WGN has a hit show on their hands with their original series, “Salem.” It brings to life the world of early America during the Salem witch hunts and the fearful atmosphere stoked by ignorance and religious zealotry of the Puritans of the 17th century.
It also deliciously skews historical facts and brings forth the idea of what if… what if there really were witches? What if New England was inhabited by covens of the supernatural among the natives?
The rich and meaty cast of characters includes one of my all time favorite actors, Stephen Lang. He plays the Puritanical minister, Increase Mathers, based on the real Increase Mathers, who was an ardent believer that the sins of the people brought on the evils of the world, and that included the witches.
Mr. Lang plays Mathers with just the right amount of calm and intensity that he brings to every character – and come on, those steely blue eyes don’t hurt!
Monsters and Critics had five questions with Stephen Lang:
Monsters & Critics: You have such an incredibly rich list of characters you have played on your resume but it is the bad guys that stand out… why do your fans love to hate you so much?
Stephen Lang: Oh, I didn’t know my fans love to hate me! I thought they just hated loving me. But “bad guy” is kind of a relative term, isn’t it? I mean Quaritch in ‘Avatar,’ yeah, he is a hard man, and yes, I understand that he functions as the villain of the piece. But it’s my job to make his case.
To defend that character, I would point out that he has many admirable qualities: he is a man of his word. He leads from the front. He inspires confidence in his people. He is the head of security in a fundamentally insecure environment, and so he is a true hard-ass. He will do what is necessary to keep the perimeter secure. The point is that he has his own integrity, and I think that is what people respond to. I pretty much feel that way about all the roles I play, bad or good, smart or stupid, weak or strong – figure out what is important to them and defend it to the max.
M&C: In Salem, you play the fanatical witch-hunter, Increase Mathers, can you tell us what’s going to happen with him… does he rid the town of witches or is he just a crazy bible thumper?
SL: Well, I’m not going to tell you what happens to Increase Mather – watch the show! But I will say that things get pretty gnarly. Increase is tremendous fun to play: he is highly intelligent, very passionate, very violent, and the most self-righteous character I have ever played.
Often when I’ve played historical figures; Babe Ruth, “Stonewall” Jackson, Ike Clanton – I really try to capture the letter of the law, as it were. I want to get the personal history right, the walk and the talk and the way he sits his horse. But Brannon Braga and Adam Simon, the creators of ‘Salem’ are playing very fast and very loose with history, and I am fine with that in the case of Increase. He is the Uber-Puritan, and almost Shakespearean in scope.
M&C: What makes you such a good, bad guy?
SL: I’m not sure why I play bad guys well. Maybe a key is to speculate on my favorite movie bad guy…Jack Palance in ‘Shane.’ Palance plays ‘Wilson’, the hired gunslinger. It is as cold and reptilian performance as you will ever see on the screen. It is a totally efficient performance; never a wasted gesture or word, and he receives just the right amount of screen time, which is to say he is not overused, so you never really get adjusted to him. Also, the fear that he inspires plays out in the words and actions of the cast – even Alan Ladd as the reluctant hero, Shane, gives him his due. So, while I’ve never tried to imitate Palance, it is fair to say that I have tried to emulate him.
M&C: Fans will also get so see you in the Avatar sequels, three of them… can you give us any insight as what to expect? Can James Cameron top the first Avatar?
SL: I will be doing three ‘Avatar’ sequels, but I really cannot tell you much at this time. I will say that I expect Quaritch to go on his own journey of the soul. I do believe that Jim Cameron would not make one sequel, let alone three, if he did not feel confident that the world he is creating, and the story he is telling will be as transformative, as entertaining, as breathtaking and inspiring as the original ‘Avatar.’
M&C: On a more personal note, your father was a prominent philanthropist and an entrepreneur, you have a sister who is a lawyer and a brother who is a business executive… how did you escape that buttoned-up corporate world and become an actor?
SL: Actually both my brother and sister are highly creative people. My sister founded the Atlas Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, DC., and my brother and I frequently sing duets from Gilbert and Sullivan! I never considered going into the corporate world – I don’t think I would be very good at it. I was born to be an actor, and I am lucky that I knew it from a very young age.
There you have it…. Everyone’s favorite nuanced bad guy, incredibly intelligent and can sing a little Gilbert and Sullivan, not a bad combination. Thank you Mr. Lang!