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  • Feature: Frost/Nixon

    Tue, 02 Dec 2008 14:31:06

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    Director Ron Howard knew he wanted to put Frost/Nixon on film the first time he saw the stage version. "I had read the play, and I was frankly very, very surprised at how wildly entertaining it was," he remembers. "I was really caught off guard by how powerful the characters were, how unusual they were, and how fresh the material felt to me."

    The play's subject matter—talk-show host David Frost's 1977 interviews with former U.S. president Richard Nixon—may not sound like the makings of a fun night out. But Howard says he was struck by "the nuance, the intensity of the audience's reaction, the fact that there were far more laughs than I had realized, and that the time flew by like that."

    Speaking after a Los Angeles Frost/Nixon screening alongside stars Michael Sheen and Frank Langella, as well as the writer of both the original play and screenplay, Peter Morgan, Howard talks about the stage version with almost fannish delight. "I was feeling two things during the course of the play: one, that I was right there with the audience, listening and enjoying it thoroughly and falling in love with it as a story. And I was also looking and thinking, 'Wasn't that a fantastic theatrical device; I love the way that's staged; how would I ever get that; what would I do to open it up?' Because I knew I was going to need to make a decision quickly.

    "I literally went and met [Sheen, Langella, and Morgan], congratulated them, walked out onto the sidewalk, and called [producer] Brian Grazer and my agent at CAA. I said, 'I more than want to work on this, I'll commit to it, and I'll make it my next movie,'" he remembers. "I never made that kind of leap before, never."

    Sheen and Langella, looking very different from their roles as the movie's title characters, clearly share Howard's enthusiasm for the work. The two had performed the play opposite each other onstage more than 300 times before the cameras rolled.

    The bearded, curly-haired, and almost boyish Sheen, who plays the clean-shaven Frost, says that familiarity with the material had one distinct advantage beyond not having to relearn most of his lines.

    "It was actually extraordinary, and probably will never happen again, to turn up to start a film where you know exactly what the part is," he says. "I knew who this person was, I knew what he wanted, and I felt that all I had to do was react to the other actors."

    While Sheen has portrayed more than one real person during his career, including British Prime Minister Tony Blair in The Queen, he says Frost was the only one he has met. During the play's London run, he told Frost that "for the next year and I half, I'm being you." Frost's response: "Coincidentally, so am I."

    Sheen adds that Frost's reaction to the play itself was, "In the words of Yogi Berra, it's like deja vu all over again."

    Langella, his white hair cropped close, says he developed great affection and compassion for Nixon by playing and researching him. "I learned from the pain inside this man, how difficult it is to go through life carrying all these burdens," he explains. "When I began to dig deep into his soul, and when I went and sat in the room where he spent the first nine years of his life...that's when he began to come alive for me."

    In a movie scene that does not appear in the stage version, Langella plays a solemn piano composition that Nixon really did write. Although Langella did not know how to play before filming, he diligently made it a point to learn the piece. During shooting, he says, "I asked Ron over and over again, will you see my face attached to my hands? Because I don't want people to say, 'Oh, it wasn't him.' My favorite credit ever in a movie is 'written by Richard Nixon, performed by Frank Langella!'"

    Langella notes that he and Sheen formed a "great partnership" over the two-and-a-half years they spent doing the play and then the film.

    "I don't think Mike and I ever really had any kind of long conversation like, 'If you do this, then I'll do that,'" he explains. "We just watched each other, and it deepened."

    —James Dawson

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