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An Interview with Stephen Lang

Brennan Kauffman ‘20

Staff Writer

 

Stephen Lang will be performing in a one-man play, “Beyond Glory,” Nov. 1 at the Rogers Center. “Beyond Glory” is based on a book about eight Medal of Honor recipients and their stories from serving in the military. Lang has performed this play for fifteen years in between shooting films, such as “Avatar” and “Gettysburg.” I had the pleasure of talking with Lang about his film and acting experiences as well as the inspiration behind performing “Beyond Glory” over the years.

 

What inspired you to do a stage adaptation of “Beyond Glory”?

I felt that I was under utilizing my own self at a point in my career in 2003. A journalist gave me an uncorrected copy of a book that was about to be published called “Beyond Blory,” which was first hand accounts of living Medal Honor Recipients. I started reading it, and about two and a half hours later, I went up to my office and I began messing around with it. It was a fine piece of work, the voices really just came to me. I could hear them very clearly, and I just felt that I could take this piece of journalism and turn it into a piece of theater. I began to weave them into what I thought would be an interesting piece of theater. The book affected me deeply, it spoke to me… The themes that were involved, and the stories themselves, were so compelling and dramatic. I kept putting one foot in front of the other and, ultimately, this solo theater piece emerged and that is kind of it.

How long do you plan to keep “Beyond Glory” going and what other projects are you currently working on?

I haven’t done “Beyond Glory” in three years. Every year the company that books tours will say, “shall we schedule a tour this year?” For the past three years I said, “No, not this year, I’ve been busy with other projects,” and I have done this show between four to five hundred times. I made a film of it, I mean, I’d really “done it,” but last spring I began to miss it. I miss the sort of tremendous challenge every time I do it, and so I said, “Sure! “Let’s do a three week tour.”

I’ve been involved for a long time, and will continue to be involved for a long time, in filming the sequels to “Avatar,” which is a big picture we did eight years ago. So, that’s an on going project, and I just put in over a full year on that. Now I’m taking a little break before going back to it.

I’ve always got a number of projects going. I have a film “Mortal Engine” thats opening from Peter Jackson in December, and that’s a big saga. Hopefully, that will do well. I really have been spending an awful lot time in the film world. So, it’s really good and important to me that I get back to the theater for a little while.

What made you want to pursue a career in live acting and film?

I think that acting is a calling, and you either answer or you don’t. Because you have the calling doesn’t mean in any way that you’re going to be good, and certainly not great. You really do have to work hard at it. But I just felt from the time I was very young that I liked inhabiting other personas, other characters. I liked trying identities on and seeing how they fit. I grew up in the 50s and the 60s. I am a product of watching movies and television, and I have to say that the many adventures that I saw affected me. As a boy, these were all exciting worlds, and I wanted to be part of it. And to tell you the truth, I still kind of feel that way. I love entering into these either imaginary worlds, or these worlds that are long gone, historical worlds, whether it is the world of the Civil War, Revolutionary War, or the Salem Witch Trials. I love entering into worlds that people only imagine like the world of “Avatar” or the world of “Mortal Engines,” and then I just love telling stories as well.

 

While attending college did you work on any specific theater event that had a major impact on your acting career?

In college, I did a lot of writing and directing as well as acting. I did “Macbeth,” I did Scottish King, and it’s a tough role. I did it as best as I could, and I think I did it well enough to feel that I could continue on. My college was not in any way noted for the theater. It was a terrific school, but it wasn’t really motivated towards theater. One thing I did get at my school was a tremendous academic background in Shakespeare, which was very very helpful to me. I think that just the experience of getting deeply into literature was really, really helpful to me.

In high school, I did have a drama teacher who also taught religion at the school. It’s interesting because he kind of approached them both in the same way. It’s not so much that he taught me how to act, but he taught me what a really important place the theater was. He had an almost religious kind of respect of what the theater can do. He instilled that in all of his students. That’s something that I’ve never lost over the years. Sometimes you forget it in the day-to-day difficulties of being an actor, but it’s something you always remember. It’s an ancient profession that’s been around a long, long, long time, and it’s strange because what does it produce? It doesn’t produce anything for people to eat, doesn’t produce any transportation. It basically just appeals to people’s imaginations. There’s always been a kind of a mystical and metaphysical component to acting that has really appealed to me.

 

Do you have any specific role model you look up to when acting?

There are certainly actors who I’ve adored over the years. There are actors who I just think are the greatest of all time. I sort of look at them from afar. I don’t attempt in any way to emulate them. In a way, I can say that Paul Newman is a great example of that. Paul Newman’s work just got deeper and richer as he got older, and that’s something worth emulating. There are many actors who find something in their career that works for them, and they kind of do it for the rest of their career. But Newman just kept getting deeper and deeper. Certainly I consider Bogart, one of, if not the greatest, screen actors of all time. In terms of guys I actually relate to I would say Robert Duvall. I love Duvall, and I was fortunate enough to play Stonewall Jackson to his Robert E Lee in “Gods and Generals.” That meant a tremendous amount to me. I guess the other actor I would mention would be George C. Scott, who has given some of the greatest performances of all time in “Patton” and “The Hustler,” for examples. I’d be crazy not to mention the greatest of all: Meryl Streep. Streep is just someone who continues to awe and amaze me over the years  

 

Is this the career you pictured for yourself while you were in college or did you have other goals and aspirations?

I pretty much always saw myself as an actor. The only thing I recall wanting to be rather than an actor was when I was very, very young. I wanted to be an archaeologist. That lasted a couple of weeks. I used to dig holes in the backyard. I’m still digging, just not in the backyard. I’m digging into characters and people’s souls. I always thought that this was the way for me to go. I like writing very much, although I find it painful and difficult. Acting can be difficult, it can be challenging, it can be frustrating and painful, but it’s what I do, it’s what I like.

 

Did you have any coaching regarding acting or were you self taught?

I was a keen observer. Over the years I’ve come to a lot of my own conclusions about acting. The best teachers I’ve had over the years have been actors who I either have observed closely or worked with. I am a member of the Actors Studio in New York. The Actors Studio is not a school, although they do have a school, it is more of a gymnasium for actors. It’s a place to craft your in front of other actors to get commentary on what you’re doing. And so that is my artistic home, as it were.

 

What advice would you give your younger self or to someone who is pursuing a career in film and live production?

I would say that as an actor it’s hard to take responsibility for your own career. If you’re a painter, you need a canvas and paint to paint. If you’re a musician, you just need your instrument to practice and practice and practice to get better. Actors…we kind of need an audience. It’s hard to do it solo. My advice would be to take the initiative and create opportunities for yourself. If your phone is not ringing with somebody asking you to do something, then get out there and do it. You find the roll that you want to play and play it somewhere. Be as proactive as you possibly can in what is essentially a reactive profession.