Frank Langella (‘The Trial of the Chicago 7’) on playing the ‘unrelentingly cruel’ Judge Hoffman [Complete Interview Transcript]

Frank Langella plays Judge Julius Hoffman in the Netflix film “The Trial of the Chicago 7.” The actor just earned another nomination from the Screen Actors Guild Awards as part of the cast of the film.

Langella recently spoke with Gold Derby contributing writer Charlie Bright about what familiarity he had with the events depicted in “The Trial of the Chicago 7,” the quality of his castmates and his experience working with writer-director Aaron Sorkin. Watch the exclusive interview above and read the complete transcript below.

Gold Derby: The first question I have to ask is as someone who actually lived through this time that’s depicted in the movie, what were your memories of that period? Did any of those color in your performance as Judge Julius Hoffman? 

Frank Langella: No and no. I didn’t. I had absolutely no awareness of it. I was 30 years old and interested in things a man is interested in at 30, plus my work. I was living a young actor’s life in New York City. It was a marvelous time to be young in New York, it was the ‘60s. I didn’t pay much attention to it. The Vietnam War as a whole and Kent State and things like that, I was aware of, but this went right by me. So I had nothing to compare it to and then I read about the judge, who was about as big a son of a bitch as I’ve ever seen, both on paper and in real life. So I was happy to play him. Somebody recently did a report on this movie, what was right and what was wrong, what the fact is and what dramatic license was, and they said that Judge Hoffman was exactly the way I played him, which made me very happy. He was unrelentingly cruel, determined to convict everybody, utterly corrupt, and I think going a little nuts in the head. 

GD: It’s interesting you bring that up because Judge Hoffman, I think, is probably the source of some of the truly hard to watch scenes in the movie, specifically when you look at how he is reacting and managing the whole case and I was wondering if there was any scene that was more difficult for you to perform as Judge Hoffman than others in the film. 

FL: No, none of them were difficult. Absolutely not. I did have a favorite, which, oddly enough, wasn’t in the courtroom. It was my only scene in my office where I ask one of the jurors if she thinks she’s fit. I just love that little scene. Also, it was the very last thing I shot. But people say this about movies all the time, we were one big family. Well, I don’t know one big family that isn’t dysfunctional, but we were very functional. We were not in any way dysfunctional. I was 14 days with these actors in one room, 10, 14 hours a day. It was an unusual situation. We had to be there every day, all of us for the full time and it was really joyous. When you’re as old as I am, they’re always taking your elbow as if you need to be walked across the set and I would say, “I can still do that. When I can’t anymore, you can pick me up and carry me. But right now I’m OK.” Delicious group of actors. Really delicious. 

GD: I’m curious. because you always think about the chemistry between actors and usually you think about them interacting very close with each other in building that chemistry, but you were in such a unique position because you’re the judge. You’re always in your chair, except that one scene, of course, where you’re in your chambers. Does that affect how you’re able to build that chemistry with the other actors or does that not make a difference? 

FL: It doesn’t make a hell of a difference. The most important difference is that when you’re the judge, everybody has to look at you. They have no choice. I also had from a perch, and when I was off-camera, I had the luxury of watching each of them figure out their characters and we didn’t do a lot of rehearsal. Aaron chose very well, so we would run a scene through, maybe have a little brief talk about it, and then we’d shoot it and I doubt that I did more than maybe two takes, three takes on everything, which is my way. I like that very much. I don’t like it when a director does 30 and 40 takes. 

GD: You brought up the fact that this is written and directed by Aaron Sorkin. Sorkin is very well known for the dialogue that he writes and I had to actually double-check because I was like, “Has Frank Langella ever done anything with Aaron Sorkin before?” And this was the first one. I was curious as to whether performing a play or screenplay that he had written was something that you had wanted to do. 

FL: I tend not to make a wishlist because if an actor tries to form, in any way, a career, like, “I will do this, I will do that. That’s on my bucket list,” life gets in the way and your career gets in the way. But when I read this, Aaron just handed it to me on a silver platter. I put my coffee down and thought, “Hmm,” and I read it there immediately and I called my agent and said, “I have to be in this movie,” and I did it about four pages before the end. I didn’t know how it ended, but I knew it was a great role, among many, and then Aaron and I met and I was utterly sure of it. Look, an Aaron Sorkin comes along once in a great while. I don’t think you can say enough about his unique writing, and now his directing career is beginning. He’s a Renaissance man, so I’ll work for him again if he wants me to. 

GD: Going to a bit of a different direction here, you’ve been acting in films for a long time, but I think it would be safe to say that your original love is the theater. Is that correct?

FL: Yes, but as I get older, I’m very much equally in love now with the camera and I’ll probably, in this last decade, do more of that. Theater is a grind, a difficult one, which was fine by me for many years. I liked it and I still will if I find a great role. But it’s really wonderful now to try to bring everything down to the lens and you’re able to play a very intimate moment that, if it were a play, you have to hit the back row, which affects the way you do it. But I think the reason I like the chambers scene is because there are very delightful moments between me and the other actors that can be thrown away because the camera’s right there. 

GD: What I was curious about is there have been so many effects of this pandemic on our society and one of the big ones has been its effect on theater, specifically Broadway in New York and you actually kind of answered my question, but I was wondering if you had hoped to return to the stage once theaters are able to reopen.

FL: Oh, yeah, we’ll see. We’ll see when they reopen and we’ll see if I’m offered a really wonderful role. I’ve done 22 Broadway shows by now and about 10 off-Broadway and I’ve never been in one that I didn’t want to be in. I have a very lucky career that way. So it would be nice. The last time I was on Broadway was a play called “The Father,” which was four years ago. So that’s a very long break for me. But it’s nice to say that I’m not the only actor out of work. A lot of people are. 

GD: I can’t believe that this only hit me a couple of days ago, but it didn’t dawn on me until a couple of days ago, it’s like, “Holy cow, here’s a movie with two incredible actors.” So many incredible actors are in this movie but to have a movie with you and someone like Mark Rylance, who are these towering figures, at least in my opinion, what is Mark Rylance like as a scene partner? 

FL: Well, he’s wonderful. I mean, I’m not going to say a cliche, but I will. They were all wonderful. Every single one of them bounced. There was never a feeling that you weren’t in connection with the actor. Everybody was on their game, extraordinarily professional, extraordinarily committed, and you just felt the moment the camera rolled, “I have to stay on my toes here because I’m working opposite actors, different techniques, many of them very different than mine, very different techniques,” and somehow it all worked. If you see a movie in which everybody seems to be in the same movie, and often, it’s not the case, it’s the director. That’s what he did. He kept us all in the same movie, same style. He gives very little notes, but every once in a while he’d come to me and say, “A little bit of the classical actor creeping in.” And I’d say, “Oh, I’m sorry,” and I’d go back. My stage training was so automatic. Delicious experience. I can’t say bad about a lot of the things I’ve done. Lucky, though, I’ve been fortunate to be in some extraordinary plays and movies. 

GD: You had actually just mentioned that the last time you were on Broadway was when you were in the play “The Father,” where you won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Play in 2016. You gave an incredible speech that evening because it was in the immediate wake of the tragedy at Pulse nightclub in Orlando. Our nation right now is bitterly divided and we’ve just witnessed a riot at the U.S. Capitol building and I couldn’t help but think of what you said that evening about how we can either let tragedy destroy us, define us, or make us stronger. I was curious if you had any thoughts about how we as a society could use this tragedy to make us stronger. 

FL: Yes, I have a thought. It’s been my belief for a very long time that very few people ever act for the greater good, if you know what I mean. They act for themselves, their little world, their house, their family, their life, and if we could begin to see that acting for the greater good is extraordinarily rewarding, I think we’ll come through this. Certainly, the worst four years I’ve ever witnessed and I’ve been voting for presidents for I don’t know, 40, 50 years and there’s something about how far down we went and how low it got that made people far more aware of politicians and politics and how bad it can be. I think that’s the only good that might have come about this, which is I think many, many people, millions of them, became far more aware of what was going on and wanting to save a democracy. It’s really quite marvelous to see that we did, that in the end, as cliche is true, the truth and justice will out.

The other thing is the wonderful addition of women and Black folks and Spanish and the diversity that I think Mr. Biden will bring comes directly out of this white supremacist idea. The white man is really, I don’t want to say he’s on his way out, but he’s on his way to moving over, marginally now. And in 50 years or so, he will not be the dominant force. It will be Blacks, women, Hispanics, Asians, which is just great. It’s just great. You’re always afraid of something that’s not you and when people were talking about the riot on the 6th of January and I saw the amount of vitriol in these faces and the hatred that was coming off of them, meaningless physical, banging windows and ripping canvases and looking at papers, they didn’t know what it was, and I thought, “This isn’t just hate. This is fear. This is real fear. ‘That is not like me and I want to get rid of it and this is my country,'” and it’s just because white men have ruled this country for a very, very long time, and there are a lot of people now saying, “I want in. I’ve been fighting for this for a long time and I don’t think it can be stopped, this onrush of diversity and I think Biden’s the perfect guy.

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