Actor Stephen Lang is probably most known for his on-screen work, especially in James Cameron's recent blue box office bonanza "Avatar" (in case the facial scars didn't give it away, he was the bad guy). However, he's also an incredibly talented and accomplished stage actor, and with "Beyond Glory," a one-man tribute to eight Medal of Honor winners that Lang also wrote, he gets a chance to take 80 minutes and show that off with a noble mission.
OnMilwaukee.com got a chance to talk with Lang about "Beyond Glory," why he felt he personally needed to do the show so much, playing so many characters at once and how in the heck his character is coming back in the upcoming "Avatar" sequels.
OnMilwaukee.com: When did the inspiration really strike you for the show and to adapt this book from Larry Smith?
Stephen Lang: It just kind of grew inch by inch, row by row. I happened to read this book – Larry brought me an advanced copy of it – and it enthralled me. The voices came ringing through so clearly. I don’t know why, but that very night, I began noodling around with it. I think I was probably standing there, reading it out loud, and the voices were coming out of me. Without getting too metaphysical about it, I felt like I was channeling these fellas. So I’d take these 25-page chapters and turn it into a piece of drama. I don’t know why I did it, but I did, and it worked.
OMC: How did you decide which of these stories to keep in the show? There’s 24 in the book, and you narrowed it down to eight for the show.
SL: I wanted to have a cross-section of services and a cross-section of wars, and I wanted a cross-section of America. A cross-section of ethnicities and socio-economic strata. I play black guys. I play urban guys. I play farm boys. I play Japanese-Americans. So that was a criteria that was applied.
Honestly, the truest answer, though, was that I feel that they picked themselves. These were the ones that really came flowing through very strongly, the ones where how to tell their story and what dramatic convention to use to tell their story was self-evident. I did treatments on others, and they could’ve easily been included, but 80 minutes – a swift and intense 80 minutes – that to me felt like the limit. I didn't want it longer or shorter.
So these were the eight fellas who made the cut. They speak for themselves, but of course, they're representative not only of everyone who's received the Medal of Honor, but everybody who's ever engaged in the brutal conflict of war.
OMC: How many of these people were you able to meet?
SL: I know two of them. When I started it, all eight were alive, and as of now, two are left. The others all signed off on it, and I have met the families of some of them. I’ll tell you it’s a slightly intimidating thought to meet the fellas when you’re playing them, especially if you’re playing an 82-year-old black man.
OMC: I was going to say, there must’ve been a little bit of tension there.
SL: By definition, since you have one actor switching into several roles in front of you and playing roles very different from who I am, there is an element of impressionism in the show. It’s truthful, but not a documentary. There is a spirit of truth and authenticity I am seeking for here, not the exact letter. It’s a painting, not a photograph.
OMC: As an actor, how are you able to switch mindsets and characters so fast?
SL: It’s really a question of immediate immersion and commitment. Every time you go into one, you’re taking a leap of faith into it, understanding that the audience will follow, understand and believe you as long as you're honest and doing something worth watching and listening to. You can’t be tentative about it. You can’t be wrestling with your emotions about getting into it. You just have to do it. It’s probably an articulation of how I feel about acting.
OMC: What was the hardest character of these eight to get into character for?
SL: I’d say Admiral James Stockdale. He’s very interesting and a great man. I can’t remember if he’s the most decorated naval hero in the country’s history or the second most. In any case, he was a remarkably guy.
After he ran for vice president on Ross Perot’s ticket and was in that famous debate where he looked like a deer caught in headlights, he became something of a figure of ridicule. That is such an absolute shame and crime because he was a prisoner of war for seven and a half years and withstood torture. He received the Medal of Honor for seven and a half years of fortitude and fiber, whereas in most cases it’s given for something that may have been done in several minutes or hours.
His description of what he went through and the kind of torture that was inflicted on him is intense stuff, and every time I get to that part, it requires a pretty deep breath to do it. I don't know if Stockdale's the toughest, but there's a certain requirement with that one. But I’m still weird that I even enjoy that.
OMC: You are performing "Beyond Glory" on Veterans Day in Milwaukee. What does that mean to you?
SL: It'll be a special day. It's a privilege to do this show any day that I do it, and of course on Veterans Day, it takes on a special meaning. I have no doubt we'll acknowledge that at the performance and certainly pay respects to all of the vets in the house, and the families of veterans as well. I'm looking forward to a fine day in Milwaukee.
OMC: Now, I have to ask: A few weeks back, they announced that you’re going to return for the next batch of "Avatar" movies. But last I checked, you were pretty dead in the first film. Do you know how you’re going to be coming back or anything like that?
SL: What, are you looking for a scoop here? (laughs) I’ve been privy to discussions about it. But I’m forbidden under pain of Pandoran torture to say anything about it of course. But it is a matter of public record that the character of Quaritch shall return, and I think you’ll find that he gets a very interesting arc. He’s going to be a very integral character to the saga. I’m really looking forward to getting back on board with Jim Cameron and company.
OMC: Yeah, because you were such a fun, good villain in that first film, it’ll be fun having you back for the next three.
SL: Yeah, and we’ll see what happens, because I do think the character will evolve. I’m not saying he’s turning good, believe me, but there will definitely be some changes.
"Beyond Glory" will be performed at the Marcus Center for the Performing Arts Nov. 11 at 7:30 p.m. For more information on tickets and other details, visit their website.
As much as it is a gigantic cliché to say that one has always had a passion for film, Matt Mueller has always had a passion for film. Whether it was bringing in the latest movie reviews for his first grade show-and-tell or writing film reviews for the St. Norbert College Times as a high school student, Matt is way too obsessed with movies for his own good.
When he's not writing about the latest blockbuster or talking much too glowingly about "Piranha 3D," Matt can probably be found watching literally any sport (minus cricket) or working at - get this - a local movie theater. Or watching a movie. Yeah, he's probably watching a movie.