Stephen Lang has always been one of my favorite actors, period, end of story. After years of highly revered stage work, he landed the role of Happy on Broadway in the award-winning revival of “Death of a Salesman,” opposite Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich. Shortly after that a string of high-profile parts came his way in such films as BAND OF THE HAND, as well as the beginning of a series of work with Michael Mann, including playing the gossip-rag reporter in MANHUNTER and a lawyer in the short-lived but quite excellent “Crime Story,” opposite Dennis Farina.
Lang never shied away from edgy work such as LAST EXIT TO BROOKLYN and TOMBSTONE, and he always found time to return to the stage, as well as make film and appear in television series. More roles popped in in everything from GETTYSBURG and GODS AND GENERALS to FIRE DOWN BELOW and his return to Mann’s work in PUBLIC ENEMIES. But most of the world seems to know him from his turn as Col. Miles Quaritch in James Cameron’s AVATAR, a world he is prepping to return to shortly for many sequels, even though his character appears to have died in the first film. In more recent years, he’s popped in THE MEN WHO STARED A GOATS and CONAN THE BARBARIAN, as well as series work in “Terra Nova,” “Salem,” and “Into the Badlands.” And apparently some people (Lang included) think he’d make an excellent Cable in the next DEADPOOL movie; I happen to agree.
When I first saw DON’T BREATHE at SXSW in March, I knew that Lang was among the very small cast, but I had no idea just how remarkable and complicated his role would be as a blind man living alone in a scary Detroit neighborhood whose home is broken into by three young thieves. I left the film thinking two thing: damn, that was an intense movie; and Stephen Lang has still fucking got it. I was fortunate enough to sit down with Lang last week while he was in town for the opening night screening of DON’T BREATHE at the Bruce Campbell Horror Film Festival in Chicago. There are few people in this world I’m nervous about meeting, but Lang is most certainly on that list. And of course, he could not have been nicer and more forthcoming about his acting process and work over the years. With that, please enjoy my talk with the great Stephen Lang…
Capone: You have a history of playing a lot of guys in the military in some capacity or another, and you have a real voice of authority no matter who you play. Where does that voice come from?
Stephen Lang: Hmm, where does it come from? I don’t know. I would like to say the training, but I’m not sure it is.
Capone: Because you weren’t in the military, correct?
SL: No, I wasn’t. If life had shaken out differently, that certainly would have been a viable option for me, but I always wanted to be in the theater. Of course if you work in the theater, your voice is very, very important. So I appreciate it when you tell me I have the voice of authority, but the same could be said about so many classically trained actors, I would think. When you combine the voice with good posture.
Capone: Good posture, a full head of closely cropped hair.
SL: [laughs] Well, I don’t know that the hair is absolutely necessary.
Capone: I think it sends a message.
SL: It does prompt people to cast me in a certain way. In any case, the voice, it changes from role to role, I would say, because every part has its own distinct voice, and you have to find that.
Capone: It’s funny you say that, because in DON’T BREATHE, there are huge sections of the film where nobody says anything. As an actor when you have your voice taken away from you to a certain degree, what do you lean on?
SL: Well, that was one of the things that really did attract me to it in the first place, the silence of it, but then there are moments when I do speak, but I think that he’s such an isolated and alienated character—and I did make a choice that he does not talk to himself; he’s not one of those people. So because of his isolation, he rarely uses it, so when he does speak, I want it to almost have a door-on-rusty-hinge quality to it, and I spent a lot of time when I was making this film not talking. It was kind of a relief.
Capone: A blind person moves differently in a room. A lot of times, you have your hand on a wall, to a degree where we don't notice it after a while, but I’ve seen it a couple of times so I’ve seen that you are always touching your environment so that you know exactly where you are in a space. It’s almost choreographed the way you have to move in a room.
SL: Well, that was the most important relationship that my character has in the film, with his house, with his environment. I thought it was really vital for me to be intimately familiar with the geography of that house, and so that’s what I worked towards—counting the number of steps to the second floor, the rungs on the ladder down to the basement, the various twists and turns, how many steps it would take to get from the kitchen to the bathroom, and the execute a sharp left turn. And the benefit of that is two-fold: Number one, it sells the “kingdom” aspect of it for me, because it’s really, really crucial that he be perceived as the lord of this domain.
Capone: His chest is always puffed out a little bit.
SL: Yes, except when it’s not. But he controls this environment and familiarity with it is what makes that work. But the second thing is, it also sells the blindness. By moving in straight lines, by tapping the hand, by hitting the fan or the ceiling, it absolutely helps to convince an audience that this man navigates by other means than sight.
Capone: The place I really noticed that “king of his domain” element was the basement, because that is where these kids have a distinct disadvantage, especially when you turn the lights off. That is your dark, horrible kingdom.
SL: That’s where the treasure really is, such as it is. It’s the heart of darkness. If the house is the kingdom of darkness, that’s the heart of darkness down there.
Capone: You mentioned before in the theater is where you gained your voice, and this film actually reminded me of a theater piece, because it’s only in a few rooms, all the action is just very concentrated.
SL: Just four characters, essentially.
Capone: Right. The geography is fairly easy to understand. Did it feel that way to you when you were making it?
SL: I was struck by the same thing, because you’re working in a very defined environment and you’re not going location to location. Pretty much everything happened in the confines of that house, and there is a theatrical aspect to that for me. But I will say this, if I were doing a play and had so few lines, I probably would be unhappy [laughs]. If I’m in the heater, I want to talk.
Capone: Fede is a relatively untested director to a certain degree. When you first met with him, what sort of convinced you that he was a guy to trust?
SL: Well my first familiarity with him was through the script that was sent to me, and I was completely impressed by the writing. The story was unfolded in a really classic, methodical, smart, canny way, which was constantly surprising to me. I remember at one point going “Oh no!” and pushing it away, and then pulling back because I needed to look on. So first of all, I was impressed with him as a writer and I liked it, and by the time I was done with that script—well before I was done with that script—I was imagining the role. So I was predisposed. Then he called me, and I said “Yes, I like the script,” and he said “We’d love to have a good chat with you,” and I said let’s do it.
So he called, and we spoke for an hour, and everything that he said and his voice for me reaffirmed everything I felt from reading the script that this was a guy I could have a certain degree of confidence in, that I was willing to make that contract that you have to have, that unspoken contract that you have to have between an actor and director of trust. And then of course, as you say, he didn’t have a huge track record. I did look at PANIC ATTACK [Alvarez’s 2009 short film] right after that before I went to film, and it tickled me to death. It’s a beautifully, beautifully made film, and I particularly enjoyed watching the cut where no effects have been put in, before anything has been added to it, because it’s very mundane what you see without all the effects—what he actually shot before he went in and started adding CGI.
I thought, this is a wonderful imagination at work here. He knows what he wants. He knows what this is going to be. And I was very impressed with that, and of course some of my advisors—my sons, who are both total aficionados of horror—assured me that the EVIL DEAD remake was a really, really marvelous effort. You just take the leap of faith, but in this case, I was fairly confident that it was going to be good, and actually the reality of it was even more outstanding working with him.
Capone: I saw the premiere at SXSW and talked to the two young male leads, and they painted a picture of you as a slightly intimidating presence. Were you a little standoffish or abrasive with them just to maintain the illusion?
SL: I was certainly quiet and kept to myself on set. It’s hard work, for one thing, but also when you’re in the middle of a day, working your way through a day, once the makeup goes on, once you go into character, it’s just simpler to maintain it at a low level. It’s not to say, I’m off being a blind man not responding to people, but basically just keeping things on a simmer. But the other thing I would add to that is this: Those wonderful, wonderful three actors Dylan, Danny and Jane, they did a superb job, and the intimidation that they felt—they were doing their work. They’re creating a lot of that themselves, and what they’re being paid for is to be intimidated by this guy. So in their way, they’re keeping it alive as well. They can say that I’m being whatever I’m being, but they’re perceiving what they need to perceive.
Capone: That brings up an interesting point that no villain is the villain of his own story. The most incredible relationship in the film is the dynamic between the characters and the audience. We switch allegiances at certain points. We are angry at these young people for bothering this old man and robbing him, and then one of many twists occurs and we realize what he’s capable of. That had to impress you in the script, because he is a horribly broken human being and a tragic figure.
SL: Sure. And here’s the deal: By the time you reach that “Whoa!” moment that you’re referring to, that I was referring to before during my reading of the script. By the time I read it and by the time I believe an audience sees it, they’ve already established feeling for this blind man. They've always established feelings to a certain degree of sympathy, to a certain degree of empathy, and certainly no question a degree of pity, along with terror. Now, in the old Aristotelian sense, the two ingredients for tragedy and what you make an audience feel are pity and terror. This guy has both of those things in spades, and therefore he is, as you just said yourself, a tragic figure, which means that there’s depth there. Just because you find out something heinous about him doesn’t mean you stop caring. In fact, that’s why, to me, this is such a success, why it transcends the genre.
Capone: Guillermo del Toro has always said you have to have empathy for the monster, or it doesn’t work.
SL: Oh, sure. That’s why FRANKENSTEIN is a classic and why DRACULA is a slightly lesser classic—still a fine film, but slightly lesser.
Capone: I can’t remember the last time I saw a film where silence, and the breaking of silence, is a weapon. Were you able to capture that even just a little while you were shooting it? Did things stay quiet and keep that level of tension?
SL: Well, yeah. But you’re shooting in a studio in Budapest, and you’ve got an extremely chatty Hungarian crew—a marvelous crew, I might add. But I will say, if I ever asked for quiet, I would put on my best military voice and things would go dead silent real quick. [laughs] But I’ve been on quieter sets, but it didn’t bother me, because I was going interior. That’s all part of the reason I was doing my thing.
Capone: I have to applaud you for throwing your hat in the DEADPOOL arena. When I heard that you were leading the charge on that idea, I noticed no one thought it was a bad idea. A lot of times when you hear about casting in a superhero movie, people are like, “That guy’s the wrong guy. He’s going to be horrible.” But when they heard your name, they were like, “That’s exactly the guy they should be looking at.”
SL: They’re the ones that started the whole thing. All I did was confirm it with one tweet. I thought it was witty. I was being witty. I said, “Let’s lay some Cable.” And then it went like that [snaps fingers], and still to this day. Keep beating the drum, that’s what I say.
Capone: Where are you with the AVATAR sequels? Because A) How the hell are you still in them, which I’m sure you can’t answer? and B) When are things going to start in earnest here in terms of work on these many sequels?
SL: Well, how am I still in them, I guess I would just quote Jim Cameron on that when he’s asked that and he leans forward in that intimidating way and says, “Hey. It’s science fiction.” There’s the answer to that. The other thing is we’re doing very, very well. It’s a massive saga, and it encompasses four films. I have made my way through over 75 percent of the epic.
Capone: You mean reading it?.
SL: Yeah, the reading of things. We’re getting there. We’re in good shape. We’ll be starting certainly early in the new year. But you know, the thing is, as you can imagine with a film like AVATAR, it’s not like the work hasn’t been going on. The design, the production design, the various worlds, and creatures and environments, that’s all being worked on.
Capone: I know that Cameron will get to a part in the script and go, “I wonder what would that look like?” And then he figures it out before he writes any more.
SL: That’s what he’s done, he creates problems in which he then needs to invent a technology and a new way to do it, and I believe that’s part of the quite perverse joy for him in this is creating these seemingly insurmountable problems, and then bringing aboard people who can be helpful and say, “This is what we’ve got to do.” So it’s a massive effort, but I have every expectation because I’m pretty intimately aware of what’s going. It’s going to be an absolute joy to behold.
Capone: Let’s talk about Michael Mann for a second. I’m fairly certain the first thing I ever saw you in was MANHUNTER, and then the same year that came out, I started college in Chicago, and then “Crime Story” debuted, so that got me excited about being in Chicago. Tell me about the importance of those two projects.
SL: Well, I was probably right off of “Death of a Salesman,” and Michael is always very, very aware of who’s hot and who’s not. He came for me for “Miami Vice,” which I couldn’t do at the time for one reason on another, and then the first ting he cast me in was MANHUNTER. And I did it, and while I was doing that, he asked me to do BAND OF THE HAND, which he was producing, and then during that we went out and said, “I’m doing a series and I want you to play a lawyer.” And I said, “You’re doing a gangster series? You’re doing a cops and gangster thing, and you want me to play a lawyer?” And he said, “No, no, no, he’s a cool lawyer. He’s really tough.” I said, “What’s his name?” He said, “His name is Steve Cooper.” And I said, “Steve Cooper? He’s a Jewish lawyer, right?” And he said, “Yeah.” I said, “Cooper is no good, and Steve is a shitty name, even though it’s my name.”
Capone: It’s mine too.
SL: [laughs] And so Michael says in his characteristic voice, “Oh yeah? Well then what do you think his name is?” And I said, “I think his name is Sydney, because that way he can be called Sydney, which is an elegant name, or Sid, which is a street name.” Michael thought about it and he said, “Nah. His name is David. David Abrams.” And you reach a point with Michael where you realize it’s futile to argue, because the more you argue the more entrenched he’s going to get. So from then on, we worked, and he’s an important guy in my life. I love Michael.
Capone: Do you have anything else coming up between YOU’RE NEXT and AVATAR?
SL: My own movie, BEYOND GLORY, which I wrote and act in, will be available on iTunes and other platforms on October 4. That’s a real labor of love. I hope you’ll see it. Basically, it’s everything I got about acting. It’s just me. I portray eight characters in it, all military.