An audience with Stephen Lang is like an acting master class – or perhaps a game of chess with an esteemed adversary. Not that he takes himself seriously, but the work – yes. Brando-like self-deprecation is not for him. He considers his craft a noble art. "Aside from politics, what else is there?" he says.
No sooner have we sat down than we are discussing great Shakespearean theatrical triumphs – and the odd debacle – of such luminaries as Anthony Hopkins and Paul Scofield. Lang believes the greatest King Lear he ever saw was Scofield’s. Having never seen Scofield, I veer towards Ian Holm.
In terms of character, Lang reminds me of playwright Edward Albee. He’s concentrated, intense, passionate, erudite and analytical, a master tactician at the top of his game, a film and stage buff for whom no film or production – regardless of its age or size – is too obscure. He can talk eloquently about British movies from the 1960s: Sidney Lumet’s The Hill (1965) and thirsty thespian Oliver Reed’s performance in The Trap (1966), for example, earn his plaudits.
With thousands of stage performances behind him – and a far longer memory span than mine – he can better any recollection. When I tell him I once saw Lauren Bacall in Sweet Bird of Youth on the London stage (1985) he tells me he saw distinguished stage actress Irene Worth in the same role. When I mention my pleasure at seeing Jack Lemmon on stage in Long Day’s Journey Into Night (in 1986) he cites the greatest theatrical performance he has ever seen – George C Scott in the Broadway production of Death of a Salesman.
Not that his tastes are snobbish – some of his favourite movies are The Wild Bunch (1969) and Mel Gibson’s Apocalypto (2006). His favourite actors – aside from Scott he mentions Ben Kingsley, Sean Connery, William Holden and, perhaps surprisingly, Ray Winstone – tells us of his preference for a naturalistic style. So-called bravura performers – Richard Burton and Peter O’Toole, for example – are not so much to his taste. He prefers the unobtrusive brilliance of chameleon-like actors such as Alec Guinness (he cites Guinness’ performance in David Lean’s Bridge on the River Kwai – 1956 – as one of the all-time gems) and Jason Robards. "The actor should not become more important than the role," he says.
Lang relishes not being recognised from part to part; he submerges into the characters he plays. When I meet him in his trailer on the set of Conan – currently shooting in Sofia – he looks completely different from his previous role in Avatar – and it’s not just down to the make-up department’s assiduous job. Only the blue eyes remain the same – sharp, accusing and challenging.
Of course, one of the dangers of being unrecognisable is that audiences overlook the quality of your acting. I’m reminded of John Hurt being told after The Elephant Man (1980) that he’ll never get credit for his role because nobody could see it was him. "I thought that was the whole idea," said a deflated Hurt.
I don’t immediately "assail" Lang with his recent standout performance as Colonel Quaritch in Avatar. I figure that Lang, although a courteous and reassuring man, is perhaps tired of the press junket surrounding it. I also suspect that he doesn’t suffer fools gladly – or otherwise.
He’s dressed as Conan’s adversary Khalar Zym – definitely the villain of the piece, although it’s not a term he likes – fresh from a scene where he has slain Conan’s father, played by Ron Perlman – an actor whom he’s known and liked for a long time. "I haven’t approached the character as a villain. Clearly there are many bad guys in the movie," he says. He sees himself as a character actor. Seldom the romantic lead, he always seeks to raise his anti-heroes beyond the one-dimensional. Lang quotes perhaps the most enduring villain of all time, Richard III. "And therefore, since I cannot prove a lover, to entertain these fair well-spoken days, I am determined to prove a villain."
Avatar cannot be overlooked any longer. Many think its theme of greedy humans plundering a planet resonates today. I take a deep breath. Was Quaritch – a muscle-bound machine soldier with a simplified vision of the enemy – a modern morality tale against the neo-conservative, colonialist agenda? I prick my own euphemism. Was it, perhaps based ever so slightly on...George W Bush? Lang’s brow furrows. He looks mortally offended. "Oh God no! Quaritch was an INFINITELY better military strategist and commander, and FAR more dynamic than George Bush," he says. "That never crossed my mind at all – no way."
Yet, he concedes, there are lessons to be drawn from Avatar. "Historically, America has been a beacon to the world," says Lang. "Yet sometimes we delude ourselves about our real intentions. Was it all about democracy in Iraq? Not exclusively. Perhaps it was more about oil, after all. However, I support the war in Afghanistan and" – here he surprises me just as I had him pigeon-holed as a liberal – "perhaps we should have finished off Saddam the first time around".
Lang is particularly good at playing military figures. He considers his greatest performance to be as General Stonewall Jackson in Gods and Generals (2003). Apart from Quaritch he’s notched up a recent cameo as another senior officer in Men Who Stare At Goats, a lukewarm George Clooney comedy currently on release – and he himself wrote and starred in a stage play called Beyond Glory, a one-hander about war veterans. He also played Colonel Jessep on stage, a role later made famous by Jack Nicholson in the movie version of A Few Good Men. "The military has always intrigued me, in particular how humans behave under the stress of conflict with all the humility and bravery involved," he says.
Lang, now 57, has certainly carved out a little niche for himself as martinets. The taut, lean physique so evident in Avatar is one he intends to nurture, describing himself as a gym junkie. "Having attained this level of fitness, I don’t intend to lose it," he says with a grin. "I don’t want people to say – ‘whatever happened to HIM?’" So he doesn’t smoke, drinks little and eats carefully. Longevity runs in the family. So does a strict work ethic. His father, a famous entrepreneur and accomplished philanthropist, is now over 90 and yet still goes to his New York office six days a week.
Lang is playing it long; he dismisses suggestions that it would have been better for his career if he’d had a big break like Avatar a decade earlier because he thinks he’s only just hitting his prime as an actor. When I remind him that Ernest Borgnine, one of his heroes from The Wild Bunch, is still acting at 93, Lang smiles. "I don’t mind being the old guy drooling in the corner when I get to be that age," he says, not entirely frivolously, one suspects.
His father, although a very wealthy man, offered only limited financial assistance to his children, believing that they should make their own way once they were given a good education. Kirk Douglas, the son of a penniless ragman, once said. "My kids (readers may be familiar with Michael!) never had the advantages I had. I was born poor." Before I finish, Lang repeats the mantra. He may be a rich man’s son but as he says, it was always made clear that "there was not an unlimited supply of wealth".
Some actors had a hard time of it with James Cameron, the director of Avatar. I cite Kate Winslet (star of Cameron’s earlier smash hit Titanic) as saying that she would be wary of working with Cameron again. Others are much less polite. Lang appraises his friend carefully. "You can’t dismiss rumours. It’s true that Jim is ferocious and intimidating but he’s also a good listener and brings a huge amount of fun to the set. He’s a man who’s very happy doing what he’s doing. He’s into learning about himself. Jim certainly doesn’t believe that success vindicates bad behaviour."
Perhaps Lang is saying that Cameron can be difficult but that it’s the search for artistic perfection that drives him.
Some critics thought that killing Quaritch at the end of Avatar was a mistake, removing the chance of Lang reprising his role but, as Lang points out with a wry smile, his "DNA is still intact", implying that, at least for him, a follow-up is not impossible.
He relishes Avatar’s success. "It’s been wonderful for my family because they’ve endured some ups and downs during my working life." He doesn’t even mind people coming up to him in the street and saying – jokingly – that they "hate" him. He admits, however, to being "disgusted" when Avatar failed to carry best film at the recent Oscars. "We (Cameron and Lang) weren’t that surprised because we saw it coming but even so – without offending the other films in question – I thought Avatar was best," he says. No doubt Cameron, bested by his ex-wife Kathryn Bigelow for The Hurt Locker, felt the same way.
Given Avatar’s box office bonanza, big movie offers should now start pouring in for Lang. Between 2003 and 2007 he acted mostly on the stage, but he concedes that acting on film is more lucrative at this point in his career. "Acting in a stage play really does take such a piece out of your soul," he says. In the pipeline is a production called Dance Tall, a murder mystery that could serve as the pilot for a TV series.
‘The perfect synthesis’
Unlike other actors who belittle their craft and occasionally made interviewers feel that getting blood out of stone was easier – Robert Mitchum and Brando come to mind – Lang is happy to talk of performances, both his own and other people’s. He has an unabashed admiration for certain actors and believes that talent should be used to the full. He has no time for the antics of Brando who regarded acting as a job unsuitable for adults and who, later in his career, had his lines fed to him through an ear piece. "I stoop to nobody in my admiration for some of Marlon’s early performances but it was so disappointing he did that, and so frustrating. I wanted to shake him," says Lang.
For Lang the great actors are those – like Humphrey Bogart – who really become somebody different without losing their star quality. "Bogart was the perfect synthesis of actor and star. His Queeg (The Caine Mutiny 1954) and Charlie Allnut (The African Queen 1951) were miles apart." One of the greatest performances on screen, he says, was George C Scott’s in Patton (1970). He also mentions Laurence Olivier in The Entertainer (1960) and Albert Finney in Under The Volcano (1984).
Formerly the co-artistic director of New York’s famed Actors’ Studio, along with veteran actress Lee Grant, Lang has now given way to Ellen Burstyn.
He has just two weeks’ filming in Bulgaria, his first ever visit, and is very impressed by the facilties and general level of professionalism at Nu Boyana.
We were debating the possible redemption of Mel Gibson following racist comments he made in 2006 – "a brilliant filmmaker...it’s not as though he’s killed anyone" when a knock at the trailer took Lang back to the world of Conan, 5000 years ago. My master class was over.