'Mortal Engines' Star Stephen Lang On Playing A Mummified Assassin, 'Don't Breathe', 'Avatar' Sequels, And 'Tombstone' [Interview]

Over the course of a 37 year career, actor Stephen Lang has played his fair share of cowboys, marines, thugs, lawyers, cops, and more. But in Mortal Engines, he's breaking new ground.

In the new film, which hits theaters this week, Lang plays a "resurrected man" named Shrike, a mummified zombie assassin who's on a never-ending hunt for protagonist Hester Shaw. I sat down with Lang last week and he told me about the tactics he wanted to avoid while playing this role, the physicality of the character, and shared stories from the sets of films like Don't Breathe and Tombstone.

This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

I just spoke with the visual effects team, and I was surprised to learn there was zero motion capture for Shrike in the final cut. I know your character evolved a lot over the course of post-production, but what was it like for you on the set?

It's actually what you call "faux-capture," I don't know if they used that term. But the motion capture is what they use for the animation, but it's not conventional motion capture because you're on a practical set. So I've done motion capture and faux-capture, and there are differences. In terms of the performance, there's no particular difference at all in terms of how I behave.

So is that like the footage from Disney animated movies where you'd see Robin Williams recording his voiceover –

In a sense it is that way, that's right. Although Weta, they do have all my assets, as it were. My face is scanned and everything. When Robin was doing Aladdin, they would just freeze-frame and go, "Look at that look on his face there," or something like that. They do have the assets there, whether they use them or not, I don't know. But sure, it is a bit like that.

Can you talk about developing the physicality of Shrike? The way he moves is unlike a lot of the characters you've played before.

Right. I wanted to not make any assumptions about being human. I wanted to find the way this reanimated, resurrected character would move. I think I probably wanted to avoid certain things, which is to say that it's kind of easy when you play a character – I won't say "like this," because I don't know any like this, but a resurrected man – to maybe gravitate towards the zombie-like thing or a Frankenstein-type, kind of a lurching type of thing. I just felt that's not what I would associate with a killing machine. Neither did I want him to be Terminator or anything like that. I guess the point is, I wanted him to be unlike anything else, as unique as I could possibly conceive of. There's any number of doorways into a character, and in a sense, it can be quite arbitrary how you choose to go in, as long as you get an interesting result.

I haven't read the book yet, but are you someone who consumes all of that stuff before you start working on your approach, or do you just stick strictly to the script?

After I read the script, I read the books quite carefully. After writing the Mortal Engines quartet, Philip Reeve wrote a series of books that happened before Mortal Engines, and they're called Fever Crumb. In the Fever Crumb saga, that's where Shrike is introduced, where he becomes Shrike from the man he was, Kit Solent. Obviously I'd be a fool to ignore that resource. Not only a fool, but it'd be irresponsible.

I was going to ask if you came up with your own backstory for Shrike, but it's right there.

But there are things that were in the book that were of use, and some things that were less useful. And then there are some things that didn't strike me as [correct]. "I don't think that's actually what you meant there, Philip Reeve." (laughs) I actually told him so. Kit Solent, the name of the character, his death was almost inadvertent, as I guess death can be, but not as dramatic as I would care for it to be. So I'd revisit that if I were him. But the first and last time he sees his children as a Stalker and his children see him as a Stalker and they don't know what they're looking at and he doesn't know what he's looking at, but they both have some weird sense of something...that's an interesting moment. And that particular moment is something that kind of reverberates throughout the centuries with this character.

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I have to ask you about the Avatar sequels. You're coming back to play Quaritch across the next few movies – what can you tell us about that?

Like, nothing. I can tell you that we're deeply, deeply into the shooting. We're by no means finished. Quaritch, his place in this particular universe has gotten more complicated. And that's kind of the extent of his involvement in the world. The world begins to – the world of Pandora – begins to affect him quite deeply in ways that he either refused or it did not affect him. And it gets under his skin.

You were so great in Don't Breathe as a character who, kind of like Shrike, really played with the audience's sympathies. Looking back on that movie, is there a moment or story about the making of it that stands out to you now? 

The entire experience of doing it was almost like one day to me, punctuated by naps. It's sort of this twilight state of being when you're playing that role. I can't say that there was any particularly amusing days on that set. It was a fairly serious set, and I'd made myself somewhat inaccessible to being particularly amused by anything. I just existed in my own zone there. But I will say that the day of doing the, down in the basement, the infamous turkey baster scene, it was a stressful day. It was a delicate day in a way. It was a day I wasn't sorry to see the end of in a way. I know it was not an easy day for me and it was not an easy day for Jane Levy, either. But it was all done in a very professional and one might almost say cold kind of way, I think.

I remember looking at the slide with the viscous [semen] on it and saying, "Is there a hair in there?" In fact there was. I said, "Fede, do you know there's a hair in there?" And [director Fede Alvarez] said, "Yes. What's your point?" And I said, "The point is, you're one sick puppy, dude." (laughs)

You mentioned that set being sort of serious, and your character in this film is pretty serious, too. Were there opportunities for you to have some fun with Shrike, too?

I'll tell you what was fun was the soup. That was something I'd said from the get-go. I said, "This is what we're going to feed her. This is not debatable, by the way. I want cans of Campbells cream of mushroom soup, and it's going to come out like cranberry sauce coming out of a can." The thing is, of course, is that cranberry sauce does come out of the can that way, but the soup is dependent on temperature in the room or else it begins to seep out at about a mile per hour. It's like, "We don't have all day to stand here." So I said, "This is it. Look at the color of this shit. This is the right color. This is it. This is what he gives her." So the props department ended up having to recreate Campbells condensed cream of mushroom soup out of whatever it is they made it out of, but make it so it will actually slide out. "But when it slides out, I want it to stand there like a pillar." To me, when it actually successfully came out, I was like, "Yeah! Yeah! I've solved the biggest acting challenge I could possibly have!"

Tombstone Stephen Lang

I spoke with Kurt Russell last year and got to ask him about Tombstone, which is one of my all-time favorite movies. I loved your performance as Ike Clanton in that film. What do you remember about that experience?

You want stories? There are a lot of stories on Tombstone. A lot of laughs, a lot of fights, a lot of fists, a lot of jockeying for position. A lot of testosterone on that set. But Kurt Russell led the pack. Kurt knows more about film than most people in this business. You've talked to him, you know: he's a hearty, gregarious guy. One of the best people in this business in my book. So it was a pleasure being opposite him. And Val [Kilmer] was a great kind of burr under various peoples' saddle. But we were a great band of guys. We worked hard together, we played hard together, we had a good time.

After three and a half or four months in Arizona, I went directly to Glenwood Springs, Colorado to begin filming Tall Tale, and within a day or so there was struck down by what turned out to be a galaxy of kidney stones which I had gotten because I was completely dehydrated from my time in Arizona. What I realized was that during my time in Arizona, I don't know if I'd ever had a drink of water, but I'd certainly drank a lot of tequila, I know that. There I was, flat on my back in the hospital in Glenwood Springs, which is the town in which Doc Holliday had died.

Oh, wow!

So my whole thing was, you know, "Ike Clanton ain't gonna die with his boots on or off, and he ain't gonna die in Glenwood Springs."

That's great. That movie just has one of the best casts ever assembled. It's just a murderer's row of terrific character actors. The relationships that you had with those guys – was there any one person you'd hang out with more than the others?

Oh, sure. As much as I love all the guys on that film, from Sam [Elliott] to Billy Paxton to Michael Biehn, to Kurt, to Val, to Jason Priestley, just a slew of really great guys, but my absolute favorite, my brother on that, is Tommy Haden Church, who played Billy Clanton. Tommy and I were very close, remain very close to this day. He's a great, great actor and another great guy. But you're right. It was a hell of a cast.


Mortal Engines hits theaters on December 14, 2018.