Stephen Lang Salem Interview

The second season of “Salem” is heating up as the Witch War kicks into high gear. Salem's lead witch, Mary Sibley (Janet Montgomery) has completed the witch's legendary Grand Rite, which has unleashed a devastating pox upon the populace. As death and disease spread through the town, the witches go head to head against each other all vying for Mary's throne.

When the biggest threat to Mary arrives, Mary turns to her old adversary, Increase Mather, the hardcore Puritan. Intellectually, spiritually and politically, he’s known as the most influential man in the country — and feared as the most formidable witch hunter of the time. There's only one thing, he's dead. Legendary actor, Stephen Lang, made an appearance in last week's Salem, or at least his head did, and he's set to make a come back. Resurrection seems to be a theme of his lately, with his Avatar character returning from the dead, and now Increase Mather on Salem. Stephen Lang was nice enough to stop by to answer a few questions about his upcoming guest starring stint on “Salem”

How excited are you to be returning to Salem, and what can we expect from your character?

Well. I'm very pleased to be returning to Salem, because when you're consigned to Hell, the odds are you're going to spend a really long time there. So, its nice to be back among the living, and I'm really glad to be working with Janet Montgomery and Seth Gabel. It's really a great group of actors. I had a really good experience the first season, so its really nice to be asked back. As for what to expect, well Increase is Increase. I guess he's been humbled, which can happen when your own son stabs you in the back. He's still pretty feisty, he hasn't lost his essential core of righteousness.How was approach to Increase different now that you're playing him postmortem?

That's a very good question. I think he's learned something. A lot of what he had believed, and lived, based his life on and the foundation, he's come to understand that its not that simple, that its not black and white. So he's been really been taken down in that respect, but in that same token Increase is a very, very intelligent man and he's willing to learn, and what he experiences, what he sees, the pain that he not only feels his own pain, but he also observes the pain of others, all these desperate souls in despair. And he observes people that he loves as well and I think that that affects him as well so he comes back chastened but also to some extent more emotionally available than he was in life. It's an interesting thing.
As an actor and a person watching it, what's it like watching your own severed head talk? Is it different than watching yourself act?

Well I just want my severed head to do a really good job. Sure, but you get use to these really bizarre things when your working on a show like Salem where these really strange things happen there. I mean last season I did a whole variety of weird things, but you just want to make sure that everything is, that the look is proper. What does a character summon back from hell? How does it manifest itself physically? How does it carry itself? How conscious are you? Do you breathe? Does a spirit breathe? You know all these sort of questions that you ask yourself. In fact you end up making all these creative choices. You answer them in a way that can be useful to you, and to the show. I think this is the first time that I've played a ghost.
In terms of the way that the show is structured, and with your return, do you feel like your the antagonist, or the protagonist of the show?

Well, I was certainly never the protagonist of the show, and I certainly was quite antagonistic last season. The one thing about this show, the good is bad, the bad is good. You know everybody is defending their vision what this new world should be. But clearly, Mary Sibley is the protagonist and John Alden too, to a great extent. But you need to have a strong, very powerful figure opposing them, and I think that is certainly what Increase was. Of course by bringing Lucy Lawless in as the Countess Marburg into it you create a real, a new antagonist. Increases role changes somewhat, because in some peculiar way he becomes an ally. He's summoned by Mary, and she kind of has him enthralled. But not really because, he's got his own agenda. I don't know if antagonist or protagonist, if either term works. He becomes another spice in this stew there, and a formidable one. He's as formidable in death as in life.
Considering your comeback episode in Salem is such a macabre one, was it a cool experience to work with a director such as Joe Dante, as your coming back to the series?

Yeah, it was nice it was Joe. I think its wonderful, a feather in the cap of the series that a director with Joe's stature, certainly within the genre comes and directs and I was absolutely delighted to work with in him in that episode. I think he did just a terrific job.
Between Men Who Stare at Goats and your work on Salem do you have any particular interest in the supernatural or what we can do?

Well. It's never been a great, something I've pursued in reading about it. I'm certainly interest in it, but now obsessed with it. But I will say I've spent an awful lot of time, say in battlefields, Gettysburg, Chickamauga, Anteitam, particularly in Gettysburg where I've been there in every season, at various hours, any time from dawn to late at night. You very, very much do get a sense of spirits there, of unrested spirits, of things that happen, that continue to reverberate there. That gave me, just those experiences that I've have repeated there have given me a healthy respect for, I guess another dimension. I think. And then, in terms of interest I love the work of Poe for example. Or of Lovecraft. So I think its pretty fascinating stuff for sure.
So, how do you get your tough guy swagger, like from Avatar?

Where does that come from? (Laughs) For Queens, Queens, New York.
You have been described as the most missed cast member, by many Salem cast members. Is there a character that you enjoyed interacting with the most?

I think that they're all terrific, but I love playing scenes with (Janet) Montgomery. First of all she's just a splendid, splendid actor, and carries tremendous power and magnitude with her. And there is always this wonderful tension between Increase and Mary Sibley. Its an erotic tension that never gets explored, but always always exists and that's a lot of fun. It's something that Increase would never admit to. It's something that he almost doesn't know about. He absolutely adores Mary Sibley and I think that she recognizes that and plays upon it, but I think that she sort of adores Increase as well. So I love that. And then the other character I really like working with, well I like working with everybody, but of course Seth Gabel brings so much great energy and emotion, and passion to Cotton. In all those scenes I'm always giving him a hard time, and I love that Increase loves Cotton to death. He's willing to kill him if he has to. And the scenes I had with Isaac the Fornicator, with Iddo, were wonderful. He's a wonderful actor. I enjoyed scenes with him. We really whaled away at those scenes. But I don't want to short change anyone, I think that they're all fine actors, but I really enjoyed those three.
How did you first become involved in Salem? Can you tell us about the audition process?

Well I'll tell you the true story on this. I had done Terra Nova with Brannon (Braga) and when he was getting going with this, he had sent Salem to me, and he had wanted me to play a role in it. He had offered me a series role in it, and I could not accept it because of my role and obligations to Avatar I cannot accept a series role, but what I did say, knowing something of the history of Salem, and in reading the script. I said "You know, Brannon, if this story goes how I think it will go, you'll eventually have to bring in Increase Mather into the story, as a guest star. And if such a time you did so, and if such a time you thought I might fit that role, we could talk about that." Sure enough, five or six months later, I got a call saying can you do Increase Mather. I read a couple of the scripts, smiled, and said I'm there. It's just one of those things, that don't usually work that way in show business, but it worked that way here. Just knowing the story a little bit, I knew that Increase would have to come in it. And he did, and that's how it happened.
Increase has returned from hell, what would you consider to be your personal hell?

My personal hell?
Being stuck in traffic or something like that?

You're talking the Long Island Expressway aren't you? (Laughs) I don't know. That's a tough question. I think probably boredom. Just being bored or unmotivated would be hell, cause that's where time just stops and slows down. That's what it would be I think. The thing is. what makes Hell a difficult thing for me to define I think is only what hell is in a word is despair. If you live in despair, if you live in darkness with no possibility of life, I think you're in hell. And I think that there are people who are in hell. But I am fortunate that I was born and raised with an optimistic nature. I just try to keep engaged, as long as I am I can ward off the demons of hell. I don't believe in it as a religious thing. If you don't do this or do that, you're going to end up in hell. That doesn't work for me.
You initially played a character who came back from the dead in a movie called Monkey's Paw. Is your approach different from that to this? How is process different with the make-up and the period pieces?

The Monkey's Paw was a lot of fun to do. The process was amazing. It was like okay, I've been dead, what am I like now? And when I came up with was initially extremely confused. Very, very confused about what going on with me, and then it got interspersed with resentment with what had been done to me, and also with delight with what I could do, with not being alive, but being able to function in the world. And finally with just trying to find some peace when we go, kinda of like just kill me off. That was the Monkey's Paw, it was an unexpectedly cool project to work on. One of my sons was a producer on it, and one of my sons was a working it as a grip. I always like working with them. But I didn't really consider Monkey's Paw when I was working on Salem, because I wasn't a ghost at all. Whereas Increase, he is a spirit. The guy in Monkey's Paw was more like the walking dead, he's just this shambling dead body. Whereas Increase is something else entirely. He entire spirit is there.
In terms of Increase Mather coming back as a spirit, is this going to be kind of a nail in the coffin of the story of Increase Mather? Or is there a chance of you reprising the role in the future?

I don't know. It's always up for negotiation. I mean, they killed him, and now they're bringing him back. There's no reason they can't bring him back again. That would be a subject for Brannon and (Adam) Simon to decide and a lot of it has to do with where they want this show to go. I suppose to some extend my own availability. But I feel connected with this show. I feel that I have, that I'm part of it. No matter how long it goes, I feel like I'll be connected to it. I have such great feelings about it and the way these guy's write. They write for you, they knew that I loved words, and they wrote such beautiful words for Increase to say, and he inhabited his own particular place. I hope that he'll come back now and again to haunt Salem. Who knows.
Because he's brought back by Mary to fight the Countess Marburg, will he have his own agenda against all the witches?

Well, he's got his own agenda. There's no question. But I think that it's, well, I don't thnk that its so much against witches, because I think that in his fate. Remember when in that last scene with Mary where it ended up on his desk. He basically says that I can't lose. Righteousness will triumph. And Ultimately what will happen will happen. As I was saying before he sort of discovers things in hell and he learns something about ways in which he was not adequate. I think his agenda has more to do with his son. His son was always a big part of his agenda. Now I think its become a question of, at least in this particular arc, in this brief appearance in the next couple of weeks, he'll be really coming to terms with trying to help his son. Let's face it, Cotton is really the most fucked up character in Salem. He's a mess, and he really needs help I think. I think that becomes a major part of the agenda. Before it was about becoming Governor, or becoming something, about his place in the world. Now I think that the agenda has become more about his immortal soul.
You mentioned how great the writing is before, but in terms of special effects, is it easier for you as an actor to approach a role like this, especially where you're coming back from the dead, when you're so accustomed to practical and make up effects?

Well, we'll see what they do. That stuff is laid in. You have a take think is going to look cool in post, but on the other hand we did some heavy duty makeup on this thing as well. You want to make sure that you get that in a way that's pleasing. It's become very difficult because in the world of film, everything is possible now. You can morph into anything. It's very difficult to surprise people. It seems like a show like Walking Dead they're challenged on a weekly basis, how to keep it interesting. These zombies, and how to kill them in a new and interesting way. I don't know if we've become jaded to them. Can you imagine looking at the effects in Salem, or anything now, fifteen years ago? It would blow your mind. But now, now, its become a matter of course. So it becomes a question of doing something appropriate that's very very specific and acted out that really nails the character that you're trying to bring out. We worked hard on that, in the episodes of Salem. I hope we succeeded. They were different ideas, what the spirit could, what the Increase manifestation should be with something that is very visible.
Because of the significant scenes that you have with almost every character, will we be seeing you interact with every character you previously worked with? Or you only Mary's entity, well Mary's and Cotton's entity?

If you actually go back and look at the last season of Salem. I don't interact with every character. I mean I guess I glance at a few, but I don't have anything really do with with Anne. I guess I meet everybody, but she brings me back for a very specific purpose and I'm bound to do that. In fact I'm not allowed to go gallivanting around town, which I would like to do. Increase would really like to go on a walkabout around town. But he's bound by this hour glass that she's got, that keeps me in toe, but I manage to break free from the constraints a little bit. But I won't be interacting with everybody. Sadly I won't see Isaac the Fornicator (laughs). But I see the people, I see the person, that I have to see. Lets put it that way.


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