Frank Langella in Robot & Frank.

After 85 roles in film and television since the 1960s, Frank Langella admits he's enjoying the best period of his long and varied career. "I'm in a very happy place right now," the gentle giant says on the phone from Paris, where he's spent the past two months filming Grace of Monaco with Nicole Kidman playing Grace Kelly.

Now 74, the relaxed, well-spoken New Yorker has come a long way since his cheesy roles as Dracula, Zorro and Skeletor in the 1970s and 80s, capped off with Tony Awards in 2002 and 2007 and a 2008 Oscar nomination as disgraced US president Richard Nixon in Frost/Nixon. With more high-profile films on the way, and as cool and calm as old guys get, he's more in demand than ever.

Earlier this year, he published his tell-all memoir, Dropped Names: Famous Men and Women as I Knew Them, which includes frank sexual encounters with the likes of Rita Hayworth, Yvonne De Carlo and Elizabeth Taylor. He even recalls a breathy "Hi" from Marilyn Monroe when he was 15.

While Langella's age has clearly had no impact on his memory, the same can't be said of his character in Robot & Frank, a tender drama set in the near future.

Langella plays Frank, an ageing ex-thief experiencing the first signs of dementia. He's not happy when his two grown children (Liv Tyler, James Marsden) deliver a robot to help out, clean up and keep tabs on him. Yet Frank and his metallic butler soon form a strong bond until his dementia sees him lapse into his thieving ways and use Robot as his unwitting accomplice.

"What attracted me most to it were the problems and complicated emotional life of a 70-year-old, which I could easily relate to," Langella says in his sonorous voice. "It was a pleasure to read a script that was literate and dealt with a man who has so many shades and colours. He's humorous. He's sad. Plus, I will stick with any film in which the words 'dude' or 'man' are not used and where there isn't excessive use of the F-word, explosions or killings.

"How could I say no?"

Robot & Frank is the debut film of young duo Jake Schreier and Christopher D. Ford, and simmers with questions about memory, ageing and technology. The remarkably quick 20-day shoot, however, was as emotionally and physically draining as the Tony Award winner has ever experienced.

"It was shot in upstate New York in 90 to 100-degree heat in August. It was relentlessly and extraordinarily hot, and I was shooting it with a deadline of 20 days before I had to start work on a play. We were really under the gun, but I think that's what makes the film as charming, if I may say, as it is. There wasn't any time to mess it up.

"So it was a very difficult film to shoot physically, but very rewarding."

To find the emotional core of a man suffering dementia, Langella said he called on a vivid real-life experience.

"I had a friend who had what's called global amnesia, which meant he went in and out of cognition. He came to see me and said 'Frank, so good to see you' and we had a nice chat. He went off to the bathroom but when he came out he looked at me with hostility, anger and suspicion. He didn't know who I was. So he left.

"That happened about 20 years ago and I never forgot it. So I was able to call on it when Frank was going in and out of his memory."

While actor Peter Sarsgaard added Robot's HAL 9000-style voice in post-production, Langella said he would never want a robot companion in real life.

"Robots are inevitable. They're coming. But I wouldn't want to get attached to one."

And while Langella plays a retired thief in the film, the actor bristles at the thought of retirement in real life.

"Never," he quips. "I'm healthy and in good shape and I think my mind is working. Some people will tell you it isn't. And I know that day will come. But after this film, I've got another and then I've got two plays I want to do. I love it too much."

Robot & Frank opens today.

The West Australian

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