EXCLUSIVE: Ten years ago this week, James Cameron big gambit payed off with the historic release of Avatar, a truly singular screen spectacle that took moviegoers to distant Pandora and in the process “changed the way we thought about movies, the way we thought about movie-making, even the way we thought about the movie screen,” says Stephen Lang, who memorably portrayed the 1999 sci-fi epic’s glowering heavy, Col. Miles Quaritch.
Lang returns to the military-man role in Cameron’s long-awaited sequel, Avatar 2, which Disney-owned 20th Century Fox has now scheduled for release one year from this Saturday: Dec. 21, 2021. That means Avatar 2’s opening weekend will arrive seven years later than Cameron’s originally announced target date, which makes the interplanetary saga the cinematic equivalent of a Guns N’ Roses album.
Lang’s presence in the sequel’s ensemble adds to the project’s aura of miracles-in-the-making. That’s because the scary and scarred Quaritch took two arrows to the chest during his fight-to-the-finish with Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and Neytiri (Zoe Saldana) in the original film. Lang chuckled when asked about his character’s unexpected recovery but the veteran actor stayed tight-lipped about the details of his screen resurrection.
“Jim indicated to me years ago, before filming on Avatar was completed, that Quaritch had a future,” Lang said this week. “I might have taken that with a grain of salt at the time because we’d had a few beers. Shortly after Avatar opened Jim mentioned again that the Colonel was coming back, and by then I knew Jim well enough to know that he means what he says and he says what he means.”
Cameron offered a vivid declaration of his intentions for the revived commando in an Empire interview in 2017: “There’s not a new villain every time, which is interesting. Same guy. Same motherf*cker through all four [planned] movies. He is so good and he just gets better. I know Stephen Lang is gonna knock this out of the park.”
Lang’s impressive body of work on screen and on stage includes plenty of “highly authentic” men like Quaritch, many of them military men who live and die by a code that sets them apart from other characters. In 1989, Lang introduced the role of Lt. Col. Nathan Jessep, the signature character in Aaron Sorkin’s Broadway play A Few Good Men. He’s also planted a flag with screen roles like Gen. Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson in Gods and Generals (2003), Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett in Gettysburg (1993), and Col. Abraham Biggs in Hostiles (2017).
Most recently, Lang can be seen in the action film VFW and he’s been filming Death in Texas in the Lone Star Star. Lang has also been performing his award-winning, one-man show, Beyond Glory in select cities. Next year marks the 35th anniversary of Lang’s first screen credit, Bud Yorkin’s Twice in a Lifetime, which featured a deep ensemble led by Gene Hackman and featuring Ann-Margret, Ellen Burstyn, Amy Madigan, Ally Sheedy, and Brian Dennehy.
“Such a remarkable cast,” Lang said this week. “Love them all: Burstyn, Ann, Amy, Ally, Dennehy….but working with Hackman? He was and is a major influence. He was great to me. A friend. I wanted another scene with him and Bud Yorkin was cool enough, and kind enough, to shoot an improvised pool hall scene with Gene and myself.”
The New York native’s credits also include a dangerous blind homeowner in Don’t Breathe (2017), Old West outlaw Ike Clanton in Tombstone (1993), strike leader Harry Black in Last Exit to Brooklyn (1989), Vietnam vet Joe Tigra in Band of the Hand (1986), and Texas lawman Charles Winstead in Public Enemies (2009).
Don’t make the mistake of praising Lang’s screen prowess as a bad guy. When I first met the actor in 1999 I made the mistake of referring to the sinewy Quaritch as the villain of Avatar.
“I didn’t play a villain,” Lang said with a corrective edge in his voice. “I played a man who is doing his job the best way that he can. He makes choices. Quaritch has cauterized some aspects of his own soul. Dirty wars have numbed his psyche and spirit. But I did not go at him as a villain. Quaritch is number-orientated, he’s very squared away, and there’s nothing raggedy about him at all. He is in a constant state of Code Red.”
Fair enough. Lang originally got the Avatar part by pouncing on a started production assistant who was reading lines opposite of him (“He grabbed him by the head,” Cameron told me, “and he pretty much got the job right there.”) and the actor said he considers it “a true privilege” to work with “a genuine visionary” like Cameron, whose intellect, ambition, and wide-ranging skill set put him in a different class than other blockbuster filmmakers.
Lang explained: “He demands a tremendous amount not by saying, ‘This is what I demand of you’ but by his own intensity and preparation.” Cameron is also “the rare genius that is also a funny guy you can have a beer with,” Lang said, and “someone who truly listens to people and does so with his full attention.”
All of which explains why the giddy Lang is locked and loaded for another tour of duty in Cameron’s greatest screen quest. “I can’t wait,” he said, “to see where we finish.”