Interview date: 11/18/2009
Run date: 11/24/2009
Stephen Lang is having a heck of a good year. Not only did “Public Enemies” find him once again teaming up with his old buddy Michael Mann (the two worked together back in the day, on “Crime Story” and “Manhunter”), but he also picked up a plum role in “The Men Who Stare At Goats.” And how’s he going to be following those two solid gigs? By turning up in one of the most anticipated films of the year: James Cameron’s “Avatar.” Bullz-Eye had a chance to chat with Lang about some of the many roles he’s played in his career, including his work in the aforementioned films as well as “Gods and Generals,” “Last Exit to Brooklyn,” and others, and we walked away knowing one thing for certain: if the predictions are correct and “Avatar” finally turns Stephen Lang from a character actor into a household name, it’ll be a change in status that he’s more than earned.
Bullz-Eye: Well, I wanted to start by telling you that, as a result of “Avatar,” you and I have a mutual friend: Dileep Rao.
Stephen Lang: (Offers a slight cackle) Old Dileep. He’s something. How’s he doing?
BE: He’s doing good!
SL: I’m glad he is. He’s a good man.
BE: And he assured me that you’re going to steal the film, so I’m expecting you to be the breakout star of the year.
SL: (Snorts) Usually when I break out, I have to get some sort of skin treatment.
BE: (Laughs) Well, I know you can’t tell me but so much about the film, but can you at least tell me a bit about your character, Colonel Quaritch?
SL: Yeah, he’s an old Marine, and he’s pretty…he’s very hard and tough, he’s very skilled, he’s very ironic, he’s very sharp. And he’s something of a cynic, which is never a good thing to be, but he is. He’s got kind of a jaundiced view of the mission now, because it seems doomed to failure on a daily basis, and his job is basically to keep his people alive. It’s a flat-out hard thing to do, y’know? And there’s kind of a hearts-and-minds attitude that he really can’t cope with. It’s difficult to do your job when you’re interested in preserving more than protecting. So I think it’s kind of brought some hardness and change in him. It just makes him into a pretty tough guy. But at the same time, there’s so much that’s admirable about him, which makes him kind of intriguing, because I don’t think you doubt his resolve, you don’t doubt his personal qualities or his courage or honor. He kind of carries the vestiges of the Marines with him. What happens…and I think it happens long before you ever get to Pandora, where all this happens…is just that, through the sheer nature of the warfare that we postulate on Earth in this future day, which is to say that it’s all dirty war…it takes all of the original concepts of duty and honor and our mission, the integrity of war and the rules of engagement, and it just basically throws them through the meat grinder, so that they don’t mean anything anymore. And I think that has a pretty chilling effect on people who bought into the concepts. And I think that’s what happened to Quaritch, and it’s interesting. I think that’s a really interesting kind of personal problem and theme, kind of perverted ideals. So that’s kind of him, I guess. I’ll be happy to answer anything else.
BE: How did you come onto the project? Was it a standard audition?
SL: No, no, no. I was working in New York, and I got a call that Jim Cameron would like me to read a script, and I said, “Uh, okay!” (Laughs) And I read it, and it was extraordinary, and the role was extraordinary. And since I responded so well to it, he said he’d like to have a conversation. So we had a long talk on the phone, and…I was working on stage in New York, doing my solo military show, which is about the Medal of Honor, so we just determined that he’d like to continue the conversation and maybe do a little work in front of the camera, and just have me up to his place. So one day, after a Sunday matinee and I was off ‘til Tuesday, they brought me out there, and I went up to Malibu to hang with him. And we talked, and we worked, and we did some improv. And then I split…and by the time I got to the airport, the role was mine. So it was really quite a remarkable process.
BE: So how did you come onto his radar in the first place? I mean, you hadn’t actually worked with him before, had you?
SL: No, but I’d auditioned for “Aliens” about 20+ years ago, and he talked about that in our conversation, so, y’know, I’ve kind of gone on record as saying that this was the world’s longest callback. (Laughs) But what happened was Marcy Simpkins, who is his casting director on Avatar, showed him…for my show, the ad in the New York Times and other papers is this kind of really hard-nosed military shot, very macho, and Marcy said, “Hey, Jim look at this!” And he went, “Huh. Lang. Huh.” And then at the same time, they both kind of went, “Quaritch!” So that was it. It was very fortuitous, you know?
BE: So did you have to get buffed up to do the part, or were you already buff before that?
SL: I was relatively buff, because I was working in a tanktop half the time on stage, anyway, but I just went kind of into hyperdrive after that and really worked to beat that old body into shape, to get that carcass where…I didn’t want to be looking at it and see anything hanging where it shouldn’t be hanging. (Laughs)
BE: Well, I know for years how he’d been wanting to do the project but the technology had not caught up to his vision of it. By the time he came to you with the pitch for the script, was he able to speak convincingly to the fact that technology had caught up? In other words, did he talk a good game?
SL: Oh, he talks the best. And what he doesn’t say, (Jon) Landau, his executive producer, can say. They’re both able to sell this project so effectively because they believe in it so deeply, that it’s not really a question of selling the thing. It’s just a question of doing it. And they were doing it. When I came aboard this thing, I jumped aboard a moving train, as many people did. Jim’s been working on this for many, many years now…and exclusively, I’d say, for four or five. I came on in ’07, and ’09 is ending now. But, you know, it’s funny, and it’s a good question, so I’ll tell you this: when I read the script, because he’s an excellent writer and extremely descriptive and specific, he paints a very, very clear picture of what’s happening and what this world is. And, you know, it never for a moment entered my mind to doubt that he would make it real. I mean, that may be because I have a good kind of reader’s imagination, in a way. You know, I’m able to visualize. Like, I believe magicians. I’m a good audience for magic and stuff. I tend to make that bargain with a writer quite easily, and so it just never occurred to me that it would be anything less than what it said it was going to be on the page. And I look at that now, and I think, “God, that was kind of lamebrained of you. This is weird, difficult stuff that doesn’t exist.” But he’s got such a great team of colleagues and people who are committed to his vision on this thing that it’s all come together.
BE: So when you actually saw some of this footage for the first time, with the effects in place, how did you feel?
SL: Well, I mean, when you see it in its final form…and there are many pieces that I’ve seen in their final form…it’s quite stunning. You just kind of go, “Oh, yeah. That’s it.” But, still, even when I’ve seen it in its final form, I haven’t seen it in, say, IMAX, let alone IMAX 3D. I haven’t seen it on the big screen. I haven’t seen it with Horner’s music. You know what I mean? So there are things that I haven’t seen. But what I have seen…I mean, I remember looking at pieces of it over two years ago, when I was looking at some of it in fairly rudimentary form, just sort of animation templates, and even that stuff was exciting to me. You could just imagine what it was going to be like, and to watch the metamorphosis has been totally cool.
BE: So I get the impression that the majority of your scenes are with Sam Worthington.
SL: I’ve got a good bit with Sam, with Sigourney (Weaver), Giovanni (Ribisi). But, yeah, Sam is my inside guy. He’s the one who…I want him to do what I want him to do.
BE: Who were you most looking forward to working alongside? I mean, was there anyone you’d never worked with before that you were particularly excited about?
SL: Well, I guess just to work for Cameron. I wanted that experience. But you’re talking about actors?
BE: In this case, yeah.
SL: Well, I didn’t know Sam, of course, because he was pretty new. I guess I would say…you know, I’d worked with Sigourney on stage, and I have just the most respect and affection for Sigourney. She is my nemesis, and I suppose I am hers, in this film, so you look forward to having an adversary who, y’know, is a worthy one. And she is a more than worthy adversary. Aside from the fact that she’s a kind of iconographic figure in this particular world… (Laughs) …she’s just a very formidable person, and she’s terrific. So it’s always a pleasure to act opposite her.
BE: Well, between this and “The Men Who Stare At Goats,” you’re liable to be pigeonholed as the go-to military guy.
SL: Eh. Whatever. (Laughs) As long as I keep working.
BE: Not that either of them were your first military role by any stretch.
SL: Nah, I’ve done a lot of them. But you never know: maybe that scene will eventually play itself out and I’ll move on and become, like, a corner druggist or a ballet teacher. Who knows?
BE: With “The Men Who Stare At Goats,” it was certainly an interesting premise for a film. How was the cast? It was definitely an all-star team.
SL: Yeah, it was a good group. It was a good spirit on that show, Clooney sets a great tone. He’s…as you can probably tell, I don’t know if you know him at all, but there’s a great spirit of fun to George. He’s got a great glint in his eye, and he takes it all extremely seriously, but at the same time, he manages to keep things kind of flowing in a very good-spirited, good-natured way. And (Jeff) Bridges is as fine an actor as you’re going to find. The Same came be said for (Kevin) Spacey. I didn’t have many scenes with Ewan McGregor, but…it was a really good shoot. And it was also not a particularly stressful or difficult shoot for me, you know? The role…it is what it is. He’s not difficult. (Laughs) So it was fun. We were in nice places down in Puerto Rico and Mexico, so it was everything you look for in a film. And I’m just delighted with the success that it’s having, too.
BE: It seems like a film where the director knew how to utilize character actors well, because there’s you, there’s Robert Patrick, there’s Stephen Root…
SL: Yeah, the cast…I think he cast it carefully, and I give them credit for casting me. It’s smart. (Laughs) I mean, it’s the kind of role I’m good in, and I’m glad they thought of me.
BE: It was funny to look back over your resume and realize that you played Freddy Lounds in “Manhunter.” I saw the name, and I just instantly went, “Oh, my God, that’s Stephen Lang…?” (Laughs)
SL: Oh, yeah. I go back with Michael (Mann) a long time. It was nice to be reunited with him on “Public Enemies.”
BE: Yeah, actually, I was going to comment on that. Was that a case where he remembered you fondly and just asked for you?
SL: Yeah, you know, there was a period in the ‘80s…from about ’84 or ’85 through ’89…where I worked with Michael a lot. All the time. Then we took a break, and…there’s sort of no reason for it, in a way. You just kind of play it out a little bit after awhile. And I’ve always loved Michael, but I hadn’t seen him much. But then I got a call from his longtime casting director, Bonnie Timmermann, who said, “Michael wants you in ‘Public Enemies.’ That’s that.” And that was the role of Charlie Winstead. And that was it. It was great to be back with him, and it was a perfect project to come back on, and in a really, really perfect role.
BE: Is it fun doing period pieces? Because you’ve done plenty of them.
SL: Oh, it’s the most fun. There’s nothing like it.
BE: What’s the best part about it? The costuming.
SL: Oh, yeah. (Laughs) It’s the make-believe. You know, look, whether it’s the cars or the weapons or the horses, the equipage is always interesting and fun. Just as it is when you do a futuristic thing. We don’t call it a period piece, but it’s the same phenomenon, isn’t it? You get to play with other apparatus. But there’s something about the old stuff, the beauty of it. For example, I was carrying a 10-gauge top-loading, lever-action shotgun in “Public Enemies” that was built in 1898 or 1899, and this gun…it’s a piece of Americana, and it’s a piece of art. And it’s a hell of a tool, too! And just toting that was great. It does so much for your character. And that railroad engine, that locomotive engine? That kind of stuff…I just love being with that stuff, the old-timey stuff. It harkens back to a time which I consider better, because I wasn’t there… (Laughs) …so it’s easy to do that. But it’s a time that I would’ve liked to have been part of, sure.
BE: So, now, when you did “Manhunter” with Mann, was that simultaneous to “Crime Story”?
SL: No, actually, I did it simultaneous to “Band of the Hand,” which Michael produced. I was doing both of those pictures at the same time and commuting. No, “Crime Story” then came after. That went from ’86 to ’88.
BE: How did you enjoy that series? Certainly, it was critically acclaimed, but it never really had the ratings to back up that acclaim, even though it obviously should have.
SL: Well, they kept moving us around, for one thing. So that was pretty bad. Also, we were, I think, pretty rough around the edges. I mean, I heard we were the #1 show in prison.
BE: (Laughs) Really?
SL: Yeah. I mean, that’s something, right? (Laughs) I loved doing it. It was a great bunch of guys, and it was…you know, it was a rugged set. There was a lot of animated discussion about all kinds of things. There was a lot of pushing and shoving, but there was a lot of good times and a lot of laughs. There are a thousand stories that go with that show, and a lot of fine actors and directors came through there as well. You know, if you look back at the list, you’ll see people…everybody from Abel Ferrera to Bill Duke to Gary Sinese directing, and actors like Julia Roberts and Eric Bogosian. Just a lot of people. Michael picks talent. He always knows how to pick his talent.
BE: So what was the origin of deciding to do “Beyond Glory” on stage? Was it something that you’d considered doing for awhile and just finally acted on?
SL: Well, I’d been wanting to…I was looking around for what I was going to do, and I felt I needed to take some control of my career. I had just had a big, big picture come out – “Gods and Generals” – and I was extremely…I had worked so hard on it and I was very proud of the work that I did in it, and of course the film not only tanked but was kind of reviled in some quarters. Rightly or wrongly is not even an issue, but it was the first time that I could remember where I wasn’t getting any calls at all. Nothing was happening. And I thought, “Huh. Well, you’d better get your act together, son, and do something.” And a buddy of mine, Larry Smith, who’s a journalist who used to be managing editor of Parade Magazine, had written a book and given it to me in galleys. It was called “Beyond Glory,” and it was first-hand accounts and interviews with 27 living Medal of Honor recipients. And I’ve always been interested in military history, so when he gave me a copy to read, I remember standing there after a basketball game and just…I was kind of doing a quick thumb-through, and three hours later, I put the book down, and I just knew there was something really, really good here, and dramatic. So the upshot of it was that, eventually, I portrayed eight Medal of Honor recipients from World War II, Korea , and Vietnam, from al different services and different ethnicities. You know, carefully chosen. And I wove them into a single show, an 80-minute intermission-less show, which has had a lot of success. I haven’t done it now in awhile, because you’ve really got to get yourself together and do it. I’ve done it about 400 times, and I’ll do it again. In fact, I have some scheduled. I will return to it. That was the genesis of it, and why did it appeal to me? Well, I mean, I think it deals with a lot of the themes that I find really, really interesting. Themes of courage, themes of duty and honor and camaraderie and humility. Serious stuff that I’m interested in. There was something so…not only exemplary about these guys, but something extremely everyday and human about them as well, that I found really, really intriguing, and I thought other people would, too. And I thought that so much of the time when we do something about the military, particularly in the theater…forget about film…you know, it tends to come from a very critical angle. And this is not bad, and it’s not unusual, because a lot of times you’re talking about conflict. Something like “A Few Good Men,” you can’t say it’s anti-military. It’s just anti-corruption. But, of course, it points to the abuse of power in the military. And, also, everything in the nation is so split right now, so fractured, and it was back when I started working on this in 2003, and I wanted to do something that everybody…it didn’t matter what you were affiliated with, it didn’t matter whether you believed in God or didn’t believe in God…none of that stuff should matter. I just wanted to get to some really fundamental stuff that we could all celebrate. It’s not that I’m trying to avoid controversy, but I wanted this to appeal widely. And so that was the emphasis.
BE: You were in “Last Exit to Brooklyn.” Had you read the novel beforehand?
SL: Actually, I’d never read it until I got the film. I don’t know why – I’m a pretty avid reader – but I just never had. I guess it was just so underground that I didn’t know about it! (Laughs) And then when I read it, y’know, it is what it is, which is to say that it’s quite appalling in a way. But I also recognized it for the power of it, and for the talent and the vision and the courage that Selby has as a writer. But it’s a fearsome thing.
BE: You were in the stage version of “A Few Good Men.” Had there ever been any talk of you playing Colonel Jessup in the film version?
SL: Well, there was all kind of talk in the papers at the time, but I didn’t personally hold out a whole lot of hope for it. But that partially has to do with my recognition of the fact that very rarely, in fact, do actors no matter what their stature get to repeat their roles in the film. It doesn’t’ matter if you’re Mary Martin or Zero Mostel or…well, gee, there really are so many, but I naturally can’t think of any of them right now. But I kind of figured that it was gonna end up being DeNiro or somebody. There were people who would’ve bothered me if they’d done it, y’know, if I’d lost the part to an actor who I didn’t think should have the role. But it’s a little difficult to argue with Jack Nicholson. (Laughs) Y’know what I mean? I mean, Nicholson is Nicholson. He’s great. I didn’t see it for many, many years, but…good for him. Whatever.
BE: What’s your favorite project that you’ve worked on that didn’t get the love you thought it deserved?
SL: Well, I did a picture with Bob Altman called “Killer App,” which was a pilot for a TV show, and it was a great role, and it was a really cool thing. And it never aired. I think it had a lot to do with…well, Garry Trudeau wrote it, Bob produced and directed it, and Bob was, y’know, very tough with the network, as I recall. And it never got on. And that was a real blow, because that was a role I could’ve played for a long time. I loved working with Bob. It was about the computer world. It was set up in Seattle, with computers happening, and I played Jann something, who was the head of Voratech, which is, like, this huge company. And then there’s these other guys who have a company called SpriteCom, and they’re kind of the cool techies, and there’s a battle between them and I’m me. I’m going to eat them alive, that was the idea. (Laughs) And Sally Kellerman was the voice of the computer! So, anyway, there’s that one. I did Arthur Miller’s final play at the Goodman, in Chicago, along with Stacy Keach and Linda Lavin and Scott Glenn and a host of other good actors, and the New York Times critic came out and savaged the play…most inappropriately, in my mind. And that show will never see the light of day again, and that show…it’s an extraordinarily cool play, and it was the final play that Arthur wrote.
BE: What was the name of it?
SL: “Finishing the Picture.” So, yeah, those two come to mind. Believe me, I don’t want to get into “Gods and Generals,” because some of the ass-kicking that that took, it deserved because of the...well, I think because of the editing. And there are things, maybe, that I might not have included in the film that were not wise, whether they’re true or not. But it’s a…it’s still a very worthy picture, and it’s one that I have a lot of affection for. The other two are different, though. They were just good projects that I think got slapped around, whereas I think “Gods and Generals” brought some of its problems on itself.
BE: To bring it back to “Avatar,” I was wondering how it was doing Comic-Con, given that you weren’t able to say a lot about the film at the time.
SL: It was cool! I mean, they got to see a lot, and I enjoyed Comic-Con, but in a way, we were insulated from the madness. Because you hear so much about it, right? But we were…really, my exposure had to do with the press in the back, which was intense, and there was a lot of it, and then we went into the hall, which was filled with about 6,000 people. But we never were out on the floor, as it were. But it was most enjoyable, and I think they’re very discerning and very opinionated, and it seemed to be an absolutely perfect place to kind of do the unveiling of “Avatar,” or at least sharing as much as we were able or willing to share at the time. I dug it, though. I dug it. I liked it, and I’d go back in a heartbeat.
BE: Lastly, what are your hopes for “Avatar”? Certainly, you’ve got people who are going in with the sort of ridiculous expectations that no film could possibly meet. How do you think people should approach it?
SL: Well, I dunno, just approach it like a movie and enjoy it. Buy your popcorn, put on your 3D glasses, and take the ride. And then when you’re done, come out, talk about it, and then go back and see it again, because there’s a lot to see, y’know? He makes films that are popular for everybody, but they’re also very, very much for audiences of sophistication and discernment. There’s a lot to see on his pictures. I mean, look, I think it is unrealistic to think that you can do kind of “Titanic” numbers on it, but nevertheless, that’s what you strive to do. But for my part, I just wanted to play my role in this whole process as fully and as well as I could. I just wanted to hold up my end of it.
BE: And you feel that you did that?
SL: I did the best I could. I’ll tell you something: even a chat like this is part of it. Because once you do the thing, you’ve got to get the word out there. So the process continues… (Laughs)
BE: Well, it’s been a pleasure talking to you, Stephen. Thanks for taking the time.SL: Okay, Will, nice talking to you, too. Good luck with it all!