Under the Radar

Going 'Beyond Glory' With Actor Stephen Lang

You definitely know Stephen Lang as Colonel Miles Quaritch in Avatar.  You've probably seen him as a guest star in reruns of Law & Order or as Ike Clanton in Tombstone. He gives an awesome performance as a blind veteran defending his home from thieves in the current horror flick Don't Breathe. He's "that guy," one of those constantly working actors who makes any movie or show better.

You may not know that he's had an equally celebrated career in the theater and that he's created Beyond Glory, a one-man play that pays tribute to eight Medal of Honor recipients. He's performed the piece over 400 times for theater and military audiences around the world. In 2014, he invited a film crew to join him as he brought the production to the military bases and theaters in America's heartland.

The result is Beyond Glory, a documentary/performance hybrid film that follows Lang on tour and manages to include almost a complete performance of the play pieced together from many different shows. The play features Lang's performance as eight men who received the Medal of Honor: Vice Adm. James B. Stockdale, Senator Daniel K. Inouye, First Lt. Vernon Baker, Specialist Clarence Sasser, Staff Sgt. Nick Bacon, Chief Petty Officer John William Finn, Captain Lewis L. Millet and PFC Hector Caffareta.

You can buy or rent a digital verison of Beyond Glory now from iTunes, Google Play, Amazon or VUDU. It's also available to rent on demand from many cable and satellite providers.

Stephen Lang talked to us about what motivated him to write and create this show, why he turned it into a movie and offered some insight into how he's enjoyed such a long and successful career. Plus, he offers some insight into what's going on with the four upcoming sequels to Avatar.

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What inspired you to write this play? How did this all get started?

I had reached a point in my life and my career where I wanted to be more proactive, I wanted to initiate something myself, my own kind of project rather than just wait for the telephone to ring. That was back in 2003.

A guy I used to play ball with was a writer named Larry Smith. He had retired as managing editor of Parade Magazine and just happened to tell me that he had just finished a book of interviews with living Medal of Honor recipients. I expressed a casual interest in reading it. The next time we got together, he brought me an uncorrected copy of it. When I got back from playing ball that afternoon, I just stood there and read it and it knocked me out.

That night, I began to kind of noodle around with it. I just intuitively felt that there was something inherently theatrical about it. There were possibilities there. These men interested me. Their stories were incredibly compelling and the men themselves were such vivid and authentic characters that I felt there was dramatic potential.

I really didn’t start out with anything in mind. I just kept putting one foot in front of the next and wrote this solo performance. It's a piece of theater, but I don’t even really know that it's properly called a play. I found that it was incredibly challenging for me to do. I began working on it and evolving it, first in private and then in a more public setting at my artistic home, The Actor's Studio in New York. At the Actor’s Studio, I did a lot of work, a lot of improv in front of members who would comment on it.

Before I knew it, I had ownership in every sense over this piece of work. That was in 2003, the first production was in April 2004 and from then until 2007, I really concentrated on doing Beyond Glory, although I did a few other gigs during that time. Then I put it to bed for a while, because I'd done it a lot.

When I finally did bring it to New York City, James Cameron saw an ad in The New York Times for the play. In the ad, I was looking pretty strapped and military, and Jim began to think of me in terms of Colonel Quaritch in Avatar. And so that became another chapter in my life.

From 2007 to 2013, I did other things. And then I brought Beyond Glory back and began performing it and touring it again and decided to transform it into a film.

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The film gives a sense that the performance is different every night because you're connecting with the each particular audience.

Absolutely. Occasionally, I get asked, “Who's your favorite character?” Of course the answer is it's like deciding who's your favorite child. I don’t have a favorite, but on a nightly basis one or another character can assert themselves in different ways. Each of the characters themselves are capable of having emotional climaxes, both within the context of their own story and within the context of the 80-minute piece.

The first character I do is John Finn, who was a navy man, Chief of Ordinance at Kaneohe Bay on December 7, 1941. It’s very appropriate to me to open the piece with the Day of Infamy. When he talks about his wife, Alice, he gets very, very emotional with it. He loves her so deeply, but the truth of the matter is you're only 10 minutes into the play at the time and you don’t want to shoot your emotional wad because you still have got a long way to go. Over the years, I’ve learned how to measure it out in a way, to reign in my own emotions, but nevertheless it changes from night to night.

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You’ve toured the play at military bases around the world. How is it different performing for an active duty military audience versus a theatrical performance in New York City?

When you perform for a theater audience, you know "theater audience" in New York City or in Chicago or in any other kind of theater-savvy town, there's an immediate understanding by the audience of what's being done onstage. There's a certain amount of theatrical sophistication.

When you do it for the troops, many times you're doing it for people who don’t have a hugely vested interest in the theater. It may not be one of the top five things that they enjoy doing and they may not have been exposed to it in the way that many theater-goers are. More than once a guy has come up to me and said, “You know that’s like the second best play I ever saw.” And I will ask, “What was the first best play?” He said, “Well, my sister did The Music Man in junior high. That’s the best.” If a lot of the time that’s the experience they’ve had, that presents its own challenge to me.

First of all, across the board, there's always tremendous appreciation expressed by a military audience quite simply for the fact that you’ve shown up. They really appreciate you being there and that has significance to me. But when they start to dig what's going on, what's happening in the play, when they understand that it's okay to laugh, if I'm successful and really can immerse them in the theater experience, then it can have a really wonderful effect as well.

What I like to think is that so many people join up for all the right reasons, for those reasons that we see in the ads on television. You know what I mean? “Be All That You Can Be.” It portrays this incredibly exciting, inspirational sort of service. Of course, life in the military can be that, but it's also a 24-hour gig that goes on for years and there's an often lot of humdrum routine that’s involved in it as well.

If in some way Beyond Glory reminds them of the original intention, of what inspired them to join in the first place, I think that’s a positive as well. I don’t know if it has that effect, but I hope it does.

I also really like to entertain them with it. To that end, I change the format when I do it for military audiences. I do more of an annotated version of Beyond Glory. I work with a mic in my hand, almost like I'm doing a piece of standup, and I talk.

I come out and I launch right into a piece. Usually, that’s Nicky Bacon, who is Army down in the Mekong Delta in Vietnam, because it's an exciting piece and it's a very jazzy piece and it's kind of a showoff piece. And I just do it. They watch it and then I talk about what I just did. I tell them the bit about Beyond Glory and I tell them a bit about me.

A lot of times I'll reference other work that I've done, which I know that they’ve probably seen, whether it's Tombstone or Avatar or whatever it may be, because that establishes a connection as well. Then I prepare them and I do another piece for them. Usually, I'll end up doing three or four pieces for them. The military program is usually just about as long as the theatrical piece itself. But in the military version, they get a lot of me as well, not just the characters.

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The movie is not a straight document of a performance, it's something different. What were you trying to do with your approach to the film?

As I say, I'm not sure that the play is in fact a play. I wanted to try to achieve something like that with the film. It's a hybrid and not a straight piece of cinema.

What we wanted to do was we wanted to take the theater experience and use as many elements of cinema as we could to make it an exciting experience. In my view, as a rule, filmed theater does not work particularly well as a movie. If a filmed theater doesn’t work, a film solo show can be even more difficult because it could be extremely static.

In the movie, the performance itself is only slightly annotated. You see me offstage making entrances, making exits, you see some interaction, some movement. But I would say the film is 90 percent performance. But it's about 20 different performances in different venues that are hopefully stitched together in a way where you never lose the thread of what's going on, but there’s visual excitement which makes it fun and interesting to watch.

The director Larry Brand takes the credit “Directed and Edited by Larry Brand.” He gives the editing equal weight in this. We had a pretty vast amount of performance footage, of performance and he figured how it could be stitched together, knowing you're never going to cover the stitches. The stitches will be visible, there's nothing wrong with that. But you want it to be seamless as well, you wanted it to flow in kind of a natural and exciting way. I thought Larry did a really good job of that. It's a difficult task.

I probably thought that if I made this film, that maybe I'll stop doing the play because it weighs on you after a while. You know, “Time to make the donuts.” You gotta do the play again. But I don’t think that'll really be the case. I think that I'll probably take a year off and then do it again because it's familiar and it's a real, real good stretch of the muscles for me.

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Are there parts of the play that don’t actually appear the movie?

You wouldn’t notice the difference because it's a matter of cutting lines and sections of lines, rather than cutting characters. When I do the play, it's the same eight characters that I do in the movie. We have condensed it a bit and we cut small sections. When I watch the movie, I see the little bit that’s missing. It's kind of appalling to me, because I wrote it and I miss it. It's like, “How dare he cut that line!” But I understand the need for it.

The real answer to that question is that I don’t know if watching the film can ever replace the live performance of a play. It's not intended to, nor should it. Plays are really meant to be seen. What we tried to do is not an approximation, but something that stands on its own that is interesting in a cinematic way as well.

You never know when and if I'm gonna do the play again, so it's always nice to know that this film is there. People ask me all the time, “When are you gonna take it out, when are you gonna tour it again?” Now I can say, “I’m not sure, but it is available on iTunes,” you know?

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You’ve had a long and varied career. You’ve done theater, you’ve done "Law & Order," you’ve played a lot of military roles. You're a trained actor. How do you approach your job?

I've been doing it a long time. There's certainly have been times in my life when I took what was offered because I wanted to work. My wife and I were raising four children. And acting is my livelihood. There were definitely times when it had less to do with how great the role was, how great the project was. It had to do with making a living and there's sure nothing wrong with that.

As time goes on, I am fortunate in that I'm able to bounce between mediums with ease. I can work onstage, on television, or in film without any problem. It's a known fact that I can do it and I'm happy to do it. I love to bounce back and forth.

I can't say that there has been a gameplan or a blueprint. You see what's available and you accept what really appeals to you. Once in a while you get very fortunate and something that you do turns out to be incredibly successful and it may move you along, it may move you up a rung in terms of your career. Certainly something like Death of a Salesman did do that for me. It took me from being kind of an unknown, younger actor to being a little more well-known actor.

At some point I think it really dates to A Few Good Men on Broadway. Military roles just started coming my way. And I think it's great at this point I know that I'm in the equation. If something like that comes up, I'm not always gonna get it, I may not always want to do it.

Take a movie like Beyond Valkyrie.That was a case where they called and they could shoot my role in four days. We looked at the schedule and I thought the script was fine and the role not difficult for me to do. There was no reason not to do that one. The fact that it may not get a huge release, that doesn’t concern me in the least because I know I'm doing other pictures that are gonna get a huge release.

In terms of Valkyrie, I actually think that they were pleased enough with the finished movie that they did open it in theaters, which is an absolute delight for the director. He is just completely thrilled about that. Me, I'm cool one way or the other.

So I guess the short answer is this: at this point I look at what's available and if I feel like it's worthwhile or if it's gonna challenge me, and I'm free, then I'll do it. You have to be flexible in your thinking.

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You’ve got three "Avatar" sequels on the schedule. Have you shot those yet or is that going to be done in pieces?

Well, we've actually got four. We're doing four more Avatars. It turned into four because the story was really, really vast, is vast. And Jim couldn’t tell it in three, so we're doing four.

We haven't rolled camera on it because the last couple of years have really been about getting the scripts in absolutely pristine shape, in the shape that Jim Cameron really demands of himself, before we roll camera on it.

There's been a huge amount of preproduction work that’s been going on for a long time in terms of character design, in terms of the environment, the environments that are being created for it, because so much of that is generated in computer workshops. My job has been tough, which is to say it's been to stay in shape and to just be ready and to give Jim comments when it's appropriate to do so.

I really can't say anything about the story. I can say that Colonel Quaritch returns even though he was killed in the first movie. It is science fiction, and his return seems organic and natural and he appears in all the films. I can say that, because that’s a matter of public record that Cameron has said it himself at this point. I'm really looking forward to getting to work.

James Cameron has always tried to push things technically as much as possible when he makes a film. Have you been involved in the testing of the new tech? Have you been scanned for these movies?

I've been scanned a number of times. I haven't been scanned lately, but it's all in the bank, as it were. All the assets are there. They could recreate me out there as we speak right now with what they’ve got in the scans, but I have no doubt that we'll be redoing all kinds of new things.

What Jim does, in my view, is that he writes and creates kind of these challenges for himself. A lot of times they're technical challenges in order to tell the story the way it needs to be told. For it to happen, he's kind of got to invent a new lens or a new way of shooting something.

I don’t think it's any secret to say that Jim has always been involved in underwater work. He loves it. There will be a certain amount of water work in these four movies, and that’s gonna require some real new technologies to do that, some advanced stuff to get that done correctly.

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