Stephen Lang is a man of many talents. I first encountered him as attorney David Abrams in Michael Mann’s 1980s TV series, though he’s probably best known as the villainous Col. Quaritch in James Cameron’s Avatar and Ike Clanton in Tombstone with Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer.
But Lang has a long and celebrated theater career that includes his Tony-nominated performance as Lou in The Speed of Darkness, Happy in the Dustin Hoffman revival of Death of a Salesman, Colonel Jessep in A Few Good Men, and Mike Tallman alongside Quentin Tarantino and Marisa Tomei in Wait Until Dark.
His own play, Beyond Glory, premiered in Washington, D.C. and played at the Goodman Theatre in Chicago, the Roundabout in New York City, and a USO tour to various military bases and battleships around the world. In 2010, Lang received the Patriot Award from the Congressional Medal of Honor Society for his theatrical and charitable works for the U.S. military.
Look for him next year in To Appomatox, a TV miniseries in which he plays Abraham Lincoln, with Rob Lowe as Ulysses S. Grant and Will Patton as Robert E. Lee.
I recently caught up with Lang, who discussed playing Mary Shannon’s father, James Wiley Shannon, on In Plain Sight. “There are some roles where you think, ‘I can do that in my sleep,’” he said. “But this one had some bite to it. And occupying the screen with an actress of Mary McCormack’s caliber… that’s challenging, because she’s a formidable actress, and there’s something very daring about her.”
Read on for Lang’s thoughts on playing military characters, his dream list of people he’d love to work with, and wanting to do comedy.
Are there certain types of characters you like to play?
I like the idea of playing somebody where a toll has been taken on him over the years. Sometimes I think of that wonderful line Henry Fonda says at the end of Once Upon a Time In The West. Charles Bronson looks at him and says, ‘You’re good and bad,’ and Fonda says, ‘Just a man.’ I feel that way about so many of the characters I play. You’re just trying to find the person and then let others decide whether he’s a hero, a villain, or somewhere in between. It’s probably a product of having worked with Michael Mann a lot, because he’s a guy who threads that gray area in almost all of his work.
After playing a father in White Irish Drinkers, what appealed to you about playing Mary Shannon’s father on In Plain Sight?
I like the idea of playing a guy on the lam. I like the idea of playing a miserable father who shows up after 30 years and says, ‘Hi, honey, here I am.’ It’s bizarre and inexplicably a difficult thing to do. That’s got an appeal to me.
After doing lots of special effects-heavy projects like Avatar and Terra Nova, is it nice to do something a little more grounded in reality?
The first thing I did when I got to In Plain Sight was ask, ‘Where’s the green screen?’ But it’s nice to get into this century, wear something that isn’t military, and tell a human story.
You’ve had a long history as a theater actor. Did that help you transition to CGI-heavy work and help your ability to work with things you can’t see?
Sure. I mean, on some level, acting is the art of pretend and you have to have a highly cultivated sense of imagination. You have to be able to see things that aren’t there, whether you’re working with a green screen or on stage or on the radio. So it’s just something that we cultivate.
Is there a particular genre you enjoy more than others?
I like them all. I love scenes that are emotional give and take, but action sequences are great to do and have their own unique demands and requirements. So I take it as it comes, and hopefully, you get a good balance of stuff. I rarely get to do anything of a comic nature, which is unfortunate because I’m very funny.
Will you try to do more comedy in the future?
We’ll see. My agent’s sitting there saying, ‘Stephen Lang isn’t funny. Stephen Lang kills people.’
You’ve played a lot of military people, soldiers, warriors … what is it about those roles you like and why do you keep getting offered those types of roles?
It’s a good question. I’d love to move outside of that, because I feel like I’ve got a lot of range. But I’ve always been interested in military stuff … the nature of courage, the nature of duty, the concept of humility and selflessness. So much of the time, military figures are the basis for drama and conflict.
Any advice to young actors?
Just keep at it. Don’t do it unless you have to do it, and if you have to do it, keep your instrument in shape and keep getting better. If you’re not getting better, you’re standing still. If you’re standing still, you’re petrified. If you’re petrified, you’re not good to anybody in this business. So, just continually develop your craft.
Anyone you’d love to work with?
I’ve always wanted to do a film with Martin Scorsese. I’d love to work with Jack Nicholson. I have worked with Meryl Streep, but I’d love to work with her again. It’s a pretty long list, to be honest, because there are so many talented and brilliant people out there.
Any role you regret turning down?
I’ve had a good eye for things as a rule. There are things I haven’t been able to do because you can’t be in two places at once. But I feel very happy where I am, and you know, it’s that old butterfly effect thing. If you change one job even 20 years ago, I wouldn’t be sitting here talking to you right now. The entire trajectory would have been different.