By ROCCO T. THOMPSON
Returning to the role that made him a household name amongst horror fans in 2016, Stephen Lang‘s appearance in DON’T BREATHE 2 caused an immediate internet firestorm when fans and critics got their first look at the film via its trailer. Written/directed by Rodo Sayagues (taking over the reins from Fede Álvarez, who still serves as a co-writer and producer alongside Sam Raimi) the sequel is set in the years following the first film’s deadly home invasion, where Norman Nordstrom (Lang) lives in quiet solace with a young charge (Madelyn Grace) until his sins catch up to him. By recasting Don’t Breathe‘s primary antagonist as this film’s protagonist, Sayagues and Álvarez plumb the depths of the man behind the monster, and ask whether a heroic deed can even begin to make up for the cruelties of the past. We caught up with the gregarious, erudite Lang to discuss working with his adolescent costar, love of dogs, and what he makes of the initial, knee-jerk reaction to his character’s latest chapter.
Norman Nordstrom aka “The Blind Man” is easily one of the most notable characters to come out of the genre in the 2010s. What do you think it is that makes him stick with people?
At the time, it was very new to people and it was pretty gratifying to see how into the character people were. That had to do with the character, [but] it had to do with the overall reception of the film as well. I was thrilled, delighted, and surprised at the extent of the depth of the affection for it, and very, very happy. It made the sequel, I suppose in retrospect, inevitable – though in this business nothing is inevitable.
You realize that everybody’s got opinions about him, everybody has something to say about him, everybody resents the fact that he’s doing something good, everybody resents the fact that he’s not doing something good. What it says to me is that people are invested, emotionally invested in the character and that’s a good thing, there’s nothing but good there, it seems to me. So I hope people dig it. You know?
What was your original reaction when Fede and company approached you about returning as the character?
Well, my response was, “Bring it on! Let’s read it!” and I read it and I was quite happy. I was delighted with it because they took him to new places. We’ve gone deeper, we’ve gone wider with the character, it seems to me. They’ve expanded upon him but they don’t give anything away, you know what I mean? They haven’t turned him into something that doesn’t make sense. There’s been space in between the films where things have happened, and that’s put him in this particular place, and it’s a very, very actable place for me to go. It’s a place that I actually took a lot of satisfaction in exploring, both the positive and the negative, both the light and the darkness, both the strength and the frailty of the character. He’s got a lot of wonderful polarities to him and that’s an actor’s dream to do that.
He definitely had some extra facets and shades that were less conspicuous in the first film but they’re kind of at the forefront here, which obviously would have been a big draw for you, right?
Absolutely! The first one, the character essentially is – I’ve said this before but it bears repeating – in effect, the character’s like Bruce, the shark in Jaws: moving with a ruthless efficiency through the waters of his own ocean, his own environment. But that’s not the case now. He’s a shark out of water. You know what a shark out of water can’t do? He can’t breathe, man. [Laughs] I swear to God, that just came to me!
Perfect. Incredible. Interview done! But seriously, I get what the film is doing, but since the trailer dropped, there’s some concern from critics that the character is being elevated to some sort of hero this go ’round. Just set the record straight, what’s your view on that?
First of all, I love the way you said, “I get what this film is doing,” which means that no other schmucks in the world do, of course [Laughs]. Well, good. I’m glad somebody does. I’m not too concerned. It’s kind of bogus, [in] my opinion. You’ve heard not only me but other actors say words to the effect of, “a villain never thinks he’s a villain,” right? Well, you know what? Dig it. It’s the same thing for a hero. And even more so. A hero will never call himself a hero. It just doesn’t work that way; a hero is just doing his job.
If we’re really going to talk about heroes in a classical heroic sense and everything, it’s worth kind of pointing out that just because someone does something heroic which could be defined as a selfless act that benefits something larger than yourself, possibly at the expense of yourself…no one ever said that a hero had to be a virtuous person. No one ever said that they had to be a paragon of goodness or anything like that. A lot of the great heroes are not. A lot of them are fairly heinous in fact. I was going to give you an example.
Go ahead, give me an example.
The biggest hero in all of classical myth and literature is Heracles, [or] Hercules, right? You know what he did? He butchered his wife and children. Nobody thinks of that. All’s we remember is his 12 labors. He was driven insane and did that. So, don’t start getting on The Blind Man’s case! [Laughs] That’s what I say to these people. But I love the controversy. I think controversy’s good, but I would urge you not to judge anything by a trailer, to actually see the film, and then make your judgment. And then see the film again, because it’ll be worth seeing. I’d actually like everyone to see the film at least four or five times!
“…as important as it is for him to be strong, sinewy, gnarly, and powerful, [it’s] equally as important for him to be vulnerable, weak, and hollow. That’s what makes the role.”
One of the things you’re known for is your imposing physique. Would you say that the Don’t Breathe films are the most physically demanding of your career?
No. They’re physically demanding but I would say that Avatar is every bit as physically demanding. Don’t Breathe, the role, as important as it is for him to be strong, sinewy, gnarly, and powerful, [it’s] equally as important for him to be vulnerable, weak, and hollow. That’s what makes the role. He’s every bit as weak as he is strong. And never forget – he’s old and he’s getting older all the time and he’s had the living shit beat out of him. So it’s rugged. He’s as strong as he needs to be. He’s always able to rise to the occasion but it only goes so far.
I always find you to be an interesting presence onscreen because I think most actors don’t take their physical prowess as seriously you do. Where does that come from?
Well, it probably comes from a lack of confidence in my acting ability so I figure I got to do something, you know what I mean? So many of the actors I love, I revere, had strong physical presences. An underrated performer – and somebody I always, always loved his movies – was Charlie Bronson. I don’t think Charlie’s on anybody’s list of 10 or 20 greatest actors, But you know what? He did some amazingly powerful films and I always liked Bronson very much. I just want to stay in shape so I can keep working, you know what I mean? It’s really that simple.
What did Rodo bring to the table as a director that sort of set him apart from Fede for you?
Well, he’s very nuanced emotionally. He really is very particular when it comes to the tuning of the character, which is not to say that Fede isn’t because he is, but each of them have their own kind of way. He also has a wonderful sense of humor, he’s there to be amazed and awed and he’ll let you know when he thinks you nailed it. He’ll also let you know when he thinks you could do it better, which I like a lot. And he’s smart enough to know what he doesn’t know, to understand that this is his first time out in a big movie and to show great confidence not only in his cast but also in his wonderful cinematographer, Pedro Luque, and also all the heads of the departments, the stunts, and Carlos Rosario, our wonderful costume designer, and the art direction which is absolutely gorgeous on the film. So he gives credit where it’s due. He lets people do their jobs, and that’s a wonderful quality.
It’s obviously a cliche, but on both of these films you’ve worked with animals, and DON’T BREATHE 2 adds a kid into the mix. Is it as tough as people say?
[Laughs] Well, I hate to lump them together, dogs and little girls. First of all, she was great, Madelyn carried on like a total pro. Really. Like a veteran. She was unflappable, she was cool as ice, she was great. They say “action,” her ears go up and she’s ready to work. They say “cut,” and she’s Madelyn again. A good kid. Smart, smart. And the dogs are the dogs. You got to deal with the dogs one way or the other. The dogs were sweethearts, they were great. It’s the dog trainers you’ve always got to kind of be careful [of] because they’re so worried about the dogs getting it right.
Are you a dog person? Because even when you’re disinclined to like a character, something that’ll always get people on your side is when a dog is hurt. It really softens audiences up when they see how he reacts.
Listen – these guys Rodo and Fede are no fools. You want to get people on your side? Just kill his dog, you know what I mean? Up until a couple years ago, I had three dogs, now we have two dogs. One is gone, rest her soul. My dog that passed away was named Shadow. And so Shadow in Don’t Breathe is named after my Shadow who passed away. That’s a scoop for you, by the way. I haven’t said that before. That’s a little bit of trivia but it’s true! I call her the Shadow. That was my Aussie, a good dog. I have two left and they’re little and old and they’re not very bright but they’re wonderful companions. Miniature Dachsunds. Can you imagine The Blind Man with miniature Dachshunds?
That would be incredible!
Get him! Get him! Ginger! Get him!
Considering your character’s arc over the two films, what would you say the Don’t Breathe movies are about for you personally?
Shoot. I think they’re about a man who’s been lost in the wilderness for a long, long time. A man who’s been blind, blinded in many ways. Not only literally blinded but blinded to any of the good in things in life, to goodness and the possibilities of hope and everything. I think it’s about him going down a very, very dark road and at least exploring the possibility of some kind of redemption, I would say. If I took these two films in total, that would be an answer. I don’t know if it’s a good answer but it’s an answer.
DON’T BREATHE 2 is in theaters August 13th, 2021 from Screen Gems and Sony Pictures Entertainment.