While much has changed about the Avatar sequels since they were first announced in 2010, one thing has been certain from the start – Stephen Lang would return. Although Lang's character, Colonel Miles Quaritch, seemingly died in the 2009 record-breaking film, visionary director James Cameron has found a way to revive him, not wanting a new villain in each of the four planned sequels.
"He is so good and he just gets better," Cameron told Empire in 2017. "I know Stephen Lang is gonna knock this out of the park."
It's not hard to see why Cameron is so taken with Lang, who has been fun to hate on screen for decades, from playing Freddy Lounds in the first Hannibal Lecter film Manhunter (1986) and the sadistic Ike Clanton in Tombstone (1993) to his horrifying star turn in Don't Breathe (2016). As good as he always is, the coming Avatar films will be something new for the actor, who has never before been invited back for a sequel.
"It's very satisfying to know that the character was valued enough and made enough of an impression to [have Cameron] say 'we're not done with him yet'. That, initially, was kind of wonderful, to me. My job is really to advocate the role that I'm playing, and so it's satisfying to have that much more time to discover Quaritch, find out what makes him tick, talk about him, and hopefully defy expectations that people have for the character, to create new expectations," Lang tells The National.
"I'm working now with a much broader canvas than I was with the first Avatar, and it keeps me in concert with James Cameron to really go to town and examine the character in detail. That, to me, is totally tremendously satisfying and challenging," Lang continues.
Avatar 2 and 3 were originally supposed to hit cinemas in 2014 and 2015 respectively, but numerous delays including a four-year writing process, technological advances made specially for the films and Cameron's near-boundless ambition have ballooned the number of sequels to four, with one being released every other December until 2027. While the first won't make its debut until the end of next year, Lang has been filming pieces of all four sequels since shooting began in September 2017, and they have amassed so much footage, including strenuous underwater scenes, that he can't even remember how many hours of film or pages of script they've completed.
"I've given up trying to keep track. The whole thing gets a little confusing," Lang says.
While Avatar filming took a break, Lang produced and starred in a new horror film called VFW, a throwback to the bloody grindhouse films of the 1970s and '80s in which a group of Vietnam War veterans defend a young woman from substance-abusing criminals who are out to kill her and invade their beloved meeting space. What attracted Lang to the project wasn't merely the action and gore, but the opportunity to dig deeper into the psychology of a military man who is fighting to keep his place in the world.
"I saw subversive possibilities in there. Any time you're dealing with veterans, I think there is a sober quality to that. There's the obvious trauma of having been through combat, and number two, getting old. The combination of those two things can be very poignant and painful," he says.
Lang never served in the military, but he's been exploring the inner lives of veterans such as VFW's Fred Parass throughout his career.
Even Avatar's Quaritch brags about his three tours in a fictional Nigerian war. To get in their heads, he observes the people around him and people from his past, drawing from both their experiences and even some of his own, looking for a 'marker in the harbour' his characters can return to.
“It can be as simple as the lyric of a song. It can be a stone in your shoe. It can be my Uncle Sonny. It can be a lot of things as long as it works for you,” says Lang.
That same process is also allowing him to dig deeper into Quaritch on the Avatar set, trying to make him human enough, with a sensible point of view, that audiences will have a harder time hating him.
"He has evolved, definitely. We're making four more films, so if he doesn't evolve, we're in some kind of trouble. And it's not always a question of evolution, it's about becoming more deeply entrenched. I'm still discovering it. That's something I'll be discovering as we continue to work because we're by no means near finished with this process," Lang says.
Lang's love of acting, and his confidence in his work, are as high as they've ever been. While Avatar stood as the highest-grossing film of all time for almost 10 years before Avengers: Endgame eventually topped it in 2019, Lang thinks Avatar 2 will take the crown once again, knocking the Avengers finale off its throne.
“I expect so,” he says.
VFW will be in UAE cinemas from Thursday, February 27