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Stephen Lang on Quaritch’s Return From the Dead in Avatar: The Way of Water

Photo: Matt Winkelmeyer/GA/The Hollywood Reporter via Getty Images

It’s been more than 15 years since Stephen Lang was on the set of Avatar, knowing his villainous character, Colonel Miles Quaritch, would be dead by the time the credits ran only to get word from writer-director James Cameron that Quaritch’s story was far from over. Now, finally, on the eve of Avatar: The Way of Water’s release, the 70-year-old actor is ecstatic to speak in depth about his return — as long as he can tamper down comparisons to Darth Vader.

Cameron confirmed to Lang years ago that his hypermacho military baddie would be back. “I was like, ‘That’s great,’” Lang recalls. “And then, in 2013, he announced that I would be back for all the sequels and that Quaritch was the big bad. I believe he did me no favors in saying that Quaritch is the Darth Vader of this film. It’s like, ‘Please, don’t put that on me! Darth Vader is Darth Vader.’”

At Lang’s request, we won’t push the “Quaritch is Vader” narrative, but Quaritch isn’t even Quaritch in The Way of Water. In Avatar, he serves as the head of security on Pandora for the Resources Development Administration, and unlike his fellow military veteran Jake Sully (Sam Worthington), Quaritch finds no fascination in the native Na’vi or their home. In the film’s climax, as Quaritch holds a blade to his enemy’s throat, Neytiri (Zoe Saldaña) puts two arrows through the invader’s chest, killing him.

But in The Way of Water, Quaritch is back — kind of. Set more than a decade after the events of Avatar, the sequel revives the cigar-chomping tough guy as a “recombinant,” which is essentially a Na’vi avatar embedded with Quaritch’s memories. And top of mind for this new Quaritch is revenge on Sully and his Na’vi family.

How thrilled are you to now have the freedom to talk about this film in more than the vaguest possible terms? The past 13 years have essentially been some version of, “Oh yeah, I guess I’m coming back, should be good!”
They say when someone who has served a long prison term gets out of prison, they’re only able to walk, like, three or four steps. It’s been that way talking about it. When they first took the gag off, I was very cautious because I’m so conditioned to not say anything or to say a lot that contains absolutely no information whatsoever. I suppose we’re still at a point where we don’t want to do spoilers, but it’s great to be able to talk about it, particularly with people who have seen the film.

How long has it technically been since you started work on The Way of Water?
We started shooting in 2017, but we’d done a good bit of preparation for that. There was rehearsal and training, getting educated on what we were going to be called upon to do. Some of that certainly had to do with the work in the water, which is very specialized. The whole thing is a pretty big machine, and it takes a while for the train to leave the station. I was privileged to be the opening shot on day one of the shoot, and that was an amazing feeling. Whoa, we’re we’re actually doing it.

There’d been milestones along the way. And this dates back to 2007, as we worked on the first film, because that’s when Jim Cameron said to me, “Your story’s not over yet.” Now, at that point, I took it all with a grain of salt. For one thing, I understood that I got killed at the end, and there also was no guarantee of a sequel. We had no idea the film was going to have the kind of universal acclaim that it had. And then, after the release, things started getting real. There’d be a new script for Avatar 2. There’d be getting together for an event down at Disney World. There were things that would always keep it on the horizon.

Before we dive into The Way of Water, what’s your Avatar origin story? How did you get involved, and what was it that drew you in?
Jim Cameron saw an ad in the New York Times for my solo play, Beyond Glory, which was about to open in New York. And the ad is me striking a military pose in a sleeveless T-shirt. It’s just a tough-ass picture. He remembered me from an audition I had done many years prior for Aliens. And I’d done a good audition. I didn’t quite score the role, but what are you going to do? But it struck him, and so he decided he wanted me to read the script. And so, after signing all the various papers that one signs, it’s like, “You will never reveal anything about any of this to anyone — including Vulture!”

But I was sitting in my dressing room on 46th Street, about to open my own play that I had written and was starring in, so that was a big deal, and I’m reading this Avatar script, and it blew my mind. And the role blew my mind. It was like, This is the best role in the movie — there’s no doubt about that in my mind. We followed up with a conversation on the phone, and I did eight shows a week; the last show was a Sunday matinee, and so that evening I was flown out to L.A. Monday morning. I went up to Malibu to meet with Jim, and we talked and worked, and, ultimately, we shook hands, and I left. On the way to the airport, my phone was ringing; I decided not to answer it because I just thought, Eh. And then I got on the plane and I was like, Schmuck, why didn’t you answer the phone? And when I got to New York, it was ringing, ringing, ringing, and I was offered the role. I can tell a long version of the story and bring tears to the eyes of an actor because it’s just one of those wonderful actor stories. I was very, very fortunate.

At what point did you realize how big Avatar truly became? Obviously it’s one thing to see numbers on a piece of paper that say how much money it made, but it’s another to be out in the world and realize the film’s impact and reach.
It was sort of a cumulative process. The premieres were all very grand. They gave it a very wonderful buildup, and the reception was very, very good. It’s not really my gig to watch the box office and everything, but with this one, you couldn’t help but be aware of it. And it remained in the forefront of the box office for a long time, and then it began setting records, and we began hearing from other parts of the globe about how much they appreciated and dug the movie. At some point, you realize that you’ve become part of the most profitable film of all time. Now, you tell yourself, Yeah, that’s great, but it doesn’t really have any effect on me at all. And yet, when the Marvel film knocked Avatar out of the first place for a minute, I have to confess to a pang of pain, which I hadn’t anticipated. And I got to tell you, I don’t know what that’s about. But it was like, Ooh. [Laughs.] And then, when we retook first place, just the tiniest piece of satisfaction. Of course, that creates expectations, which you try to tamp down.

So Jim vaguely told you during Avatar production that you’d be returning. When was your first real conversation about the specifics of what that would look like? 
In 2010, we were at an award event, and he confirmed that “you’re back, and you’re really coming back big time,” and I was like, “That’s great.” And then, less than a year later, we had dinner, and he started really tracing the arc of the character for me, and that was very, very exciting. That’s when I first learned that he would be coming back as a recombinant, basically a reconstituted version, and that he would be coming back in the form of something that he had been attempting to annihilate. That immediately told me there was going to be a lot to play. This was very rich territory, and so that was good.

In the movie, this version of Quaritch is told that he’s not Quaritch despite having the memories and spirit of the original. So what was it like stepping back into a role where the DNA is still there but it’s also almost a new character?
If you think about what’s genuinely, authentically Quaritch, it’s his certitude about everything. He’s a character who’s always very, very sure of himself — but that’s being undermined. That doubt and uncharacteristic self-examination will be a theme for Quaritch as the saga continues. In the film, he confronts his death and holds his own skull in his hand. It’s Hamlet like — “To be or not to be,” “Alas, poor Quaritch, I knew him” — an existential moment. He makes a choice by crushing that skull. It can be seen as a repudiation of the past, as an abandonment of a persona that did not succeed, and he has no use for that. But the truth is you can’t put your past behind you that easily, and I think he’ll be reminded of it. The way of Pandora, the way of water, courses through him at this point. His blood is running blue. You mix that with Quaritch, you’ve got something very, very explosive and somewhat confusing. And I don’t have definitive answers; playing this all out is finding those answers.

Considering Quaritch’s enhanced size and new features, such as a tail, did you have to reevaluate how you were physically moving and carrying yourself?
It’s a performance-capture situation for me this time, and so it’s just a different deal. Materially speaking, I’m not in the wardrobe that I wore before. However, I did approach my performance-capture suit and the rig as wardrobe; that is what Quaritch wears at this point. But you also mentioned movement and physically what’s going on, and there are changes there, and that has also to do with the development of the character. In my estimation, Quaritch basically always moved in straight lines. He’s a right-angle character; he’s a right-angle thinker. That’s the way he approached Pandora, and the truth of the matter is, in the end, it just didn’t work. That doesn’t really fit the topography, and so I think he’s come back and learned a lesson at a great cost — two big arrows in his chest. He understands that he has to adapt, and a lot of that adaptation is expressed physically. It seems to me that he’s become a more sinewy, fluid character. Hopefully, as things progress, in terms of fluidity, it has a spiritual effect on him as well.

What was it like seeing yourself for the first time in this new form?
I love what they’ve done with the character. I thought it was a terrific rendering. He’s a really handsome, good-looking dude; I’m very pleased. He’s got a lot of me in him; he’s got Quaritch in him. I like the fact that they gave him a very tapered waist, something for all of us to try to strive toward. [Laughs.]

Have you uncovered any secrets to taking a “villain,” who is literally trying to kill our heroes, and turning them into someone that the audience can’t help but be seduced by?
A good villain should be like that exotic spice that you know is really not good for you, it gives you indigestion, but you just gotta have it. Of course, we’re all the heroes of our own story, and Quaritch obviously does not see himself as a villain. I mean, Neytiri characterizes him as a demon; that’s water off a very hard duck’s back — he doesn’t give a shit about that. As a matter of fact, the more negatively you see me, the more it suits my purposes. But I just play him as honest as I can. If I advocate on his behalf, if I feel like I’m telling his truths, and if I feel that that truth has got a quality of righteousness to it, people may not dig it, they may not like me, but they’re going to recognize the character. It seems to me that you’ve got to give this demon his due.

With The Way of Water on the brink of release, are you bracing to immediately stop talking again until Avatar 3 drops in two years?
Wow, yeah. I’ll keep my mouth shut, but you know there’s going to be so much for people to speculate about now because there’s a lot that’s suggested. One of the things that Jim Cameron does very beautifully in Avatar: The Way of Water is that he really references the past. Interestingly, not only Avatar, he certainly references Titanic. They’re just there. Partly, I think it’s because he’s not playing games; it’s just because these are themes that are important to him. But along with doing that, he’s also very, very adept at making suggestions for where things will go. So his films really encompass a lot of time: past, present, and future. And so much happens in The Way of Water, so many new characters and creatures and environments are introduced. Oh my God, fans will have a field day with speculation, so nobody needs me to say anything. And I know you drop one word and anything I say becomes major news with these folks. So I probably will embargo my mouth.

Cameron has quite the villain résumé when it comes to his films. Where do you think Quaritch falls on that list? Below the Terminator but above the piranhas?
Well, who are the villains in Titanic? It was Billy Zane, right?

Yeah, Billy Zane. Maybe the iceberg.
The iceberg! Okay, fine, I’d say I’m right there with the iceberg. To be thought of in the same process as the Terminator or as that bitch alien, I’m good with all of that. I guess Quaritch, in a way, puts a human face on Cameron villainy — or at least he did. But I’m delighted to be thought of as part of that, if that’s what I am.

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Stephen Lang on His Avatar Villain’s Return From the Dead