Stephen Lang is an actor and a playwright and probably a very familiar face. You’re most likely one of the hundred million or so people who saw him as Colonel Miles Quaritch in Avatar (2009). You’re rarer, and luckier, if you saw him opposite Dustin Hoffman on Broadway in Death of a Salesman (1984) at the start of his career. Maybe you caught him on tour with his one-man show, Beyond Glory, which has been staged sporadically, including a successful Off-Broadway run, for nearly a decade now. Perhaps best known for his military-style roles in films and TV projects like The Men Who Stare At Goats (above, deadpan, hilarious) or the historical epics Gettysburg (1993) or Gods and Generals (2003), Lang is a highly talented and versatile actor with a filmography that includes Manhunter (1986) and Tombstone (1993), and the TV series The Fugitive and Salem.
I spoke to Stephen this week about the forthcoming Avatar sequels, the metaphysics of performance, and writing his own show.
Charles Arrowsmith: A number of your best-known roles have seen you play military men, and your play Beyond Glory was a tribute to the valor of the US armed forces. For you, what sort of calculus lies behind demonstrating appropriate respect for the courage of real individuals and, as Hollywood has often done (including, arguably, in Avatar), offering a critique of the military-industrial complex?
Stephen Lang: Playing any role, military or otherwise, is far more instinctive and intuitive than calculated; the “calculus” probably only becomes apparent in retrospect. The preparation is exacting, but neither mathematical or scientific (although it would be an interesting approach). It is a process of acquiring the physical skill sets, and, through research, rehearsal, improvisation, and a sort of emotional sifting and mulching, arriving at a place where choices inevitably make themselves, where the actor disappears and the character emerges. I have respect for every role I play — which is not to say that every character has self-respect — and that carries an obligation to the integrity of the role. I am far less interested in being appropriate than in being honest and complete. So, I don’t draw any particular distinctions between military and non-military roles. However, drama is conflict, pure and simple, and so war can make for good drama.
CA: Tell us a little bit more about the process of putting a show like Beyond Glory together [watch clips from the show here]. What’s the balance of responsibility between “truth” and drama?
SL: Journalist Larry Smith conducted interviews with approximately thirty living Medal of Honor recipients in 2002. The result was Beyond Glory, published in July 2003. Larry, who is a pal, gave me an advance copy because the subject is of interest to me. The book knocked me out; there is a straightforward authenticity in every story, and the voices of the men themselves came ringing through so clearly. I felt it was a terrific piece of journalism in that the writer facilitated without ever intruding — you feel that you are with each man. I began noodling around with a chapter — I just felt that there was theater in there — and I “reduced” the chapter to a bullion cube of drama. Larry Smith was pleased and delighted by the effort. And then it became a process of improvising, editing, readings at The Actors Studio and The Flea Theater. Eventually I did a week long workshop which led to the premiere production in April 2004. That’s not even a nutshell description — it was a one-foot-in-front-of-the-other process, very joyful and fulfilling. The show is completely truthful, though perhaps not truly complete. Well, the show is complete but maybe truth is not. I mean, the show is necessarily selective, both in terms of event and biography — I work in swift strokes. It is more painting than photograph, you dig?
CA: You’ve shared the stage with everyone from Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich (in Death of a Salesman) to Quentin Tarantino and Marisa Tomei (in Wait Until Dark). Finish this sentence: The single most transcendent moment I have experienced onstage was when…
SL: It has been my experience that there comes an onstage moment in every role (hopefully) when the thought and the effort evaporate and disappear and you are both driving and along for the ride. It’s more than exhilarating when it happens, it’s actually mystical. It’s arriving at a state of simplicity costing pretty much everything. It’s not something that I count on happening or take for granted, but through toil, sweat, grief, the sheer hard work of turning over the soil of the role, I can create the condition where something will grow. It’s like repeatedly striking a flint and finally there is a conflagration. I’m mixing my metaphors here, sorry. It’s a “Eureka!” moment I’ve had many times: Hamlet, A Few Good Men, Nijinsky, Caligula, Alceste in The Misanthrope. I remember when it happened for Hoffman, Malkovich, and I in the very difficult restaurant scene in Death of a Salesman. It was spooky good. So, there is not a single transcendent moment for me, but many elusive moments — and this, I think, is what creates the stage addiction, the memory of it having happened and the desire to have it happen again. Or something like that.
CA: You signed on for the three Avatar sequels, which is great news. What I’ve always loved about James Cameron’s movies is his ability to create a palpable sense of dread at times of high suspense. What do you think he brings to cinematic storytelling?
SL: Jim Cameron is one of the all-time great storytellers of cinema. Quite apart from his command of the technology, he has a wicked and cunning wit, and a deep sense of romance. Whether it be on board the Titanic, in the deepest ocean abyss, or on Pandora, he creates worlds of intense beauty and overwhelming danger — he creates extreme jeopardy. And his characters are absolutely relentless: Ripley, Rose, Sarah Connor, Sully, the Terminator, and, of course, Quaritch — in this sense, they are all reflections of Jim because he is about the most relentless dude I know. It is one of the great blessings of my life to be part of the unfolding Avatar saga. The first sequel will be released in December 2017, followed by two more in December 2018 and December 2019. We are shooting all three simultaneously so it should be a pretty fascinating clusterfuck.
CA: What’s the best book you’ve read lately?
SL: The best book I’ve read lately is Lincoln and the Power of the Press by Harold Holzer. A minutely researched examination of the sometime subtle, often brutally blatant, always wary and usually vicious relationship between the politicians and publishers of the mid-nineteenth century. It’s a sweeping saga with larger than life players, starring Horace Greeley, James Gordon Bennett, Henry Raymond, Stephen Douglas, and Abraham Lincoln. It’s great history, and reads like a big-ass novel.
CA: Thanks, Stephen!
Stephen Lang will appear at Runnin’ Wild, the House of SpeakEasy Gala, on January 28 at City Winery. Tickets can be purchased here. We will return to our regular pricing for our Seriously Entertaining show No Return on March 9.
Tweets by @IAmStephenLang