- Warning: Major spoilers below if you haven’t seen “Avatar: The Way of Water.”
- Stephen Lang talked to Insider about the scene he got James Cameron to put in the movie.
- He says his character’s journey in the upcoming sequels is “very cool and quite dark.”
Thirteen years after playing the villain Colonel Quaritch in the box-office sensation “Avatar,” actor Stephen Lang returns to Pandora in a very different way for its sequel.
Despite dying in the first movie, courtesy of Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) shooting him in the chest with a couple of giant arrows, director James Cameron brought his bad guy back for “Avatar: The Way of Water” in the form of one of the Na’vi.
Now as a “recombinant,” in which all the memories up to his death have been inserted into a Na’vi avatar, Quaritch and his fellow Marines are back on Pandora to kill Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) and wipe out his clan so humans can finally colonize the moon as the Earth is dying.
But things are a little more complicated for Quaritch this time around as he’s reunited with his now-teenage son Spider (Jake Champion), who was born on Pandora before his father’s death.
Lang chatted with Insider over the phone about his return to the franchise, the key scene he got Cameron to put in the movie, and his plan to act in the franchise into his late 70s.
James Cameron told Lang his Quaritch character would return for the sequel while they were still making the first ‘Avatar’
James Cameron tells you Quaritch will be in the sequel while shooting the first “Avatar.” But you don’t really get confirmation until two years after the movie is wrapped. At that time, did you think he was full of it?
Not really. I had worked with Jim for a while by then so I had a pretty good sense that he’s not a bullshit artist. I guess the main thing was, we were in the middle of making the movie when he said that, so by that point, there’s no movie yet to have a sequel to, and there’s no guarantee that the movie we’re making warrants a sequel . So I didn’t take it too seriously, but not because I didn’t believe him.
Then it was in 2010, we were at a Producer’s Guild Awards dinner because I was giving him an award and there he turns to me at the table and says, “You know you’re back in.” And I said, “Really?” And he looked at me with contempt and said, “I told you that already!”
I’ve learned Jim means what he says.
When he really starts telling you how Quaritch comes back, is that when he made the reveal about an Avatar clone and him having a kid?
I got a bunch of it straight up. Definitely the recombinant part of it. I can’t quite recall if Spider was mentioned early on but I’ve known about that for years. It was a dinner we had up in Malibu and he laid it all out for me and it sounded great.
Then it was another year or so before the script actually showed up. And then the script for “Avatar 3,” “4,” and “5” showed up intermittently every eight months or so.
It was like a Christmas present at your doorstep.
And armed guards would sit there while you read it and then you’d give it back. [Laughs.]
Now if it were me getting news of playing an avatar, I would be like, “Dammit, now I have to wear all those dots on my face every day!”
I didn’t feel like that honestly because I feel performance capture is the defining process of this film. It epitomizes “Avatar” to me. I did just a little bit of it in the first one at the end with the fight with Neytiri, and I dug doing it. So I wanted to give it a shot.
If I sit in makeup to get my scars and my tattoos on for live action, that was two hours, so here it was sitting for an hour getting dots put on.
So it takes an hour in the chair to get all the dots on?
Yeah. It’s very exact. You put on a face mold and then the dots are poked onto your face, and they take off the mold and then fill them in, it’s a process.
Then you have to go through a calibration process to make sure they are all placed correctly. It’s a thing, but it’s cool because to me it’s when you form your character.
Just like getting your costume on, that’s when you don your character for the day in any project. So I approached it that way.
Lang came up with the scene where Quaritch discovers the remains of his human body
How collaborative is Cameron with his actors about the characters?
He’s extremely collaborative. We debate and discuss dialogue quite a lot and change things on the fly and some of that are my additions.
Can you give me an example?
There’s an entire scene where I find my own corpse. I picked up the skull.
That was a scene that I suggested and recommended and he liked the idea and understood it. That was a scene that was put into the script. I thought dramatically, it was cool, but also it’s useful. It can advance the narrative. It allows Quaritch to have an existential moment and because it’s early in the film, right away you deepen the character.
And on top of that, there are more layers to Quaritch because of Spider. I would imagine for you as an actor, it must have been a lot of fun to evolve the character because we see him beyond a grunt, which is what he was in the first movie.
Definitely. In the first movie, Quaritch was all right angles in every sense, physically and spiritually.
Now things have gotten significantly more, I would say, confusing — and he is a character you don’t associate with confusion and he doesn’t admit to confusion. But the fact is there are some real contradictory elements going on within himself at this point.
And I feel no scene defines that better than the latest standoff between Quaritch and Neytiri, but this time there are higher stakes because he’s threatening to kill her kid and she’s threatening to kill him. How did you and Cameron navigate that scene? Was it always how we ended up seeing it on-screen?
We worked hard on the scene. And it wasn’t just me and Zoe but also Sigourney is in the scene and Sam. We actually came back to the scene after shooting it. It might have been because of a technical reason, but what we shot was less the result of the scene — that was pretty clear in what the decision should be — it was more how do you get to it? How loud are you going to be? How much throwing your body around? So we just messed around with that aspect for a long time. I think it came out well.
It’s really the first time we see Quaritch blink first. That scene and him on the rock after being saved by Spider, it really shows that Quaritch is now in an internal conflict like you said. I’m excited to see where his character goes going forward.
Good, I’m glad. I hope everyone is intrigued with that journey.
My big thing is, I don’t want you to easily dismiss Quaritch. Because what would be the point of bringing him back if he were just going to be the same function that he had in the first movie?
I’m grateful for the respect that Jim Cameron pays to the character and that he’s worthy enough to continue to plum the depth. Because Quaritch’s journey is very cool and quite dark.
Lang said that while shooting his death scene in ‘Avatar,’ he blacked out during one take
So are you a fan of water? How was training to do underwater scenes?
I do like the water. I’m comfortable in it. But my character, if he’s in the water it’s only because he’s forced to be in the water. So I learned to be good at it but I didn’t have to learn to love it.
And you have to get quite physical with Sam in the scenes under the water. Were there signs you two gave each other if you needed water?
I think there was a tap. And, of course, we had safety people around us whose job it was to totally keep their eyes on us.
Any close calls?
I wouldn’t say close calls but it was difficult. We do the training so we feel confident that you can do a minute-and-a-half-to-two-minute take underwater. But once action happens, despite all the drilling and relaxation training, still adrenaline kicks in. When that happens, there’s a panic mode that you can go into. Thankfully, it didn’t happen often. And Sam is a good acting partner and kept things relaxed.
I had a closer call in the original one.
When I took the arrows in the chest on one take, I basically blacked out. And when it happened, everybody was just going about their business and no one noticed that I was out. I kind of came to and I frankly didn’t know if I was out for 30 seconds or what, but I came to and realized I was just on the other side for a second. [Laughs.]
And I bet you that’s the footage Cameron used in the movie.
No! He cut away. I’m going into frame and then he cuts away, and what he cuts away was me slumped in the rig, out like a light.
Lang has no plans to stop playing Quaritch, though he’ll be pushing 80 if all the ‘Avatar’ sequels are made
Do you know Quaritch’s journey for the length of the “Avatar” franchise, or only up until what you’ve shot in part three?
I do know his whole journey right through the last script we have, which is “Avatar 5.” And it’s been a while so I know the arc of it and where it ends up, but the particulars I have forgotten. But I have a good sense of how to chart out the character with an ending in mind.
So I ask this question with no ill will, I hope you have a long healthy life, but you are 70 and if all the release dates are hit, you would be in your late 70s by the time this franchise is complete. Are you willing at all to have another actor play Quaritch if for some reason you can’t play this character as the movies are filmed in the years to come?
It’s an interesting question. I’ll say this, I do everything that I feel I need to do to stay in good trim for this. I did 90 minutes of yoga this morning; I’m good.
However, when you work on a film like “Avatar,” I’m not just the actor playing this character, I am the steward of this character. I’m the caretaker of this character. So as things progress, if there are aspects of the character that can be articulated in a more authentic way than I can do it — like, if we need a younger guy to vault over a rock — Jim will have no compunction to put a younger guy in to do it and I will have no compunction about allowing a younger guy to do it because it’s all about Quaritch.
But, am I ever going to give up Quaritch? Not while I’m still breathing.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.