Getting with the programme

Frank Langella searches for a connection with his UGC-60L home care robot in Robot & Frank. Photo supplied.
Frank Langella searches for a connection with his UGC-60L home care robot in Robot & Frank. Photo supplied.

Robot & Frank offers Frank Langella "a remarkable experience", writes Kenneth Turan, of the Los Angeles Times.

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."

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'."

And perfect is what Langella is as a retired cat burglar named Frank who is having increasing difficulty taking care of himself, so much so that, this being the near future, his two grown children are considering putting him in a nursing home, that is until his son gets him a UGC-60L home care robot.

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, and (b) the robot he acted with was a sometime thing on the set.

"Filming was a hardship case, it was 110 degrees (43degC), no air conditioning in that steaming house, no dressing rooms, no place to wait," he said of the shoot.

"We had a young girl from a circus. She was a little under five 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 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."

A 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 realised 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'."

In March, Langella completed a book with the intriguing title Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them. In it, he relates his experiences with 66 people he has 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 can boast.

Despite all that has come before, Langella is 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."