Ever since In Plain Sight [USA Network, Fridays, 9/8C] premiered, we’ve known that Mary Shannon’s father was a criminal who abandoned his family when she was seven years old. Last week, James Wylie Shannon [Stephen Lang] turned up at Mary’s house in the episode’s final moments – and she promptly arrested him – leading up to a two-part arc for the character.
Earlier this week, Stephen Lang spoke with a group of journalists/bloggers about the unique challenges of playing the senior Shannon. He proved himself to be a gentleman – diplomatically handling technical difficulties and some silly questions with aplomb. He also proved to be intelligent, incisive and witty. It was a thoroughly enjoyable call.
Hi. Thanks for doing the call.
Stephen Lang: Beg your pardon?
Hi, thanks for doing the call today — the interview.
Lang: You bet, I’m glad to do it.
Great, so can you just kind of talk about how you got involved with In Plain Sight.
Lang: Well we had – let’s see, I was – 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, I guess and finally when pushed and shoved they thought that I would be the right person to do it and so I was quite thrilled, you know. 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.
I was wondering why you think it is that Mary’s dad expected her to be so – to be more welcoming of him, upon his return?
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, you know, the only thing he can really deal with or control is his own needs — the reasons he needs to do something — and, you know, 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 kind of 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 know, 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.
Well then is that what you find challenging about your role?
Lang: Well, I find a lot of things challenging about the part. I – when I read it, you know, it’s an ark 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 I guess 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, you know – to defend his life, to defend his character – that’s the challenge – to also be believable, convincing as her father — as Mary’s father.
So, you know, I guess on – roles have challenges on every level to me and this one fit the bill. You know there are things you occasionally say, “Well, I can do that in my sleep.” And such things – 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.
Lang: Also, I’ll tell you something – I’ll tell you another thing. Just sort of occupying the screen with an actress of Mary McCormack’s caliber – that’s challenging because she really – you know, she’s formidable woman and actress – totally believable as a marshal to me. I like…
Oh I agree and it’s just her attitude and her – the way she exudes herself — very intense.
Lang: I love it too and you know, so much – 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’s just 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.
When understanding the circumstances around James and Mary how did you find a way to trust them to play them effectively?
Lang: Did I find a way to trust him?
How did you find a way to trust him and his sincerity in order to play…
Lang: Well, I’d say, look – it’s maybe – there’s no one – 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 — it seems to me — and he’s very convincing at that. I mean he’s been able to do that but, you know, like any kind of a – what’ the right word for it? A bad, something bad that you digested — a lie — eventually it’s going to work its way out and the fundamental goodness which is not even – not even the main part of the guy but it’s there – it’s a reaction against it and he has to kind of 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?
Oh yes, it does. In what ways were you able to give more to the character since it wasn’t quite as physically demanding as Terra Nova was?
Lang: Well, I liked the idea of playing somebody where a toll has been taken on him over the years just – you know, physically from moving about, just from circumstances being tough. But that was all pliable to me and it was all something I – he’s the guy who – 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, you know. 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.
Now, you played the poles. 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 shadings of grey and odd colors and I was just wondering what was it about James Wiley Shannon on the page that suggested what colors that you could use to play him that would make you want to do the role.
Lang: I don’t know that I see things so much in terms of colors. I do talk about palettes sometimes when I act and I know what you mean. I think – I’m a father. I have children much older than – are grown – 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, that’s all very – to me that’s very poignant stuff. It’s something that’s very difficult for me to imagine, you know – doing something like that. And so that makes it kind of territory that’s worth exploring a little bit, trying to – 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 and he and Charles Bronson – he’s been wronged by him – and looks at him and says, ‘Are you good or bad?’ And Fonda says, ‘Just a man’ and I feel that way that so many of the characters you play – you’re just trying to find – you know, I try not to put a name on it, you know. Just trying to find the person and then let others be either – then they can say whether he’s a hero or a villain or somewhere in between.
Cool. Now that you’ve done the role and people are about to see it, I’m just wondering how do you assess what you’ve done with the role? Do you ever think about that after you’ve finished? Are you ever – 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?
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 kind of 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, as I think as I watch it all I’ll assess it, I think. 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, you know.
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 if there had – to me their satisfaction is paramount, you know. If they feel if I’ve brought the life – the Shannon that they had envisioned, then I’m really happy because they’ve been with this thing long terms.
Great, and I thought you did really well in the role and I thoroughly enjoyed the two – the first — the introduction and The Medal of Mary. So congratulations on a fine performance.
Lang: Thanks very much.
I just wanted to ask you, after some of the effects – heavy work in Avatar, Conan, Terra Nova – is it a nice change to sort of come in from the jungle and do something a little more grounded to reality?
Lang: Well 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 grain screen. No, it was nice to get back into this kind of century for one thing and wear something that wasn’t kind of military I think – and, yes, 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 mean, I know, it’s a big show and it’s all about witness protection and everything but, you know, a sense of – we’re telling a – we’re doing a father and a daughter kind of a reunion show – be it not a conventional reunion. And so it was great. It’s good to do it.
One other thing – you obviously 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 kind of work with that which you can’t see?
Lang: I think it does. Sure, I mean – look – when you go – 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 have to – you want to develop the technique for it, yes.
Let me – just one last thing on the subject of Terra Nova real quick. Do you think that 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?
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.
Is it a particular joy for you to play a character that toes the line between friend and foe?
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, you know, Michael is the guy who really – who threads that grey area in almost all of this work, you know – 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 kind of ascertain whether they are good or bad. For example, you know, I’ve always loved the character of Nicholson in Bridge on the River Kwai – the Alec Guinness role of course, you know. Is he a good man or is he a bad man, you know, I mean – or someone like Patton, you know, 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 sort of an attraction towards some of these maverick characters who are kind of morally ambivalent.
Sure. Just real quickly to pull off and the point that you said – how do you prepare for a role in which there is so much reputation preceding the character? You know, this character has been spoken of and heard about for years and now finally the fans of the show who have certainly developed in their mind whatever, whoever, or whatever the father is supposed to be now gets to see him for the first time – how do you prepare to live in the image?
Lang: Well, it’s helpful that I didn’t – I wasn’t aware of any of it, okay. I didn’t know what I was I walking into. You know, I suppose – with great and all due respect I only learned about the kind of the meat of this show as I – after they asked me to do it and then I was told that and learned that he was a very important character. Well, you know, there’s not a lot I can do about that, you know, 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, you know, a lot of people that people have opinions about and expectations about and what I’ve learned is that – you know, you can please some of the people some of the time.
Lang: 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.
In trying to make the character believable as Mary’s father were there any specific things that went into that as far as trying to…?
Moderator: Sorry, we have lost that participant
So, was it hard walking into a cast that was so established because, I mean because it’s – you know, have been on it for so long?
Lang: I know it can be sometimes but everybody was real very gracious to me and it made it very kind of clear that, you know, they wanted me there and they gave me a nice place to live and I said it was easy. And I guess I’m – it’s not an unfamiliar situation to come into a thing. I would say it was a certain poignancy to it for me just having – because here I was coming into a show there and they’re in their fifth and they know it’s their final season. So, everything they do is the last time. You know, five years is a pretty good run — certainly in show business. And it – I looked around – it was nice to be a part of. It’s sort 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, you know, the value, the commodore, the family atmosphere of how that emerges when people work together over a long period of time and, you know – I certainly was hoping for that for my own self for the immediate future but that wasn’t to be so if it is sort of interesting to see it and it was nice to be part of it and to kind of 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 kind of central just because of the fact that you’re on the father that’s been on the lam all this time.
Lang: But everybody was great and it all starts with McCormack because the show radiates from her.
Now you mentioned obviously this is a much different world from some of the other ones that you’ve done recently.
Lang: I’m sorry, you’ve got to speak a little slower.
Lang: Talk a little slower and a little louder.
Okay, you mentioned how this is obviously a lot different than some of the other roles you’ve fit into recently. Do you enjoy more of the dramatic play acting or the action scenes or maybe find one more challenging?
Lang: I like them all. I mean, you know, I like to have a – 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 too which is unfortunate because I’m very funny.
Are you going to try to go after that comic role in the future, you think?
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, ‘do something funny’ and I can’t be funny then.
So I was in God’s and Generals with you.
Lang: You were in it?
Yes, I was in it. We – you and I had a scene together. We were – it was one of the battle scenes. I come running up to you on the horse and in your Jackson sort of way you kind of called me a ‘big girl.’
Lang: I don’t know.
But, it was great. It was one of the highlights.
Lang: You were going the wrong way.
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 and even if you have like one line in the scene – and a lot of actors don’t have that, I don’t know, power or something. Is that something you focus on and strive for? I mean, does it come naturally and I guess what’s the secret that you have that others don’t? I mean, yours immensely watchful when you’re on screen. I mean, eyes focused on you, you know.
Lang: Well, I can’t tell you the secret for obvious reasons.
Lang: I can’t let that get out.
Lang: Who noticed – all those other people noticed will get mad at me if I let it out.
Lang: 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, you know, kind of an unwavering and unblinking look doesn’t hurt either, I think. It would depend on the part. A part like James Wiley Shannon, you know, so much of his life has been based on disappearing into the woodwork. So, if I’m popping off the screen – I don’t know, maybe I haven’t been – maybe I’m not being successful there. I’m going to have to tend to that because, you know, his whole thing is about being innocuous and, you know, unobserved — stuff like that, I think.
And I just have one more question there.
Lang: Did I answer anything there?
Oh, yes. It’s great. Obviously it’s great. What’s your advice to actors?
Lang: Oh, my goodness – my advice to actors. To successful actors it’s, ‘sock it away.’ And unsuccessful actors it’s just, you know, I think just keep at it. Don’t do it unless you have to do it and if you have to do it just – or you stay – you’ve got to keep your instrument in shape, you know. 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.
I wanted to ask with all the movies you’ve done over the years a lot of – I’m sorry – a lot of various performances – is there any role you were offered that you were turned down and you regret turning down?
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, you know, time because you can’t be in two places at once. Although now you can digitally I suppose. You know, 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 haven’t had success that I felt bad about – you know, that I wanted to do more of but that’s always going to be the case it seems to me. But no, you know, I’ll tell you man I feel like I’m very happy where I am and you know 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, you know, the entire trajectory would have been different.
So, you know, (unintelligible).
I also noticed looking back at your filmography you’re one of those actors who oddly spin on multiple incarnations of Law and Order playing multiple characters?
Lang: Well actually, I’ve done each Law and Order once. Then that’s it. The reason I’ve done them, I’ve never – I didn’t – I never sought to do a Law and Order. I did – 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.
Lang: But I’ve done three of them – each, but you know – each one of them once.
Lang: I think there’s lots of folks that have done multiple roles on them probably.
Yes, I mean that has kind of been the trend of the show where a lot of actors have been on one or more of the shows that played different characters. Basically what (unintelligible). So it’s just one of those…
Lang: It’s been a fantastic thing for – boy, it kept so many folks in New York working and, you know, getting their health insurance paid and everything. I mean, it’s a real – it’s a loss to New York. I know there’s one left I think right now but that was a great thing. It was a great thing in New York — Law and Order.
If you don’t mind a touch of personal matter. Do you have anyone in your own life — your children or someone else — that has Mary Shannon’s qualities in them?
Lang: Mary Shannon’s qualities? Well, I have a – I do. I mean, 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 very – they’re strong people. I actually have a – one of my children is in law enforcement — the justice system — and is, you know, is pretty much I’d say as tough as Mary Shannon is.
Does it help that way? Does it help to have people in your own life you can, you know, that – kind of prepares you for a character you are up against – you’re working with?
Lang: Well, they – I don’t know – the relations – yes. The answer’s yes. I mean, look, but those are automatic associations that you make. You know, if somebody’s playing my daughter I don’t think – you know, spend a lot of time thinking, ‘Well, how is she like my daughter?’ sort of.
But I know what it is to be a father to a daughter, you know. And so, I’m just sort of – that experience I think is just there. You’re drawing on it one way or the other. And you know, 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.
With In Plain Sight – not to give so much away – but is there a chance that you’re going to reappear on the show next season? I’m sorry, is there a chance you’re going to reappear on the show at a later point and also 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 with scratch with something again?
Lang: Well, I think – I mean, I believe it’s a matter of public record that this is the show, 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 as I don’t anticipate every playing James Wiley Shannon again. In terms of – 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 never say, I don’t say no to anything so I’ll read something – 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.
What if it’s – throughout your career you obviously put a lot of – some of your figures 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?
Lang: Well, I – it’s a good question. I think that if you look at a career probably more in retrospect from what’s happening you’ll probably be able to identify scenes that happen in an actress’ career. I mean you look at Nicholson’s career and very often you’ll see that he’s playing an outsider, you know. Maybe at Dustin Hoffman’s career is somebody who is an underdog and compensator. It’s just – there are – you can say their character, qualities or themes. I’ve been interested for years on a lot of the themes that are personified — that military stuff — the nature of courage, the nature of duty. Either the whole concept of humility, you know, and selflessness. All kinds of interesting stuff and so much of the time military figures and military stores are basis for drama just because of the nature of the conflict it seems to me.
So, I think it’s – 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, you know, that counts for a lot of it because I’d love to move outside of that as well, you know, I feel like I’ve got a lot of range.
So, is there anything you learned about yourself after working on In Plain Sight?
Lang: Is there anything I’ve learned about myself?
Lang: Is that a question?
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. Myself – Jamie, 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?
It’s okay. It’s interesting. So, are there – who’s someone you’d like to work with that you haven’t yet?
Lang: Say that again.
Someone that you haven’t worked with yet. Like either actor or director — somebody that you’d really like to be able to work with.
Lang: Oh gosh. Well, I always wanted to do a film with Martin Scorsese, just because, you know, he’s great. And just 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. I mean, it’s a pretty long list to be honest, you know. 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 can possibly do, you know, that you’re really going to learn from it. And so – but – I would have to say the director that I’d like to work with is Scorsese.
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?
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, you know. 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 I mean, inexplicably a difficult thing to do that I wanted to do it, you know. I wanted to see what that was like and I mean, I just thought that – playing him was very easy because it’s all on Mary, you know what I mean. 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.
Photos by Cathy Kanavy/courtesy of USA Network