Stephen Lang Interview: 'Avatar' Star on His Current Role in the FOX Sci-Fi Series 'Terra Nova'
Versatile actor Stephen Lang began his formidable career in theatre, but is well known for his portrayal of Colonel Miles Quaritch in the 2009 epic science fiction film Avatar, written and directed by James Cameron. The film became the first film to gross more than $2 billion and stands as the highest-grossing movie of all time.
Avatar was nominated for nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture and Best Director, and won three for Best Cinematography, Best Visual Effects, and Best Art Direction. Cameron has revealed that Avatar 2 and Avatar 3 will be shot back to back and released in December 2014 and 2015 respectively.
“Of course, in anything you do, whether its Shakespeare or Chekhov, you have a responsibility to the integrity of the character. But, when you’re playing Stonewall Jackson, George Pickett, or Babe Ruth, you have a responsibility to the integrity of history as well. You really need to be mindful of that and to represent in a very accurate way.”
Audiences also know Lang from the historical epic Gods and Generals, in which he delivered a memorable performance as General Stonewall Jackson and from Gettysburg as the colorful and stalwart Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett.
Lang’s other film roles include Inspector Edgar Reinhardt in Christina, Khalar Zym in Conan the Barbarian, Texas Ranger Charles Winstead in Public Enemies, the villainous Ike Clanton in Tombstone, The Men Who Stare at Goats alongside George Clooney, Ewan McGregor, Kevin Spacey, and Jeff Bridges, and Last Exit to Brooklyn which garnered him universal acclaim in 1989.
On Broadway, Lang played Harold “Happy” Loman in Death of a Salesman and was nominated for a Tony Award for his lead role in The Speed of Darkness. Television appearances include Crime Story, The Equalizer, Babe Ruth (TV movie), The Outer Limits, Ed, Law & Order: Special Victims Unit, and The Bronx is Burning,
The busy actor’s most recent role is Commander Nathaniel Taylor in the FOX science fiction drama Terra Nova. The two-hour season finale airs Monday, December 19, 2011. FOX has deferred a decision on whether or not the series returns for a second season until at least January 2012.
The New York native has been married to Kristina Watson since 1980 and the couple has four children: Lucy, Noah, Grace, and Daniel.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): The Terra Nova two-hour season finale is December 19.
Stephen Lang: Right.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What’s going to happen?
Stephen Lang: Oh, how do I put it? The shit hits the fan! Many things come to a head, the future of the colony itself is at stake, and it turns into pretty much an all out brawl! It answers the questions that have been asked this season, and I think opens up new questions for season two as well … new possibilities.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Was the filming this season done completely in Australia?
Stephen Lang: Yes. We wrapped the season in mid-October. Now, we’re waiting for word from the network whether we’ll be renewed and if we’re renewed, we’re heading back.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Commander Nathaniel Taylor is a tough guy. Do you perform some stunts yourself?
Stephen Lang: Oh sure. I do as much as possible, as much as they’re comfortable with me doing. I tend to ride the motorcycle myself. I enjoy doing that. But, there are just certain things that don’t make sense for me to do (laughs). I think in the last episode, I jumped off a 100-foot cliff, and maybe in my youth I would’ve done it myself. But, I have a stunt guy that makes me look great.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Have you ever been hurt while performing a stunt?
Stephen Lang: I’ve been knocked cold a couple of times, but I’ve woken up, so I haven’t been hurt too badly. I’ve taken many scrapes, cuts and abrasions over the years. I’m an Atlas of pain (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Terra Nova features extraordinary visual effects. Is it difficult for an actor to concentrate in front of a green screen?
Stephen Lang: Well, it’s different. Acting can always be difficult or simple under any circumstances. Green screen presents its own challenge. In a way, it’s a very controllable thing, you know? It’s a controlled environment when we’re in green screen. It just requires you to use some of the prime tools you have, which is to say, you really have to use your imagination.
You have to be very specific as well, which of course you want to be anytime you’re working. But, green screen does demand that because you’re seeing things that are going to be put there later. And you really need that wedding to work … the wedding between you and the technology … you need that to work well.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Stephen, I enjoy your performances in military roles as well. Do you feel a heavy responsibility while playing such crucial characters in American History?
Stephen Lang: You bet! I always feel there is a special responsibility that you have. Of course, in anything you do, whether its Shakespeare or Chekhov, you have a responsibility to the integrity of the character. But, when you’re playing Stonewall Jackson, George Pickett, or Babe Ruth, you have a responsibility to the integrity of history as well. You really need to be mindful of that and to represent in a very accurate way. So, yeah, I do feel it.
It’s a pleasure to do that kind of research and to try to lift these guys from the pages of history and try to make them live and breathe. It’s a way of preserving our own heritage. I really like doing the characters. I’m a history fan anyway. I love history.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I do also. Stonewall Jackson (Gods and Generals, 2003) must’ve been a complex role to prepare for because the film delved into the man’s character. You even had to adopt his accent.
Stephen Lang: Yeah, I worked very hard on that dialogue. He’s from north Virginia and it’s a much more scrabble accent than the tidewater of say Robert E. Lee or George Pickett. So, I had to really work on that accent. I worked with Robert Easton who is one of the leading dialect coaches. I’m amazed I can still summon up that name. It’s amazing the things you can remember (laughs). But, he’s a fine dialect coach.
I just immersed myself in the literature. Jackson was the observer of observers because he was so singular, you know? So, there is a tremendous amount written about him and observations of him, so you can get a really clear picture. What emerges is a man of great contradiction … kind of a guy who is an Old Testament warrior with sort of a New Testament sensibility. In so many ways, he’s very ancient. He even had an ancient look to him. But, he was a very modern man in many ways. He was very holistic. We’d recognize him as a guy who was into self-improvement in a big way. Jackson was an interesting guy to play.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): You have been slated to play Abraham Lincoln in To Appomattox, the mini series event scheduled to air in 2013. Has production begun?
Stephen Lang: No. That’s all subject to a finalization of production dates, scheduling and deals. That’s something that I’ll certainly look forward to working on. But, that’s going to require a very very deep breath to really plunge in because, at last count, there were over 16,000 books written about Abraham Lincoln (laughs). I’m blessed to have two of the leading Lincoln scholars in the country as dear friends of mine, Gabor Boritt and Harold Holzer. Each one of them can hold me by the hand.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Will this be a character study as well as a Civil War story?
Stephen Lang: It’s a war story and, of course, centers very much on Ulysses Grant. But, the role Lincoln plays throughout is very vital.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Stephen, the million-dollar question is, will you be appearing in Avatar 2?
Stephen Lang: I can’t answer that question.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And how many times are you asked that question?
Stephen Lang: I get asked that quite a lot. Do I return? I don’t know. In what form do I return? I don’t know. James Cameron has been working hard on the scripts for Avatar 2 and Avatar 3. He’s such an imaginative and creative guy. Quaritch is a hard character to kill. That’s all I’ll say (laughs). But, then again, he took a couple of big arrows in the chest, so that could’ve put him down.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): But, I believe Quaritch’s DNA is floating around out there somewhere.
Stephen Lang: You got it, baby! As long as I got my DNA (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How would you describe James Cameron as a person and as a director?
Stephen Lang: He’s a dear friend of mine. He’s extremely focused. He goes after the work with great veracity, with great improvisational encouragement and with great humor, I might add. I never had anything less than a splendid day working with him. He’s passionate about what he does and so we always did well.
You know, my glib answer to that question is, “Jim is a sadist and I’m a masochist, so we work well together and vice versa.” But, he’s great. He leads by example, which is to say, you wouldn’t think of showing up on a James Cameron set with less than your “A” game because you know he’s coming every day with his “A” game.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Christina (2010) was released on DVD this past September. That was a three-character/one location film, correct?
Stephen Lang: Yes, it is a three-person cast, and it all takes place within the confines of an apartment. It was very cool because I was just coming off of Avatar and Public Enemies and of course, one was a vast film and the other one was a pretty huge film as well. Both of them were very long shoots in multiple locations, in Public Enemies’ case certainly, and lots of technology. And here I was, I went into a thing where it was just a challenge, just three actors basically in a room on a set with a lot of dialogue.
It was very intense. When I read it, I thought, “Oh, I want to do this!” I had no idea if I could or if I’d be any good in it, but thought it would be very challenging just to do the amount of work required every day and see if it actually plays. It’s quite a splendid film.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): And inspired by a true story.
Stephen Lang: I believe so. I believe that Larry Brand, the writer, came upon the story and was intrigued by it. So many times we want to talk about a war, the war. It all comes alive for you by telling one small story of one person. This is such a little corner of the world, in Berlin, six months after the end of World War II. You open the door to this apartment, and a light shines in on this peculiar, sad and mysterious story. I thought it was fascinating.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Absolutely. You’ve had quite a Broadway career also. Is that a more difficult stage for a performer as compared to film or television?
Stephen Lang: I love Broadway. I love working on the stage. It’s demanding, of course. You’re doing eight shows a week, so it just becomes a way of life. I’m very much at home in the theater and I have a particular love for Broadway. The theaters all have such history to them with ghosts and the idea of all these great actors who have been on the stage and in those dressing rooms before me. I always find that very inspiring. And I’m a New Yorker, born and bred, so it has always had a great meaning to me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Is it true you attended a Quaker boarding school when you were young?
Stephen Lang: I went to a Quaker college, Swarthmore College. I went to a Quaker boarding school. I don’t have a very good relationship with the school, so I don’t really speak about it because I don’t particularly want to promote them in any way.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Were your parents Quaker?
Stephen Lang: No, but my dad had gone to Swarthmore. He is New York Jewish and my mom is New York Irish Catholic. You put them together and you get me. I consider myself quite ethically Jewish, without being particularly religious (laughs). Although, I can leave that door open for the future, if I need it.
There are tendencies of Quakers which are quite wonderful. They’re good educators for sure. I think the whole decision by consensus is a good one, and certainly the specific nature of the religion is also something that is beneficial. They have a great social conscience just historically. Their social conscience is something that is very worthy.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): I believe they refuse to participate in war.
Stephen Lang: Yeah. And yet, one of the guys I’ve been really interested in over the last few years is Smedley Butler who is one of the most decorated Marines in the history of the United States. He received the Medal of Honor twice and would’ve received it a third time if he’d been eligible. Smedley was known as the “Fighting Quaker.” So, there are anomalies, you know?
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): There certainly are. Have you always wanted to be an actor, Stephen?
Stephen Lang: It’s funny. I think so many of the things I wanted to be were covered by being an actor because I really wanted to be Robin Hood or a pirate or a gunslinger. I had an active imagination that any boy would have, and I made the link up very quickly because as an actor you can do all that (laughs). But, I’ve always wanted to act. I’ve always felt like acting was a calling. That’s not to say I felt the calling to be a great actor or even a good actor, to be honest. I just felt the calling to be an actor. It was up to me to become passable at it.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Are any of your children in show business or in the arts?
Stephen Lang: Well, they all have an artistic bent. I have one who is the district attorney in the family; one is in the producing end of the film business, one is an illustrator artist, and another is an outdoor survival trip leader guy. None of them are actors, but they all understand what it’s about. They know how nuts I am, but I’m not going down that road (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Looking back over your career, is there one character you feel the closest to or is more memorable than the others?
Stephen Lang: You know, it’s a great question and sometimes I strive to come up with the answer, but they’re all your children. I guess you could say you love them all equally, but differently. I may have a special feeling for some of the bad guys because I feel like if I don’t love them, who will? For me to pick a favorite between Col. Quaritch or Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men or Babe Ruth, it would be too difficult.
I have a special affection for Stonewall. I have a real soft spot in my heart for Ike Clanton in Tombstone because he was such a cur. He was such a craven cur (laughs). I sort of loved his bravado that was backed up by absolutely nothing. My heart kind of went out to him. So, I have a special affection for Ike. He’s just the lowest of the low (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Sounds like you love the underdog.
Stephen Lang: There you go!
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Who are some of your acting heroes?
Stephen Lang: Two of my acting heroes would be Humphrey Bogart and George C. Scott. Scott gave probably my favorite performance on film and my favorite performance on stage as Patton and as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman, so I’d have to put Scott there. I’ve always loved Robert Mitchum. It’s a pretty long list of people I really admire.
I would say that the guy who I just really have come to love more and more is Paul Newman. To me, he was a wonderful synthesis of actor and star. The thing I like about Newman so much is that as he got older and as he matured as an actor, he just got better and better and better. There are many actors who kind of find what works, and they do it and that’s great.
Newman just rediscovered himself and started evolving in the early 70s. I always admired him very much, and I like the way he always had other outside interests and what he did with his life. So, I think Newman is a real role model for me.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): How do you stay in shape, Stephen?
Stephen Lang: I do a combination of weight lifting and yoga. I always try to strike the balance between strength and flexibility. I’ve realized as I’ve gotten older that I’m not as strong as I used to be. I accept that. That’s cool. The idea is to be as strong as I can, but to always be as flexible as I can be as well. That’s how I go about it.
In terms of diet, we all know what that’s about. There are no secrets to that. You know what you should and shouldn’t eat. This is the time of year where I’ve got to watch myself, but if I try to remain ten pounds underweight, then I have a lot I can play with. It’s very easy to put on weight, but it’s not so easy anymore to take it off. So, I like to stay as lean as I possibly can. It’s a lot of work, but you just have to be vigilant.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): What are your upcoming projects?
Stephen Lang: Tomorrow I’m starting the shooting of a movie called Pawn, which is a heist film. I’m doing it up in Connecticut with Forest Whitaker, Ray Liotta, and Michael Chiklis is actually producing it. I’m going to do that and that will be it for the year. I have a writing project I’m working on right now, and I’ll spend a good piece of January on that.
What I do next year depends on Terra Nova. If Terra Nova comes back, then I’ll act accordingly. We should know soon if it’s going to be renewed. Maybe I can do one project before I go back. If for any reason we don’t come back, it’s a different ballgame, and I’ll be looking around for something else.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Just to mention the last episode again, will there be a cliffhanger?
Stephen Lang: No. They really want this to be a contained show. That’s the right thing to do in my estimation. But, it also ends things, not with a cliffhanger, but with other doors that open. It gives you a whole avenue to go down if we come back. But, it answers all the questions about what Terra Nova was for, who the Sixers are, what my agenda is, what my son’s agenda is and all of the stuff that’s been brewing for the last ten episodes. It all gets answered in two ferocious hours of action with a lot of dinosaurs running around (laughs).
It would be a no brainer for renewal in most cases because we have over ten million viewers every week. The problem is that we’re very expensive and we’re on a killer night. Monday is tough. Dancing with the Stars garners twenty million people and Monday Night Football comes in at our second half hour. It’s not an easy night, but I’m pretty optimistic.
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Lastly, Stephen, do you ever see yourself retiring?
Stephen Lang: When Paul Newman was around my age, I remember him saying that his best years were ahead of him. I’m 59 and will turn 60 next year. Hell, I’d like to go for another 20 or 30 years at it. They always need some old fart, don’t they? I’ll be the old guy dribbling in the corner (laughs).
Melissa Parker (Smashing Interviews Magazine): Well, Ed Asner is 82 and Ernest Borgnine will be 95 next month. They are still going strong.
Stephen Lang: God bless them. I watched him last night in From Here to Eternity. I love Ernie Borgnine. I just love him. I was thinking that out of that whole cast, he’s the only one left. Good for him. I think if I ever said to my wife, “Honey, I think I’m retiring.” She’d say, “I don’t think so! I don’t think so!”
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