Stephen Lang Interview: Salem’s Most Feared Witch-Hunter Speaks

The population of Salem village recently increased by one. Stephen Lang communicates from beyond.

Beware, Salem season one and two spoilers are ahead…

Stephen Lang currently plays Increase Mather on Salem, a character who died but returns to his old haunts by some witchery. This isn’t the first time Lang has been brought back to life in supernatural ways. He was the reanimated Tony Cobb in The Monkey’s Paw. He will soon be resurrected in the upcoming sequel to Avatar as Col. Miles Quaritch, a part for which he’s been nominated as Best Screen Villain by MTV, Teen Choice, and the Scream Awards.

Lang is a top villain. Anyone who has read my pieces knows I root for the villain. But Lang also played the guy that shot Dillinger in Public Enemies. Lang’s character was pure determination. He burst through the happy weekend Chicago crowd to shoot the Jack Rabbit John Dillinger, played by a wary Johnny Depp, right through the cheek. That’s one villain I can’t root for, and it takes a special talent to incur that kind of grinning wrath.

Stephen Lang doesn’t see his parts as protagonists or antagonists. They are characters with personal motivations, history, and day-to-day lives. Villains, after all, don’t necessarily see themselves as bad guys. Lang just wants to tell a story and savor the words.

The actor, who was also recently cast in a recurring role on the upcoming AMC show Into the Badlands, sat for a conference call on the eve of his resurrection on Salem.

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Laura Sirikul of Nerd Reactor kicked off the session. How excited is it to be returning to Salem and what can we expect from your character?

I’m very, very, pleased to return to Salem, because when you get confined to hell, odds are, you’re going to stay there a very long time. So it’s nice to be among the living. I’m also glad I’m back because I really enjoy working with Janet Montgomery and Seth Gabel. Such a terrific group of actors; I had a good experience down there for the first season. What to expect? What should you expect? Well, you know, Increase is Increase. He’s been humbled, but I guess that is what happens when your own son stabs you in the back. But he’s still pretty feisty. He hasn’t lost his essential core of righteousness.

Fangoria: How was your approach to Increase different now, playing the character postmortem, to when you first approached it?

I think what’s happened is he learned something. A lot of what he had believed and lived, based his life on, his foundation on. He has come to understand it’s not that simple. It’s not that black and white. So he’s been really taken down in that respect. But by the same token, Increase is a very, very intelligent man and he’s willing to learn. What he experienced, what he sees, the pain, he certainly feels his own pain, being in hell. But he also observes all these souls in the deepest despair. He observes people who he loved there as well, and I think that affects him as well. He comes back chastened, but also, to some extent, more emotionally available than he was in life. It’s an interesting thing.

Den of Geek: As an actor, how does it feel to watch your own severed head talk. What’s it like to see it act?

I just want my severed head to do a really good job. But you get used to this bizarre thing when you’re working in a show like Salem. Just strange thing just happened. Last season, I did a whole variety of weird things. But, you just want to make sure that everything is, that the look is proper. What does a character summoned back from hell do? How does it manifest himself physically? How do you carry yourself? How conscious are you? Do you breathe? Does a spirit have to breathe? All these sort of questions. In fact, you end up making creative choices. You answer them in any way that is useful for you and useful for the show. I think this is the first time I’ve played a ghost.

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NR: With the way that Salem is structured, do you feel like you are now the antagonist or the protagonist of the show?

Well, I certainly never was the protagonist of the show. What I did was certainly quite antagonistic last season. Although the interesting thing about this show is the good is bad and the bad is good. Everyone is defending their vision on what the new world should be. But, clearly, Mary Sibley is the protagonist and I John Alden is as well. You need to have a strong powerful figure opposing them. That’s certainly what Increase was. Of course, by bringing Lucy Lawless as Countess Marburg into it, you create a real and new antagonist. Increase’s role changes so much because, in some peculiar way, he becomes an ally. He’s summoned by Mary. And she has him in a thrall. But not really because he’s got his own agenda as well. I don’t think antagonist or protagonist, either term, really applies to what he really doing in this. He just becomes another spice in this stew, and a formidable one. Increase is as formidable in death as he was in life.

Fangoria: Was it a cool experience to work with director Joe Dante on the set of Salem?

It was nice to be with Joe. I think it was wonderful. It’s really a catch for the series when a director with Joe’s stature, certainly in the genre, comes and directs. I was absolutely delighted to work with him in this episode. I think he did a terrific job.

DoG: After your roles on Men Who Stare At Goats and now, on Salem, do you have any personal interest in the supernatural?

It’s never been something I’ve pursued in reading about it. I’m interested in it but I’m not obsessed about it. But I will say, I spent an awful amount of time on battlefields, such as Gettysburg or Chickamauga. Particularly in Gettysburg, I’ve been there every season of the year, at various hours, anytime from dawn to late at night. You very much do get a sense of spirit there, a restive spirit, of things that happened that continue to reverberate there. Those experiences, that I’ve had repeatedly there, have given me a healthy respect for another dimension.

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In terms of interest, I love the literature of Poe, for example, or Lovecraft, I think it’s pretty fascinating stuff for sure.

DoG: Where does your tough guy swagger in Avatar come from?

It comes from Queens.

I’m the gangster geek at Den of Geek and you’re the guy what shot Dillinger.


Can you see your role in Public Enemies in the larger sense of the gangster genre in history with Bogart, Cagney and George Raft or are you too close to it?

Well, you know I love Michael Mann. I’ve worked with him a number of times over the years and I loved the role of Charley Winstead. It was interesting to me. Special Agent Winstead was a really quite remarkable guy and a legend within the bureau. It was always fascinating to me that, for the size of the role, because if you look at the film it’s not a large role, but he had a tremendous impact both publically and critically on the picture, which I’m really pleased about. I think a lot of that had to do with the final scene with Marion Cotillard in the jail, which was a lovely scene.

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It’s always a pleasure when you’re an actor, not that you’re thinking in terms of immortality, but it’s pleasing to know that the work you do will potentially be viewed by your great great grand-children and by people. We, all of us, want to be associated with classic films or classical moments. The killing of Dillinger is a very important moment in American history. It captured the public’s imagination. So, I kind of dig the fact that I played Charley Winstead. I loved the role and I’d love to continue on in the role. I think Charley Winstead has a lot of great stories to tell.

Is there any chance of that?

You never know. Who knows? Sometimes you feel you’ve done a role that you’re not really done with. But that doesn’t mean you’re ever going to get to do it again. Many times, when I’m done playing a role, I feel like, ‘Okay, I’ve played that sucker. There’s no more I can do with him,’ like Stonewall Jackson, for example. But Winstead, I think he’s so bound up in that that he just can’t die. He’s such a powerful and quiet figure. Maybe it’s just the kind of role I really love to play, a combination of Clint Eastwood and Walter Cronkite. That’s what I like about him.

Increase is the same way. I feel like I can continue to play Increase because he’s fun. He’s a lot of fun to play, and there’s a lot there in that fella.

NR: You were described as one of the most missed characters. Everyone missed working with you on the show. Is there a character you enjoyed interacting with the most?

I think they’re all terrific. I loved playing scenes with Montgomery. First of all, she’s a splendid actor who carries a tremendous power with her. And, there is always this wonderful tension between Increase and Mary Sibley. It’s a tension that never gets explored, but always exists. And that’s a lot of fun. It’s something that Increase would never even admit to. It’s something he doesn’t want us to know about, but he absolutely adores Mary Sibley. And I think she recognizes that and plays upon it, but I also think she adores Increase as well. I love that.

I like working with everybody, but of course Seth Gabel brings so much great energy, emotion, and passion to Cotton. All our scenes, I’m always giving him a really hard time. Increase loves Cotton to death, but he also is willing to kill him. And the scene I had with Isaac the Fornicator? He’s a marvelous actor, and I enjoy playing those scenes. We really wailed away with those scenes. But I don’t want to short-change anybody. I think they are all fine actors.

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iChannel Magazine: Can you tell us about your audition for Salem?

I’ll tell you the true story on this. I had done Terra Nova with Brannon Braga and when he was getting going with this, he sent Salem to me and asked me to play  a role in it. He offered me a series role, and I could not accept it because of my obligation to Avatar. But, knowing something about the history of Salem and reading the script, I said ‘you know, Brannon, if this story goes the way I think it will go, at some point you’re going to bring Increase Mather into the story as kind of a guest star. If, at such a time you did so, and if you thought I might fit that role, we can talk about that.’ Sure enough, five or six months later, I got a call saying, ‘Will you come in and do Increase Mather?’ I read a couple scripts and smiled, and said I’m in man, I’m there.

It’s just one of those things. It doesn’t usually work out this way in show business. But it did. Just knowing the story a little bit, it did. That’s how it happened.

Fangoria asked about Lang’s career trajectory, from the weasely weaker characters he played in films like Tombstone through the more formidable characters he’s playing now.

Ideally, you want to have a really well-rounded career where you feel you’ve touched on all the facets of your talent. But what tends to happen, if you play a role and you’re effective in [it’s] that role you get offered a variation of [for your next] role. The formidable characters that I’ve played, that’s the effect that they have. If they’re interesting and varied characters, I’m more than happy to do that. You always try to find something within them, whether it’s soft, or it’s their vulnerability, I’m not just there to be tough. I want to be human as well.

But back in the olden days of Manhunter and Tombstone, I got characters they maybe didn’t know exactly what to do with. They wanted to bring in somebody who would take a stand on it. I’ve always been a character actor.

When I think about the actors, and there’s so many that I admire, but thinking about somebody who would be at the top of my list is Bogart. He played everything from leading men to really really shady guys. Fred C. Dobbs in Treasure of Sierra Madre, he is not a good guy. Bogart was a major movie star undertaking this really shady dude. A lot of stars would not do that and would not be asked to do it, but he was essentially a character actor. Which is what I am. Not to compare myself.

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Why not?

Yeah, why not?

I saw Death of the Salesman in 1984, so I saw you live as Happy Loman with Dustin Hoffman. What’s the biggest difference between acting on stage or screen, especially as you do a lot of CGI now?

There are technical differences. The difference in Death of a Salesman was we had done the play somewhere around 290 times and then we were going to make a movie out of it. When you do a play, it’s a living organism. You’re doing it eight times a week and so you try things. Things change and continually evolve. So when you come to do the movie, it can be a little frustrating because you realize that what you’re being asked to do is something definitive; that this is the performance that will stand, and you really just want to get it right. So, you abandon that and just work in as fluid a way as you can.

There are many differences between stage and screen. There’s standard stuff, people talk about the size of the performance, but I don’t know about that. You look at an actor like Jack Nicholson, one of our greats. That man, there’s size in every part he does which is not to say there’s not great subtlety. But he knows how to do size. Brando could be a very big actor as well as a very interior actor. A lot of acting is just learning the technical skills that will make the part and make you credible in the role.

NR: Increase has come back from hell. What would you consider to be your personal hell? 

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You’re talking about the Long Island Expressway, aren’t you? I don’t know. That’s a tough question. I think probably boredom. Just being bored or unmotivated would be hell. That’s when time just stops and slows down, and I think that is what it would be. The thing is, it is a difficult thing for me to define. What Hell really is is despair. If you live in despair, in darkness with no possibility of light, then you’d be in hell. I think there are people who are in hell, but I am fortunate that I was born and raised with an optimistic nature. I just try to keep engaged and as long as I am, I can ward off the demons and hell. I don’t believe in it as a religious thing. That doesn’t work for me.

Fangoria asked about Lang to compare his resurrection in Monkey’s Paw to the period elements of his resurrection in Salem.

The Monkey’s Paw was a lot of fun to do. The process was kind of ‘okay, I’ve been dead, what am I like now?’ What I came up with was initially extremely confused, very confused about what was going on with me. And it got interspersed with resistance with what had been done with me. Being able to function in the world and finally in just trying to find some peace. Just let me go, kill me off. That was an incredibly cool project to work on. One of my sons was the producer on it and one of my sons worked as a grip on it.

But I didn’t really consider Monkey’s Paw when I was working on Salem, because the character I play in Monkey’s Paw is not a ghost, whereas, Increase is a spirit. The guy in Monkey’s Paw is more along the lines of Walking Dead. He’s a resurrected dead body. Increase is something else, entirely. His whole spirit is there as well. Is that an answer? [Laughs]

DoG: James Cameron has a rep for being a tyrant, is that true?

Oh God no. That’s been dealt with a thousand times. Jim is commanding a very large [production], and he does it with finesse and authority. He does it as the situation requires. What I’ve said about Jim before and I’ll say it again, Jim leads by example. Nobody works harder than Jim. So it behooves anybody, doesn’t matter whether you’re an actor, a caterer, a grip, it doesn’t matter, to bring their A-game to the set. That’s what’s going to be required. In no way would I characterize Jim as a tyrant.

A movie set’s not a democracy. It’s not supposed to be. It doesn’t operate that way. People have their roles and you have to fulfill that in a way that keeps things moving along expeditiously. And if you don’t, you’re going to get called on it. And that can happen, for sure. I’ve worked with him for a while and I’m going to be working with him for a while, and I’m sure there will be moments when passions boil over and stuff like that. That’s the way it is on a project of this scale that everybody cares so deeply about.

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Fangoria: In terms of your character, is this going to be a limited time event or possibly a more permanent role?

I don’t know. It’s always up for negotiation. Look, they killed him and now they are bringing him back. So there’s no reason they couldn’t bring him back again. That would be a subject for Brannon and Adam [Simon] to decide. A lot of it has to do with where they want the show to go. I suppose, to some extent, my own availability. I feel connected to this show. I feel that I am part of it. No matter how long it goes, I feel like I’ll always be connected to it. I have such good feelings about it. I really like the way the guys write. They know I love words and wrote beautiful stuff for Increase. He inhabited his own particular place, and I hope he’ll come back now and again to haunt Salem. Who knows?

NR: Because he’s been brought back Mary to fight against the Countess, will he have his own agenda against all the witches?

Well, he’s got his own agenda. There’s no question. But I don’t think it’s so much against witches. If you remember, in that last scene with Mary, which ends in his death: He basically says I can’t lose. Righteousness will triumph. Ultimately what will happen will happen. As I was saying before, he has discovered things in hell and learns ways which he was not adequate. His agenda has more to do with his son. His son was always a big part of his agenda, but now it becomes a question of, in this particular arc and episode, really coming to terms with his son and trying to help his son. Let’s face it, Cotton is the most fucked up character in Salem. He’s a mess. He really needs help, I think. I think that is a major part of the agenda. Before, it was becoming governor and his place in the world, and now it has more to do with his immortal soul.

Fangoria asked about acting through special effects, especially when coming back from the dead in a period piece.

Well, we’ll see what they do. That stuff is laid in, and you have a certain amount of faith that it will be cool. But, on the other hand, we did some heavy duty make-up on this as well. You want to make sure that you get that in a way that’s pleasing. It’s become very difficult because, in the world of film, everything is possible now. You can morph into anything. It’s very difficult to surprise people.

You see it on a show like Walking Dead. They’re challenged on a weekly basis, how to keep it interesting, these zombies, and how to kill them in new and interesting ways. I don’t know that we’ve become jaded to it, but we’ve certainly become more accustomed to it. If you imagine us looking at the effects of Salem, and any other number of other shows, 15 years ago, they’d blow your mind. But now it’s become a matter of course. So it becomes a question of doing something that’s absolutely appropriate. That is very specific and reasoned out that nails the character that you’re trying to portray. We work hard on that in Salem. I hope we’ve succeeded.

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NR: Because of the tense past scenes you were in with the other characters, will we see scenes with those people or are you only with Mary and Cotton’s entity?

If you look back at Salem, I don’t really interact with many of the other characters. I had very little with Anne. I guess I do meet everybody but she brings me back for a specific purpose, and I’m bound to do that. I’m not allowed to go gallivanting around the town which I’d really like to do. Increase would like to have a good walkabout, but he’s bound by this glass she’s got. She keeps me in tow but I manage to break free from the constraints a little bit. So, I won’t be interacting with everybody. Sadly, I will not be interacting with Isaac the Fornicator. But I see the people I have to see.

Go off and write something beautiful.