Stephen Lang talks White Irish Drinkers

Stephen Lang discusses the authenticity of White Irish Drinkers, Avatar 2, Terra Nova, and much more

2009 was a banner year for actor Stephen Lang, who appeared in The Men Who Stare at Goats, Public Enemies and this little movie called Avatar you may have heard of. 2011 is shaping up to be another fine year for the celebrated actor, with roles in Conan the Barbarian and the highly-anticipated Fox sci-fi series Terra Nova. Before those larger projects are released, though, Stephen Lang stars in White Irish Drinkers, which doesn't have the genre appeal of those previous titles, but packs an enormous dramatic punch. Stephen Lang turns in a phenomenal performance as Patrick, a hard-drinking Brooklyn dock worker who takes out his aggressions on his wife, Margaret (Karen Allen) and sons Brian and Danny (newcomers Nick Thurston and Geoffrey Wigdor).

I recently had the chance to speak with Stephen Lang over the phone about this fantastic indie drama, which is set in the year 1975. Here's what he had to say.

I really enjoyed this movie and your performance in it, Stephen.

Stephen Lang: Oh, good. We're real proud of it. It's a fine movie and very old-fashioned, don't you think?

Absolutely. I believe you grew up in New York right around this time period. Would you say this movie and these characters are authentic to the time? Was that a reason that drew you to the script?

Stephen Lang: I feel like it's authentic. It comes from a very localized community that (writer-director) John Gray knew and lived in and has a lot of feeling and affection for. I was growing up not too far away, in Queens. It was the same world, but a different pocket or locale, but it feels authentic to me.

It really was quite a wonderful performance you gave as Patrick. Were there any characters from your own life, growing up, that you drew on to take on this larger-than-life character?

Stephen Lang: Well, when I first read it, I was a little bit leery about taking it. It's a very, very tough part, in a way. I certainly wouldn't relate him, in any direct way or experiences I had in my own family. Just the pressure of father and son, the difference of how you express love and anger, the inability to express emotions, that was stuff that I could relate to, I could imagine. It struck me as something that would be really interesting for me to explore.

That was one of the main things I noticed, that everybody is really suppressing their emotions, or even their dreams, to fit in and have a normal life. Even Margaret suppresses her real feelings for Patrick as well.

Stephen Lang: Yeah, I think that goes hand-in-hand with the culture. I don't want to, in any way, characterize a race or a people or get accused of racial profiling, but the Irish, as lyrical and romantic as they can be in their poetry, they can be every bit as repressed in their personal relations. The same can be said for other people as well, but I do think it is true. I remember years ago I was doing an Irish play, The Shadow of a Gunman by Sean O'Casey. After three days of rehearsal, I guess I had been slapping him on the back or something like that. He said, 'You know, let me tell you something about the Irish. They never touch, at all.' I said, 'Really?' He said, 'They don't touch each other, OK?' (Laughs). There's a wonderful character lesson to be learned from it.

One thing I'm always intrigued by is how an actor plays drunk in a scene. It so often comes off as goofy or over-the-top. The scenes where you come in after you've had a few, they seemed very much grounded in reality. Was that a challenge for you to keep a balance between the drama and the realism?

Stephen Lang: Did you feel it was effective?

I did, yes, very much so.

Stephen Lang: What I felt, and I know John felt the same way, was that the atmosphere, the smell of whiskey, the taste of whiskey should permeate the entire film, and yet, I don't know if you observed it, but you never once see him take a drink. You know, we've seen a lot of drunks in films, but I don't know that we've ever seen one who doesn't drink at all in the movie. He's just in a constant state of some level of inebriation, to dull his pain. I was aware that I had been drinking, but I never once tried to play drunk. The character himself, would take a swing at anybody who called him a drunk, because one of the defining characteristics of his manhood is the ability to hold liquor and not be drunk.

There's such a great dynamic in the cast, with established actors like yourself, Karen Allen, Peter Riegert, and these young actors Nick Thurston, Geoffrey Wigdor, and Leslie Murphy. Can you talk about that dynamic with the veteran actors and the newcomers on the set?

Stephen Lang: First of all, it was a real pleasure and a drawing card to the film, for me, that I would be working with Karen Allen, Peter Riegert. They're both people I dearly love as friends and have tremendous respect for as actors. They're both really top-notch people. But, I've got to say, the boys and Leslie, they were surprises to me. They were great. I enjoyed working with them, they were strong-minded and extremely respectful at the same time, when putting forth their ideas. The boys were strong in every way and they would make a father proud. I felt a lot of joy working with them and, when I saw their performances, I was really blown away because I think they both did an absolutely stunning job. It only makes Patrick's inability to see how important these boys are, more poignant, I think. Those guys are both really worthwhile people.

Most of director John Gray's work has been in TV, but I really enjoyed his style of writing and directing here. I hope he does more features, actually. Can you talk about working with him and his style?

Stephen Lang: I've told John after this, he can just cast me in his next film. He doesn't have to tell me what I'm playing, I'll do it for him, because he is so unspoiled. He's a veteran. He's been around a long time and he brings an enthusiasm, a serious enthusiasm, a joy, a sense of awe and wonder to the work that's being done, and real expertise. He knows his way around a script, he knows his way around a camera, and he knows how to produce. I just have a respect for him on every level. When you add to that, that he takes a chance on this and realizes that the only way this film is going to get done the way he wants it to get done is to put his own money where his mouth is, you've got to have a lot of respect for that. He directed me and he shapes a performance in a really sensitive way and in a way that's very, very helpful. A lot of times, it's really just a very minute shifting of something, but that's a pleasure because you know the guy is paying attention, big time.

Before I ever read anything about this, when I saw the title White Irish Drinkers, I thought it would be some sort of comedy. It was great for me because I got something I totally didn't expect. I was curious about your thoughts on the title and if it might draw more people in?

Stephen Lang: What I like about the title is defines a very specific locality and a very specific type of person. It's not a racy comedy, but the sense of the dullness that alcohol brings about in somebody, is very much the sensibility of the movie. It permeates the house and the world. I'll say this, and the only reason I'll say this is because I've heard John Gray say it. The fact is, it's a great title (Laughs). The title is a sexy title that hopefully draws people in. That's the fact of it, I think. When a script comes across my desk that's entitled White Irish Drinkers, I want to read it.

I have to ask about Avatar 2. We know it will take place underwater and Jim is working on the script. Have you heard anything from Jim about it? Do you have any aspirations about what you want to see from Colonel Quantrich in Avatar 2?

Stephen Lang: (Laughs) I had dinner with him about a month ago. We spent the evening together and we talked about it. I know he's proceeding and I have no doubt that Avatar 2 is going to be great and every bit as jaw-dropping and exciting as Avatar was. As to my own relationship to it, I can't really say anything about that, at all, other than I'm just proud to be on the team. Whether I appear in Avatar 2 or Avatar 3, I always feel I'm a part of the Avatar team. I know that's a non-answer, but that's it.

Can you also talk a bit about Terra Nova? It looks like quite a revolutionary series. Have you started work on the order yet? Is there anything you can say about your character?

Stephen Lang: Well, let's see. We finished the first two and we're heading back to Australia to shoot the next 11. We're really at the start of a grand adventure. The first two went very, very well. We've established a benchmark, we've established a way of working, a rapport, with the characters to the environment. Now we've just got to get down to the hard work of making these stories as exciting and as dramatic and as thrilling as we possibly can. I think it's no small feat to try to do an hour-long series that's as effects-ladened as this is, which takes place in an alien world, and keep it real. That's what we're doing and it's real exciting. I like it because it's a big roll of the dice, you know. There's a lot to be gained. It could be a very, very important series, but, on the same token, when you aim big, the drop is all that more steep. I wouldn't have it any other way.

When do you start filming on the rest of the order then?

Stephen Lang: We are heading back in May. Just take a real deep breath and submerge for about six months or so.

Just to wrap up, what would you like to say to anyone who might be curious about White Irish Drinkers, about why they should check it out in theaters on March 25?

Stephen Lang: I think it's a gem. I think it's a little gem, a diamond in the rough here, and one that I feel really honored to be a part of. It's a departure for me, certainly, so if you're interested in my work, certainly, and in the work of other terrific actors and a really splendid filmmaker, then it's really worth a look. It will really worm its way into your heart.

I would definitely agree.

Stephen Lang: Thank you. That's great.

That's about all I have, Stephen. Thanks so much for your time and best of luck with anything else you have coming up.

Stephen Lang: Thank you so much, brother. I hope to talk to you again.

You can watch Stephen Lang's powerhouse performance in the fantastic indie White Irish Drinkers, which will be released in theaters on March 25.