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Stephen Lang talks 'Don't Breathe' and swears he's a nice guy

An actor often cast as villains (as in "Avatar") plays a complicated menace in the thriller "Don't Breathe."
Stephen LangDon't Breathe

Stephen Lang is known as the bad guy. For one, he’s evil Col. Miles Quaritch from “Avatar,” he role he’ll be reprising in the four sequels. (Though he can’t yet say how that works, since the character did die a good death.) But in “Don’t Breathe,” it’s more complicated. In the new white-knuckle thriller, the esteemed actor plays a blind ex-military type whose home is broken into by a trio of desperate thieves. They expect their latest job to go easily. But Lang’s character — credited only as “The Blind Man” — proves as scary as any horror film monster. He’s not the villain but nor is he the hero. And Lang loves that.

First off, tell me how you prepare to plausibly look blind on screen.
The very first place you go to is the Internet. There’s so much on YouTube — so many examples of not only blind people but blind people doing interesting thing: playing golf, swimming, diving. You realize they have tremendous skills.

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What about learning how to move about the house without looking like your faking?
You have to form a very intimate relationship with the house itself. That’s to say you learn how many steps it takes to get from one place to another, or learning what the basement’s like, so you can fly down that ladder with confidence. It’s really important to look like you can move through that house with economy and efficiency — with total confidence.

In the early stages of prep, you’d put patches over your eyes to simulate blindness. Did you find your other senses got stronger?
I think that’s kind of a myth; you don’t become Daredevil. But you’re forced to pay more attention to your other senses, because that’s what you have to fall back on. In that sense, absolutely. We tried to emphasize that without making him any sort of a superhero. He’s plausibly strong; he’s not super-strong.

The movie sets us up with a quandary. On one hand, the thieves are trying to rob him; on the other, he responds with excessive force. And at the same time we realize he’s scarred by war and by the loss of his wife and daughter.
What you’re talking about is part of what really elevates the film. I have no alternative, when I take a role, and especially this role, to be anything but an advocate for the character. I have to defend the character, as it were. With this guy, there’s such a core of pain and loss. That’s what defines him. If I can articulate that without saying it, if I can just embody it, then I take it on faith that that will get translated to the audience. And then they will share some of that pain. It creates some empathy for the character, which will put the audience in a very precarious position when viewing the film.

You’ve played a lot of different kinds of characters, especially on stage, but in movies you’re often cast as villains, or at least intense. I feel like you should play a romantic lead.
I know, I’d love to get the girl sometime.

And you seem like a nice person.
I am a nice person.

How did you wind up being seen by a lot of casting agents as bad guys?
I don’t know how it happened. After I did “A Few Good Men” on Broadway [ed. He originated the role of Col. Jessup, played in the movie by Jack Nicholson, in 1989], a lot them certainly started coming my way. I’ve been fortunate to do other things — to play some normal people as well.

Follow Matt Prigge on Twitter @mattprigge

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