Avatar: Stephen Lang interview

What's it like as an actor working for James Cameron? We asked Stephen Lang, aka Colonel Quaritch of Avatar...

Ahead of the much-anticipated release of Avatar next week, we had the chance to speak with Stephen Lang, who plays muscly-and-mean marine Colonel Quaritch.

Lang, who goes by the nickname ‘Slang’, has already turned in two memorable performances this year, in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies and the film adaptation of Jon Ronson’s The Men Who Stare At Goats. His larger-than-life appearance as Avatar‘s antagonist is the jewel of the bunch, capping off a great year for the stage actor, and current co-artistic director of the respected Actor’s Studio. A precise, intriguing figure, in this roundtable interview we speak about his theatre and film careers, his fascination with the military, and the movie actors that have inspired him.We’ve seen a lot of you this year, with The Men Who Stare At Goats, and Public Enemies, and even before that. You often play slightly menacing characters on film, who are almost unstoppable, but in the theatre, that seems to be different…

I suppose that’s true. I think that there have probably been pictures over the years where I have played something different. There have been softer characters, but they’re probably just not very memorable! [laughs] But, on stage, I’m very very particular about what I do, because it’s such an investment of time and spirit, without a whole lot of remuneration other than the joyous response an audience gives you.

Has the recent success with your film work meant you’ve been too busy for your stage work?

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No… From 2003 to 2007 I was pretty much working exclusively on stage. And careers seem to go in waves for me, and from 2007 up until the present time, it’s been a film wave which I anticipate – I just assume – will continue for a while. But I’m always reading plays, and when I find something that I really want to do, then I’ll make the time to do it.

Do you have any projects in mind?

In terms of the theatre? No, the only thing I have in mind in the theatre, is I’m committed to remounting Beyond Glory, which is my solo military show, next October for the Medal of Honour Society, so this is a command, huge performance. And since I’m learning it for them, I might as well schedule a run somewhere. And that’s a show I’ve done somewhere between 400 and 500 times. I haven’t done it in over two years, and it’ll be three years by the time I do do it. You know, I read plays. I read Enron, which I know is running here…

You do have a very military-like demeanour…

I think you cultivate it, you know. In 2004, I was playing Lee Strasberg, in the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, and I was quite pear-like, because that was what the role was. The truth is, I’m a character guy, and that’s how I see myself. I always see the role as being far more interesting and important than I am. And not all actors approach it that way…

But that sets you up for a longer career…

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That’s what I figure. I’d like to, basically, be doing this as long as I’m able.

Tell us more about Beyond Glory. So that’s a military based show. Where did you get the inspiration for that, and where did this fascination with the military come from?

There are themes, and this directly relates to Colonel Quaritch, there are themes that somehow stir me. And they’re themes that deal with leadership, the nature of bravery, and courage – with how to define these, what’s the moral imperatives involved. Fortitude, determination. In a way, they’re things that I idealise myself. And I’m curious about them.

I’ve always been curious about why one man jumps out of a foxhole with a grenade and charges a machine gun nest, and his buddy next to him sits there cowering. And my feeling is that the difference is tiny between the two. And in Beyond Glory, I was dealing with eight different men, from World War Two, Korea and Vietnam, all branches of the service, and different ethnicities. All who had performed actions for which they received the Medal of Honor, which is our highest military decoration… and had lived to tell the tale, which is not often the case, because the award is presented 70% of the time posthumously.

A buddy of mine, a journalist, who I play ball with, had interviewed 127 living Medal of Honor recipients, and I read the book, and I found myself alarmingly immersed in this, and I began reading it aloud, and I just began noodling with it, and the result was this show.Avatar has a very strong anti-war message. Do you agree with that, or do you think that war is sometimes justified, for example, in Iraq?

I think that war is diplomacy by other means, for sure, and there have been wars that have been fought for righteous reasons. There are wars that have had to be fought, and there will probably continue to be. I don’t believe that the current engagements are ones that we should be involved in.

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You know, in a way, I’m quite happy to answer the question, but it’s informed only as a citizen. And even as I say it, my only reluctance is, I do not 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, it’s a question of directing commitment. I like to go out to see the troops, and to, in any way – not be gung-ho – but not be fully in their corner. And all they’re doing is the mission. That’s all they’re doing. I’m uneasy with it.

Politically, how would I vote? I’d vote probably the same way that Jim Cameron does, and I think that’s clear. It has no bearing on the playing of the film, of course!Did you create a backstory for your character, such as where he got his scars?

Well, the scars are instructive, because here you’re dealing with a guy who has been through THREE tours back on a very nasty Earth. The battles that he’s fought there, have been the dirtiest of dirty wars, that is how war has devolved in the century that we postulate. But, you know what, you still join up for the same reason, you still sign up for those traits that I was talking about. But, there’s no place for it any more, because what was being fought was civilians, children. So something has been burned away from him.

But during all that time, he comes through it with barely a scratch, and that’s not for lack of being on the front. He gets to Pandora. Day one. He’s out on a little recon where… [drags hand quickly across face, making a slashing sound]… out of nowhere, he’s stopping to take a look around, and someone almost takes his head off. It’s probably because – I always say – of star lag, you know, the Pandoran equivalent of jet lag. And he learns from it, and he never saw what got him. And that’s what he sees every morning of every day. That’s a daily living reminder for him.

When you were starting as an actor, who were you influenced by, were they more stars or character actors?

I liked them both, but I loved Errol Flynn, when I was a boy. Now that’s a star: Errol Flynn made a living out of being Errol Flynn, but I did love him. By the same token I always did love Walter Brennan very much, a big character man. But the guy who pulls it together, for me, is Bogart. And many people would consider him to be The Hollywood Icon Among Hollywood Icons.

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What he really is, is a remarkable character actor. If you lay him out – okay, we’ve got African Queen, we’ve got Casablanca, we’ve got Maltese Falcon, we’ve got Queeg in The Caine Mutiny, we’ve got Treasure Of The Sierra Madre. That’s five right there – and they’re extremely distinct and different characters. He was very happy doing that, he changed an awful lot. And he was a magnificent star, I think. So the character man in me finds him to be the perfect synthesis of leading actor and character actor. Dustin’s like that as well.Jack Nicholson, too…

You bet! All the great ones… Who are the actors that I feel such a kinship with? I adore George C. Scott. Bob Duvall is a great… he means something to me. Gene Hackman is the same. Whereas an actor like Pacino, or De Niro or Dustin… these are actors who I appreciate and regard as being at the top of their profession, but it’s not my deal. I couldn’t do what they do.How does working with James Cameron differ to working with someone like Michael Mann?The differences are significant, the similarities are interesting.

They’re both ferocious, they’re both visionaries, they’re both relentless, they’re both intensely focused, they’re both highly intelligent. And I love working for both of them.

Jim is highly, highly improvisational – Michael, perhaps, less so. 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. It’s their worldview that’s different. If you look at Jim’s movies, you’re going to see good and evil. You know who’s good and bad in Avatar. You know who the villain is in Titanic, or the Terminator movies, or in Aliens for that matter. With Michael, it’s never so clear. Michael deals in a much, much greyer area. His worldview is just a lot more ambiguous. Maybe Jim is more of a moralist, in a way.Thank you for your time, Stephen.

Avatar is out on December 17th. Our review is here.