Stephen Lang: 'I always had the greatest confidence in James Cameron'
The returning series villain reveals why he’s back – and the big changes that could be coming to future Avatar movies.
After 13 years, James Cameron’s Avatar is set to make a big comeback with new sequel The Way of Water – but it’s not the only surprise return to Pandora. Despite his death in the original movie, baddie Quaritch (AKA actor Stephen Lang) is back facing off with the Na’Vi, this time in a towering Avatar body of his own.
Recently, we caught up with Stephen to find out how much he knew about his return, and what it was like to switch from his live-action role to the motion-capture suits of the Na’Vi characters.
There’s been such a big gap between the first Avatar and the second one. Did you ever think that James Cameron would make another one?
Stephen: I did. Indeed, I never had anything but the greatest confidence in Jim Cameron. We were talking about it before the first one emerged, even as the first one was released, and then discussions began soon after its success, I would say. So I never for a moment doubted that would come out.
So you never doubted it would come out – but your character died in the first one. Were you quite surprised to get the call?
I was delighted to get the call. I was aware. Even as we were making the first one back in 2007, Jim had told me that he had planned for Quaritch to be around for a long time. What I’ve learned is that when Jim says something, he pretty much means it.
Now, what was absolutely thrilling to me was, I think, the extent to which Quaritch returned. In no way did he become a peripheral player or anything like that. He remains a very important figure throughout the world of Pandora and Avatar.
So what is the deal with Miles in this one? Because obviously he’s escaped death in the first one, and now he has returned in an Avatar body, right?
Well, that wouldn’t be entirely accurate. He did not escape death. He died. As it happens, it was company policy – RDA policy – to bank someone with his experience and his qualifications, bank their DNA.
You have to understand that Quaritch probably had far more success on Pandora than he had failure. Failure came at the end, no question about that. But he had done a difficult job very well for a long time at that point, and probably no one knew the indigenous better than Quaritch.
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So there was every reason, I suppose, from RDA’s point of view to continue to reap something out of their investment in him, which is what they do.
It puts him in a rather odd position because he is Quaritch – and yet not really. He’s got most of the memories of Quaritch – not all of them, but most of the memories of Quaritch. But he’s in a completely new body. He has to learn to operate in a completely different way.
Does he sort of embrace that? I got the impression in the first one he was a bit of a… maybe a human supremacist. He had a sort of distaste of the Na’vi, I guess.
Well, you know, if you can’t beat them, join them, right? He does embrace it. He does understand, I think, that there has to be a new way, a different way, to win this particular war – for this mission to succeed.
And he has really no choice other than to accept the fact that he’s grown in stature, changed in colour, and he’s got a tail! And I would always say that Quaritch – I don’t know that he’s noted for it, but there’s no doubt in my mind that he’s got a fairly sharp and wicked sense of irony. Him being put in the body of a Na’vi is nothing if not ironic.
How would you say this film differs from the original?
Well, I think that it expands upon the first one in some regards. This one is about family, first and foremost. That was not a theme of the first film.
And also, we are of course going to different environments in this film. I think it’s fair to say that in the original Avatar, we stayed pretty much exclusively in the bioluminescent rainforest and up in the Hallelujah Mountains. And now the world is expanding. We’re seeing how much larger and how much more expansive Pandora really is, and some of the different environments, which actually go way beyond what we’re going to see in Avatar 2 – that I would say is a hallmark of all the sequels, that they keep building on that world, and expanding it outwards, and you learn more each time about Pandora, and what an extraordinary world it is.
How do you reflect on the first film’s success now? Did you have any inkling it would become one of the highest-grossing films in the world, for example?
I mean, I felt in my heart that what we were making was a singular film; that it was unlike anything else. But it was just a matter of absolute shock, awe, and delight to me that it was embraced as universally as it was.
And sure, I’ve had time to reflect on the reasons for that. And in the end, I think it really comes down to… Jim’s such a master storyteller. Jim is thoroughly versed in what makes a compelling story; what gets to the heart of a story; what gets to the heart of a reader. Because Jim has a distinct literary bent at the same time, it’s what gets to the heart of a reader, as well as how to translate that to cinema.
And then, of course, there’s the visual aspect of it, which is to say that Jim is also a painter. The man is quite a renaissance man, and he’s got more than a painterly eye – he’s got a master’s eye. And so the compositions of this film – of Avatar and of The Way of Water – are just so thrilling to kind of lose yourself in.
Was it quite life changing for you personally?
I would say rather than “life changing”, I’d say it was life enhancing. It certainly enhanced my career in many ways. It brought forth opportunities that had not been, you know, present before. It created opportunities for me, certainly.
And more than that, on a personal level, it just creates a certain sense of fulfilment and satisfaction and peace – a sense of a peace – that comes from having been part of something that really was everything that it set out to be.
Look, I don’t spend my life looking for validation, you know? I do my work, I enjoy my life. But in some way, a film like Avatar, it really is so validating in so many ways. You kind of go, “No matter how bad stuff gets, well, at least I did Avatar!”
In terms of filming for this one – I imagine you didn’t do a lot of motion-capture work for the first one. Obviously you must have done loads of it for this. How did you find that?
I did almost exclusively performance-capture for this one, and I did very little performance-capture on the first one. On the first one, I did enough performance-capture to know I’d really like to do more of it.
Because in so many ways, I feel that the performance-capture aspect is one of the defining points of this film. The take on acting in this film has everything to do with performance-capture.
And so as you say, on this one, it’s what I did. And very quickly, you integrate it into the work you do. It’s a given, you know? Rather than viewing it as acting despite all the accoutrements that are necessary for the technology – you incorporate that. That becomes part of your wardrobe, as it were. It becomes part of your makeup, as it were. It becomes part of the DNA of the character. You just incorporate it.
I think that Cameron is very, very adept at, number one, making the performance-capture as inviting as possible for the actors. He makes it easy to work. It’s not an easy gig. But, you know, the truth of the matter is, acting is not an easy gig under any circumstances. It can be simple, but it’s rarely easy, particularly in— like, a lot of the kinds of roles that I’ve played over the years, which can be very, very physical kinds of roles.
So I love it. I love the performance-capture.
Did you do much of the underwater stuff, or is your character not really involved in that?
No, my character is involved underwater. I will say this: when my character is in the water, he really is generally trying to get out of the water. It’s not his environment.
I did a lot of the training. I did the same kind of training – all the free-diving training, the breath-hold, and all that.
How would you describe James Cameron to work for? What kind of director is he?
I couldn’t ask for a better director and a better partner as someone to work with. He has such great admiration and respect for both the craft and the art of acting. He loves his actors.
Now, Jim is a very demanding director. He leads by example. He demands… you know, “Bring your A-game. Always bring your A-game.” But he will too. That’s the thing. He demands as much from himself as he does from anyone else.
I have a very particular working relationship with Jim, which is very good. At times, it can be— there’s a lot of sparring involved between Jim and I, and it works very well to our advantage.
When you think about it, I play a character who takes up a lot of space, who tends to conceive of himself as the centre of any environment he happens to be in. And you know what? Truthfully, the same could be said for Jim Cameron as well.
I’m not afraid to tangle with him, because it’s all done for the purpose of getting something right. There was a great deal of laughter on the set, which might come as a surprise to people. But there really is, with him. He’s a good-humoured guy. He occasionally gets explosive now and again.
I’ve heard. He has a reputation.
Who doesn’t? So do I.
James Cameron is making two or three more of these movies – what makes him so focused on this?
Look, we’re a good way through already. We’ve done 2 and filmed 3. There’s plenty of work to go. There’s Avatar 4 and 5. I have no idea what Jim will end up wanting to do. He’ll never be anything less than deeply, deeply involved in the film. But it’s not a spoiler for me to say – because I saw him say it in the paper – that… I don’t know. He might not direct 4 and 5. He might bring someone else to do it, should we be fortunate enough to be in the position where we will be going on.
But he is the founder of the world of Pandora and Avatar. So in that sense, he occupies a central position as the Eywa does, you know? In a sense, he is the Eywa of this project.
How would you feel about that, working with a director who wasn’t Jim on this? Say, for example, you got asked to come back for the second one, and Jim wasn’t directing, would you have been less enthusiastic about the idea?
I think it’s difficult to think in that direction. I don’t think it’s particularly useful to think in that direction. And being an actor of superstition, I think it might not be karmically the right thing to do, to think in that direction. I brought it up just because Jim said something in the papers or online about that.
I think that I will in one way or another be part of the Avatar family for the rest of my career – and my life, actually. Which is just fine by me. And I expect the same from not only Jim Cameron, but from others – from Sam and Zoe, from Jon Landau and Sigourney; and all the people who have joined us since then: Winslet, Cliff Curtis, and, of course, Giovanni Ribisi and Edie Falco. Great cast. A really great cast.
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Avatar: The Way of Water is showing in UK cinemas from Friday 16th December 2022 and the original Avatar is available to view on Disney Plus – you can sign up to Disney Plus for £7.99 a month or £79.90 for a year now.