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The Sunday Conversation: Stephen Lang

The actor is playing 'Conan the Barbarian's' nemesis. For him, it all started with his character's nose. Then there's the new Fox time-travel series 'Terra Nova.'

August 14, 2011|By Irene Lacher, Special to the Los Angeles Times
  • Stephen Lang on the set of "Terra Nova" in Australia.
Stephen Lang on the set of "Terra Nova" in Australia. (Brook Rushton / Fox )

Stephen Lang, 59, is following up his splash as "Avatar's" villainous Col. Miles Quaritch with two more sci-fi/fantasy roles — Khalar Zym, the title character's nemesis in Lionsgate's "Conan the Barbarian," opening Friday, and Cmdr. Nathaniel Taylor in Fox's "Terra Nova," a time-travel series executive produced by Steven Spielberg launching Sept. 26.

Following "Avatar" with "Conan the Barbarian" and "Terra Nova," you're becoming one of the go-to guys for sci-fi and fantasy. Is that your preference or a function of the market?

You know, you take it as it comes. I like the genres very much. I would be delighted if westerns came back in style, because that's definitely a preferred genre of mine, but I like action, things with a lot of movement, sprawl, with an epic nature to it, and these projects all have that.

"Conan" certainly has a lot of action. You look pretty fit; did you do your own stunts?

Everything you see, I did. I had a great sword double as well. We worked with the team from "300." If I wasn't shooting, I was training with them.

What did they teach you?

The character is really defined by the way he fights. And so we worked very carefully on choreographing fights that made sense for him, that had a kind of fluidity, because Conan is learning, and, in an odd way, Khalar Zym is sort of an antimentor to him. He teaches him how to be a warrior. He fights with him until the very end. During the final battle where [Conan] grips his father's sword, that's where Conan really becomes Conan the Barbarian. Up until then, he's really Conan in training. The fights, I wanted them to be brutal and poetic at the same time.

You're almost unrecognizable in that film, with your waist-length ponytail and gravelly voice. What was up with that voice?

You steep yourself in the script and see what voice emerges. There's a grandeur to it, there's almost an operatic quality, I think, to the piece itself, to the entire world there, and I wanted him to have a classical overtone to the voice. As barbaric as you may find Khalar Zym, he represents a certain form of civilization because he's attempting to impose his own order on things.

Did you have facial prosthetics?

The only prosthetic I have on is a nosepiece. Speaking quite frankly, I do not have the nose of a villain. I have a cute nose. The only failing I have as ["Avatar's"] Col. Quaritch is that I have a cute nose. But Khalar Zym, when we were talking about noses, I was emailing back and forth with the makeup guy. I said, "Think Dante." Because if you look at etchings of Dante's nose, that's a nose. We didn't go quite that far, but we did plenty with it. It's a very simple piece, but I think it's very, very effective.

You look like yourself in "Terra Nova," but I couldn't tell from the pilot whether you're a good guy or a bad guy.

That's intentional. I think he's a mysterious character. He's definitely a heroic character. The buck stops with him at this place, and he feels personally responsible for every life in Terra Nova. That's a job that never ends, and I think that breeds a certain type of stress. That kind of stress, of course, can have repercussions. When you couple that with the fact that he is the sole authority there, and through a period of years of trial and error, he's found what works. So a certain autocratic mind-set can set in, and it can become a my-way-or-the-highway philosophy of governing there, and that's not necessarily to everyone's liking. But his ultimate goals are idealistic, and his heart is pure.

Your father, Eugene, is a huge philanthropist. I read that he's given away $150 million.

Yeah, I wish he'd stop already. My dad is in his 90s, he goes into the office six days a week. He's what I call a total mensch. He believes in very creative philanthropy. He holds people accountable for taking effective action with the money. I think he has had quite a profound effect on education, and also he has done an awful lot for medical research, as well. We've always been father and son and pals. I'm in Australia [filming "Terra Nova"] and have been for a while and I miss him. Because he's old.

It's been reported that he has resolved not to leave his kids any money, like Warren Buffett.

I don't know about that. I think that certainly a fortune goes to other places. I don't really spend a lot of time thinking about that. You always try to make your own way — that's what I was taught. He's always been there for me, always would be, just as I would be for any of my children. But I don't feel that the world — or my father — owes me a damn thing.

That is unlike a number of young heirs and heiresses today. Do you think you would be as successful as you are now if you had been swathed in money when you were growing up?

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