En español | Veteran film and stage actor Frank Langella is likely to get an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of controversial Judge Julius Hoffman in The Trial of the Chicago 7, Netflix's new drama about the notorious trial of protestors at the 1968 Democratic Convention, written and directed by Aaron Sorkin (The West Wing). Langella tells AARP about his richly wicked role and the sky-high opportunity he sees for himself as a grownup actor and best-selling author.
What was Judge Julius Hoffman like?
A wonderful guy to investigate. I've been playing a number of characters who actually existed: Nixon in Frost/Nixon, the terrible segregationist Sen. Richard Russell in All the Way. Hoffman wanted those boys in prison. He was a racist. He is the chief villain. So I was very concerned about making sure they hated me in every scene, making sure that they could become more and more angry and even disgusted by this man's total obvious desire to send them to jail.
To be fair, the accused protestors — including Abbie Hoffman, Jerry Rubin and Tom Hayden — turned the judge's courtroom into a media circus. They dressed in judicial robes, blew kisses to the jury, and witnesses Judy Collins and Country Joe McDonald began to sing their protest songs as testimony. “No singing!” insisted Hoffman. They weren't models of decorum.
No, they weren't, and Hoffman was absolutely determined not to be in any way fooled with. He had a great sense of, “I am important and serious.” And he was a very small man.
Because he was short and bald with big glasses, the defendants called him “Mr. Magoo."
I liked sitting behind the judge's desk, because you wouldn't know I'm 6 foot 3. A very enjoyable man to explore.
The scariest scene in the film, and the trial, was Judge Hoffman having Black defendant Bobby Seale (Yahya Abdul-Mateen II) bound and gagged in court.
There's no question that the most powerful moments for the character are his outrageous treatment of Bobby Seale. To see Yahya being brought in in chains with a sock in his mouth in modern America — such a thing was extraordinary, and it was very powerful.
Was Hoffman trying to stage his own theater of authority, to match the defendants’ attempt to make the trial a clown show?
I don't think you can tell the court's marshals to take a young Black man into the back and chain him and gag him because you have a sense of the theatrical. You do it because you're absolutely corrupt. And because you want him to be quiet. “I am going to set an example here."
At first, Aaron Sorkin didn't want you to use prosthetics, as you did to play Nixon and Russell, right?
He said, ‘No, I won't let you do it. I paid for Frank Langella. I want Frank Langella.” But he finally relented. And I walked in the first day with a shaved head and a little bump on my nose and great big glasses. It's great, and particularly at my age, to be transformative as you can.
Many actors are terrified of letting their looks change, but you seem to like the changes.
If you try to hold on to what you were, it's sort of absurd, because your career won't be as interesting. Several of my colleagues are still trying to be what they initially were loved for. And I think it's better to not fight nature.
Frank’s Fast Facts
Hometown: Bayonne, New Jersey
Current project: The Trial of the Chicago 7 (Netflix)
Greatest Hits: The Americans; Frost/Nixon; Dracula; Lincoln; Good Night, and Good Luck; Masters of the Universe; Captain Fantastic
Accolades: One Oscar nomination (Frost/Nixon), four Tony Awards, two Obie Awards, four Screen Actors Guild nominations
Education: Syracuse University, Lincoln Center Repertory Company
Pen to paper: Memoir Dropped Names: Famous Men and Woman As I Knew Them (2012)
Are there advantages to aging for an actor?
Yes, there are. I know who your readers are, and I can say this with true honesty: This has been the best decade of my life. Because maybe 10 or 15 years ago I might have been still trying to hang on, but the change, the relaxation of facing getting older is so much more powerful than the tension that comes with trying to prevent it. You know what I mean?
What's your advice for your cohorts?
The energy it takes these people to Botox themselves and do skin peels! A friend said, “I'm beginning to lose my looks, I'm going to do Botox.” I said, “You're 65 and you want to go and make yourself look 50. There are so many actors of 50 that you're going to have to compete with. Be the best 65 you can be."
You spent a lot of time in prestige theater roles and passed on some movies that made other actors rich.
I was always very, very picky and choosy. I always believed it just had to be quality all the time. And that's impossible in an actor's life. At 82, the fundamental things of life have become immensely important. Not whether you win an Oscar or a Tony, which are fun to do. But if they become your raison d'être, if they become the reason you're living, then you're not living a successful life. Just accept the passing of the years. Gian Carlo Menotti said, “Hell begins on the day when God grants us a clear vision of all we might have achieved, of all that we might have done."
Anything I ran from in fear. You're young, you're afraid of this, you're afraid of that. All the things I ever ran from are the ones that I regret running. That's why these years are better.
Do you have any plans to retire?
None. [Pandemic] social isolation is not in any way bothering me, because I'm writing a novel, and then a second memoir, since I don't write about people until they've died and more have died since I wrote my first one. Every day I write eight or 10 pages. Friends call and say, am I ever going to act again? I always say, “Yeah, for sure! But find me something else to do!"