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Sundance Film Festival: Frank Langella happy to have a robot costar

A young filmmaker's 'Robot & Frank' provides the veteran actor with 'a remarkable experience.'

January 29, 2012|By Kenneth Turan, Los Angeles Times Film Critic
  • Actor Frank Langella along Main Street in Park City, Utah, as a snow storm covered the town during the Sundance Film Festival.
Actor Frank Langella along Main Street in Park City, Utah, as a snow storm… (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Park City, Utah — — In his more-than-distinguished career, Frank Langella has become Richard Nixon, Clark Kent's editor Perry White and a count named Dracula. So how did he end up playing a part opposite a robot in a sweltering East Coast summer? The answer is surprisingly simple: "Christopher Walken turned it down."

The resulting picture, the sly and delightful "Robot & Frank," brought the 74-year-old actor to the Sundance Film Festival for the first time. Sitting in a comfortable corner of an Italian restaurant and watching a near blizzard develop outside, Langella added, "I really do believe that all of life is happenstance, careers especially."

"I was sitting with my new agent of 24 hours, Toni Howard, and she got a text that said, 'Chris just passed on the movie.' She answered, 'How about Langella? Same deal as Chris.' They answered 'Perfect.'"

PHOTOS: Scene at Sundance

And perfect is what Langella is as an elderly grump named Frank who's having increasing difficulty taking care of himself, so much so that, this being the near future, his son brings in a UGC-60L home care robot to look after the old man. Frank initially resists ("I'm talking to an appliance," he complains), but then finds the droid actually suits him in deliciously unexpected ways.

Given how beautifully Langella acts with the UGC-60L, it is surprising to find out that (a) he never heard Peter Sarsgaard do the voice of the machine until he saw the finished film a few days ago and (b) the robot he acted with was a sometime thing on the set.

"Filming was a hardship case, it was 110 degrees, no air conditioning in that steaming house, no dressing rooms, no place to wait," he said of the shoot last summer in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. "We had a young girl from a circus, she was a little under 5 feet tall, in the robot suit, but because of the heat it was extremely difficult for her and when she spoke I often didn't hear her. Sometimes my nephew would read the robot's lines off camera. Sometimes there would be a robot head on a stick." None of this affected the actor.

"In a very strange way, it was a remarkable experience. I had a very personal relationship with the robot in my head, it was very real to me, and nothing else mattered."

That relationship began when Langella read the screenplay by first-time writer Christopher Ford. "Every part I choose is me in some form. I trust what happens to me when I open a script and start reading. Some scripts are so vulgar and stupid I stop after five or 10 pages."

More than the script, Langella connected to under-30 director Jake Schreier, a man who he feels is a kindred spirit to Andrew Wagner, the director of the last film Langella had in Sundance, "Starting Out in the Evening."

"Both men are ferocious, single-minded," Langella said. "I don't like the word 'vision,' it has an air of self-importance, but they have a determination to make their film their way. These two guys are in love with cinema. And they have a purity of heart."

Other obligations kept Langella from Sundance when "Evening" played in 2007, so he's an older newcomer to Park City who is amused to find that "everywhere I go I am the oldest man in the room. Everyone is always putting their arm under my elbow."

That sense of the vicissitudes of age, as it turned out, played a part as well in Langella's decision to take on the role in "Robot & Frank."

"Often I understand afterwards why I chose a movie. In this one I realized that I was profoundly affected in my own life by the ephemeral-ness of things, how I'm changing in my own body. I'm fine now, but I know it's coming. No matter what I do, I can't prepare for the day when the doctor rings me up and says, 'Frank, we found something.'"

Langella has just completed a book, due out in March, with an intriguing title, "Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them." In it, he relates his experiences with 66 people he's met who are no more, from a glimpse of Marilyn Monroe when he was 15 to meeting Elizabeth Taylor when he was 60. It's the kind of experience few Sundance players can boast.

Despite all that's come before, Langella gets surprised by his work when he sees it on screen, and that was very much the case with "Robot & Frank."

"I had no expectation, while we were making it I thought, 'Oh, dear,' but you never know what's going to jell," Langella said. "I liked it very much, but I can't tell you why. This movie created something you can't put into words."

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