Stephen Lang on Finding the Ghost in the Mortal Engines Machine
We sit down with veteran character actor Stephen Lang to discuss Mortal Engines, embodying cyborgs... and Don't Breathe 2.
Though he’s been a staple of stage and screen for some time now, Stephen Lang’s name generally brings an image of certain roles to people’s minds. That of the grizzled, no-nonsense Col. Miles Quaritch from James Cameron’s Avatar (who it seems will be the main antagonist for all of the upcoming sequels as well); or as “The Blind Man,” from the recent horror hit, Don’t Breathe. But the real Lang cut his teeth in the business as a staple of the stage, appearing as Happy in the 1980s revival of Death of a Salesman, and he was the first person to portray Col. Nathan Jessup in the original stage productions of A Few Good Men, a role that was made infamous from its film adaptation with Jack Nicholson. He even appeared like a chameleon as a sleazy tabloid journalist in Michael Mann’s cult favorite, Manhunter (the first Hannibal Lecter movie).
Now, Lang will be appearing in the long-awaited Peter Jackson production of Mortal Engines as the enigmatic and menacing Shrike. He’s the one character from the book that has been kept mainly a secret in the trailers, but the robotic character himself was a mystery to Lang when he was first approached with the ambitious Steampunk, sci-fi series.
“I started with the script ‘cause I’d never read the books,” Lang tells us while discussing the impact Jackson, Fran Walsh, and Philippa Boyens’ screenplay made on him. The screenwriting triumvirate, who also worked on all of Jackson’s Lord of the Rings/Hobbit adaptations together, attempted to curtail author Philip Reeve’s momentous vision of “Municipal” Darwinism into a screenplay with movable cities… and lobotomized robots.
“So I read the script and I said, ‘Wow, that’s a good script, and that is an incredible character. So then I read the books. And then I learned a lot about the character. I really combed through the books to learn everything I could.”
In the film, Shrike is a former convict in the city of London. Within the story’s dystopic vision of the future, civilizations have only been able to survive by making their communities mobile on giant, mechanized limbs that move a city, such as London, across a barren landscape where they can absorb the resources of other, weaker villages and towns. And Shrike plays a major role in this, as he’s had his mind wiped and become, essentially, a cyborg beholden to the whims of authority, which in this film is personified by the head of a historian guild named Thaddeus Valentine (Hugo Weaving). The creation of such a high-concept character also evolved in Lang’s head the longer he prepared and researched the character.
“It was slightly less consistent with who I thought he might have been in a way,” Lang says of how the preparation began. “But that becomes intriguing and cool, too, in a way because you’ve got to really kind of examine your own shit when you do that… You let it mulch.”
further reading: Adapting Mortal Engines for the Screen
Yet, in the end, nothing is really sacred. Acting, though planned out in many ways, is a game of chance in the here and now. Lang is no stranger to it as he states, Says Lang, “Understand that at the end of the day, they’re going to say ‘action,’ and you’re going to plunge in and do something. So much of the work you’re doing is really designed to give you the confidence to take the plunge and do it, to feel like you’ve done everything you can.”
Still, in the back of his mind, he’s always thinking about the soul of this character; a man who is technically dead and is now just run by machinery.
“What I realized about Shrike was that he’s equipped with all the senses, actually hyper-equipped to a certain extent. So he can see things. He can hear things. He can smell things. He can taste things and understand what they are. But what’s missing is the experiential part of it. It’s like he’s a man walking by a bakery that smells of fresh bread and knows that it’s fresh bread, and derives no pleasure from it. That to me is an example of how sad a being he is.”
There is indeed an implicit tragedy in what Lang describes. Even with its biomechanical pretext, it’s easy to imagine that he could have existed in a certain fashion in the world of William Shakespeare. As a classically trained stage actor, one would have to wonder if it was also a theatrical intuition that Lang would pull from.
“If you had to equate Shrike with a Shakespearean character, which one would it be?” Lang muses after we pose him that exact question. “I don’t know the answer to that, but I’m going to think about that… I mean, you sort of come off with an obvious answer by saying, ‘Caliban.’ And, there definitely is an aspect to him, but it goes way, way beyond that. You hope to create a character where somebody says, ‘I never saw that before.’”
It’s also fair to wonder if that same perspective helps inform Lang’s penchant for playing authoritative and often domineering characters who can command the screen as easily as a stage.
“I don’t know if the theater has anything to do with playing authority figures, per se. There’s a lot of discipline that’s required to be in the theater, and there’s no question that when you play large houses and everything, you need to have the physical equipment to do it. Which is to say, at least a big voice, if not an authoritative voice. But I know how to project. So maybe that does contribute to it, but I’ve never made the connection between theater and authority. To me, theater is like, ‘Chaos, baby!’”
Yet Lang is reflective on the fact he often is cast as the disciplined, Type-A personality, which at this point in his career he is more than happy to embrace.
further reading – Mortal Engines: Survival of the Fittest Cities
“To an extent they see you one way and they cast you that way. And for me, at my age, if I get typecast, it’s not the worst thing in the world. I can live with it. But also it’s always a question of finding variations on themes. If you examine actors’ careers just the same way as you examine a painter or writers’ careers, you will find that they are examining themes in their work, you know? Whether it be the rebel outsider of a James Dean, which is a very short body of work, of course. Whether it’s the maverick kind of authority figures of a George C. Scott, whether it’s the outsider figure of a Steve McQueen, whatever it may be, you know, you look back and go, ‘Well, he was exploring these themes throughout his career.’ Part of that, I don’t think it’s a conscious thing most of the time, but you gravitate toward certain things.”
And on that note, Lang is more than happy to continue revisiting Shrike in Mortal Engines should December’s movie spawn a franchised sequel, just as he is eager to continue exploring the world of Pandora in James Cameron’s Avatar films. The actor even sees a lot of crossover in the respect to world-building and audiences that Cameron and Jackson share. He likewise is pleased to let us know Don’t Breathe sequels are on the horizon, and he’s more than ready to embody the Blind Man who owns the worst house ever to rob.“We’re going to do a sequel to Don’t Breathe. And dude, listen, I’d be happy to do like seven Don’t Breathes. You know I’ll just keep on killing.”
Mortal Engines opens on Dec. 14.