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Stephen Lang

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Mainstream audiences probably recognise Stephen Lang as the fearsome Colonel Miles Quaritch from Avatar. With his piercing blue eyes, head scarred from the scratch of some predatory beast and stony visage, he was an effective bad guy.

But you might be surprised to learn that in playing an elderly, blind loner, the 64-year-old actor one-ups Quaritch and gives us a villain for the ages in Fede Alzarez's hit thriller Don't Breathe.

With appearances in about seven films a year for the last three years and countless more credits before that, you'd think playing the antagonist of the biggest movie of all time would be enough to cap a career off, but his role as The Blind Man means he's nowhere near done scaring the bejeesus out of audiences yet.

How was it to play a blind man?

Challenging for sure. There's a line between being credible and incredible, and blindness is very clear, you know it when you see it. I did everything I could think of to be credible as a blind man. Really what that meant was making it not an extraordinary state, but making it the state of normalcy for this character.

Of course the situation he's plunged into is an abnormal situation, but when it comes to the way he deals with his life, in an odd way it struck me that the best way to sell the blindness would be to stress his competency, his adeptness at dealing with this environment he's set up for himself.

He's very rarely helpless.

But when you do see him outside there is a vulnerability to him. There is almost a decrepitude to the guy, when he's outside his own environment he becomes much more vulnerable. The first time you see him in bed it's the same thing, his defenses are down.

There's a wonderful myth out there that when you're blind all your other senses become really perky and lively, you become like Daredevil. Of course it's absolute nonsense. You do probably become more acutely aware of things and pay attention, that doesn't mean other senses are great, but the fact of the matter is, as an actor you bring the tools that you have to bear when they are necessary.

Through years and years of gunshots [as a former soldier] he's probably lost about 30 percent of his hearing at this point. So I figured well, the guy is not only blind, he doesn't hear all that well either, so he really has to listen.

How did you prepare to play a blind character?

I used to do theater for the blind in New York and saw performances there that were interesting and they were good. But mostly the internet, I looked at quite a few things on blindness on the internet.  In the end you get enough.

The contacts lenses were pretty scary.

The lenses weren't designed with blocking my vision in mind, they were designed for the look of milkiness and cloudiness they convey, but they took away probably 40 to 60 percent of my vision, and then the low lighting on set took out a certain percentage as well. I didn't see all that well and when Fede [Alvarez, director] would say action, I took a leap of faith.

What was your first reaction to the script and when did you decide it was for you?

I think when I was done with the reading I'd basically decided I could commit to playing this role, the reason being that I was scared of it, I truly was. Not from the beginning – what I was initially attracted to was his silence, I liked that. I was also attracted to the kind of Job-like suffering this guy was undergoing, he was a victim and my heart went out to him.

Then when you come to the twist you realise it's not quite that simple. At that point I was terrified of him, and I've learned through years of experience that's a really good reason to do something, it means it's going to challenge you.

Fede and I spoke for quite a while and after that conversation I was totally on board. I think I had been anyway, I was ready to do it – how could you not? What kind of an actor would I be if I said no to this? What, am I looking for more challenging roles?

I knew from the get go this was a quality script and a quality story and I don't care what genre you may want to put this in. Whatever it is, it transcends it.

Is it apples and oranges working on something like Don't Breathe versus something as huge and well resourced as Avatar?

Well the wonderful thing was that this movie was all practical effects. There is something really just meat and potatoes, down to earth about that. A lot of times when you work on a film like Avatar, you don't know how shit is going to work.

What you're doing on that is relatively simple, then something is going to be transformed into something else. There is a great satisfaction in that, but practical effects are a lot of fun.

When you're a kid and want to play, nobody puts themselves in front of a blue screen, you actually put on a cowboy hat, you run around the backyard. It's a lot about that playful thing of believing and being in the real experience.

Is one working method or the other better?

When you're in a practical set there's nothing like it. It's wonderful, but the other way you get back some very basic fundamental stuff about acting. It's all about pretend.

[With James Cameron] it was all about 'there's a monster over there'. 'How big is it?' 'It's really big'. 'Well, how big is really big?' 'It's really, really big'. 'Well, does it slobber?' 'I don't know if it slobbers, that's up to you'. 'So you don't care if it slobbers or not?' 'I don't give a fuck if it slobbers, Goddammit, just shoot the scene'.

He's not a method director then?

Jim is a great director, I've been blessed with directors. As far as I am concerned Jim is the Leonardo of our age and I think Fede Alvarez is well on his way to being Michelangelo.

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