SwatTalk: "Avatar: The Way of Water" A Conversation About Acting, Filmmaking, and Criticism
with Stephen Lang '73
Recorded on Monday, Dec. 19, 2022
Patricia White Good evening to everyone. We're so excited to have you all here. My name's Patricia White, and I'm a professor of Film and Media Studies at Swarthmore College, and I'm just thrilled that we have such a great turnout. But I'm not surprised because we have a very special SwatTalk tonight. And I wanna say that the Alumni Council put this all together. And our talk is sort of timed for the holidays, or more specifically, timed for a holiday release. That is the year end release of 2022's biggest film, "Avatar: The Way Of Water". This is the first of James Cameron's sequels to the legendary 2009 film, which is the highest grossing film of all time. Hope the next ones carry that forward. I hope that some of you have had a chance to catch the film over the weekend. Hence the timing of the talk. We've given you just that opening box office weekend. The film took in almost half a billion dollars globally, so it's doing well. And we're extremely fortunate to have two people, very eminent Swarthmore alums, to discuss the film "Avatar: The Way Of Water", and the broader context of US film and media culture. And first of all, Stephen Lang, class of 1973, honorary degree recipient from the college in 2010, who came back from the dead to reprise his role, or the steaming dead, as Colonel Miles Quaritch in the film. Lang will be interviewed, or there'll be a back and forth by prominent author in film and cultural critic, Peter Biskind, class of 1962. And before I introduce them in a little more detail, I just wanna thank those behind the scenes who made this happen on Alumni Council and in the Office of Alumni and Parent Engagement. BoHee Yoon, who has graciously lent her apartment to Stephen, so that he can make his next wave water gig at Lincoln Center. He's gonna be whisked away in a car right as we end, so he can get there by 9:15, so we'll be efficient. BoHee, thank you. Dina Zingaro, Jason Zengerle, Geoff Semenuk, and the staff in Alumni and Parent Engagement, and also Stephen Lang's team, who I'm sure have helped you get through these whirlwind of gigs around the opening of the film, which I'm sure will continue. I'm gonna give a little introduction to Stephen and to Peter. And the format will be that Peter will probably ask most of the questions to Stephen at first. I may jump in. And then half an hour in, we'll start taking questions from the Q and A function, so you can use the chat, but we won't pick up questions from there. Q and A is where you put your questions. I'm delighted to welcome Stephen Lang, who's an actor renowned for his performances on stage, screen and TV. In addition to perhaps his best known role as Colonel Miles Quaritch, Lang's also received quite recently quite a bit of a claim for his role in "The Thriller". 2016's "Don't Breathe", and its recent sequel. Other very recent roles include "The Lost City", "The Independent", and on TV, the recurring role in "The Good Fight". His extensive film credits include "Manhunter", "Last Exit To Brooklyn", one of my favorites, "Tombstone", one of many people's favorites, and is also celebrating an anniversary. We might hear a little bit more about that. "Gettysburg", which is a film that also is in Stephen's wheelhouse as a somebody who's as a scholar, who's interested in Gettysburg. And he's written a book called "The Wheatfield", an illustrated telling of The Battle of Gettysburg. A couple other films, "Gods and Generals", "Public Enemies", "Conan The Barbarian", just a wonderful filmography, great characters. He's also had an extensive career on Broadway, receiving a Tony Award nomination for his role in "The Speed Of Darkness", and appearing in "A Few Good Men", "Death Of A Salesman", among others, as well as in more than a hundred performances of his solo play, "Beyond Glory". He's also a playwriting screenwriter, and I mentioned a writer, and a longtime member of the Actors Studio, where he sits on the board of directors and has served as a vice president and co-artistic director, in the early 2000s. He's actively involved in the philanthropic activities of the foundation, established by his father Eugene M. Lang. It's wonderful to have Stephen here, but I think it's really special to have Peter to talk to Stephen. Peter Biskind, 62, whose book's on American film history are featured prominently on my course syllabi. Biskind is the author of "Seeing is Believing", about American ideology and films of the 1950s. The classic, "Easy Riders, Raging Bulls", about the new Hollywood of the 1970s. "Down and Dirty Pictures", And now we learn how down and dirty they really are, about the explosion of indie filmmaking in the 1990s with a focus on Miramax and Sundance. "Star", a biography of Warren Beatty. And recently, "The Sky Is Falling", how vampires, zombies, androids, and superheroes made America great for extremism. Great, great title and super insightful. He was the editor of American Film Magazine, founding editor of Premier Magazine, and he's a contributor to Vanity Fair, Esquire, the Nation, many other publications, and has a new book as yet untitled about post network television from HBO through the streamers. So, I think this is a particularly fortuitous pairing because many of Lang's characters really are prisms of the complexity of American national identity and American values that Peter examined so astutely in his writing. I wanna welcome both of our guests, and I'm going to allow Peter to pose a question to Stephen, or Stephen if you wanna have some words to say at the beginning, that's fine too.
Stephen Lang ’73 Thank you, Patty. Thanks for such a gracious introduction. It's good to be here. Hello to all my Swarthmore alums and colleagues. Thanks for joining us. And Peter, it's always good to see you. So, here I am. Ask away.
Peter Biskind ’62 Okay, all right, well, the first obvious question is what got you interested in acting?
Stephen Lang ’73 I think probably television got me interested in acting. It was probably watching "Robinhood" and "The Adventures of Zaro" and "Rin Tin Tin". It's not that I wanted to be an actor. I wanted to be a banded, or I wanted to be a cowboy. I wanted to be an astronaut. I had a good, sort of a fervent imagination, and acting seemed to be a great way to do it. What I really think is that I had a calling. I had a calling to be an acting. Not to be an actor. And it's not unlike when they talk about a calling to become a priest. And that's not to say that the calling means I'm gonna be a great actor or even a good actor. But I do think that I knew the profession that I belonged in from a very early age.
Peter Biskind ’62 Did you do any acting at Swarthmore?
Stephen Lang ’73 I did. I was a bit of an outlier in terms of the department, although when I got there, there was no department, per se, it was extracurricular. But I did. I had the opportunity. I acted in "Hedda Gabler" in my freshman year, and I played the Scottish King there. And I directed "Waiting for Godot". And I also wrote and start in two Hamburg shows during my time there. And my grades. I worked very, very hard in the theater and my grades reflected that. I was definitely a... I'll take a C anytime.
Peter Biskind ’62 So, when you graduated, were you already determined to become an actor?
Stephen Lang ’73 I thought I'd give it a shot. I remember getting a call from my sister Jane, another Swarthmore alum, who said, "Come on down to Washington and tell me what you're going to do with your life." So, I did. I went down there and I stayed with her. And I got a job at the Folger Theater, first on the crew. I was banging nails for them. And then I auditioned for "Henry IV, Part 1", and I got a small role in that. And some of the actors who were in the show had come down from New York to do it. And they encouraged me to come to New York, which was easy 'cause it was coming home for me, since I am a New Yorker. And I just came and started knocking on the doors and auditioning. And one thing always led to another. It was always hopeful enough to continue on.
Peter Biskind ’62 How did you segue from the theater into into movies?
Stephen Lang ’73 Well, I think I really was... I'm not a conservatory trained actor, and so I had a certain amount of insecurity when I came to New York. I was well educated. I knew Shakespeare well. I'd gotten a thorough grounding from Professor Sue Snyder at Swarthmore. I knew my Milton, but I hadn't gone to Julliard, I hadn't gone to Yale School of Drama, so I really felt in many ways that I was flying solo here. I really wanted to learn to act, so I was taking jobs in regional theaters all over, and I really spent the 1970s doing that. I did my season at the Guthrie, and that was wonderful. And I learned to become an actor. And then when I came back to New York, I would audition and I auditioned for the thing that changed everything for me. I had done some TV, gotten a shot here and there. Very significantly, I did a show for PBS called "Anyone for Tennyson?", in which I played Percy Bysshe Shelley. And it's memorable really because that's where I met Tina. I met my wife on that show, so that was an event. But the thing that changed things for me a bit and really got me into film was when I auditioned for "Death Of A Salesman" and was cast as Happy in Dustin Hoffman's "Death Of A Salesman", so it was Dustin, John Malkovich played Biff, and I played Happy. And that was one of those shows that everybody had to go to. It was a must see, sold out, standing room only, every performance we ever gave. And that created some opportunities in film. And that's how I made my debut in a film directed by Bud Yorkin called something. It had a title. But I'll tell you the cast. It was Gene Hackman, so I'm acting right away with a true hero of mine. Ann-Margret. I'm acting with somebody, who I absolutely was passionately in love with. The great Ellen Burstyn, who went on to become a very, very dear friend of mine. Amy Madigan, Brian Dennehy, Ally Sheedy. Just a really, really fine cast of an ensemble, so it was a great way to break into features.
Peter Biskind ’62 Well, and something like "Death Of A Salesman". Was it intimidating? Must have been intimidating to work with people like Dustin Hoffman and John Malkovich.
Stephen Lang ’73 Well, it was very... On stage, Dustin... I wouldn't say I found it particularly intimidating. We all worked well together. There was an equality I felt. Dustin set the tone. He's a relentless searcher. A true artist in that respect. Never satisfied. Intimidating? I just wanted to be good. And I had done the play before. I knew that play better than Arthur Miller knew that play. I can't say that I've been intimidated over the years, here and here and now and then, but not so much there. When we got in to make the film of "Death Of A Salesman", it was a little bit different. That was tougher for me, yeah, definitely. It was tougher because I think Dustin felt the need to be definitive. When you're working on stage and you're doing eight a week... Or in Dustin's case we did six a week. When you're doing six a week, you always have the next performance, so you're always evolving and changing. But when we were gonna do the Film of "Death Of A Salesman", it was very important to him that we do it definitively. And that puts some pressure on all of us I felt.
Peter Biskind ’62 When you said there were times where you were intimidated, like when, who?
Stephen Lang ’73 Who intimidates me as a director or as an actor?
Peter Biskind ’62 As an actor, director, whatever.
Stephen Lang ’73 I don't know. And intimidates not the right word. I try to stand up for myself if I can. I've worked with some tough cookies. I did a picture with Seagal and we could do a whole, we don't wanna spend a whole lot of time.
Peter Biskind ’62 No, let's not do that. Let's not go there. Do you wanna talk a little bit about the difference between acting in movies and acting on stage?
Stephen Lang ’73 I guess. Acting is... Fundamentally, I think acting is acting. And particularly as I get older and as I continue to try to master both the art and the craft of acting, I do believe it's really a question of being as simple and as honest as one possibly can. I think that the differences between working on stage and working on film are essentially differences in degree. That you will hear people say, well, you need to be bigger on stage than on film. But I don't know. If you look at an actor as great as Jack Nicholson. Jack Nicholson, he works very big sometimes, quite often, it seems to me. I'm not sure what to say about it. I think maybe I've been doing it for so long and going back and forth that it all seems quite organic to me.
Peter Biskind ’62 But in film, you act out of sequence often.
Stephen Lang ’73 But of course you rehearse out of sequence too. But that is true. That's why I say it becomes so organic to me that I don't think about it. But absolutely, that's an obvious difference. When you're working out of sequence. When you finish a scene, a tough scene on a film, there's a real feeling of being purged because you're done with it. Hopefully you got it right, but you're done with it. And there's always that scene in a movie, the one that you're dreading. Whether it's the love scene, or the confession scene, or the whatever, the attempted suicide scene or something. The one that you're dreading. And once it's done, it's done. Of course, if you're doing Hamlet, you have to contemplate suicide eight times a week. And it's just that much more difficult, I guess. But I have no preference between the two. I love working in both areas. Certainly, I've been working far more in film than on stage for a while now.
Peter Biskind ’62 Well, you've worked with some major directors. You did "Manhunter" with Michael Mann in 1986. And then you also worked with Sidney Lamette and Robert Altman. I'm curious about what your take on these various directors is.
Stephen Lang ’73 Wow. I feel-
Peter Biskind ’62 And they're very different.
Stephen Lang ’73 Yeah, they're different. And I feel I'm so fortunate I've worked with those guys. Bob Altman, Robert Altman, was just great, just great. I loved Robert Altman so deeply. I love his movies. And then working with him was such a wonderful, companionable experience. The whole thing, you'll hear other actors say, is it was a party with Bob. You get together for dailies. There's always meals involved. And he was just a incredible. He could be very gruffy, big. He's a powerful guy, but he's just a sweetheart. And his wife, Catherine, who was always with him, just leavened everything as well. But he was a sharp director. The thing I did with him was called "Killer App". And it was written by Garry Trudeau. And this was gonna be a series. And I was playing the villain of the series. Surprise. And great part, based on a combination of one of the... What's his name? The guy who founded Apple. And it's a combination of Satan and Steve Jobs. This character, I've played. And Bob was directing it and it was for Fox. He went in and the studio executives made the mistake of giving him notes. Which that should be normal, right? And Bob told me. He related this to me. He said, "And I said to them, I'm Bob Altman. Who the hell are you?" And he scared them. He pure and simple scared them. And so they didn't move forward with the show 'cause they were frightened of Bob and what he would do. And I was saying, can't you just be nice, man? I wanna do this show. But then I did another one with him called "Trixie" that he produced, and Alan Rudolph directed. That was good. I wished... I would've loved to have done more with him. Lumet was a great director. Of course Lumet comes from the theater and from live television as well. And Sidney, he'd rehearse the stuff just really... He'd tape everything out and it would be rehearsed, just like doing an old Broadway play in a way. And then you'd do it. He was a pleasure to work with. A very wonderful man.
Peter Biskind ’62 Michael Matt has a reputation of being a real tough guy.
Stephen Lang ’73 Uh-huh.
Peter Biskind ’62 Is that your experience?
Stephen Lang ’73 Yeah, Michael is a tough guy. He can be quite autocratic, but I love him, and I've worked for him a lot. Mike kind of... My mission, or my modus operandi with Michael is essentially, if he says jump, I say, how high, 'cause I don't wanna get in a debate with him. Because it can... Now, with Cameron, with Jim, I'll debate all day. I'm just completely happy to go toe to toe. But Michael, he's gonna win. It's just no point to it. I circumvent it if I can. But he's a great director. I just saw him the other night. He came to the premier of "Avatar" in LA, and I hadn't seen him in four or five years. It's great to see him. I hope we'll do another one together.
Peter Biskind ’62 When did you join The Actors Studio?
Stephen Lang ’73 I think I joined in 1979. I auditioned for the studio. I didn't have a home. Remember, I said before, I'm not a Julliard guy, I'm not a Yale guy? I never really had a network or a home. A friend of mine, an actor who I'd worked with in Pittsburgh, I did Stanley Kowalski in Pittsburgh. And he said, "Lang, you are studio. You are studio." So, I went and I auditioned for the studio. And after my audition, it truthfully, I said to myself, it doesn't matter if I get in or not, because I'll never do better work than I just did then. I did an adaptation of a scene from Camus' "Caligula", that I rewrote, essentially. I did it and I was admitted to the studio. That's been my home, for better or for worse, since, gee, now for 45 years, 43 years.
Peter Biskind ’62 Wait, who did you study with? There are a number of famous acting teachers there.
Stephen Lang ’73 You don't really study at the studio. It's really a gymnasium for actors. You work there. And I did a lot of work. And there's a moderator. And for many, many years, I've been a moderator when I have the time and inclination to do it. But I did work for the likes of, first of all, Geraldine Page. And Geraldine Page is one of the great, great actors in the American cannon. And I worked for Gerry a number of times. For Lee Grant. Lee Grant is very, very important. Such a wonderful sharp eye, as an actor and as a director. Of course, Owen Burston, the greatest, Estelle Parsons, and others. You know what? I was never a Strasberg guy. I only knew him at the end, and I would not have been... That wouldn't have worked very well for me, probably. So, those are the people who I... But I've learned my craft, I guess, from being with some great, great actors, some we've mentioned. Bob Duvall, certainly one of the greats. And of course watching acting heroes of mine. I would think particularly of, aside from Marlin, 'cause Marlin is in this other place. He just exists and we all worship Marlin, of course. But Bogart, to me, there's no better actor because I think he's thought of so often as a leading man. But in fact, Bogie was just a great, great character actor. And that's what I've always patterned, tried to emulate, in a sense, was the great work that he did in things like "Petrified Forest", and "The Treasure of the Sierra Madre", and "Caine Mutiny" all of that. So, Bogart's an amazing one to me.
Peter Biskind ’62 We talked about some of your early films, but can you point to one film or one scene in a film, which made you think I want to be a movie actor? We talked about a little bit about that Jack Palance scene in "Shane", when he sees Shane for the first time. Did that ever happen to you?
Stephen Lang ’73 Well, actually, Jack Palance was a very important... That scene... Not that scene. That entire performance is an important performance to me. I hold that performance, Jack Palance is the gunman, Wilson, in the film, "Shane", with Alan Ladd, George Stephens. Great western. That, to me, is the most efficient villain ever created on film. I hold him up as this is everything that a villain should be. He's exotic, he's spicy, he's attractive, and he's used with great efficiency. He's not all over the place. If I had to pick before for the actress, I think it would have to be Margaret Hamilton, who is, you know... You can't improve on that performance. And then there are many other great villains, of course, through the years. But that scene meant a lot to me. But if I had to pick, I don't know if I could pick a scene. I could pick. I think that the film of... There are a number of films. There was a film that John Ford made called "Wee Willy Winky" with Shirley Temple and Victor McLaglen, that I saw... I'm not kidding. I saw it when I was about seven. And it reduced me to... I was just weeping when Victor McLaglen died. It was just one of the most beautiful things I'd ever seen. I think there are many things like that. Of course, the film that I always returned to is "Bridge on the River Kwai".
Peter Biskind ’62 Well, great movie.
Stephen Lang ’73 Yeah.
Peter Biskind ’62 Well, before we get to "Avatar", I wanted to ask you about the "Don't Breathe" films. I actually rewatched "Don't Breathe One" the other day, and I don't mind myself blood and gore at all, but some of it was so creepy, that I had to sort of turn away. I'm just curious about you seem to be attracted to those kinds of roles. And I wanted to remind you that Swarthmore is a Quaker college, so I was curious about where this comes from in you.
Stephen Lang ’73 No, Quakers can be creepy too. I don't know. Look, there's a flip answer that one can give, and it's something that the great Robert Mitchum said. When they asked Mitchum how he chose his roles, he said, "Well, I read what's offered and I accept the least embarrassing." So, there's that. The honest truth of the matter is I love "Don't Breathe". And I love that character. It's an incredibly challenging character to play for me in that rugged way. And if you're talking about "Don't breathe", the original, "Don't breathe", Peter, there's very, very little blood in that film. You're projecting a lot of your dread and fear.
Peter Biskind ’62 Well, that may be true, and that's for the course credit.
Stephen Lang ’73 Now in the second one. Now in the second one, admittedly, we do open a few veins in that movie.
Peter Biskind ’62 And I hear you're signed up for a third one.
Stephen Lang ’73 Oh, look, I'm contemplating.
Peter Biskind ’62 Sympathetic to a third one.
Stephen Lang ’73 I think I might kill the old buzzard off this time.
Peter Biskind ’62 Why don't you just very briefly tell people what it's about. And so, I'm not sure everybody's seen it.
Stephen Lang ’73 "Don't breathe"?
Peter Biskind ’62 Yeah, what the character-
Stephen Lang ’73 Basically, I play... What's interesting about "Don't breathe" is this. I play a blind man who lives in his own home in a bombed out section of Detroit. And it's well known that I have some money in there. and three punks, two guys and a girl, decide they're gonna come in and rob me.
Peter Biskind ’62 They're hysterical.
Stephen Lang ’73 And they come in. And once they're in, they came to the wrong place and they messed with the wrong guy because I'm very, very capable. And within the confines of my own kingdom, I know where everything is. I'm good. And so, I end up destroying all of them. And what's interesting, what's really interesting about it is that for the first half of the movie, I truly am the victim. I'm having a crime perpetrated upon me by these people. I wasn't bothering nobody. But then halfway through the movie, you learn a very dark secret about my character. And so, that changes things for the audience. But what has happened in my estimation is that at that point, the relationship between the blind man and the audience has been created. I'm sort of like the uncle that you actually have loved all your life, and then you find out that he's a weirdo.
Peter Biskind ’62 Homicidal maniac.
Stephen Lang ’73 Yeah, you find out he's the Unabomber. And you still kinda love the guy, but you don't wanna be around him anymore. That's what that film was. And of course it was a hugely successful film, so it only makes sense to do the sequel. They pushed the envelope a little bit. And it's amazing how annoyed people got, as the blind man moves into semi heroic territory. People are not willing to forgive the sins of his past at all. Some are, but many, many, were livid with the change that happens. It's just sort of interesting to see the investment that people make, that moviegoers make in, in characters. We'll see what happens if there's-
Peter Biskind ’62 You think it's more interesting to play villains than heroes, traditional heroes? Not villains, but bad guy, I should say.
Stephen Lang ’73 No, look, I think everybody is the hero of their own narrative. I'm sure we're gonna talk about "Avatar" a bit. And certainly, Quaritch doesn't conceive of himself as the villain of the piece or a bad guy. If he's called that, he wouldn't care one one way. It would be water off his back.
Patricia White Can I jump? Oh, sorry.
Stephen Lang ’73 Yes, please.
Patricia White Oh, no, I just... Because I was looking at some comments in YouTube about how much Quaritch is... What a beloved character he is. So glad he's returning for all three sequels. Not even death stands in this man's way. The guy's pure, relentless, badass. Can't wait to see how much further Cameron and Stephen Lang take the character.
Stephen Lang ’73 Oh, that's very nice.
Patricia White That's a transition to villainy or badass.
Stephen Lang ’73 Yeah, well that's what we're going for, it seems to me. Not to just... Because I think he was, in the original "Avatar", he really was aa function, a colorful function. He had personality, no question about it, but he really was a function of evil in that. And I think we do have an opportunity, now as things go ahead, to show some of the other aspects of him. It's not gonna remove... He is not looking for redemption in any way. That's not what we're talking about. But I would say Jim Cameron feels that the character is not only useful in terms of his narrative, but the character is worthwhile in terms of exploring and getting enmeshed in the story of Pandora. When you see "Avatar: Way Of Water", and I expect, and I hope that at least some of the folks who are tuning in tonight have seen it. And for those of you who haven't seen it, I really urge you to go see it during this holiday season 'cause we've gotta make $2 billion or elsewhere a flop. In any case. I lost my train of thought there. You have all these characters in "Avatar" who are radiant. They're just filled with light. And of course, none of that would exist without a character of darkness, it seems to me. And so, he's very, very important. But the thing that's also important there is just as the darkness really does inform the radiance of this world, it'll be really interesting from my point of view to see how the radiance of the world informs this darkness and what it does to him. And see what change is possible. That's a lot of mumbo jumbo, but it's the way I think of it.
Peter Biskind ’62 Well take us behind the scenes a little bit with an "Avatar One", the first "Avatar". How did you get connected to it?
Stephen Lang ’73 It's a theater story. I was opening my play. I have a solo play called "Beyond Glory", which I wrote and I portray eight Medal of Honor recipients from World War 2, Korea and Vietnam. And I wrote it in 2003 and really from 2003 on, it's what I was doing. I was really dedicated to doing this. And finally, the Roundabout Theater in New York called and said we wanted to come here to the Laura Pels, their beautiful 500 seat house on 46th Street. That was a huge deal for me. 'cause I built this show from nothing, and here I was, gonna open it in New York. And of course the Roundabout ran an ad in the New York Times, which was a picture of me in, what I have to call now, a sleeveless T-shirt. It was a sleeveless T-shirt and it was a military pose looking real strack. And out on the coast, Margery Simkin, who was Jim's casting director, she's an old New Yorker, and she was reading "The New York Times". She saw the ad. She saw the photo. And she said, "Hey, Jim, do you know Stephen Lang?" And he said, "Good actor, good actor. He auditioned for 'Aliens'. Almost got the part. Why?" And she showed him the picture in "The Times", and they both said, "Huh, Quaritch." And so I had a call that they would like me to read this script. And understand, I'm in my last week of previews in New York, and I've been working on this play now for several years, so this is what I'm doing. My life is a big deal anyway, but all of a sudden this thing comes to me and I'm like, yeah. Jim Cameron script? I absolutely wanna read it. So, after signing my life away, promising I wouldn't reveal anything at all. This script comes to me. And just as a footnote, I'll say there was a note from the desktop from Jon Landau, who was the producer of "Avatar". And it was the most empowering thing it could have been. It said, Stephen, your role is Colonel Miles Quaritch. We are so delighted that you are taking the time to read our script. And I'm like, really? You're delighted that I'm reading it? It was just such a great thing to read. And then I read it and I was like, holy shit. This is definitely the best role in this. And from then, he and I had a phone conversation. And then on a Sunday afternoon, which my last show of the week was a three o'clock matinee on a Sunday. After that, I was taken to the airport. Flew out to LA. Monday morning, went up to Malibu to his place. We met, we worked, we talked, and he got behind the camera. We just improvised for an hour and a half, two hours. And then we were done. And at some point there's nothing more to say. We shook hands and I left for the airport. And then my phone started ringing and I was offered the role. That's how it worked out. I can do a long form of that story that I just told, which can bring actors to tears 'cause it's like a Schwab's drugstore moment. It's a good story, but that's the basic facts. That's what happened.
Peter Biskind ’62 Well, can you talk a little bit about Cameron, what kind guy he is? He's a bit of an enigma.
Stephen Lang ’73 Yes, wrapped in a mystery.
Peter Biskind ’62 Right.
Stephen Lang ’73 I would characterize Jim as really the Leonardo of our time because he's equal parts engineer, scientist and visionary artist. He's equally adept in all those things, plus the fact that he's an adventurer and a lot of other things as well. So, he's an extremely accomplished guy. He's a student of the world, which is always a wonderful thing. He asks as many questions as anybody. He asks as many questions as my father did, and my father was always asking questions. He leads by example, which is to say... I'd bring your A game if you're coming to work for Jim Cameron, but you do that because he's bringing his A game too. He's there to get the work done. I think that he has certainly leavened over the last decade. He's well satisfied, I think, with his life and what he's accomplished. And I don't think he feels he has anything to prove. And I think there was probably a time when he did. I remember seeing an interview with him years ago for Canadian television, where he was asked for a self assessment and he said, "Well, I think I'm a pretty good director and I'm not very good leader." And I think that that was a revealing thing to say. And as I pointed out, Jim is a lifelong learner. And I think that Jim was interested in becoming a better leader. And I think he really has applied himself to that. In terms of dealing with actors, you couldn't ask for more. He deals with each actor in the way each actor needs to be dealt with. There's not just one sort of, by rote way. He deals with me in a very, very different way than he deals with Sigourney, for example, or with Zoe or Sam. And I appreciate that. And I find that it really benefits the work that we do. And it's very canny of him to just have the ability to do that, the instinctual knowledge to do that. And he's got a great sense of humor. there's a lot of laughter and that's pretty vital to everything as well.
Peter Biskind ’62 Right, right. Well, Patty, I think apparently it's time for questions.
Patricia White Yes, thank you so much. I've been just sitting back and losing track of time. We do have some questions from the attendees. Two of them are about... This is from Dom Sagolla. And also, a related question from Tone Cow about the challenges. What is the most challenging moment in this film's making for you? The second question was related. I'd love to hear more about your excitement as well as the challenges that come for preparing for this role.
Stephen Lang ’73 Well, I think that certainly, the greatest overall challenge was performing the role that was the performance capture nature of this role. Whereas in the first film, it was all live action. In this film, it's almost exclusively performance capture. And I'm very happy about that because I believe that performance capture is the defining process of the avatar world. I loved playing Quaritch as live action, but I equally love what he's become, but in the avatar form. But it requires some changes. You're working in an empty space that we call the volume, and working in a performance capture rig, so I don't have my... Fellini said that the most important time for an actor is when he or she is in the makeup chair. And I think there's so much truth in that. You walk in. You're tired with your cup of coffee. You walk out and you've become Conan the Barbarian or whoever. And I indeed did experience that with Quaritch. I'd always have my cammies just the way I wanted 'em, my boots the way I wanted 'em, my gun was slung on the way I wanted it. Everything was the way I wanted it. When you're doing performance capture, you're wearing, essentially, what looks like a diving suit with a head rig on it. So, I just made the translation that became my uniform, and I basically went at it the same way. And that's all well and good. And we did the work. We worked hard on it. It's hard work to do. A lot of it is hard because it's physically demanding role, but then things got really squirrely when we had to go underwater with it because this is "The Way Of Water". And there's a lot that happens in the water. Interestingly, my character, my role, Quaritch, he's not a water character. If he's in the water, he's generally trying to get out of the water. Whereas, there's a whole ream of raft of characters where that water is their milieu. It's where they wanna be. The water work was very, very challenging, I would say. But also, when you get right down to it, just to try to find the mysterious heart of this character is really where the challenge kind of is. And that's not something that I'm even particularly adept at talking about. I'm still looking because we have a journey. The journey's not over by any means, it seems to me. That was a great challenge. And I think the other part of the question was about the excitement or joy of this whole.
Patricia White Yes.
Stephen Lang ’73 I'm just so fortunate to be part of this world because the original film, it really did have a cultural impact. Without putting too much on it, I think it did change films. It's very validating, I guess, to be in something like that. And it also creates a sense of responsibility. I always wanna live up to the franchise, if that's what it is. Yeah, I just want to continue to do my best. And I'm not a kid, and so a lot of it has to do with maintaining my physical presence, so I can actually perform for the next 10 years or so.
Patricia White Well, you do a great job of that, I have to say. We have a couple questions that are related to the morality of your character, so I thought I'd bundle those two together. One says how do you feel about the seeming lack of morals and xenophobic nature of these ex-marine characters? Are these characters meant to display the evil nature of a hyper capitalistic future America? That's from Trevor Rudolph. And as you think about that, I'll just give this other one.
Stephen Lang ’73 Okay.
Patricia White That says, I just watched the new movie and loved it. I wanted to see what your thoughts were on Quaritch's morals. I thought his status as the bad guy was a little more ambiguous than an in "Avatar One". And I honestly feel like there were points, where his aims were similarly compelling to Sully's. I thought that was interesting.
Stephen Lang ’73 It is interesting. I think that in terms of what they represent, I think you're dead on with that. We represent the military industrial complex, the colonization, that wicked arm of colonization, that happens. In terms of his morality, I think that he lives by... First of all, I think that a lot of his sense of of morality was burned away long ago, cauterized away. He's a veteran of wars on Earth, that every one of 'em was a dirty, dirty war. These were children's wars. My own personal sort of narrative for Quaritch was that he signed up for the right reasons sometimes. He wanted to be all that he could be. He was by nature a warrior. And I think that he's probably incarnated as a warrior, time and time and time again. His code, as it were, I wouldn't say morality, but his code is one of loyalty to his particular clan, which would be the Jar Head Clan. I think that it getting into the righteousness or the immorality of any particular cause is not beneficial to his job, to him doing his job. And of course, he was the head of security there. He was the head of security in an environment that is just inherently very insecure. First thing he says in the original movie is, I'm here to keep you alive. I will not succeed. That's a very a down sort of a thing. You're not starting from ground zero there. You're starting from negative somewhere there, so I'm not surprised that his worldview is jaundice, it seems to me. But having said that, he has a wonderfully grim and ironic sense of humor. And I think he's got a lot of admiration for Sully, for Jake. And that's the source of what's gonna go down with everything that... To be betrayed by Jake Sully is so painful to him because he really, really had faith in this guy he sees in himself. He sees himself in Sully. That gives us a good journey to go on as the sequels progress.
Patricia White This is a question, Stephen, that's related, but broader. And it's from Bill Prindle, who said he was on campus with you and remembered you as a talented actor doing leads in Ibsen plays. Can you talk about your journey from Lovborg to Quaritch and any reflection, specifically on masculinity, as it's been portrayed over that past century with all of the evolution of gender identity that's happened over that time. Both the characters and their masculinity, but also how you think about it.
Stephen Lang ’73 That's a... Boy, oh, boy, it's a very wide topic.
Peter Biskind ’62 You could take the Fifth Amendment.
Stephen Lang ’73 Yeah. The only thing. What it brings to mind is one of the first successes I had in New York was I played Vaslav Nijinsky in a play called "Clown Maker". It really deals with Nijinsky, his homosexual relationship with Sergei Diaghilev. It was interesting and fascinating, I felt, for me to undertake that role. I did reflect on these questions of hyper masculinity at the time, of domination at the time. I'm going back a long way with this, but it's the first I was able to do a role that had... What's the word? Different contours than what I think I've become identified with. I did a film called "Last Exit To Brooklyn", in which I play a very hard ass labor guy, a shop steward named Harry Black, who falls in love with a transvestite. It completely destroys his life, but it's so fascinating. It's what brings out whatever poetry he has in what is a really, really tortured soul. I'm just kinda listing credits now rather than dealing with the question. We'll do that another time. Peter, I'd like to toss this one to you.
Peter Biskind ’62 Uh, I'll take the Fifth Amendment.
Patricia White Well, it is such an incredible gallery of characters that really ask us to think about masculinity. And they think in the "Avatar" space, there's borders between human and non-human that are also kind of playing with that. Yes, I'm going to pick up a couple questions here that are about performing to pick up on how you were talking about motion capture and the challenges of that. One of them asks if you had a special trainer for doing that. And another just a asks you to expand a little bit more on how Cameron worked differently with different actors, specifically because those VFX scenes ask for something different from actors. So, if you could talk a little bit about just the collaborative nature of those performances.
Stephen Lang ’73 We had wonderful trainers, not necessarily in performance capture, but in all the stuff we were gonna have to do. In terms of breath holding, there's been a lot written and spoken about the breath holds that we do. Certainly, in parkour. Moving through the rainforest, you wanna move with the agility of a dire wolf if you can. We were schooled and trained in all of these things and we're talking about a year, at least, of training that we were doing. It was ongoing throughout. And the performance capture, we have a troupe of performance capture actors. One or two of them have been doing it since the very, very early days of performance capture. But it's not that hard to pick up. It's not that hard to understand what you have to do. You get it if you've been doing it. And of course, what I think is just so fascinating is the kids, 'cause we've got a lot of kids, a lot of youngsters in "Avatar". Well, as far as they're concerned, acting is performance capture. This is their first job. And to them, this is how you go about acting. And I think that's just fantastic. They're all gonna do other things too, obviously. They're gonna do live action. But it's important to us to incorporate the concept of performance capture into the world of acting as an absolute part of the art and the craft of acting. In terms of Jim dealing with actors differently. I'll give you this. The personal example is this. Jim Cameron and I tend to work together in a very, very public fashion. We yell at each other across the room. We have conferences too, but we yell at each other across the room. We talk loudly across the room, knowing that the crew is all kind of tuning into it because we're extremely amusing. Why is this happening? It's not at a vanity, particularly. It's because I play an alpha male by any... I don't care whether Quaritch is big and blue or is live action, he is alpha. He dominates space. When I come onto the set, I don't care what it is, basically, I think it's mine. Now, Jim Cameron is an alpha male. He's Quaritch too. He wrote 'em. You've got two of us. They're doing this thing. And the thing is we're both aware of this. And we both play on it and use it. And it works to the benefit of what's going on. It works to the benefit of the scene. That's not a complete view of how we work together. I think we work in... There's a lot of nuances to what we do. That's one aspect of it that you would never ever see with, say, Zoe Saldana. With Zoe, many times you'll look over and Zoe and Jim are sitting down together, having this long heart to heart, where he's parsing the character out in ways that are gonna make sense to her. So, you couldn't ask for it to be dealt with more differently. All of the kids were very, very differently, and he developed a style of working with... Some of 'em, you gotta get the whip out on you. You gotta you gotta yank a knot in your tail a little bit. And some of 'em you don't. All you gotta do is throw 'em a chocolate kiss and then they're off to the races. So, I would say it's a great skill 'cause there are many, many directors, and some who are extremely successful, and good directors, who basically deal with actors in one way. They deal with every actor the same. And that's okay. But I think Jim knows how to get the best outta people.
Patricia White We probably have time for just one more and I guess I'm gonna ask a question. This is from Grace Dumdaw, who's actually a recent Swarthmore graduate and a very talented actor. And she's asking, as is someone else in the chat, if you have any advice for young people pursuing acting professionally, especially in this strange online only auditioning era.
Stephen Lang ’73 Embrace it. Embrace the online auditioning. I don't think it's bad. In any case it is. Listen, auditioning, the audition process has always been artificial and rotten. It's just the way it is. This probably goes back to Aeschylus and Euripides. It was rotten auditioning back then. I think it's just tough. I would embrace the technology. And just, it's kind of shut up and do your job. Just be honest and get it out there. I don't... Advice, it's hard to give advice to young people. You just gotta... If you love it and if you have to do it, don't do it if you don't have to do it. There's too many other things to do. It's a question of supply and demand. There's always gonna be plenty of actors, it seems to me, and more work than actors, so if there's something else that you can love, you do it. But we started off this by saying, I think I had a calling to be an actor. And to be honest, even if I didn't have a successful career, I'd probably still be an actor and probably be counting my successes in different ways wherever I possibly could. You know what I mean? And that's fine too. I can't tell anybody how to go about it. You just gotta... When I came to New York, I auditioned for anything. I auditioned for musicals. I just would go in and try it. And once in a while I'd get cast in something. I'm sorry. I wish there was a magic answer to give you on this. If you'll love it, just keep at it.
Patricia White Do it.
Peter Biskind ’62 That's a great answer.
Patricia White Stephen, thank you so much. And I know you have to rush off to Lincoln Center, so I hope you don't have to talk for another hour there, 'cause you've just really given us a lot. There's a lot of really wonderful messages and compliments for you in the chat, which I'm sure we will save for you. And thank you all for coming tonight and yeah, good luck. Go see the movie and we'll-
Stephen Lang ’73 Yeah, everybody have a wonderful holiday. Go see "Avatar: The Way Of Water". It really is a thrilling experience, I believe. And thanks to the alumni, to BoHee, and to everyone involved, to you Patty, and of course to Peter Biskind, who is a real hero of mine. I love you Peter, and thanks for talking.
Peter Biskind ’62 That's very sweet.
Stephen Lang ’73 Yes, I am sweet. Yeah, I'm really-
Peter Biskind ’62 I knew it all. I knew it all. Just a marshmallow.
Patricia White Thank you. Thank you, everyone. Good night. Thank you.
Stephen Lang ’73 Good night, everybody.