Page last updated at 10:01 GMT, Thursday, 22 January 2009

Transatlantic tale of two heavyweights

Frank Langella as Richard Nixon and Michael Sheen as David Frost
Frank Langella and Michael Sheen played the same roles on stage

By Liam Allen
Entertainment reporter, BBC News

Last week, Prime Minister Gordon Brown said the special relationship between the UK and US - with Barack Obama in place - would go on to become "one so strong no power on Earth can ever drive us apart".

In the week of Obama's inauguration it seems fitting, then, that Frost/Nixon is being released on both sides of the Atlantic.

The film tells the story of UK journalist David Frost, played by British actor Michael Sheen, and his famous interviews with former US president Richard Nixon, played by American Frank Langella.

It is written by Briton Peter Morgan and directed by US Oscar-winner Ron Howard.

Frank Langella
The English audience sort of sits back and says, 'well, I'd like to see what you have to offer'
Frank Langella

The transatlantic connections are strengthened further by the film's previous life as a stage play - also starring Langella and Sheen - which ran in London's West End and then on Broadway.

Langella, 71, thinks the Brits are far more guarded than Americans.

"The minute the lights go down, there's an energy from a Broadway house that, 'we want this to be great'," he says.

"The English audience sort of sits back and says, 'well, I'd like to see what you have to offer'."

He adds that he was pleasantly surprised audiences at London's Donmar Warehouse theatre - where the play premiered in August 2006 - gave "almost what I would call an American response".

"The applause was very strong, they stamped their feet, bravos and cheers, which isn't typical right away."

'Visceral relationship'

Sheen, meanwhile, says the story works on different levels depending on which side of the pond the viewer is from.

Michael Sheen on playing David Frost

"I think, [the UK] audience knows a lot about Frost and a fair amount about Nixon whereas, in America, they don't really know anything about Frost."

As a result, US audiences took Frost "much more at face value" while they had a "much more visceral relationship to Nixon".

Frost/Nixon is based on the series of interviews broadcast in 1977, watched by 45 million people, in which Nixon ultimately admitted his part in the Watergate scandal which led to his resignation two years earlier.

"On Broadway, when it got to the big interview at the end and Nixon says, 'if the president does it, it's not illegal', there used to be just howls of laughter, cheering and clapping.

"I guess it's that emotional and it became quite cathartic for the audience," says Sheen.

'Loving attention'

Both Sheen and Langella say their approach to the play and the film - both penned by Morgan - was profound, not least because of the input of director Howard.

"I came in on the first day of shooting - I'd made a lot of movies - certain I knew what I was going to do. I felt strongly about it," says Langella.

Howard had given "loving attention" to finding "a Nixon on camera, without ever actually saying to me literally, 'I want you to change'".

Michael Sheen as Tony Blair in The Queen
Brian Clough in The Damned United (due out in March)
Kenneth Williams in BBC Four's Kenneth Williams: Fantabulosa! (2006)
Tony Blair in Channel 4's The Deal (2003) and The Queen (2006)

"He guided me into a deeper, darker, subtler and more deeply felt performance."

The portrayal has given Langella the "wonderful" possibility of a best actor Oscar nomination. "What actor wouldn't want to win an Oscar?" he says.

The veteran star says he had "not the slightest bit of worry" about playing such a well-known figure who he researched by "watching him and watching him and watching him".

"Before I realised it, I was stooped over and my voice had lowered and a certain kind of gravelly quality had come in, sort of all by themselves."

Sheen, who has become renowned for playing famous characters, admits being daunted about playing Frost, but adds "it gets progressively less scary to play someone who's well-known because I've done it a few times".

"Each time the challenge is the same and I always get to a point, usually a week before we start filming, and I say, 'I can't do this, I'm nothing like him, who's gonna believe I'm him?'"

It seems similar success in portraying Tony Blair in 2006's The Queen has helped open gilt-edged doors for the actor.

At the end of last year, he was made an OBE for services to drama.

"I thought appearing in The Queen was going to stop anything like that ever happening but it seems to have worked the other way," beams the actor.

Frost/Nixon is released in UK cinemas on Friday.

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