Don't Breathe's Stephen Lang Explains Why Fear is Blind

Stephen Lang as The Blind Man in Don't Breathe

The horror genre is replete with home invasion movies. From the subversive black humor of Adam Wingard's You're Next to the minimalist tug-of-war in Mike Flanagan's Hush and the overt political satire of the Purge series, it's a subgenre that has seen some inventive and effective takes on the theme of unsuspecting victims trying to defend their home from murderous strangers.

In Evil Dead director Fede Alvarez's new horror-thriller, Don't Breathe, the protagonists' victim status is complicated by the fact that they are the home invaders. Rocky (Jane Levy), Money (Daniel Zovatto) and Alex (Dylan Minnette) are three broke kids looking for fast cash, and they think they've found the perfect target: a blind war veteran, played by Stephen Lang (Avatar), who lives in the last occupied house on an abandoned street in Detroit, and is rumored to be sitting on a $300,000 payday.

For the three would-be robbers it seems like the perfect crime. There are no neighbors around to spot them breaking in, and three young people are surely more than a match for one old blind man (and his admittedly mean-looking Rottweiler). Lang's character, however, turns out to a little tougher than the kids give him credit for, and what should have been an easy job turns into a terrifying game of cat and mouse as Rocky, Money and Alex try to outwit and escape a predator who knows the battlefield like the back of his hand.

Along with a group of journalists from various film sites, Screen Rant visited the set of Don't Breathe in Budapest last year, where we got the chance to speak to Lang about his character, and about the challenges of playing a blind man.

Jane told us that for most of your performance you are wearing contacts, so that you're mostly blind. Where did that idea come from? 

Stephen Lang: The contacts? It’s so difficult to maintain the blind thing. Let me start it this way. The nature of his blindness is war wound; it’s shrapnel that shredded the eye. So it’s not just being born blind. It’s not a normal eye. They’ve been ripped up a bit... As fine an actor as I am… [laughter] I can’t do that. So you create the lens. But I think we conferred about it and they did a very smart, canny job of it. It’s not that sort of zombie-like or white horror lens that you’ll see. They’re lenses that you can see the eye has been sort of messed up, but not jarringly. And the other one is different than the other.

How hard is it for you to be in these scenes, not being able to see? Does that inform your performance?

SL: Totally. You know, you say this all the time. When you can do it, when it can be real, it’s so much easier, simpler than acting. It’s just something you don’t have to worry about. What you do have to do is become adept at it, because I’m not blind and he has been blind for a good period of time. He’s really learned to kind of deal with it in a very effective way. So that becomes the challenge, it seems to me.

Dylan Minnette and Stephen Lang in Don't Breathe

Does all the action take place in your house?

SL: Yes. There are a few sequences around the house, and certainly for me. That’s a really good subject, because within the confines of his environment, he’s the master of his environment. He understands it. He understood it when he had sight. And now that he doesn’t have sight, he’s set it up so that he can deal with it in a very effective way. He knows where everything is. So what does that say? If something is out of place that’s a problem.

Is your character the villain of the film?

SL: I wouldn’t say that at all. I’ve talked about villainy a lot over the years in different things. I’m sure you’ve all interviewed other actors before where you’ve asked them about the villain and we always say, “Well, he’s really not a villain.” [laughter] I preface it by saying with this one is that I understand the character’s function in the piece. You can understand why I don’t approach him as a villain, right?

But this particular piece, one of the things that attracted me to it is it’s extremely ambiguous. This guy, the character role I play, is a victim first and foremost and has been a victim. He’s Job-like in many respects. That was the first thing that I thought of. It’s like, Why God? Why? Why are you piling all this stuff on me?” And this is all prior to the story, the blindness being only part of it. And then when these home invaders come in... It’s just more of the same.

Do we learn about the character’s life prior to the events?

SL: He’s not a man of a lot of words. So when I do speak, it’s important what kind of emerges. He’s not used to speaking too much anymore. So it’s kind of a creaky door of a voice that’s going to come out of him. But he will kind of… he’ll kind of lay out his point of view.

Stephen Lang in Don't Breathe

What are some of the sort of hallmarks of people who are legitimately blind?

SL: It’s the tilt of the head. It’s the lean of the shoulder. It’s the trying to compensate with other senses, whether it be the smell, or the touch, or certainly the auditory becomes a big thing. So... you want to create differences, but you don’t want them to be radical. You don’t want them to be too extreme. But, of course we get under extreme circumstances here... If this character walks his dog to the corner and if you see him from half a block away and he’s not carrying his cane, you won’t know he’s blind. But that’s not the circumstances that happen here.

There’s kind of a hyper reality to things as... the pace increases in this, as the situation gets sort of more and more intense and everything. His reality, his movements become kind of maybe a little more hyper real... And you feel it out scene by scene because we’re building the role in the film in increments. And so much of it has to do with creating suspense. If there’s one word that is operative for the filmmaker in every scene: how does this affect my suspense? Does this ratchet it up? Does this relax it? Where do I want it right now? So the choices that I make and that he wants me to make, encourages me to make are all geared towards that.

We’ve heard different things. From some people we’ve heard this is definitely a thriller; don’t call it a horror movie. And Jane says she thinks it’s definitely a horror movie.

SL: I think it’s a thriller totally, and I know. I’ve been looking at movies a long time. I would say it’s a thriller with a dollop of horror thrown in. But, first of all, it’s completely reality-based. There’s nothing supernatural about it. I know you can do a horror film that is reality-based. But there’s something that’s very…what’s the word? It’s a totally believable situation.

We've heard that Fede is letting people come in and watch select scenes and cutting early trailers. Have you been watching any of that?

SL : When we first started I mean I did… I haven’t seen anything in a week or so, and I think it’s mostly just because we’re working so damn hard right now. You want to see that the look is working. You want to see that the makeup is working, the eyes are working. And he wants you to know what he’s doing visually. So you can see the shadows on your face and how he’s framing scenes and everything. So yeah, it’s very valuable. It’s part of the process. It’s helpful to us. He’s a wonderful filmmaker.

Stephen Lang and Dylan Minnette in Don't Breathe

Speaking of the full spectrum, you talked a little bit about the visuals. What role does sound play not only in informing your performance, but the overall structure of the film?

SL: It will be real interesting to see the sound mix on this because it’s a big percentage of the success of this film. But certainly the whole auditory aspect of it is very, very important to my character. I alluded to it before just in terms of when one sense is gone, others begin to compensate hopefully. And I’m listening. I mean I’m listening and there are certain times…what is it I hear? And the sense of smell is just as important. But I bet it’ll sound great.

Are there certain beats built in where a sound will play a crucial…?

SL: There are beats where a sound will play, or the lack of a sound. If my dog ain’t barkin’, why ain’t he barkin’? My dog ought to be barking right now. My alarm isn’t going off. That’s a problem. So it’s not only the sounds, it’s the absence of sounds that can do it.

We’re just doing a scene right now we’re going to shoot in a little while where I sense something. And that’s kinda sketchy territory, because you want to go, “Well, what do you mean?” I know what my senses are. Do I smell it? Do I hear it? I certainly don’t see it. And a discussion ensues, because what you are trying to do is you are trying to make a suspenseful movie moment. So you have to figure out how to bring that about. You have to figure out what actually does that mean when you sense something? I’ve already established that there’s nobody there. I guess nobody is there…

Do the sets reflect the fact that the character is blind? Are they designed in a certain way?

SL: Yeah. Well, it’s a house that wasn’t built for a blind person, not a special needs home. But he’s just jerry-rigged it in a way. The carpets have been kinda taped down so he doesn’t trip over them... If you look along the walls you’ll see right in the center of the wall where my hand… it’s worn into the wallpaper because I trace it as part of my path. So various things like that.

Has he jerry-rigged his home in case burglars do come?

SL: Well, he doesn’t really want visitors. He doesn’t want visitors at all. He’s a victim, but he’s not a total victim. There are surprises in the script. So you’ll find that he is…there are reasons that he wouldn’t want anyone to come in the house.

Stephen Lang and Daniel Zovatto in Don't Breathe

Well he must have valuables. Otherwise they wouldn’t have selected his house, because it looks pretty run down.

SL: That’s right. You know, I think of him a bit as an urban legend. How much do you all know?... You know absolutely nothing. Is that correct?

Very little.

SL: All I’m going to tell you is that at one point, what he went through, the trials that he went through were public. They were in the paper, the pain that he had to endure. So it’s a logical conclusion for someone to say that, at some point, he probably received some compensation for that pain... But by extension, in my own mind, as I said, I would view this guy…If I grew up in a neighborhood with this guy, I would view him as an urban legend: “Don’t go. That’s where the blind dude lives. He’s crazy. He’s got a Rottweiler. Don’t go there. But he’s got really good stuff…”

From the way that you are describing this character, it sounds like he prefers solitude. But why would he choose that?

SL: Why would he choose solitude? Life has closed in on him because his experiences of dealing with the world have been pretty much tragic and negative. And [the house is] the only place he has control… his life has been sort of this existential crisis. He’s reached this point where, "I want to be in control of my life, and here I can be.” And that’s it. Outside he can’t be. He’s diminished by a huge percentage the minute he walks out. He wants to be dependent on no one. And by nature, the fact that he’s blind and needs groceries and needs to get a haircut once a month, and needs this, of course he is dependent. But he wants to minimize that... He’s gotten nothing from the world but heartache up till now. So... he’s a very isolated character.

You say that people have feared this man. Do you think that they have reason to fear him?

SL: I don’t know that they fear him…that really is my own conjecture, in a way... I mean I don’t play him as a terrible guy at all. I wouldn’t say he’s got a good heart or a bad heart. I’d say he’s got a broken heart, in a way. He’s a broken-hearted man, is what he is. But, for all his heartbreak, he’s got a steel backbone, too.

This all takes place in a really… kind of a bombed out section of Detroit. It’s a place that was one time a nice neighborhood that really reflected the values of the country in the ‘40s and ‘50s, that was affluent and growing, and industry was booming and everything like that. And now when you see it, he’s an isolated guy in this neighborhood. People have left. Everything is falling to disrepair. It’s not only a metaphor of the nation and that city, it’s a metaphor for his own state of being, it seems to me. But there’s something stalwart about it...

You draw a line in the sand only so far. But that line stops at my front door. If you come further than that, I’ll do everything I have to do. I’m not going to retreat anymore. You can bomb out the neighborhood. You can destroy it around me. But this is mine. So if it takes bloody knuckles or a lot more than that, then I’ll do what I have to do. In that respect he is no different than you or I or any of us, it seems to me.

Stephen Lang Quaritch Avatar
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Is there a horror film you feel like you saw when you were too young, or one that’s stayed with you?

SL: There’s a film when I saw when I was probably about nine that I shouldn’t have seen. It was called Two on a Guillotine. I believe it’s with Cesar Romero and possibly Dean Jones, which would be weird. If I look at it now, it’s probably the campiest, stupidest thing in the world. It scared the living shit out of me. And then, also, when I was a kid, Bride of Frankenstein was an amazing movie, but it had such whip. It scared me, but it kept you coming back because it was so kinda cool at the same time... It’s wonderful. I would say those. And, of course, Psycho. I’m not a connoisseur of the genre, because I don’t particularly like being scared in the movies.

You probably know better than anybody how Hollywood’s perception of you changed after Avatar. Is this the kind of role you think you would have gotten before that movie?

SL: No. I think Avatar changed a lot of things for me. I think I would have been considered for this role, but I think I would have been #11 of 15 on the list. It’s that simple. Avatar moves you up on the list is what happens. There’s no correlation between the role in Avatar and this role in the least.

It’s just a matter of perception, like, “Oh, we remember him from that movie…”

SL: One of the things…I do think that that happens. And I imagine the producers think of it as that putting me in this role… remember I was talking before about this guy is a victim, no reason to suspect him? Putting me in the role probably does actually make me suspect from the beginning, because I play a lot of hardass bad guys…

“That’s the bad guy from Avatar…”

SL: Exactly. That can happen.

Stephen Lang as The Blind Man in Don't Breathe

Tell us about the house itself. You say that this is not a special needs house but that you’ve built it around your own needs.

SL: I hope you’ll get a chance… I don’t know if you’ll go to the set we’re working on today, but you should, because you’ll see the façade of the house. It is your proverbial brick shithouse. It’s a solid, solid building. That kinda plays into what we’ve been speaking about already, something that is, “By god, I’m here and I’m not going anywhere. You are going to have to blow me up.” And I like that. It’s solid and it’s forbidding. It’s got a slightly fortress-like quality, I think, to it. It’s not a thatch cottage.

What happens at the end of Avatar 4?

SL: It’s really good. Quaritch goes blind, ends up in a house in Detroit. [laughter] And these three kids come in and try to rob him.

[Someone arrives to call Lang back to the set]

SL: Have you met Gigi? This is Gigi. She actually is in charge of pretty much everything here. Right, Gigi? Do you have any questions you’d like to ask Gigi?

Tell us about your role in the film…

SL: How do you like working with Slang, Gigi?

Gigi: The worst experience ever.

SL: That’s my girl!

Don't Breathe arrives in theaters on August 26, 2016.

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