There’s a temptation to imagine that the role of Lear is something that sits on the horizon for every male actor of distinction. Frank Langella insists that that wasn’t the case for him.
In fact, he turned down the chance to lead the company in King Lear at Chichester three times before eventually giving it his serious consideration – and realising it was something he absolutely had to do.
‘I never worked towards it at all,’ says Frank. ‘I never thought I would do it or that I would like to do it.
‘I said that I would like to come to Chichester and I said “What about this or that?” Jonathan very dutifully lied and said the right things, but he never really considered my suggestions.
‘But I will admit that I had not read the play for something like 25 years, and one afternoon, I sat down and very, very slowly and carefully I read it. I felt that I should give honour to that very flattering offer. And so I read it. And I picked up the phone and I said “Yes!” almost instantly.
‘And the reason is that I am 75 years old and I could see exactly what this man is going through in a way that I just couldn’t 25 years ago. At 75, finally, I just understood it.
‘I tumbled into comprehension because I realised that everyone wears a metaphorical crown, whether it is beauty, fame, looks, money, sex appeal, whatever it is that is your long suit, and then you give it away, and you realise that everyone has been looking at the crown and not the reality.
‘The great tragedy is that this man takes off the crown expecting that everyone will treat him the same, and he realises, too late, that most people only really loved him for the crown.’
The play is enormously complex and challenging, but Frank believes that if you hang on to that interpretation, you will inevitably find your way in.
‘But the great thing that is honourable about Lear is that when he starts to lose his ground, he does not go back to war. He says “My god, what have I done wrong!’
King Lear, which started its run last night, will be at Chichester’s Minerva Theatre until Saturday, November 30 before transferring to BAM, New York, playing from January 7-February 9 2014.
‘When I first agreed to do it, we didn’t have the New York connection. Jonathan talked to BAM and asked them if they had a free slot, and luckily they did.
‘That would enable us to keep the company together. We will finish here in December and travel out to the States and start almost consecutively. The addition was really helpful in obtaining a really first-rate group of actors.’
Frank has been coming to Chichester for the past 30 years, but as an audience member: ‘It is very flattering to be the first American to lead a company here.’
In 1978, he enjoyed the chance to work with CFT’s founding artistic director Laurence Olivier on the film Dracula at Pinewood.
Frank well remembers watching Olivier’s own Lear: ‘I have watched all the Lears I can find. Acting is not a precious art to me. You are a worker.
‘Anything that you can find to build a strong wall or to suggest ideas has got to be a good thing.
‘There was a scene I was struggling with. I watched 20 minutes of Scofield on film, and then I realised. I could do it. It is OK to inspire. It is OK to steal. It is OK to watch someone dig themselves into a hole that they can’t get out of and think “I am glad I didn’t do that!”
‘I think I have watched maybe seven or eight Lears and from each one I have gleaned something to do – or not to do!’
Frank, for all his film success including Frost/Nixon, Robot and Frank, Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, The Box, The Ninth Gate, Dave and Those Lips, Those Eyes, regards himself as first and foremost a theatre actor: ‘The theatre has been my life. In my career, I don’t think I have ever been off-stage for more than 18 months.’
As for the movies, he is a movie actor, he stresses. He makes the distinction: he is not a movie star.
‘I think it happened when I started to lose my hair and gained weight and became a character actor. There was a movie I made called Dave. That started the second wave of my film career.’
The movie Frost/Nixon, for which he was Oscar-nominated, isn’t necessarily one he would put at the top of the pile, but it’s significant that it was a play before it was ever a film.
‘Had we not done 360 performances of it, we would not have been as soundly centred as we were when we came to the new media.’
In it, Frank played the disgraced former US president Richard Nixon: ‘Interest in Nixon has never stopped. I think he is interesting because he is the most clearly visually emotionally impaired president we have ever had.
‘His faults and his neuroses and his incredible, obvious nervousness reflect back our hidden fears. Nixon was like the poster boy for a nerd.’
And yet, he could have survived the Watergate scandal. What actually happened was fairly mild compared to some of the things that happen now, Frank believes. But all Nixon needed to do was to condemn what had happened and distance himself from it.
‘It was not the crime so much as the cover-up that did for him. If he had just said it was something that had happened without his instructions and condemned it, the country would have forgiven him.’
But he had come into office with a huge mandate: ‘He was standing on the top of the world. He just thought he could get around the problem...’
Frank Langella is playing the starring role in King Lear at Chichester Festival Theatre until November 30.
Tickets: £32 on (01243) 781312 or go to cft.org.uk.