Stephen Lang Guest Stars on "In Plain Sight"

By Jamie Ruby

Stephen LangStephan Lang has a long body of work, but is probably best known on film for his role in the blockbuster movie, Avatar, and in televsion for his part on the series Terra Nova. Tonight Lang will take on the role of father, in USA Network's In Plain Sight.

Lang plays James Wiley Shannon, Mary Shannon's father, who left when she was just a child and has been on the run from the law ever since.

Lang sat down and discussed his new role with the digital media.

USA Conference Call
In Plain Sight
Stephen Lang

April 17, 2012

SCIFI VISION: Can you talk about how you got involved with In Plain Sight?

Stephen LangSTEPHEN LANG: I received an offer to do it and read the scripts and I felt they were terrific and that's really how it all came about.

What I was told by Dan Lerner, who is one of the producers and directors of the show and has been with it for a long time, was that over the years they've talked on and off about the role of James Wiley Shannon, about Mary's dad and who should play it. And they bandied about ideas and finally when pushed and shoved they thought that I would be the right person to do it and so I was quite thrilled. I thought it was excellent writing. I think that it's a superb cast - led by Mary McCormack, who's terrific in the thing - and so I couldn't see any reason in the world not to do it.

QUESTION: Why do you think it is that Mary's dad expected her to be more welcoming of him, upon his return?

STEPHEN LANG: Well, I'm not sure that he does have any expectations along those lines.

First of all, I'd say that not every motive has been revealed at this point, but the only thing he can really deal with or control is his own needs, the reasons he needs to do something. And I guess you just reach a point in your life where -- or he did, he reached to the point in his life where he really has to come to terms and confront some of the consequences of the way he's lived his life.

And so, I just don't believe that he has any expectations. Of course you have a fantasy or dream - that after being on the lam for 30 years walking away 30 year ago, you're going to be welcomed with a hug and a kiss. But I think realistically that may be the dream you have - I think realistically it's not going to happen and he probably knows that.

QUESTION: Is that what you find challenging about your role?

STEPHEN LANG: I find a lot of things challenging about the part. It's an arc over three scripts – really two, just the introduction and the first one – but there's a completeness to it. I find it challenging to first of all to play a character who's been talked about for a long time, who the core fans of this show have been waiting for a long time and they have feelings about him and resentments about him as they identify with Mary to try and argue as it were his side of the story, to defend his life, to defend his character . That's the challenge - to also be believable, convincing as her father -- as Mary's father.

Roles have challenges on every level to me and this one fit the bill. There are things you occasionally say, "Well, I can do that in my sleep." And those roles don't really interest me that much. This one had some bite to it. It had history and so I thought, "Yes, this is a good thing to do." So there were a lot of challenges.

I'll tell you another thing. Just occupying the screen with an actress of Mary McCormack's caliber - that's challenging because she's a formidable woman and actress, totally believable as a marshal, to me.

QUESTION: Oh, I agree, and it's just her attitude and the way she exudes herself -- very intense.

STEPHEN LANG: I love it too and it always seems to me that so much of what we see on television, the most important thing sometimes seems to be the likeability factor. And it is important because you spend once a week with people you want to be with and she [is] sort of pissed off all the time and yet somehow there's something very daring about her. So she's got something special, I think.

QUESTION: Understanding the circumstances around James and Mary, how did you find a way to trust [him and his sincerity] to play [him] effectively?

STEPHEN LANG: What makes a good salesman? He has an ability to lie. To some extent his life is a lie but the earmark of a great liar is that he believes it himself, and he's very convincing at that. I mean, he's been able to do that but...eventually it's going to work its way out and the fundamental goodness - which is not even the main part of the guy but it's there - it's a reaction against it and he has to deal with it.

So I really don't worry too much about whether I trust him or whether he's a good man, whether he's a bad man. I just try and inhabit him and find his point of view and not judge it so much, just as he wouldn't his own self. Does that make any sense?

QUESTION: In what ways were you able to give more to the character since it wasn't quite as physically demanding as Terra Nova was?

STEPHEN LANG: Well, I liked the idea of playing somebody where a toll has been taken on him over the years, physically from moving about, just from circumstances being tough. But that was all pliable to me and it was all something - I don't know if I'd say that he's quite at the end of his rope but he certainly has reached a point of vulnerability in his life where the options are starting to run out for him. He's taken so many paths and it all seems like it's a big maze in a way. And I think he's just getting very tired of running.

QUESTION: You've done some real standup guys and some thoroughly evil characters, but the vast majority of your roles are somewhere in between, and so they are all shades of grey and odd colors. What was it about James Wiley Shannon on the page that suggested what colors you could use to play him?

STEPHEN LANG: I don't know that I see things so much in terms of colors. I do talk about palletes sometimes when I act and I know what you mean.

I'm a father. I have [grown] children and this circumstance of walking out on your children and the pain that you cause and the knowledge of having caused that pain and the pain that you carry with yourself because of that - to me that's very poignant stuff. It's something that's very difficult for me to imagine, doing something like that. And so that makes it territory that's worth exploring a little bit.

And I can't say I go into it with any pre-conceived notion of - you know, I want to paint him this color or that color. Sometimes I think of that wonderful line that Henry Fonda says at the end of "Once Upon a Time In The West." He and Charles Bronson - he's been wronged by him, and looks at him and says, "You good and bad." And Fonda says, "Just a man" and I feel that way that so many of the characters you play - I try not to put a name on it. Just trying to find the person and then let others...say whether he's a hero or a villain or somewhere in between.

QUESTION: Now that you've done the role and people are about to see it, I'm wondering, how do you assess what you've done with the role? Do you ever think about that after you've finished? I know actors are rarely completely satisfied with a performance because it can always be better, but what do you like with what you did?

STEPHEN LANG: Well, I'll have to watch the episodes. I haven't seen them. I did watch the first one where I make that first appearance and I thought that was simple and it was honest. And that's what I look for. I do recall as we were shooting it, walking away from scenes feeling that I had kept it simple and kept it honest which is really where I'm at right now - those are major operative words with me. And so, I think as I watch it all I'll assess it.

And as you said, I'm sure I'll see some things where I'll go "I could have done that better. Oh my gosh, what was I thinking? Why did they let me do that?" But hopefully there won't be too many of those moments.

As long as the story is well served - and I feel that the entire company of In Plain Sight, they have such a long-term investment in this show. They've created these roles, this story, this saga and to me their satisfaction is paramount. If they feel if I've brought to life the Shannon that they had envisioned, then I'm really happy because they've been with this thing long term.

QUESTION: After some of the effects-heavy work in Avatar, Conan, Terra Nova, is it a nice change to come in from the jungle and do something a little more grounded to reality?

STEPHEN LANG: The first thing I did when I got out there I said, "Excuse me, where's the green screen? I can't work without a green screen."

No, it was nice to get back into this century for one thing and wear something that wasn't kind of military. And [I'll] tell kind of a human story - not that the others aren't but you know what I mean - it's kind of on a different scale, an intimate story. I know it's a big show and it's all about witness protection and everything but, we're doing a father and a daughter reunion show - be it not a conventional reunion. And so it was great. It's good to do it.

QUESTION: You have a long resume as a theater actor, did that help you ease your transition to the CGI-heavy work, working with the green screen? Did it help your ability to work with that which you can't see?

STEPHEN LANG: I think it does. Sure, on some level acting is the art of pretend and you have to have a highly cultivated sense of imagination. You have to be able to see things that aren't there no matter what aspect of acting, whether it's green screen, whether it's on stage, whether it's anything else, whether you're working on the radio. And so it's just something that we cultivate. I think for some that kind of work comes quite naturally to us but you want to develop the technique for it, yes.

QUESTION: Do you think [Terra Nova] might have worked better as a film with a bit of a bigger budget than as more of sort of - not something that had to run week after week with a story that was a little more concise?

STEPHEN LANG: Well, you know, I made one statement about Terra Nova a couple of weeks ago and that's it, that's all I'm going to say about Terra Nova at this point.

QUESTION: Is it a particular joy for you to play a character that toes the line between friend and foe?

STEPHEN LANG: I think we probably were wondering about it, this sort of grey area and I was thinking that it's probably a product of having worked with Michael Mann a lot, because Michael is the guy who threads that grey area in almost all of this work - the distinction between good guy and bad guy. He's so miniscule but if I look back on so many of the things that I really loved so that the characters, either real or imagined, that I love very often they are characters who it's very difficult to ascertain whether they are good or bad.

For example, I've always loved the character of Nicholson in The Bridge on the River Kwai, the Alec Guinness role. Is he a good man or is he a bad man? Or someone like Patton, who is sort of a wonderful man and at the same time a complete monster, it seems to me.

So I think that I do have an attraction towards some of these maverick characters who are morally ambivalent.

QUESTION: How do you prepare for a role in which there is so much reputation preceding the character? This character has been spoken of and heard about for years and now finally the fans, who have developed in their minds whoever or whatever the father is supposed to be, now get to see him for the first time. How do you prepare to live in the image?

STEPHEN LANG: Well, it's helpful that I wasn't aware of any of it. I didn't know what I was walking into. With great and all due respect, I only learned about the meat of this show after they asked me to do it. And then I was told that and learned that he was a very important character. There's not a lot I can do about that, but also I can't say that I'm particularly daunted by it.

I played Babe Ruth. I played Stonewall Jackson. I played Ike Clanton. I played a lot of people that people have opinions about and expectations about and what I've learned is that you can please some of the people some of the time. You can just do your best and just try and keep it honest and who knows, you might turn some people around. People have preconceptions and maybe go, "Wow, I never thought that's who he was, but that's who he was." But that's who he was - maybe you can do that.

SCIFI VISION: Was it hard walking into a cast that was so established?

Stephen Lang on "In Plain Sight"STEPHEN LANG: I know it can be sometimes but everybody was very gracious to me and made it very clear that they wanted me there. And they gave me a nice place to live and I said it was easy.

And I guess it's not an unfamiliar situation to come into a thing. I would say [there] was a certain poignancy to it for me, because here I was coming into a show and they're in their fifth and they know it's their final season. So, everything they do is the last time. Five years is a pretty good run in show business. And it was nice to be a part of.

I can't tell you it made me envious because I've been very happy doing whatever I've been doing, but I really could appreciate the value, the [camaraderie], the family atmosphere of how that emerges when people work together over a long period of time. And I certainly was hoping for that for my own self, for the immediate future. But that wasn't to be, so it is interesting to see it and it was nice to be part of it, and to be an important part of it too, because it's interesting. I'm entering into the life of a show that's been established and right away you become central just because of the fact that you're the father that's been on the lam all this time.

But everybody was great and it all starts with McCormack, because the show radiates from her.

SCIFI VISION: You mentioned this is very different than some of the other roles you've fit into recently. Do you enjoy more of the dramatic acting or the action scenes, or find one more challenging?

STEPHEN LANG: I like them all. I try to get a good balance of them. I love scenes that are just emotional give-and-take. By the same token action sequences are great to do. They have their own unique demands and requirements. So I take it as it comes and hopefully you can get a good balance of all of that stuff.

What I rarely get to do is to do anything of a comic nature, which is unfortunate because I'm very funny.

SCIFI VISION: Are you going to try to go after that comic role in the future?

STEPHEN LANG: Well, we'll see if it comes to that. My agent's sitting up there saying, "Lang, he's not funny. He kills people. He's not funny." You go, "He is. He's really funny. He is." And then they go, "Say something funny" and I can't be funny then.

QUESTION: So I was in God's and Generals with you.

STEPHEN LANG: You were in it?

QUESTION: Yes, I was in it. You and I had a scene together. It was one of the battle scenes. I come running up to you on the horse and in your Jackson sort of way you called me a "big girl."

STEPHEN LANG: I don't know.

QUESTION: But it was great. It was one of the highlights.

STEPHEN LANG: You were going the wrong way.

QUESTION: I was going the wrong way, exactly, that's why you yelled at me.

So since then I've seen most everything you've done and I've got to say that whenever you appear on screen your scenes always pop. They always have an energy even if you have one line in the scene, and a lot of actors don't have that power. Is that something you focus on and strive for? Does it come naturally, and what's the secret that you have that others don't?

STEPHEN LANG: Well, I can't tell you the secret for obvious reasons. I can't let that get out. Who noticed - all those other people noticed will get mad at me if I let it out. That's right - the secret club, eyes on me club. I don't know.

I think for me it's probably focus and relaxation. Stillness is helpful, an unwavering and unblinking look doesn't hurt either, I think. It would depend on the part. A part like James Wiley Shannon, so much of his life has been based on disappearing into the woodwork. So, if I'm popping off the screen, maybe I'm not being successful there. I'm going to have to tend to that because his whole thing is about being innocuous and unobserved.

QUESTION: What's your advice to actors?

STEPHEN LANG: Oh, my goodness - my advice to actors. To successful actors it's, "sock it away." And unsuccessful actors it's just keep at it. Don't do it unless you have to do it, and if you have to do it - you've got to keep your instrument in shape. You just got to keep on getting better. If you're not getting better, you're standing still. If you're standing still, you're petrified. If you're petrified, you're not good to anybody in this business. So, just continually develop your craft.

QUESTION: With all the movies you've done over the years, is there any role you were offered that you regret turning down?

STEPHEN LANG: I think there were projects - I tend to put them out of my mind and I can't think of any one project that I turned down that I was - I've had a good eye for things as a rule. Occasionally, just because of time, because you can't be in two places at once. Although now you can, digitally I suppose. There have been things I haven't been able to do although to be honest, I can't think of them right now.

There have been things I've done [that] haven't had success that I felt bad about - that I wanted to do more of. But that's always going to be the case, it seems to me.

I'll tell you, man, I feel like I'm very happy where I am and it's that old butterfly effect thing. If you change one job even 20 years ago I wouldn't be sitting here talking to you right now, the entire trajectory would have been different.

QUESTION: I also noticed looking back at your biography, [you are] one of those actors who oddly spin on multiple incarnations of Law and Order.

STEPHEN LANG: Well actually, I've done each Law and Order once. Then that's it. I never sought to do a Law and Order, any one that I did was because of a friend - either the director or star called me and said that you've got to come and do this. And then I'm happy to do it.

But I've done three of them, each one of them once. I think there's lots of folks that have done multiple roles on them probably.

It's been a fantastic thing. Boy, it kept so many folks in New York working and getting their health insurance paid and everything. I mean, it's a loss to New York. I know there's one left right now but that was a great thing. It was a great thing in New York,Law and Order.

QUESTION: Do you have anyone in your own life -- your children or someone else -- that has Mary Shannon's qualities in them?

STEPHEN LANG: Mary Shannon's qualities? Well, all my children are not too much - my dad and siblings - they all have a toughness to them. There's a resilience to them. They're all strong people. Actually one of my children is in law enforcement -- the justice system -- and is pretty much I'd say as tough as Mary Shannon is.

QUETION: Does it help to have people in your own life you that kind of prepares you for a character you're working with?

STEPHEN LANG: The answer's yes. But those are automatic associations that you make. You know, if somebody's playing my daughter I don't spend a lot of time thinking, "Well, how is she like my daughter?"

But I know what it is to be a father to a daughter. And so that experience I think is just there. You're drawing on it one way or the other. And if you learn anything you know it's not easy. You know, it ain't easy. No relationship is going to be. There's going to be periods of calm and there's going to be storms.

QUESTION: Not to give so much away, but is there a chance that you're going to reappear on the show at a later point? And going forward, are you looking for other TV projects? Would you want to join something that is already in motion or would you want to start from scratch with something again?

STEPHEN LANG: I believe it's a matter of public record that this is In Plain Sight's final season. So I won't be joining it except for ten years down the line when they do the In Plain Sight reunion show and then perhaps I'll be here for that. But I don't anticipate ever playing James Wiley Shannon again.

I love television. I love working at that intense speed that one does work in television and I love the opportunity to create a character over a long period of time. So yes, I look for television projects. I don't say no to anything so I'll read anything that comes along whether it's an existing series or whether it's a new series. If given my druthers, you want to be there at the moment of inception and do something that's completely startling and completely different.

QUESTION: Throughout your career are a lot of soldiers, warriors - what is it about those kind of roles that really appeal to you, other than the fact that you keep getting offered them?

STEPHEN LANG: Well, I - it's a good question. I think that if you look at a career probably more in retrospect, you'll probably be able to identify scenes that happen in an actor's career. You look at Nicholson's career and very often you'll see that he's playing an outsider. Maybe at Ted Danson's career is somebody who is an underdog and compensator. You can say their character, qualities or themes.

I've been interested for years in a lot of the themes that are personified [in] that military stuff -- the nature of courage, the nature of duty. Either the whole concept of humility and selflessness. All kinds of interesting stuff and so much of the time military figures and military stories are basis for drama just because of the nature of the conflict, it seems to me.

So, maybe it's a thematic thing as much as anything but as you pointed out asking the question, these are the roles you get offered. That that counts for a lot of it because I'd love to move outside of that as well. I feel like I've got a lot of range.

SCIFI VISION: Is there anything you learned about yourself after working on In Plain Sight?

STEPHEN LANG: I don't want to be flip. I want to see if I have learned anything about myself. I learned that I - well, it's not about myself - I learned about Albuquerque. I learned I like Albuquerque a lot.

I wish I could give you a better answer to that. I'd really have to think about it. I'd probably kick myself two hours from now and I do remember something I have - but I'm learning the guitar, so I practiced a lot while I was there. That's not the answer you were looking for, is it?

SCIFI VISION: It's okay. That's interesting. So, who's someone you'd like to work with that you haven't yet?

Stephen Lang on "In Plain Sight"STEPHEN LANG: Oh gosh. Well, I always wanted to do a film with Martin Scorsese, just because he's great. And so many of the lions that I'd like to work with. I've never worked with Jack Nicholson. I'd love to do that, I suppose. I have worked with Meryl Streep but I'd love to work with her again. She's just the greatest.

It's a pretty long list, to be honest. There are so many talented and brilliant people out there that I see and you want to work with people who are doing stuff that you're really going to learn from it. And so I would have to say the director that I'd like to work with is Scorsese.

QUESTION: After playing a different father in "White Irish Drinkers" what appealed to you about this type of father figure and his relationship to his two kids?

STEPHEN LANG: I like the idea of playing a guy on the lam. I like the idea of dealing with the problem of being a father who never was a father - who was a miserable father but he wasn't a father by absence. I mean, a father that was drinking. He was not a great father but he was there.

I just loved the idea of trying to - I thought the idea of showing up after 30 years at your daughter's door and saying, "Hi honey, here I am," was so bizarre and inexplicably a difficult thing to do that I wanted to do it. I wanted to see what that was like and I thought that - playing him was very easy because it's all on Mary. All I had to do was say, "Hi honey, I'm home." And the look on her face is just - it's priceless. I mean, she just nailed it I thought.

So, playing - the idea of playing a circumstance that is not part of your life but is imaginable to you and that you never played before - that's got an appeal to me, so that's why I would say that I was attracted to this guy.

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