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The actor pitched a scene to James Cameron, who ended up putting it in the script: “Jim was caught up in it right away.”
By Brian Davids
[This story contains one spoiler question and answer for Avatar: The Way of Water.]
Whether it’s the courage of Avatar: The Way of Water’s Colonel Quaritch or the cowardice of Tombstone’s Ike Clanton, Stephen Lang knows how to craft an unforgettable villain.
Despite Quaritch meeting his end in 2009’s Avatar, director James Cameron informed Lang on the set of the original film that his baddie would indeed be back for the eventual sequel. Lang certainly didn’t expect to wait 13 years for the return of his RDA commander, but he never lost hope despite numerous delays and a global pandemic. Quaritch is now a “recom,” which is short for recombinant. The human Quaritch’s DNA and memory bank were basically used to create a clone in avatar form, and all of human Quaritch’s memories were preserved except for those created during his final mission.
Years ago, upon learning how Quaritch would make his return, Lang pitched a scene to Cameron where Quaritch 2.0 finds the remains of his human counterpart. You can actually see a piece of the scene in the Way of Water trailer as recom Quaritch crushes his own human skull.
“I wrote to Jim [Cameron] and said, ‘This is a scene that I play in my head. This is a scene that should occur,’” Lang tells The Hollywood Reporter. “And Jim was caught up in it right away because it allows for that existential moment, which is the crushing of one’s own skull. It’s a repudiation of the past. It’s an acknowledgement of failure.”
Lang is also looking back on the beloved Kurt Russell and Val Kilmer-led Western, Tombstone, as it nears its 30th anniversary. The film has a complicated legacy as it’s considered by many to be a classic of the genre, especially for those who grew up with it. However, the film had a famously rocky production as celebrated screenwriter Kevin Jarre wasn’t cutting it in the director’s chair. George P. Cosmatos then came on to replace Jarre, but it’s been said many times over the years that Russell himself was the one who truly took the reins the rest of the way.
The film grossed $73 million on a $25 million budget and received generally positive reviews at the time, but it quickly developed a cult following on home video. Despite the ongoing impact of the film, Russell, as of 2015, still regrets that the original and ambitious vision for the film wasn’t achieved, mainly due to having to cut 20 pages from the script.
Lang — who played Ike Clanton, one of several memorable antagonists in the film — fully understands how conflicted Russell is.
“Well, in a sense, I am in agreement with Kurt. Kurt’s ambivalence stems from a number of things,” Lang shares. “But I know that Kurt has always said that he wished he’d had a chance to play Wyatt Earp, because he was so busy keeping the film together. But, let me say this, when I read the script of Tombstone, my reaction was, ‘Holy shit,’ because the film that immediately came to mind was The Godfather. That amount of texture and that amount of characters were being addressed … There was a lot of character development that was lost; a lot of people lost a lot of scenes.”
Lang is also conscious of how difficult it can be for devout fans of Tombstone to hear the film’s de facto leader express even the slightest form of dissatisfaction.
“I get what Kurt is saying, and I also understand how you could be disappointed by that,” Lang says. “That would be like Al Pacino, saying, ‘Well, I don’t know that The Godfather is that great.’ It’s like, ‘Don’t say that, Al,’ but I’d never say that. I’m just thrilled that it’s lived with the kind of respect and affection that it has.”
In a recent conversation with THR, Lang also addresses a key moment at the end of Avatar: The Way of Water involving Jack Champion’s Spider. Then he reminisces some more about filming Tombstone and explains why he ended up in the hospital shortly after wrapping production.
So I believe Jim told you that you’d be back while on the set of the first movie, but as the years went by, did you ever have doubts this day would come?
I wouldn’t say I had doubts. I didn’t allow doubt in, but there were times when the horizon seemed to actually be receding rather than approaching, because we’d get pushed or moved back. But I always kept the faith. I knew how important it was to Jim, I knew how important it was to me, and you hold onto that stuff.
What effect did the original film have on your career? You’ve always worked, but it seems like you caught a second wind that hasn’t stopped.
Yeah, I figured it put an extra wind behind the sail for me, for sure. It’s very good to be associated with a film that did as well as Avatar did, and it showcased a certain aspect of my own work. I’ve always worked as you say, but this really did enhance things for me in every sense. I’ve been able to access different projects and, by and large, powerful roles that I’m really into, so I’ve been very fortunate.
In terms of filmmaking, what’s the biggest difference between the original set and these latest sets?
Well, personally, in the original, I was, of course, doing live action 99 percent of the time. I did about three or four days of performance capture at the very end of the shoot, but on this, it was the exact opposite. I did exactly one live-action sequence, which was a flashback, and the rest of it was completely performance capture for me. And so that was just completely different in the way that one works. Performance capture is a complex process in some ways, but at heart, it’s simple. It’s acting at its purest level. So I learned the technique of capture as it was something that I had only observed before.
Of course, the other major difference with this film was doing performance capture underwater, which was vast. That had never been attempted before and for good reason. (Laughs.) We did a huge amount of it this time, and only Jim Cameron would do that.
Jim has already said that you’ll be back for more films. He’s also said that you’ve shot 95 percent of Avatar 3 as well as the first act of Avatar 4. So were there days on set where you would jump back and forth between the upcoming movies?
We jumped back and forth often. We rarely, if ever, shot in sequence. So it was pretty important to keep your post-it notes in order so you knew exactly where you were in terms of the story. But we had great people, like our script supervisors, there to help. And, of course, Jim knows the story inside and out. So we were able to keep our heads on straight as to where we were chronologically in the tale. And as you well know, there’s nothing unusual about that. Avatar aside, you’re mostly going to be shooting non-sequentially anyway.
You’re now playing a “recom” of Quaritch in avatar form, and he has all of Quaritch 1.0’s memories prior to his final mission. So how did you approach the psychology of this version of the character? Did you just act as if he was the same guy?
Well, I allowed the circumstances to operate upon my own self. When I am in the persona of Quaritch, I tend to be in a place where I have very little self-doubt. There’s not a whole lot of self-reflection as he’s very mission and forward oriented. But what gets added to the mix here is the very essence of Pandora and what it is to be Na’vi. The DNA of Quaritch that was banked, the human side, is now combined with something quite different. So I allowed the concept of that to operate on the character and to see where that would lead us. We also talked about the doubt that could slip into the character at times.
Quaritch, originally, worked in straight lines, and that goes for playing the character, too. He was a 90 degree-angle character, but that changes in Avatar: The Way of Water and will continue to change as he really adapts. He understands that he can no longer try to force this world into his vision of what it needs to be. Rather, he needs to adapt to this complicated world. It’s a very sinewy, curvaceous and fluid world, and he needs to address it that way. And as an actor, I needed to address it that way and be open to that as well. It’s a mysterious process so I’m not sure that there’s a literal answer.
Quaritch 2.0 visits the part of the forest where Quaritch 1.0 met his end by way of Neytiri (Zoe Saldana), and that was your idea, right?
It was, yes. In fact, very early on, when I knew I was going to come back, I wrote to Jim and said, “This is a scene that I play in my head. This is a scene that should occur.” Because the concept of visiting the scene of your own demise — and actually the bones of your own demise — just struck me as too good an opportunity to miss. And Jim was caught up in it right away because it allows for that existential moment, which is the crushing of one’s own skull. It’s a repudiation of the past. It’s an acknowledgement of failure, and in a sense, when you crush a skull in your hand, it ends up in a fist. So that’s a prelude to the future. “This is where I’m going. No more failure here.” So that’s the literal thing that we did there, but there’s also a kind of Shakespearean element to this thing as you consider your own mortality.
I know this is a morbid question, but did they do anything to make Quaritch’s skull resemble your own, be it a mold or whatever?
Yeah, I’ve done various facial molds and head molds over the years for Weta and for Lightstorm, so it was definitely patterned after my own skull. Of course, because Quaritch is now avatar size, it needed to be smaller. We had multiple skulls to use for each take, and our wonderful prop man, Brad Elliott, put them all in the freezer. And when the first one came out, I tried to crush it, but the thing was frozen. (Laughs.) So I couldn’t crush it. Even if I was really an avatar, I wouldn’t have been able to crush it. I went, “You’re making me look like an idiot. You’re making me look like a punk here, dude. Can you put these in the microwave and thaw them out a little bit for me?” (Laughs.)
Since you’re both New York actors, I was shocked that you and Edie Falco hadn’t worked together on camera until now. Did this come up at all?
I don’t think it did. I was just so delighted to be working with her because I have such an admiration for her. I first saw her on stage some years ago in a play called Side Man, and I just thought she was terrific. And then, of course, she just went on to have a terrific career. There’s an awful lot of wonderful actors who I haven’t worked with yet and who I still look forward to working with, someday. But at the same time, I’ve worked with a lot of good ones.
[The next question and answer contains spoilers for Avatar: The Way of Water.]
Quaritch’s so-called enemies helped raise his son to be loyal, compassionate and forgiving, which is evident when Spider (Jack Champion) saves Quaritch’s life. So are you hopeful that Quaritch will one day realize that the Sullys aren’t the enemies he’s made them out to be?
Hmm. One way to approach Spider saving Quaritch’s life is the fact that about two minutes before that, Quaritch saved Spider’s life as well. So, on a purely quid pro quo basis, you could judge it that way, but I think it’s a good question. The hatred or the feelings of betrayal that Quaritch has always harbored towards Jake have the intensity that they have because there’s a lot about Jake he values. He respects him as a warrior. There’s something about Jake that appeals tremendously to Quaritch, and so the betrayal, as he sees it, is all the more egregious. But there’s a depth of emotion between them that will get explored.
So, do I have hope? Am I hopeful that there’ll be some form of redemption? I don’t know. We all live in hope, but understand that that’s not something that Quaritch is seeking at all. I don’t believe he feels that he’s in any need of that. From the outside looking in, I think it’s a different story, and there will come times when his actions and his point of view will be called into question. He will be at close quarters with Jake Sully over the course of this saga, which will hopefully play out over more sequels. So I’m hopeful for the character.
Well, to me, you’ll always be Ike Clanton. Tombstone is a classic that my father and I, at one point in our lives, could recite back and forth, verbatim. So can we start with your most vivid memory from that set?
Oh boy, that set. There’s a lot of stuff that I can’t remember because we were all blacking out all the time. (Laughs.) It was a great set, but a tough-ass set. We had a lot of laughter, a lot of raised voices and a lot of testosterone on that set. But I would probably say that the rehearsal and shooting of the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral is my most vivid memory. It was an extraordinary piece of collaborative work on all of our parts.
All of the participants in that gunfight went out there on a day off, and we walked through that gunfight from each character’s perspective. In other words, we did the gunfight from Doc’s [Val Kilmer] perspective. So he called it out and said, “This is where I am, this is what I do and this is what happens.” And then we’d go to Virgil [Sam Elliott], and then we’d go to Billy Clanton [Thomas Haden Church] and the McLaurys [John Philbin and Robert John Burke]. And then, finally, after we’d walked it through probably eight or nine times, going, “Pow, pow, pow,” we loaded our weapons. There’s a record of how many shots were fired at the O.K. Corral based on the casings that were recovered, so we shot it with everybody taking the appropriate amount of shots. We even counted the shells, and we hit it. So we did it pretty well.
And then, the next day, we came into work, and we were just so ready to shoot that scene. We shot it from every angle possible, and it was just a very satisfying piece of moviemaking that day on every level. I always liked that. But a lot of other things happened, too. All kinds of shit happened on that set. (Laughs.)
The one thing that still bums me out about Tombstone is how Kurt [Russell] doesn’t see the movie as a classic like so many of us fans do. As of 2015, he still laments that the original vision for the film wasn’t achieved. Do you have any perspective on this?
Well, in a sense, I am in agreement with Kurt. Kurt’s ambivalence stems from a number of things. I won’t speak to that, but I know that Kurt has always said that he wished he’d had a chance to play Wyatt Earp, because he was so busy keeping the film together. I think he plays Wyatt Earp really well, myself, so I think he’s pretty tough on himself in that respect.
But, let me say this, when I read the script of Tombstone, my reaction was, “Holy shit,” because the film that immediately came to mind was The Godfather. That amount of texture and that amount of characters were being addressed, all of whom were advocating for their own points of view in very strong, ambitious and aggressive ways. These were also very colorful figures, but the film that ultimately got made was not as complex as The Godfather. It is a hell of a good kind of popcorn Western, and whether it’s a top 10 Western or a top 50 Western, that’s a matter of personal preference.
So I understand exactly what Kurt says when he says what it could have been. But it’s a classic to many people and I’m delighted by that. So I wouldn’t dispute that, but I understand where he’s coming from because, when in doubt, [director] George [P. Cosmatos] cut to the thundering hooves and stuff like that. There was a lot of character development that was lost; a lot of people lost a lot of scenes. That film could have been and probably should have been a good bit longer than it was. In fact, my character emerged not intact as I lost some good stuff, but I still came out relatively well. You certainly get to know Ike Clanton very well.
But I get what Kurt is saying, and I also understand how you could be disappointed by that. That would be like Al Pacino, saying, “Well, I don’t know that The Godfather is that great.” (Laughs.) It’s like, “Don’t say that, Al,” but I’d never say that. I’m just thrilled that it’s lived with the kind of respect and affection that it has. And in terms of the dialogue, you can’t beat it. Kevin Jarre wrote some of the best dialogue you’re ever going to hear in a movie. There’s no question about it.
From the “law don’t go around here” scene to the “hey, loving man” poker game, you have so many quotable lines. I also love the delivery of, “No, he ain’t bluffin’.” Are you partial to one line in particular?
(Laughs.) It always kills me when Wyatt says that he’s going to make Ike’s head into a canoe. It’s such a dopey line, but I love it. “I’m gonna send them to hell on a shutter,” I always liked that. “Goddamn pimps!” is a good scene. I’m pretty hard on myself, usually, but when I step up to the bar, right before Sam [Elliott] coldcocks me, the work I do with the booze and my gun is really slick. I like that. So that would be my favorite thing in there.
But I loved it all because I made some friends who I love, big time. Tommy [Haden] Church, who plays Ike’s brother Billy Clinton, is actually like my brother. He’s the best. It’s the 30th anniversary of the film in 2023, and they’re saying, “Come on down to Tombstone.” And it’s like, “Ah, we’ll see. I don’t know.” (Laughs.)
Ike is such a great villain because he would talk the biggest game, but as soon as guns were drawn, he became the biggest coward. I always loved that duality.
Yeah, that’s what I was going for. There were so many characters in that film, and you needed to figure out who you were and your position in it. Doc and Johnny Ringo [Michael Biehn] were a lot alike, whereas Ike was like a jackal or hyena. He was a craven coward. Like you said, he talked the talk, big time. He was really good at it. And I always figured that there was probably an awful lot that Ike was good at when it came to cowboying, but he just had this craven-coward gene in him as well.
We got so into it that we took a trip to Glenwood Springs, Colorado in order to see Doc Holliday’s grave. We had to hike a mile in the snow, and once we got there, we were greeted with a sign that said that he’s not actually buried where his gravestone is. Historians still believe he’s somewhere on the property, however, his family contends that he was secretly moved back to Georgia.
Yeah, but we know where he died [Glenwood Springs]. Right after I wrapped Tombstone, I actually went up to Glenwood Springs, because I was starting another movie called Tall Tale. We shot it up there, and like Doc, I ended up in the hospital in Glenwood Springs with, as the doctors put it to me, a “galaxy” of kidney stones that I’d acquired down in Arizona, shooting Tombstone. For the four months or so that we were there, I never had a drink of water. I just kept drinking tequila. And so there I was in Glenwood Springs where Doc bought the farm, and I, too, lay there with my boots off. But as you know, Ike died with his boots on a number of years after leaving Tombstone.
So how’s your buddy Norman Nordstrom [“The Blind Man” from the Don’t Breathe franchise] doing?
Well, I’ve got a script that I’m looking at right now. So the wheels are turning, albeit they’re not picking up speed. The train ain’t left the station yet, but I’ve got one more in me. I might just want to knock the old buzzard off, finally. We’ll see. But I like playing that role. It’s a tough, tough role to play, but I kind of dig it. So maybe we’ll be back.
I enjoyed both Don’t Breathe films, don’t get me wrong, but how come you guys chose not to resume the Jane Levy story from the first film?
That’s a good question for Fede [Alvarez], really. There can be extracurricular reasons for stuff, sometimes, but that would definitely be a question for him. I know that Jane was going on to do some other stuff, so I think there were some personal reasons that had to do with it. But they also had another idea for a story, and they wanted to do that. But that’s a very good question for Fede. He’ll either answer it or he’ll evade it. I don’t know. (Laughs.)
Avatar: The Way of Water is now playing in movie theaters. This interview was edited for length and clarity.
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