I think Stephen Lang is one of the best character actors around and l will watch him in anything. As I told him in the Q & A below, anytime he’s on screen, he is just immensely watchable.
I was in a film, Gods and Generals with Stephen a while back and I was lucky enough to have a scene with him – we even spent some time together in the makeup trailer. He was in character as ‘Stonewall’ Jackson the whole time and let me tell you, he was intimidating. But as Jackson, he had to be. Acting with him was as good as it gets and just that short time we were filming, I learned a ton.
He’s currently guest-starring on the USA Network’s In Plain Sight as James Wiley Shannon, Mary Shannon’s (star Mary McCormack) father and he was happy not to have a green screen behind him. He even joked that the first thing he did when he showed up on set was tell the crew, “Excuse me, where’s the green screen? I can’t work without a grain screen.”
In this Q & A, Stephen talks about his work on In Plain Sight, how theater helps with green screen work and his advice to actors.
In Plain Sight airs on Fridays at 10/9c on the USA Network
So, Steven, I was in God’s and Generals with you.
Stephen Lang: You were in it?
Yes, I was in it. We – you and I had a scene together. We were – it was one of the battle scenes. I come running up to you on the horse and you in your ‘Stonewall’ Jackson way called me a “big girl.”
Stephen Lang: You were going the wrong way.
I was going the wrong way, exactly – that’s why you yelled at me. So since then I’ve seen most everything you’ve done and I’ve got to say that whenever you appear on screen your scenes always pop. They always have an energy, even if you have like one line in the scene. A lot of actors don’t have this ability. Is that something you focus on and strive for? I mean, does it come naturally and I guess what’s the secret that you have that others don’t?
Stephen Lang: Well, I can’t tell you the secret for obvious reasons. I can’t let that get out. All those other people noticed will get mad at me if I let it out.
You’re in a ‘Secret Actors Club’.
Stephen Lang: That’s right – the secret club. I don’t know. I think for me it’s probably focus and relaxation, stillness is helpful, you know, kind of an unwavering and unblinking look doesn’t hurt either, I think. It would depend on the part. A part like James Wiley Shannon, you know, so much of his life has been based on disappearing into the woodwork. So, if I’m popping off the screen – I don’t know, maybe I haven’t been – maybe I’m not being successful there. I’m going to have to tend to that because, you know, his whole thing is about being innocuous and, you know, unobserved — stuff like that, I think.
What’s your advice to actors?
Stephen Lang: Oh, my goodness – my advice to actors. To successful actors it’s, “sock it away.” And unsuccessful actors it’s just, you know, I think just keep at it. Don’t do it unless you have to do it and if you have to do it just – or you stay – you’ve got to keep your instrument in shape, you know. You just got to keep on getting better. If you’re not getting better, you’re standing still. If you’re standing still, you’re petrified. If you’re petrified, you’re not good to anybody in this business. So, just continually develop your craft.
How did this part in In Plain Sight come to you?
Stephen Lang: Well we had – let’s see, I was – I received an offer to do it and read the scripts and I felt they were terrific and that’s really how it all came about. What I was told by Dan Lerner who is one of the producers and directors of the show and has been with it for a long time was that over the years they’ve talked on and off about the role of James Wiley Shannon, about Mary’s dad and who should play it. And they bandied about ideas, I guess and finally when pushed and shoved they thought that I would be the right person to do it and so I was quite thrilled, you know. I thought it was excellent writing. I think that it’s a superb cast – led by Mary McCormack who’s terrific in the thing – and so I couldn’t see any reason in the world not to do it.
What do you find challenging about your role?
Stephen Lang: Well, I find a lot of things challenging about the part. I – when I read it, you know, it’s an ark over three scripts — really two, just the introduction and the first one — but there’s a completeness to it. I find it challenging to first of all to play a character who’s been talked about for a long time – who I guess the core fans of this show have been waiting for a long time and they have feelings about him and resentments about him as they identify with Mary to try and argue as it were his side of the story, you know – to defend his life, to defend his character – that’s the challenge – to also be believable, convincing as her father — as Mary’s father.
So, you know, I guess on – roles have challenges on every level to me and this one fit the bill. You know there are things you occasionally say, “Well, I can do that in my sleep.” And such things – those roles don’t really interest me that much. This one had some bite to it. It had history and so I thought, “Yes, this is a good thing to do.” So there were a lot of challenges.
Also, I’ll tell you something – I’ll tell you another thing. Just sort of occupying the screen with an actress of Mary McCormack’s caliber – that’s challenging because she really – you know, she’s formidable woman and actress – totally believable as a marshall to me. I like…
You know, so much – it always seems to me that so much of what we see on television the most important thing sometimes seems to be the likeability factor. And it is important because you spend once a week with people you want to be with and she just sort of pissed off all the time and yet somehow there’s something very daring about her. So she’s got something special I think.
In what ways were you able to give more to the character since it wasn’t quite as physically demanding as Terra Nova was?
Stephen Lang: Well, I liked the idea of playing somebody where a toll has been taken on him over the years just – you know, physically from moving about, just from circumstances being tough. But that was all pliable to me and it was all something I – he’s the guy who – I don’t know if I’d say that he’s quite at the end of his rope but he certainly has reached a point of vulnerability in his life where the options are starting to run out for him, you know. He’s taken so many paths and it all seems like it’s a big maze in a way. And I think he’s just getting very tired of running.
You’ve done some real standup guys and some thoroughly evil characters but the vast majority of your roles are somewhere in between and so they are all shadings of grey and odd colors and I was just wondering what was it about James Wiley Shannon on the page that suggested what colors that you could use to play him that would make you want to do the role.
Stephen Lang: I don’t know that I see things so much in terms of colors. I do talk about pallets sometimes when I act and I know what you mean. I think – I’m a father. I have children much older than – are grown – and this circumstance of walking out on your children and the pain that you cause and the knowledge of having caused that pain and the pain that you carry with yourself because of that, that’s all very – to me that’s very poignant stuff. It’s something that’s very difficult for me to imagine, you know – doing something like that. And so that makes it kind of territory that’s worth exploring a little bit, trying to – and I can’t say I go into it with any pre-conceived notion of – you know, I want to paint him this color or that color. Sometimes I think of that wonderful line that Henry Fonda says at the end of “Once Upon a Time In The West” and he and Charles Bronson – he’s been wronged by him – and looks at him and says, “You good and bad.” And Fonda says, “Just a man” and I feel that way that so many of the characters you play – you’re just trying to find – you know, I try not to put a name on it, you know. Just trying to find the person and then let others be either – then they can say whether he’s a hero or a villain or somewhere in between.
After some of the effects – heavy work in Avatar, Conan, Terra Nova – is it a nice change to sort of come in from the jungle and do something a little more grounded to reality?
Stephen Lang: Well the first thing I did when I got out there I said, “Excuse me, where’s the green screen?” I can’t work without a grain screen. No, it was nice to get back into this kind of century for one thing and wear something that wasn’t kind of military I think – and, yes, tell kind of a human story – not that the others aren’t but you know what I mean – it’s kind of on a different scale — an intimate story. I mean, I know, it’s a big show and it’s all about witness protection and everything but, you know, a sense of – we’re telling a – we’re doing a father and a daughter kind of a reunion show – be it not a conventional reunion. And so it was great. It’s good to do it.
You obviously have a long resume as a theater actor – did that help you ease your transition to the CGI heavy work – working with the green screen – did it help your ability to kind of work with that which you can’t see?
Stephen Lang: I think it does. Sure, I mean – look – when you go – on some level acting is the art of pretend and you have to have a highly cultivated sense of imagination. You have to be able to see things that aren’t there no matter what aspect of acting, whether it’s green screen, whether it’s on stage, whether it’s anything else, whether you’re working on the radio. And so it’s just something that we cultivate. I think for some that kind of work comes quite naturally to us but you have to – you want to develop the technique for it, yes.
Is it a particular joy for you to play a character that toe the line between friend and foe?
Stephen Lang: I think we probably were wondering about it – this sort of grey area and I was thinking that it’s probably a product of having worked with Michael Mann a lot because, you know, Michael is the guy who really – who threads that grey area in almost all of this work, you know – the distinction between good guy and bad guy. He’s so miniscule but if I look back on so many of the things that I really loved so that the characters either real or imagined that I love very often they are characters who – it’s very difficult to kind of ascertain whether they are good or bad. For example, you know, I’ve always loved the character of Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai – the Alec Guinness role of course, you know. Is he a good man or is he a bad man, you know, I mean – or someone like Patton, you know, who is sort of a wonderful man and at the same time a complete monster it seems to me.
So I think that I do have sort of an attraction towards some of these Maverick characters who are kind of morally ambivalent.
How do you prepare for a role in which there is so much reputation preceding the character? You know, this character has been spoken of and heard about for years and now finally the fans of the show who have certainly developed in their mind whatever, whoever, or whatever the father is supposed to be now gets to see him for the first time – how do you prepare to live in the image?
Stephen Lang: Well, it’s helpful that I didn’t – I wasn’t aware of any of it, okay. I didn’t know what I was I walking into. You know, I suppose – with great and all due respect I only learned about the kind of the meat of this show as I – after they asked me to do it and then I was told that and learned that he was a very important character. Well, you know, there’s not a lot I can do about that, you know, but also I can’t say that I’m particularly daunted by it. I played Babe Ruth. I played Stonewall Jackson. I played Ike Clanton. I played, you know, a lot of people that people have opinions about and expectations about and what I’ve learned is that – you know, you can please some of the people some of the time.
You can just do your best and just try and keep it honest and who knows you might turn some people around. People have preconceptions and maybe go, “Wow, I never thought that’s who he was but that’s who he was.” But that’s who he was – maybe you can do that.
Do you enjoy more dramatic acting or the action scenes or maybe find one more challenging?
Stephen Lang: I like them all. I mean, you know, I like to have a – try to get a good balance of them. I love scenes that are just emotional give and take. By the same token action sequences are great to do. They have their own unique demands and requirements. So I take it as it comes and hopefully you can get a good balance of all of that stuff. What I rarely get to do is to do anything of a comic nature too which is unfortunate because I’m very funny.
Are you going to try to go after that comic role in the future, you think?
Stephen Lang: Well, we’ll see if it comes to that – my agent’s sitting up there saying, “Lang, he’s not funny. He kills people. He’s not funny.” You go, “He is. He’s really funny. He is.” And then they go, “something funny” and I can’t be funny then.
Looking back at your biography, you’ve done all of the Law & Orders.
Stephen Lang: Well actually, I’ve done each Law and Order once. Then that’s it. The reason I’ve done them, I’ve never – I didn’t – I never sought to do a Law and Order. I did – any one that I did was because of a friend – either the director or star called me and said that you’ve got to come and do this. And then I’m happy to do it.
I think there’s lots of folks that have done multiple roles on them probably.
It’s been a fantastic thing for – boy, it kept so many folks in New York working and, you know, getting their health insurance paid and everything. I mean, it’s a real – it’s a loss to New York. I know there’s one left I think right now but that was a great thing. It was a great thing in New York — Law and Order.
Throughout your career, some of your characters are a lot of soldiers and warriors. What is it about those kind of roles that really appeal to you, other than the fact that you keep getting offered them?
Stephen Lang: Well, I – it’s a good question. I think that if you look at a career probably more in retrospect from what’s happening you’ll probably be able to identify scenes that happen in an actress’ career. I mean you look at Nicholson’s career and very often you’ll see that he’s playing an outsider, you know. Maybe at (Ted Dustan)’s career is somebody who is an underdog and compensator. It’s just – there are – you can say their character, qualities or themes. I’ve been interested for years on a lot of the themes that are personified — that military stuff — the nature of courage, the nature of duty. Either the whole concept of humility, you know, and selflessness. All kinds of interesting stuff and so much of the time military figures and military stores are basis for drama just because of the nature of the conflict it seems to me.
So, I think it’s – maybe it’s a thematic thing as much as anything but as you pointed out asking the question, these are the roles you get offered. That, you know, that counts for a lot of it because I’d love to move outside of that as well, you know, I feel like I’ve got a lot of range.