentric relatives Edith Bouvier Beale and "Little" Edie Beale.

How does an actor go about playing a figure who's not merely the figment of a playwright's imagination? Are there special burdens, special concerns about getting it right?

These issues were taken up by Langella ("Frost/Nixon"), Ebersole ("Grey Gardens") and Cerveris ("LoveMusik") backstage at their respective theaters, and their thoughts on the matter reconfirmed that, in the right artistic hands, truth can indeed be more compellingly strange than fiction.


SO what's the trick to playing Tricky Dick? According to Langella, who's delivering one of the most lauded performances of the season in "Frost/Nixon," Peter Morgan's drama about David Frost's infamous TV interviews with the ex-president, it's portraying the man, not the political pinata.

"The biggest challenge is probably in how identifiable he is," Langella says. "And he's not just identifiable like Truman, Roosevelt or John Kennedy. There's an added burden in playing him because he is so caricatured. The question I had is, how do I portray him in a way that people don't find unnecessarily funny even when I do the things that are objectively funny?"

Langella, who is slated to star in Ron Howard's film version of the play, was determined not to fall back on the cliches of Nixon, "not to make him a clown, not to make him foolish," but to piece together a plausible inner life, something not everyone suspected Nixon possessed.

"When you look at a politician on television, you are or are not curious about them based on their personality and what they get across. Nixon didn't seem like a person because everyone was waiting and watching for those bizarre behavior patterns -- the stoop, the way he moved his hands, the timbre of his voice, the funny way in which he did all these things. And I thought, 'Well, I have to get behind that, go into the soul and find out how much had to be covered and what exactly he's covering.' "

This entailed delving into a "deep well of inarticulate loneliness," which Langella attributes to Nixon's childhood, in which poverty, parental disfavor (Nixon's brother Harold was the favorite) and romantic insecurity (Pat apparently didn't want him at first) left indelible scars.

"How difficult it was for him to have a simple colloquy," Langella says. "He could never quite relax. He was always so on-guard against everything. He was so frightened, his dukes were always up, so he couldn't ever really hear or see anyone else because what he called the voices in his head were often so much louder."

Was there anything to admire? "I liked what I like about most people -- their faults," says Langella, who, at 69, feels liberated to portray unsexy characters. "I admired his brilliant mind and certainly his tenacity and determination. Of course there are many things to loathe about him. If he wanted to step on someone for political gain, he would ground them into the ground."

Langella's research went beyond reading Nixon's memoir and the many biographies on him. He interviewed members of his staff, went to the presidential library and birthplace and studied the Frost interviews along with other video footage.

"It's the most thorough I've ever been," he says. "I don't always do a lot of research because imagination takes over with me and too much fact can be limiting. But I wanted to be utterly true to him. I knew I was going to have to play what we have all come to know. I'm a lot taller than him. I think I'm a little better-looking. And my temperament is so completely different. I felt that I had to kind of climb inside of him and enter his soul."

Did his own politics ever get in the way? "No, because I'm playing a male human being, which I am," he says. "I'm playing a living, breathing heart and soul full of anger, full of rage, full of self-pity, full of insecurity -- there just wasn't any time to care about that."


EBERSOLE'S transformation into Edith Bouvier Beale and Little Edie Beale in "Grey Gardens," the musical based on David and Albert Maysles' cult documentary, began even before she had heard anything about the show.

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