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Avatar - Stephen Lang interview

Stephen Lang in Avatar

Interview by Rob Carnevale

STEPHEN Lang talks about playing Col Quaritch in James Cameron’s Avatar, his interest in the military and why he considers himself to be more of a character actor, both on the stage and in film.

He also talks about working with Cameron and how it compares to working with Michael Mann (with whom he collaborated with Public Enemies and Manhunter).

Q. Didn’t you do the original stage version of A Few Good Men?
Stephen Lang: I was the original Col Jessop, yes [smiles]. And if you’re going to ask who’d win between Jessop and Quaritch, Quaritch would win. Jessop’s tough, but Quaritch would eventually take Jessop down [laughs].

Q. You have something of a military look about your face…
Stephen Lang: I think you cultivate it. Look, in 2004 I was playing Lee Strasberg at The Goodman Theatre in Chicago and was quite pear-like at that time. The truth is, I’m a character guy. That’s how I see myself. I always see the role as being far more interesting and important than I am… not all actors approach it that way.

Q. But it guarantees a longer career…
Stephen Lang: That’s what I figured. I’d like to be doing this as long as I’m able to.

Q. You’ve done a one-man military show on stage [Beyond Glory]? And where did you get the inspiration for it? Do you have a fascination for the military?
Stephen Lang: There are themes, and this directly relates to Col Quaritch, that somehow stir me and that I find very interesting. They’re themes that deal with leadership, the nature of bravery and courage, and how to define those. What’s the moral imperative involved? Fortitude, determination… in a way they’re things that I idealize myself and am curious about. I’ve always been curious as to why one man jumps out of a fox-hole with a grenade and charges a machine gun nest and his buddy, who sits right there next to him, sits there cowering. My feeling is that the different is tiny between the two.

In Beyond Glory, I was dealing with eight different men from World War II, Korea and Vietnam, all branches of the service, and different ethnicities, all who had performed actions for which they had received the Medal of Honor, which is our highest military decoration. But they had lived to tell the tale as that’s not often the case… it’s usually presented 70% of the time posthumously. A buddy of mine, a journalist that I play ball with, had interviewed 127 living Medal of Honor recipients. I read the book and I found myself alarmingly immersed in this. So, I began reading it aloud and the result was this show.

Q. Avatar has a very strong anti-war message. Do you agree wholeheartedly with that? Or do you think might is sometimes right, such as in Iraq?
Stephen Lang: I think that war is diplomacy by other means, for sure. There have been wars that have been fought for righteous reasons and there are wars that have had to be fought. Indeed, there will continue to be. But I don’t believe that the current engagements are ones that we should be involved in. I’m quite happy to answer this question but it’s informed only as a citizen. Even as I say it, my only reluctance is… I don’t believe that being against the war can be equated with being non-supportive of our troops.

By the same token, it’s a question of energy and a question of directing commitment. I like to go out to see the troops… I don’t want to be gung-ho but I don’t want to not be in their corner. All they’re doing is the mission. So, I’m uneasy with it. Politically, how do I vote? I would probably vote the same way Jim Cameron does, and I think that’s clear [in the movie]. But that has no bearing at all on the way I play Quaritch in the film, of course!

Q. Did you create a back story for Quaritch and explain to yourself how he managed to get to Pandora?
Stephen Lang: Well, the scars are instructive because you’re dealing with a guy who had been through three tours back on a very, very nasty Earth. The battles that he’s fought there had been the dirtiest of dirty wars – that’s how war has devolved in the century that we come from. But he still joined up for the same reasons, even though there’s no place for it anymore because what was being fought was civilians, children… just filth. So, something has been burned away from him. But during that whole time, he comes through it with barely a scratch… and that’s not for lack of being at the front. He gets to Pandora and on day one he’s out on a recon mission and out of nowhere… [bangs the table] something almost takes his head off! I would say that’s because of starlag, which is the Pandora equivalent of jetlag. But he learns from it, even though he never even saw what got him. It’s what he sees first thing in the morning every day, so it’s a daily living reminder of what’s out there.

Stephen Lang in Avatar

Q. How much of your suit of armour was actually there, especially for the climactic fight scene?
Stephen Lang: Well, we had various versions of it. We had a full size, a top half on a motion mat that would move around like a mechanical bull, and one where I basically had nothing but straps on while I was doing performance capture. That would be used in the long shots where the entire thing would have to be graphically created. So, I worked in it all ways and it my approach to the character had a lot to do with just scrambling up and down that suit because that we agreed that it was an extension of myself. I had to be able to have a conversation with you at the same time that I’m rigging up and turning on. I had to look like I knew what I was doing, so I spent a lot of time just crawling in and out of that sucker. But there’s no good way in! I can name you 14 different ways you can hurt yourself [laughs]. It was designed to bring pain to people.

Q. Did you get your own Avatar done?
Stephen Lang: I aint go no Avatar [looks sad]. Jim likes to talk about Quaritch’s Avatar, so who knows…

Q. When you were starting out were you more inspired by character actors than stars?
Stephen Lang: I liked them both, actually. I loved Errol Flynn when I was a boy. Errol Flynn made a living out of being Errol Flynn. But I did love him. By the same token, I always loved Walter Brennan, who was a character man. But the guy who really pulls it together, for me, is Bogart. Many people would consider him to be the Hollywood icon among icons. What he really is is a remarkable character actor. If you lay them out and say: “OK, we’ve got African Queen, Casablanca, Maltese Falcon, Caine Mutiny and Treasure of the Sierra Madre…” That’s five right there – extremely distinct and different characters. He was very happy doing that and he changed an awful lot – but he was also a magnificent star.

So, the character man in me finds him to be the perfect synthesis of leading actor and character actor. Dustin [Hoffman] is a lot like that as well and Jack Nicholson. All the great ones are… They’re the actors I feel such a kinship with. I adore George C Scott. I revere him. Robert Duvall is an actor who means something to me… Gene Hackman. Whereas actors like Pacino, De Niro or Hoffman – they’re actors I appreciate and regard as being at the top of their profession, but it’s not my ideal. I couldn’t do what they do.

Q. How did working with James Cameron compare to working with Michael Mann?
Stephen Lang: The differences are significant but the similarities are interesting. They’re both ferocious, they’re both visionary, they’re both relentless, they’re both intensely focused, they’re both highly intelligent and I love working for both of them. I would say Jim is highly, highly improvisational; Michael perhaps less so. But at the same time, Michael will not leave a scene until he is fulfilled and the requirements of that scene are fulfilled. They’re very similar in that way. The difference between them is basically their world view.

If you look at Jim’s movies, you’re going to see good and evil. I mean, you know who’s good and bad in Avatar. You know who the villain is in Titanic, or in the Terminator movies, or even in Aliens for that matter. With Michael, it’s never so clear. Michael deals in a much, much greyer area. His world view is a lot more ambiguous than Jim’s is. So, I don’t know… maybe Jim is more of a moralist in a way than Michael is.

Read our review of Avatar

Read our interview with producer Jon Landau