Don’t tell ‘Avatar’s’ Stephen Lang he’s the bad guy: ‘I didn’t play a villain; I played a man doing his job’

Dec. 20, 2009 | 10:48 p.m.

Stephen Lang by Melcon

If you bump into actor Stephen Lang, don’t make the mistake of praising him as the best movie villain of 2009 with his predatory performance as Col. Miles Quaritch in “Avatar.”

“I didn’t play a villain; I played a man who is doing his job the best way that he can,” the 57-year-old actor said with an edge in his voice. “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.”

Parts of Quaritch may be dead inside, but Lang’s performance is alive on the screen. With ice-blue stare, talon-scarred face and sinewy arms, Quaritch is one of the most memorable special effects in the James Cameron sci-fi epic, which pulled in an estimated $232.2 million worldwide in its opening weekend.

The years-in-the-making film arrived at theaters with the billing as “the game-changer” for visual effects movies and, along with the commercial success, the reviews have been as glowing as the iridescent plant life of Pandora. “You’ve never experienced anything like it,” critic Kenneth Turan wrote in The Times, “and neither has anyone else.” Fans seemed to agree: Market research firm CinemaScore reported that every demographic group gave “Avatar” an average grade of A.

Despite the 3-D wizardry and state-of-the-art performance-capture technology, the off-world epic is an old-fashioned story in many ways. Sam Worthington stars as Jake Sully, a military man who “goes native” on a distant moon called Pandora where 10-foot-tall, blue-skinned aliens called Na’vi are struggling to fight off human invaders. Leading the charge for those invaders is the brawny Quaritch, the head of security for Hell’s Gate, the earthling base that has been set up to mine a super-valuable mineral unique to Pandora.

Stephen Lang

“Quaritch is number-orientated, he’s very squared away and there’s nothing raggedy about him at all,” said Lang, who has a history of playing military men on-screen. “He is in a constant state of code red.”

In cinema spirit, Quaritch could compare scars with Tom Berenger‘s possessed Sgt. Barnes in “Platoon” or march along in lockstep with R. Lee Ermey‘s sneering Sgt. Hartman in “Full Metal Jacket.” Remember how Lt. Col. Bill Kilgore, as portrayed by Robert Duvall, loved the smell of napalm in the morning in “Apocalypse Now”? Watching Lang’s Quaritch serenely sip his coffee during the slaughter of an alien tribe in “Avatar” suggests that he orders off the same commando breakfast menu.

Berenger and Duvall got Oscar nominations for their commando duty and Ermey’s mad-eyed drill sergeant earned a Golden Globe nomination. Lang may find some similar trophy consideration as perhaps the most memorable human face from “Avatar.”

Lang has been “chameleonic” in his film career, as director Cameron puts it, and in a way that has given him a certain measure of anonymity with moviegoers. Whether the role was Ike Clanton in “Tombstone,” Harry Black in “Last Exit to Brooklyn” or a Civil War icon (he played Gen. “Stonewall” Jackson in “Gods and Generals” and Maj. Gen. George E. Pickett in “Gettysyburg”), Lang is more of an actor than a movie star.

Stephen Lang by Mel Melcon

Cameron said he had been watching Lang for quite a while. He took note of Lang’s lead performance in the 1986 crime film “Band of the Hand” and considered him for one of the military-man roles in “Aliens,” released that same year.

For “Avatar,” Lang secured the role of Quaritch during an audition where he pounced on the startled production assistant who was reading opposite of him. “He grabbed him by the head,” Cameron said, “and he pretty much got the job right there.”

Lang said the “Avatar” set was “quite electric” with the very real sense that the movie would become a watershed moment in Hollywood history. The actor said working with Cameron was demanding and invigorating.

“Jim is extremely focused and quite ferocious in pursuit of what we’re doing. He’s also a hell of a lot of fun to work with and has a good humor about him. He demands a tremendous amount not by saying, ‘This is what I demand of you,’ but by his own intensity and preparation. With Jim Cameron, you are challenged and supported and that’s a pretty great combination.”

Stephen Lang in The opening weekend of “Avatar” put an exclamation point on a strong year for Lang, who played a quirky Army officer in “The Men Who Stare at Goats” and popped up in the season finale of “Law & Order: Criminal Intent.” A big highlight too was portraying taciturn lawman Charles Winstead in Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies.”

Lang chuckled when asked whether it was especially memorable to be the man who gunned down “Public Enemy” leading man Johnny Depp, arguably the biggest movies star in the world. “Well, I shot him about 220 times. It was a Michael Mann film after all. After a few dozen times it loses a bit of the magic.”

For “Public Enemies,” Lang said the settings became characters. The movie was filmed, in many instances, on the same sites where the gangsters and G-men squared off and wrote American crime history in bullet holes and blood splatters.

“We were in places where the history happened on ‘Public Enemies.’ I shot Johnny down on the same spot where the real John Dillinger was shot. Did that contribute to the performance? I suspect so. “

Stephen Lang and Robert Duvall in

That was a very different exercise, he said, than “Avatar,” which on many days was filmed in blank-walled rooms where unseen digital jungles would be added later.

“It’s fine with me,” said Lang, who pointed to his extensive background in theater as the perfect preparation for modern blockbuster-making. “But when you’re in a performance-capture setting or green screen, you’re getting back to the real basic stuff of acting. You don’t have a lot of things presented to you in a rehearsal room, either. In a rehearsal room your real resource as an actor aren’t the things around you; your resources are your imagination and your director and the other actors. In those close quarters your imagination and your skills are what you turn to.”

The New York native’s stage resume includes a memorable turn as one of Willie Loman‘s sons in the 1980s revival of “Death of a Salesman” starring Dustin Hoffman and a 1992 Tony nomination for his work in “The Speed of Darkness.” Lang was also the first stage actor to play Lt. Col. Nathan Jessep, the signature character in “A Few Good Men” and, yes, yet another wild-eyed military lion.

Asked why he specializes in the roles of rigid men in harm’s way, Lang pondered the question but couldn’t come up with an answer that satisfied him. He pointed out, though, that despite the aura of discipline and chain of command, the military men he has played all tended to break the rules — or perhaps write new ones.

“They were mavericks,” Lang said of his own character corps. “They didn’t tend to do things by the book. They took it a place of the unexpected and the extreme. These are the guys who go outside and that go, as they say, above and beyond, the ones that do what cannot be done. The ones we go back to over and over again — Guadalcanal or the madness of Pickett’s charge. These are things that if you took a truly aerial view of, you would gasp and say, What were they thinking?’”

— Geoff Boucher


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Photos: From top, a Stephen Lang portrait by Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times. Lang and Sam Worthington in “Avatar”; credit: Fox. Lang in Beverly Hills this month; credit: Mel Melcon / Los Angeles Times. Lang in “Public Enemies”; credit: Universal. Lang and Robert Duvall in “Gods and Generals”; credit: Turner Pictures/Warner Bros. Lang and Dustin Hoffman in “Death of a Salesman”; credit: Los Angeles Times.

More in: Uncategorized, Avatar, James Cameron


32 Responses to Don’t tell ‘Avatar’s’ Stephen Lang he’s the bad guy: ‘I didn’t play a villain; I played a man doing his job’

  1. cinnamon barks says:

    I've been a fan since "Crime Story." Seeing him in "Avatar" was awesome. Glad he's getting more recognition.

  2. I would partly agree with Lang. He didn't play a villain–he played a total bad-ass.

  3. JohnRJ08 says:

    Lang is consistently good in every film he appears in. I first saw him as the tabloid reporter in Michael Mann's "Manhunter". Lang is intense, intimidating and unflinchingly focused in his roles. What he brought to Avatar was an iconic depiction of military man who had lost touch with his compassion and humanity. The mission defined him and, ultimately, cost him his life.

  4. Jack Meoph says:

    That guy was scary in Avatar. He wasn't the villain, but he was a deranged, sociopathic, murdering human who's soul had lost the capacity to respect and honor life. A crusading thug who was given free reign to indulge in his delusions of duty by his corporate overseers. The whole plot line of invaders vs. natives was pretty much a mirror of the atrocities the US Army perpetrated against the native americans after the civil war. Movie was incredible BTW for it's nearly complete realization of another world. A must see in 3D.

  5. I loved this movie. It was truly epic. I don't think you can compare this to anything else out there– Ok, maybe to Star Wars just a little bit, but that's the closest I see it. It's an amazing concept, might I add trendy.
    I'm a bit of a nerd as well, so using avatars in a movie just made me really giddy.

  6. PC BS says:

    Cameron made a hi-tech Western in outer space like Dances with Wolves. The hero 'goes native' like Costner, the natives have blue skin not red, are naked & noble savages that talk to 'mother earth' and have magic powers, they need his protection to continue living in their cartoonish Garden of Eden, etc.
    And, like Dances, the roles are reversed. The US Cavalry is now the flying Blackwater contractors and they are the antagonists, not protagonists. The victims are not white women and children in a wagon train, but helpless and childlike Navi, with blue skin, in their magic forest.
    Don't forget the PC casting. Overdone female empowerment efforts: like the chain smoking, bitchy, scientist leader Sigorney Weaver, the tough-girl Mexican helicopter pilot who breaks them out of prison and the Navi spiritual leader/queen. Not all white men are bad people (except for the hero), but all bad people are white men, usually pale, muscular & N Euro like Lang. All soldiers in the final battle that died were white. All good people, except the hero, are non-white men, and he gets a body transplant.
    The visual effects were good. I thought I heard something about 3d but must have missed it.

  7. keith says:

    I had no idea he was Ike Clanton in Tombstone. My favorite performance of his by far.

  8. Paul says:

    @PC BS
    Correction, good buddy: The 4 quarter scene where Quaritch is speaking to all the mercenaries for the final assault, Cameron DISTINCTLY cast a sea of multicultural faces, showing even a Rastafarian and Pacific Islander amongst the hardened group of privatized security forces. I suggest a second viewing in 3D, maybe the "colors" will come through better and that chip will fall away from your shoulder…

  9. Felipe Clavijo says:

    I don't know if was because i watched dubbed in Spanish or what, but I found his character to be very irritating! Maybe it was the voice actor who played his part or whatever, but it was just painful every time he came on screen.

  10. Chuck says:

    This gentlemen never fails to impress me if he is given enough screen time and lines to speak to set him apart from his fellows actors. Absolutely he did not play a villain in Avatar – he starred as a to-the-bone military man – just like he when he overwhelmed otherwise excellent actors in "Gettysburg." On this particular character he embodies in the "Avatar" film , well . . . for the folks saying the character was a sociopath . . . I respectfully disagree. He played a character we have seen in almost any movie where there is a need for a well defined sword on which the protagonist must throw him or herself on. Sometimes the hero just gets away with life – like Charlie Sheen in "Platoon" vice Tom Berenger's "villain" in same. Sometimes the hero wrestles with the sword and reaps huge rewards like Odysseus – which makes him a bad-ass, but not a bad guy. I just looked at the Oscar web site for the nominees for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for 2010 and saw Mr. Lang wasn't listed – which leaves me (once again) befuddled because I saw two of those other films and those guys didn't make the list in my head.

  11. Richard says:

    How I wish Pauline Kael was still around to dissect Lang's performance. Truly great, and much misconstrued by more than one AVATAR-bashing critic. Bravo!

  12. Poeto115 says:

    There's really no other way of saying it- this man was a pure bad-ass in the movie. The closest thing it reminded me of was when Saddam Hussein was on Dan Rather just before the Iraq War. Irrespective of what you thought of our going into Iraq, Saddam was a vile human being but when he said that Iraq if made to fight, would fight for its pride as a nation and as a people, just as Americans would, it paralleled Lang's character since Lang's character saw his own troops (his "boys") killed by the Navi enemy and that blinded him to all common sense and humanity. It is still immoral, but credit to Cameron for crafting a credible enemy and Lang for so skillfully playing it.

  13. Lou says:

    To me, Stephen Lang made Colonel Quaritch easily the most memorable character in Avatar. Quaritch is supremely confident in his abilities and totally focused on the mission, a leader who issues orders and expects them to be carried out as one who expects to stay alive with his team. He commands respect and attention without having to raise his voice or blood pressure.
    Awesome screen presence by Mr. Lang.

  14. Gabriel Hershman says:

    See new interview with Stephen Lang here

  15. Allen G. says:

    He's not evil he was just industrious and considered the Navi to be animals. Can you say colonialism?
    In a Hollywood sense, Lang did a fabulous job as an actor for enacting an extremely intriguing character. As far as a military/colonist planner he failed, by not taking advantage of technology and tactics. Somewhat similar to General Custer’s failure… Can't we learn from history… Open to interpretation.
    However he did perform a fantastic final fight using some impressive skills, only to be ended by a dramatic arrow to the heart. Hollywood, you got to love it.

  16. SJA says:

    I love the character Stephen Lang played in Avatar. His power and strength, determination, focus are incredible to behold when watching his performance. Lately, when times have been tough, I have drawn my own strength to solve my own life’s problems by feeding off the character he portrayed so well. The discipline…The military mind of immediate in-the-field problem solving… I admit… it’s a little crazy when a movie role can be so inspiring that you can use it as “self-help” in real life… but Lang’s portrayal in Avatar inspired me… it actually changed me. It allowed me to find (or re-locate) my inner strength. Never underestimate the power of a movie

  17. Mark says:

    I am watching this movie now for the second time with my girlfriend. Didn't like it the first time. Don't like it this time. What am I missing?

  18. James Cameron says:

    Are you kidding that gut is totally evil hearted. I would never enjoy killing people for a job. But, I would especially never get pleasure out of it like he did!!!

  19. Victoria Salter says:

    I think that calling him a "villain" is the best description for a character who wanted to rip out the rainforest and kill all the natives. He DID play a villain. Just because his character was doing his job does not make the destruction of the forests any more justified. I hate everyone who says that Colonel Quaritch is not a villain. He is. To me, he is nothing more than a money-grabbing evil maniac who destroys everything for money.

    • John says:

      I feel you may be misunderstanding the character. True, he appeared, at least on the surface, to be a 2-dimensional villain, but in combination with the way the script was written for his role and the way he brought to life, he was somewhat more complex than that. My dad was a career Marine, having served for 16 years. He joined the USMC two weeks shy of his 14th birthday and just a couple of weeks before his 18th he re-enlisted and then a few days afterwards he made the Inchon Landing with a flamethrower on his back. He basically finished the war in Korea with the Chosin Reservoir and the march to Hamhung harbor for evac. He then would be part of the vanguard Lebanon invasion in 1958 and in somewhere in between (or afterwards; he was always a bit cryptic about his role in Recon) he was in Recon for several years having served as an ‘instructor’ in South Vietnam before the war there was ‘officially’ under way. He finished his career as a DI at Camp Pendleton with the rank of gunnery sergeant. I see a lot of similarities between Lang’s character in “Avatar” and the military career of my dad. –cont

    • John says:


      And let me be the first to say, I am not my dad, nor do I make any excuses for what he had done in his life. I am a writer not a warrior and would never, ever be able to live up to these types of standards. But, I am sympathetic. Like Quaritch, my dad was trained to do a job and then spent most of life doing what he believed in. There was no gray for my dad, as a result. Black and white. Right and wrong. All according to his code of honor. A code that had been engrained within him for his entire life. Thus, there are no choices for men such as these. They do what they were trained to believe…to believe in what they were doing. Lang’s character believed in no compromised. Neither did my dad. I can understand that, if not fully accept it. It may be wrong, and it may even be contemptible, but neither man was evil, merely exceptionally misguided.

  20. John says:

    We must remember that the 'villain' in Hollywood is usually the 'juiciest' part…recall Joaquin Phoenix's role as Commodus in "Gladiator." But, I do have to say I was very impressed with Lang's performance in "Avatar." By far the most memorable antagonist I've seen since Phoenix's role. And as we all know, the villain is what gives these types of films their meat and potatoes. Without such fine performances as Lang's and Phoenix's, their would be nothing for the heroes, thus, rendering them mute.

  21. mrc109 says:

    I just read an article (The Kansas City Star Aug 18,2011) imported from The New York Times by John Anderson titled "He's Good At Being Bad". Mr. Anderson quotes Lang stating that "it was very directly and specifically because of 'Beyond Glory' (Lang's efforts as a playwright, notably his solo show 'Beyond Glory')that Jim Cameron cast me in 'Avatar'".

    Having seen 'Avatar' three time now (regular- twice, 3-D once)I cannot see (think of) any other actor playing that role with such virtuosity. Its kind of like, what would the "The King and I" have been without Yule Brenner as 'The King'?.

    I found myself torn between two opposing internal conflicts surrounding the character Colonel Miles Quaritch. On the one hand, he was a commanding presence, not only as a physical specimen of outstanding masculine 'presence', and good looks, but his character (while flawed, and who's isn't?)was still magnetic to the point of being charismatic.

    I don't understand why Stephen Lang's apparently 'innate' talents as an outstanding 'silver screen' persona was not recognized long before his own solo show 'Beyond Glory' served to showcase once and for all, his dramatic range of talents? I wonder how many other really very good actors never get the chance to showcase their 'right stuff'? Perhaps this last comment was more about my own 'sour grapes' than about blind casting directors? I am looking forward to seeing Stephen as Khalar Zym as "the baddest warlord in all of Hyboria" in the new "Conan the Barbarian" (Ahrnollld better watch his back, he may have met his match!)

  22. I do believe all of the ideas you have offered to your post. They are very convincing and can certainly work. Still, the posts are very short for starters. Could you please extend them a little from subsequent time? Thanks for the post.

  23. Angie says:

    I absolutely adore Stephen Lang! He is an amazing actor. I have always been a fan but after Avatar…WOW!!!! He is fantastic so now I am a big fan of Terra Nova! Wishing the best for Stephen Lang…ALWAYS!!!

  24. Bob says:

    Can you imagine the movie without this guy acting the way he did? The movie would have NOTHING except special effects. This guy made the movie with his total badass toughness. He should have won a bigger award for his role.

  25. PennyPatch says:

    I thought this was pretty funny, so I decided to try this while he was in Gettysburg this weekend… Told him he was an awesome villain in the movie Avatar. His reply was not that he did not play a villain. His reply was Thank You. I was slightly disappointed because I did want to hear him say that. But either way, he is amazing. :)

  26. Shirley Heysham says:

    I may be a late-in-the-day subscriber to this website but, heck it was about time everyone who loves movies, theatre especially, recognizes that Stephen Lang is a superb, sometimes terrifying actor whose body of work, I am truly familiar with, having first met him at Hedgerow Theatre, Media, Pa. while he was studying at Swarthmore College, PA. Keep it up Stephen, you are the best.
    You know who this is.

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