GREAT BARRINGTON — Before he became (what he refers to as) a “blue Lego” to his grandchildren in “Avatar 2: The Way of Water,” Stephen Lang had built an impressive acting resume on stage and on screen. One of his own theatrical works, in fact, led to his casting in two major biggest box office hits.
Lang will be interviewed by WAMC’s Joe Donahue at 7 p.m. at the Mahaiwe Theater in Great Barrington. After the discussion, the Mahaiwe will screen “Last Exit To Brooklyn,” a well-received 1989 film set on the mean streets of 1950s Brooklyn.
In a phone interview with The Eagle, Lang said his road to the role of Colonel Quaritch in “Avatar” began when he did his one-man play, "Beyond Glory," in 2007 in New York City’s Roundabout Theatre. The play, which Lang wrote and starred in, tells the story of eight Medal of Honor recipients.
Lang recalls that Margery Simkin, the casting director for “Avatar” and a “theater rat,” saw a half-page newspaper ad for the play, and impressed by Lang’s military bearing, recommended that writer-director James Cameron consider him for the role of Quaritch. Lang flew out for an audition and interview with Cameron, who knew Lang from his audition for 1986’s “Aliens,” and got the role while flying back to New York.
“I made my own luck. I wrote the play,” Lang said. “But how fortunate was I that Margery saw that half-page ad? I think Cameron saw that photo and said, ‘that’s my guy.'”
“I can tell a version of that story to a group of actors that goes on for 45 minutes and brings them to tears,” Lang said with a laugh.
“Avatar,” released in 2009, is set in the mid-22nd century on the lush world of Pandora, a moon circling a planet in the Alpha Centauri system. The moon possesses a rare mineral that attracts the interest of humans, who begin colonizing it.
Because the moon’s atmosphere is poisonous to humans, they must interact with the natives of Pandora, the Na’vi, through genetically engineered Na’vi bodies — the avatars of the title — linked to human minds.
Quaritch heads a military unit tasked with wiping out the Na’vi resistance to the mining colony. He is a formidable foe, ruthless, determined and bulky.
“The Na’vi are fluid, lithe, and Jim wanted Quaritch to be as different from them as possible,” says Lang in explaining his formidable appearance. “I’m big, I’ve always worked out, and Jim said, ‘Get as big as you can get.’”
Quaritch’s role in what Cameron intends to be a series of films appears to be over at the end of “Avatar,” but Lang says that Cameron told him that Quaritch would return in the “Avatar” sequels. When “Avatar 2” arrived in theaters last year Quaritch was back, but this time as a blue-hued Na’vi avatar.
“I love performance capture, it is essentially advanced acting,” says Lang about doing a role that is in part computer generated. He also relished the opportunity to continue as Quaritch.
“You are the custodian, the steward, of your character,” explains Lang, adding that in the case of Quaritch he felt a responsibility to Cameron “and the great people at WETA [the New Zealand-based special effects house] to do right by the role as it moved into the CGI realm."
Looking forward to “Avatar 3,” which was filmed along with “Avatar 2,” Lang says that “Things are going to get real gnarly. This is a guy who really thought he knew who he was. But as he becomes enmeshed in the Na’vi’s spiritual culture it is filled with opportunities and pitfalls.” The third Avatar movie comes out in December of 2024.
The popularity of the two films is attested to at the box office, where they have grossed nearly $6 billion globally. The look of the films, which is truly otherworldly, is a large reason for that success, and Lang cites a couple others.
“Pandora is a paradise, and like any kind of Eden it runs the risk of being overrun from without or within” says Lang. “That’s a story that resonates in any culture.”
He adds that the “Avatar” films offer escapism, a crucial element in the popularity of movies through the decades.
“Back in the dark days of the Depression, people flocked to theaters to watch screwball comedies,” says Lang. “That need to escape still exists. And when it comes to having a vision of what film can do and telling a story, Jim Cameron is second to none.”
The Columbia County resident has roots in New York City and an interesting family.
His late father, Eugene Lang, was a prominent entrepreneur and philanthropist. His presence in the NYC business world brought him into contact with the Trump family.
“My father detested the Trumps,” Lang recalls. “That’s no secret. They were in the neighborhood but had a very different mindset.”
He remembers his father telling him of an encounter with Donald Trump.
“He was at a board meeting that Trump made all about himself,” said the actor. “My father was the only one who stood up and said, ‘Will you shut up, this has nothing to do with you.’”
Lang, who is married to Kristina Watson, speaks with pride about their daughter Lucy Lang, who was appointed New York State inspector general by Gov. Kathy Hochul.
“It’s a unique position, outside of politics,” says Lang. “She’s trying to make government work for people.”
Asked to look back at highlights of his career, Lang cites his teaming with John Malkovich as the sons of Dustin Hoffman’s Willy Loman in a 1985 television adaptation of “Death of a Salesman” as particularly satisfying because it went on to be used in acting schools.
He says people come up to him to compliment him for his performance as the outlaw Ike Clanton in 1993’s “Tombstone.” A disappointment is that 2018’s “Mortal Engines,” which was planned as a trilogy, didn’t do well at the box office.
“I really liked that character,” said Lang of the evil Shrike. “There was a lot more that I wanted to do with him.” (For such an affable guy Lang has played more than his share of villains.)
But while the 70-year-old Lang laughingly says that “A lot of my work happened a long time ago,” he can look forward to more work besides the “Avatar” series. In fact, the actor has four movies awaiting release dates.
In “Avenue of the Giants,” Lang plays a Holocaust survivor. Lang is legendary boxer Willie Pep’s trainer in “The Featherweight.” In “Muzzle” he is a “canine cop whisperer.”
Lang describes “Hellfire” as a “Spaghetti Western set in a dystopian universe. I’m a ‘man with no name’ type who gets to beat up dozens of bad people. My kind of movie.”
“You keep throwing stuff out there to see what sticks,” says Lang laughingly of the process of movie-making. “It’s like spaghetti.”
IF YOU GO
STEPHEN LANG TRIBUTE EVENT
What: Berkshire International Film Festival 2023 honoree tribute events
Where: The Mahaiwe Performing Arts Center, 14 Castle St., Great Barrington
When: June 3
4 p.m. Screening of "White Irish Drinkers"
5-6:30 p.m. Cocktails and dinner-by-the-bite at BIFF tent behind Town Hall. Catered by The Old Inn On The Green Catering & Events. Open to sponsors, filmmakers, all-inclusive and Tribute Night passholders.
7 p.m. Special Tribute Event: Stephen Land in conversation with WAMC's Joe Donahue at the Mahaiwe. Open to all passholders and ticketholders.
8:15 p.m. Screening of "Last Exit to Brooklyn."
Information, tickets and passes: biffma.org