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Q&A: Actor Stephen Lang on “DON’T BREATHE”

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Who could have started off 2016 guessing that this year’s most terrifying cinematic villain would be a blind, old war veteran? Well, at least one person might have: Stephen Lang, who embodies the nameless Blind Man from Fede Alvarez’s heart-stopping horror/thriller DON’T BREATHE. Stealing scenes and scaring audiences in the sleeper hit of the summer, Lang delivered a fantastically frightening yet surprisingly multi-dimensional portrayal of a tormented man gone mad, and with the film now hitting DVD/Blu-ray, FANGORIA spoke to the season thespian about breathing life into DON’T BREATHE…

FANGORIA: How did you first get involved with DON’T BREATHE?

STEPHEN LANG: Well, the script came through my agent, who asked me to read it and see if I liked the part. So I read it and was totally intrigued by it, so I asked what the deal was, and they told me the director wanted to call, talk about the virtues of the project, and introduce himself. So Fede called me, and we had a very amiable talk about the film. From that conversation, I figured the odds are that I would enjoy working with him, so I signed on.

To be honest, I thought the role was extremely challenging and the script really surprised me. Even reading it, you think the story is going in one direction and then it takes this crazy left turn that lets it go deeper and darker.

FANG: You play a very layered character, one who was both a veteran and a father before becoming this psychopath. How did you personally approach the character?

LANG: I had always thought that, if you took the intruders out of the equation, then you’ve got this guy who has figured out his own universe within the walls of his house. His world has become very interior, very dark, and very protected. I think that all of his vulnerabilities have been eliminated, and he’s done what he can to fortify himself against a world that has given him nothing but anguish.

That is basically the actor looking at the role, and what you do is you begin to take on the character and you do the work that you feel is necessary to embody the guy. On a very material level, I had to become blind, which is a task unto itself. So to deal with the disorder of it, including the psychological confusion, you have to operate on yourself and digest it. You have to make sense out of it, but this character has been cut off from so many things that the act that he perpetrates, as bizarre and heinous as it is, is- in his own way- both an act of justice and an act of life. It’s extremely twisted, but there’s something about it that’s extraordinarily sad.

FANG: Fede really does a great job of playing with your expectations about this guy. He’s a monster, but he’s also a bit of a tragic figure and facing people who have broken into his last sanctuary.

LANG: Absolutely, but by the time you get down to the basement and discover who he really is, the audience has already formed feelings about him. Those feelings just don’t disappear, you know what I mean? You can’t discredit that and go, “Now, I hate this guy.” When there’s been so much to empathize with this character, that doesn’t go away, and when something darker gets added to it, it really makes it for an interesting experience.

FANG: Was there any discussion between Fede and yourself about this character’s backstory, or were you basing your portrayal entirely on what was in the script?

LANG: Well, we talked backstory all the time, and there was even backstory that I created that I kept very private. I didn’t find it necessary to share everything with Fede, but there was many times where I’d ask Fede about his marriage, like who his wife was and if or how she passed away. I wondered if she might have left him because he was a blinded vet or if she passed away before his life turned for the worst. That’s a question that’s very important about the history of the character, and it’s not particularly relevant to the film at all. So some things I needed to establish for my own self as I was filling out the world of the character, mentally speaking. Like it or not, those things can impact a performance.

Fede was such a great collaborator, in that sense. Sometimes, I’d ask him about something he hasn’t thought about and he’s a smart guy, so he’d make something up on the spot. [laughs] But so could I, and there’d be times where we’d change things about the character on the spot. So this character’s backstory was something that was on-demand, and was as applicable as needed. Whatever backstory is needed is what serves the film the best.

Dylan Minnette;Stephen Lang

FANG: One thing I find really interesting about the character is that, despite his twisted morality, he doesn’t want to actively be a villain. When he first encounters Money, it’s almost like he wouldn’t have hurt anyone until that moment when he realizes they’ve opened the door to the basement.

LANG: You’re right. He’s not a predator, in that he doesn’t want to prey upon them at all. The fact that they came into his kingdom is tragic, and once he understands that the door has been opened, there’s nowhere else for the situation to go. One of my favorite moments in the film is right after the initial explosion of violence, where the character starts punching the wall. That’s all frustration: “Why did this happen? Why did they come here? Why was I forced into this situation?”

FANG: How did you work out the physicality for the character? Not only are you playing a blind character, but a blind character who has military training and is very regimented in his movements.

LANG: Well, it’s funny because the first time you see the blind man, he’s outside. He’s with his dog and there’s a slightly tentative quality to him. Even though he knows that street, he knows that block, and this is a walk he takes regularly, he is out in the light. Once he gets inside his home, that tentative quality is removed because he knows his house, and if something isn’t where he knows it’s supposed to be, he knows that for a certainty. So when he’s in the house, he’s able to move with efficiency, purpose, and confidence. That was really a huge part of finding that physicality in this role: moving in straight lines from place to place, and knowing how many steps there are from room to room in your own house. That accounts for the confidence in his physicality.

FANG: Can you talk about your experience doing the scene that was in complete darkness, considering you also had to wear those eye prosthetics?

LANG: My vision was really, really impaired throughout the shoot, and because the camera was so close behind and was being guided by someone, that was a scene we really had to work out, from the pace, how fast I was going to be going, the turns I would take, the objects I’d have to touch to establish I knew exactly where I was, etc. The fact that the scene was completely in the dark was no detriment to me because the entire shoot existed in the dark for me. [laughs] If anything, it made my life slightly easier while making everyone else’s life slightly tougher.

But that’s the whole point of the scene; “Now you can see what I see.” So when we really got cooking with that scene, we tore it up pretty good. I wouldn’t say that it shot itself, but we really got to work with some dispatch, and once we got it, we got it. It worked beautifully, and it was no more difficult than any other scene. In fact, the scenes that take place in the captivity area were the real tough ones.

FANG: You’ve played an array of fantastic villains throughout your career, and this is certainly one of the most shocking. How did you react to the revelations about the character when you first read the script?

LANG: Well, I don’t remember exactly what page it was in the script, but as a performer, reading something like that lights a fire inside you that makes you want to take this role on. The more I learned, the more I wanted to play the character because I reached a certain point of identification and tremendous sympathy. Basically, the stance I take on any character- and this is always up for re-evaluation- is that my job is to defend that character. I’m not looking to make him good, bad, heroic, or villainous; I want to make the character completely and fully human. I think Fede and Rodo [Sayagues] were very masterful in humanizing him in the script. So when the film took the character deeper, I realized I’d have more of an opportunity to portray him fully.

FANG: How was the experience doing the fight scene in the workshop, considering you had to do that choreography with the eye impairments?

LANG: That scene, in particular, was a really rough scene because it was a small room filled with objects that had hard, sharp edges. It goes without saying that you’re gonna walk away from that scene with a few nicks, and you won’t know exactly how you got it. But we worked out the choreography, and we had an excellent stunt coordinator who helped us work it out so it would be as safe as possible. Once that was established, then we just went at it, and once I developed confidence with my fight partner, which was Dylan Minnette, then I realized it was going to be fine. We did the scene in pieces, and I don’t think we did a full master shot for that scene, but as I recall, it was a long day. [laughs] I was really glad to get out of that room, and I know Dylan was, too!

FANG: What’s next for you now that DON’T BREATHE is out? Any chance we might catch you on SALEM again this season?

LANG: You may not see me in SALEM this season, but my presence will be felt. Increase has been consigned to Hell, but I’ve already made one appearance since then, so there’s always a chance that Increase may return in some shape or form to impact things in the further history of SALEM. In the meantime, I’ve got a few films I’ve finished; one film is called ISOLATION, another is called JUSTICE, and I just shot a film for Scott Cooper called HOSTILES with Christian Bale. My film BEYOND GLORY, which is based on my solo show, just came out in October, and soon, I’m getting back to work on AVATAR. So I’ve got a lot going on, and that’s a good thing!

DON’T BREATHE, starring Stephen Lang, is now out on Blu-ray, DVD, and Digital HD from Sony Pictures Home Entertainment.

About the author
Ken W. Hanley

Ken W. Hanley is the Managing Web Editor for FANGORIA and STARLOG, as well as the former Web Editor for Diabolique Magazine and a contributing writer to YouWonCannes.com. He’s a graduate from Montclair State University, where he received an award for Excellence in Screenwriting. He’s currently working on screenplays, his debut novel “THE I IN EVIL”, and various other projects, and can be followed on Twitter: @movieguyiguess.

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