Avatar's Stephen Lang: 'It Only Took Me 35 Years to Get Here!'


Reader, I'm not sure how your 2009 has been going, but you certainly can't have had a better year than Stephen Lang. The Tony-nominated character actor has had one plum part after another, beginning the year in Michael Mann's Public Enemies, then kick-starting The Men Who Stare at Goats by running full-force into a wall. Still, each of those parts was a mere prelude to his role as the fearsome Quaritch in James Cameron's Avatar, who wreaks vengeance on the Na'vi forest with little more than a coffee mug and a smile.

As much fun as Lang has been on-screen this year, he's even more fun off it. I talked to the buff 57-year-old about his remarkable run of roles and the two things James Cameron can't do, and the erudite Lang was happy to oblige.

So tell me how you got the part of Quaritch in Avatar.

I was about to open a solo show in New York called Beyond Glory, which I wrote and acted in -- I portrayed three Medal of Honor winners from three different wars, so it was a military piece. Cameron saw a photo from it and remembered a meeting we had a long time ago and thought maybe it was a good match between myself and Quaritch. So I got a call and read the script and was kind of blown away from it, and on my day off, I went out and saw Jim and had some conversations. At one point, he slung a camera on his shoulder and he said to me, "You know, I see through the lens," and we just started doing some character work and improv. We wrapped that up and shook hands, I went to the airport, and I had gotten the part before I got to the airport. In a way, it wasn't difficult. It only took me 35 years to get here!

You said you'd met with Cameron a long time ago -- on what project?

I went in for one of the marines on Aliens. It was a really good meeting, which he remembered and brought up in our phone conversation right away. Of course, I remembered having met him, but he has a very specific memory for the details of the meeting and remembers the audition very well. I just remember I didn't get the part. [Laughs]

You've played a lot of military men in your career. Were there any of those roles that struck you as similar to Quaritch?

You know, I was the original Col. Jessup in A Few Good Men [on stage], and you could make a few parallels. What they have in common is an extreme sense of duty to the mission, and a vanity, in a way. To some extent, they're blinded by that vanity. I think the parallels end there, though, and I can't say I drew on Jessup in any conscious way when I was working on Quaritch, any more than I usually do. It definitely helps to have a familiar with the life, with the language, with the cadence, with the military bearing. There's a commonality there in that sense, but hopefully they're quite distinct.

Obviously, Cameron is an extraordinary tech-head, but how is he at coaxing a performance out of you?

To me, Jim is kind of a Leonardo of our time, which is to say that there's a very interesting, reciprocal marriage between artistic vision and engineering/scientific knowhow. The two things exist in him simultaneously, and I believe they feed each other as well. Within all the technological expertise, he has a very, very strong sense of story -- I mean, you only have to look at his films in the most cursory way to see how important story is to him. This is a roundabout way of answering, but I think he's every bit as in touch with the acting side as he is with the technological side.

I'll say also -- and this is just my impression of him -- that there's no job on a film set that Jim doesn't have total confidence that he can do as well as anyone, with two exceptions. One is catering. [Laughs] The other is acting. When somebody does do something well that you can't do, I guess there are a number of ways one can feel about that -- one can be envious and resentful, or one can be full of wonder. I think Jim is the latter. He appreciates what actors do and he works with them in a very free way.

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  • metroville says:

    How could you not have asked him about his role as the villainous "Party Crasher" in The Hard Way? (Having known Lang best for that part prior to 2009, I had presumed that he might not have been a good actor; now I realize that his performance in that film was drawn from his awareness that he was acting in The Hard Way.) My Michael J. Fox-inspired avatar is disappointed.