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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’

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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.

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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.

“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.

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.”

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. “

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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