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Stephen Lang Talks Avatar, Deadpool, And The Seventh Day - Exclusive Interview

Stephen Lang has a decades-long acting career under his belt, having started his onscreen appearances in 1985. Since then he has starred in several high-profile films, including Gettysburg, Tombstone, and Public Enemies. But he may be best known as the hard-edged Colonel Miles Quaritch from James Cameron's 2009 blockbuster Avatar, which is about to be followed up by four sequels starting in 2022.

But ahead of that, Lang co-stars alongside Guy Pearce (L.A. Confidential, Memento) and newcomer Vadhir Derbez in the horror film The Seventh Day, which follows two priests as they face demonic possession head-on. As the archbishop overseeing the introduction of the priests, Lang brings an air of calm and confidence to an otherwise intense and disturbing film. The Seventh Day is out now in theaters and on demand. 

In an exclusive interview with Looper, Lang delved into what went into filming The Seventh Day and discussed his work on the upcoming Avatar sequels and losing out to Josh Brolin for a role in Deadpool 2.

[Caution: Spoilers ahead.]

Stephen Lang found his role in The Seventh Day challenging because he had to 'deliver' in just a few short scenes

What drew you to your role in The Seventh Day?

I think I was drawn to the role in this one just because it was interesting... Look, the story itself, I think is a good one. It's a cool take on exorcism. It's well-executed, well-written. So on that level, and then above and beyond that, I liked the challenge, the obligation to come in for a very brief time on a shoot and to kind of create a role very, very quickly. Not in broad strokes, but in swift strokes and to do it efficiently, to make a role that people kind of know who he is in a very short time.

A lot of times, I'm playing a role over a period of weeks or months, or even years, and you're kind of doling out the character incrementally. That's not what this was. It was a fast obligation to come in and to deliver on. So why wouldn't I do it? The character was interesting enough in that respect. Also, the opportunity to work with a colleague like Guy Pearce — because although I've admired and respected his work for many years, I'd never worked with him. And so I just flat out thought, "This'll be interesting. I'd like to see if he's a good guy, or am I going to hate him?" And it was a pleasure working with him and getting along.

Do you have any anecdotes from the set with him?

I wouldn't say there were a lot of... It wasn't a set full of hijinks. But there was good humor involved. We had a good chat. You talk movies... When a couple of old actors get together, they start talking about movies. The movies that sort of affected you, the reason you're there in the first place, or "I loved your performance in this." We're just getting to know each other, as it were, as we only worked together for a day or so. But I would say that we're friends.

Any spooky stories from the set? Anything that made you think, "This is hitting a little too close to home?"

Well, no. But I will say that my work was in kind of a very, very insulated place. I was on my own, in the archbishop's office, and it was very, very... It felt protected, put it that way. It didn't feel like any demons were going to force their way in there, at that juncture. But I see in some scenes where it could get a little weird.

I thought that the scene under the highway, that first scene, where Father Peter takes [the young priest] out for training, that scene was really kind of shocking and terrifying, mainly because I think we're seeing that scene more and more these days. When I'm on the west coast, you can't help but notice the tent cities — villages that are just springing up under every highway pass. It's sobering, and it's heartbreaking as well. But something like that, the reality of that really brings a scene home to roost in a way. It adds an element of tension and familiarity and fear to me.

Stephen Lang admits that films about exorcism terrify him

How does one prepare for such a role as an archbishop specializing in demonic possession? Did you watch horror movies, go to church, or anything like that?

Nah, Wikipedia. I Google. I do. I did a lot of looking. I like looking at photographs and paintings and finding a look. This one, as I said, I needed to make an impression quickly with this. Now, he's an archbishop. Is he an expert in demonic possession? No, it's not really his line. An expert in demonic possession would be an exorcist, and I don't think he even minored in exorcism. There's kind of an elegant panache to this guy. He's very much, I would say political, which is not to say callous or cynical, but I think he is very, very political. And I think he's got a soft spot for Guy Pearce's character, but he's probably as awed and as terrified of exorcism as many people are.

This is kind of a sidebar, but when Guy Pearce's character stays behind to talk the archbishop into moving the exorcism forward, the viewers step out of the room, and you and Guy are alone in the room having a discussion, apparently. Does he use any demonic powers to get your character to agree to moving the exorcism forward?

That's a really, really good question. I do think that he has a certain subtle authority with the archbishop, but it only is affected because the archbishop has got his own strength and is an intelligent man. It needs to be just sort of... It's a nerve that needs to be massaged in a very, very subtle way. And all Father Peter really wants from the archbishop is a phone call. That's all he wants. He doesn't terrify the archbishop. What he does is he ingratiates himself to the archbishop, and he does it in this kind of rebellious way, this anti-establishment way, which appeals to the archbishop, which is easy enough for the archbishop to kind of deal with. He deals with him as a bad boy, without really knowing what a truly bad boy he is. Yeah, so I think that that's what happens in that scene.

Yeah. For some reason that scene weighed on me. I was like, "Did he use some special power to get him to agree to this?"

Well, it's definitely a scene they could have written, and [director] Justin [Lange] could have written it and put in. He leaves it out for his own reasons there. But, yeah, it would have been an interesting scene to play, and it could go in lots and lots of directions.

What is one of your favorite horror movies of all time and why?

Not to be boring or anything, but The Exorcist is flat-out one of the best movies of all time. Forget genre. It's just a great, great, great, great film and bears repeated watching, and still always maintains its suspense and you learn something new from it. Just on every level, a great, great film.

I guess, of other... I don't know too many. I don't see exorcist films, because it scares me. I find it too spooky. That's the effect that The Exorcist had on me. I've never seen another film like that. Now, I've watched that film at least 50 times. So I'm okay with it.

But I'll tell you another film that I do like is The Omen, which is not an exorcism film per se, but has certainly got the same cast of infernal characters. Doesn't it? But I do enjoy that film a lot. Yeah, good movie.

Stephen Lang reveals details about the upcoming Avatar films

Switching gears to some of your other projects, what you can tell us about the new Avatar films?

As I guess you know, it'll open in December 2022. So it's coming up, and it'll be ready. We finished the principal photography on Avatar 2 and 3, so a lot of my work is complete. Although there still will be a vast amount, or a goodly amount, of post-production cleanup and stuff that I have to do.

I know that Jim Cameron, right now, is spending every day on the stage, with his virtual cameras and really, really making the movie that he wants to make. He's accrued all the assets, all the footage. The Weta [Digital] artists, and artists around the world, are working on turning that world of Pandora into a three-dimensionally remarkable place. And the work goes on, and I think it's going very, very well.

How hard — or easy — was it to step back into your role as the Colonel all these years later?

In a way, it never really left me, because Jim had always kind of advised me to keep it alive, and would always inquire, "Hey, you in good shape? You still in good shape?" So I never really let the character completely go.

I remember the first day of shooting back in, I think it was 2017. It just felt like it was the absolute right place to be. It fit good, the character fit good. So I never really lose that character.

It seems like working on not one, not two, but four new Avatar films would be all-consuming, but obviously you have found time to do other projects. What techniques help you stay grounded and in the right headspace to maneuver between, say, a mild-mannered archbishop to a headstrong tough guy, like the Colonel?

Well, you compartmentalize. I can put the Colonel away, I can file him away when I have to, because I know where to find him. And because of the nature of scheduling in Avatar, I know when I'm going to be needed for long periods of time and when I can afford to just let the Colonel go, knowing he's there when I need him.

They've always been very gracious to me about allowing me to do other projects, even as we were working on Avatar, because they understand. The depth of the commitment to Avatar, it goes over a vast length of time, but there can be long periods where you're not doing anything. That's the nature of this particular beast.

I don't even think about it anymore. It's a way of life. You always incorporate the Avatar factor in. And even when I know that I am not required to be working on Avatar right now, if I decide to do a job, we'll always call Avatar and tell them and say, "Is it cool? Are you guys good? Do you need me or anything like that?" You always want to get cleared for it. And they always say, "You're good. We'll let you know. It's good. It's cool. Good luck. Don't screw it up."

You lobbied to play Cable in Deadpool 2, but unfortunately didn't get the role. Is there another superhero or villain you'd like to play?

Nah. It always strikes me as funny that I "lobbied," because I tweeted one time about it. Because I kept reading that I should play the part, and then I tweeted, I said, "Yes, you're right. I should play the part." And that became like, "He's lobbying for the role." And, as you said, losing to that pesky pipsqueak Josh Brolin, who is a superb actor and a great guy as well.

But is there another one? Nah. I always thought I should have been Sergeant Fury leading his Howling Commandos, but he's not really a superhero. Then, of course, he became Nick Fury, Agent of SHIELD. So, no, I don't know. Maybe something in the Asgard Universe. I think I could do an old god or something like that. But I'm available. I don't care, Marvel, DC, anybody. I'll come do it.

The Seventh Day is out now in theaters and on demand.