Why it took Avatar's villain 24 years to get the job

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Dec 14, 2012, 4:09 PM EST

What most people may not know about Stephen Lang—the veteran actor who plays the ass-kicking heavy, Col. Miles Quaritch, in director James Cameron's upcoming 3-D sci-fi epic Avatar—is that he's waited to work for Cameron for 30 years: He originally read for a colonial marine role in Cameron's Aliens, way back in 1985. But it took until Avatar for him to finally land a part.

"It was the longest callback in history," Lang said with a laugh.

The tough-as-nails Quaritch is the military chief of security on the alien planet of Pandora, and he considers the indigenous Na'vi to be "savages" and "roaches" that need to be conquered so that rare minerals can be forcibly mined from their planet. He recruits paraplegic soldier Jake Sully (Sam Worthington) to adopt an avatar persona of a Na'vi to infiltrate them, working as a mole to discover and exploit their weaknesses.

Portrayed as an unapologetic zealot for the mission, Quaritch is a character fans are clearly ready to hate. And while Lang agrees that he's the unequivocal heavy of Avatar, sporting a no-nonsense flattop haircut and a menacing sneer, he also reveals that there's a lot more to his character ... and the movie, too. Lang spoke exclusively to SCI FI Wire by phone last week.

"But I think is some ways the last 30 years of me doing this is what prepares you for a film like this," Lang continued. "Things happen when they are supposed to happen. Aliens was such a good movie; obviously it was the right thing that I wasn't in it. But I'm awful glad I took that meeting. And when they asked me to do this role, one of my boys is a huge movie buff. Whenever I get a play, I'd say, 'Hey, I'm going to do this play!' And he'd go, 'That's great, Dad.' It was, but I could tell it was also 'Meh, another play.' I'd say to him, 'Don't worry, son, there's a big one out there.' So when Avatar came, I winked at him and said, 'Toldja.'"

Stephen Lang (left) and Sam Worthington (click to enlarge)

While Lang is no slouch in the thespian department (he's been nominated for numerous drama awards for his work in the theater), the actor did admit to some nerves joining such an epically ambitious project.

"I think there is always an element of fear, but I tend to think a touch of fear can be a healthy thing," Lang said. "You don't blindly rush into things. But the great thing is to master it and go out and do it. When you get down to it, it's acting in a movie and not like going into a coal mine, so I don't want to overdramatize that at all," he added with a laugh.

"But I think the ensemble, down to each man and woman in it, is really a reflection of Jim's own ferocity and his own relentless exploration of the material," Lang continued. "He's got a group, in my estimation, of highly potent, powerful and intelligent actors. I'm not necessarily including myself in there," he said with a laugh. "But my experience of working with Sigourney [Weaver], with Zoe [Saldana], Sam and Dileep Rao—all of them—they're very penetrating people who knew they were part of something special and extraordinary."

Based on the Avatar trailers, many have already dismissed Lang's character Quaritch as a one-note baddie, but Lang said that would be a mistake. "I had a very strong image and an intuitive feel for Quaritch the minute I saw his name and character description. The minute I saw it, I felt at home in those boots. I can't say where it comes from at all, but some of the reasons he signs up in the first place are interesting and important to me. Things like a sense of duty, mission and personal courage and a desire to protect. They get twisted with him, and that's what makes him very interesting."

When asked if there was any of Cameron—who is notoriously Type-A on his film sets—infused in Quaritch's personality, the actor laughed and said, "No Jim in the role at all. I never even considered that, but in the end, there may be more than I know. Jim does think sometimes in military terms and loves the jargon and the lingo, as do I. And one of the things I really enjoyed debating with Jim was whether [Quaritch] did three or four tours back on Earth. It doesn't have any bearing! But where was he? 'No, he wasn't in Madagascar. He was in the Casino Wars.' What are they? 'Well, they happened 80 years from now.' It was playing those kinds of games."

Lang said working out that backstory helped create an important context for his actions. "I think the changes [with Quaritch] happened long before the movie," the actor explained. "He goes into [the military] for the reasons that you see in the commercials, but the rules of engagement on Earth don't exist anymore. There was some sense historically of honor in warfare, but by the time Quaritch puts on a uniform the world is full of dirty wars with civilians and children, so there's no honor left. There's no one as twisted and bitter as a dashed idealist. I think that very much is who he is by the time he gets to Pandora. He's also on a mission there that is doomed to daily failure."

Avatar opens Dec. 18. Look for more Avatar coverage soon from the press day in London.