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Creating character, from stage to screen

Photo by Mary Knox Merrill

When actor Stephen Lang got the call to play Babe Ruth in the 1991 TV movie for NBC, he was in the Berkshires on a 10-day fast. Perplexed as to how he would play the iconic New York Yankees slugger, Lang headed off into the woods to clear his head, and happened to stumble upon the knob of a baseball bat buried along his trail. Lang felt the Babe was sending him a message: “It all starts with the swing.”

“That was the pebble in the pond, and the character then rippled out,” Lang said during an informal discussion with members of the Northeastern University community on Monday morning in Dodge Hall.

The discussion about Lang’s life, career and inspirations kicked off the accomplished actor’s three-day visit to Northeastern, sponsored by the Humanities Center’s Artists and Practitioners in Residence Program. Terrence Masson, director of the Creative Industries program at Northeastern, hosted the discussion.

Lang, 58, vividly reflected on his distinguished career on stage, in film and on television, which began at age 17 when he auditioned for “Othello” at the Hedgerow Theater in Pennsylvania while attending Swarthmore College. He recalled meeting Dustin Hoffman while auditioning at Manhattan’s Booth Theatre for the role of Happy Loman in “Death of a Salesman” in 1983. “For a young actor, to be in the same room with Dustin at that time,” he said, “was really just incredible.”

While making the 1991 film “The Hard Way,” Lang described being accidentally knocked out cold by Michael J. Fox during filming. Fox was swinging a 2×4 at Lang for a scene, but lost his footing and cracked Lang upside the head.

Describing the difference between acting for stage and film, Lang said the stage performance is constantly changing and evolving from show to show, while for film, the onus is on an actor to become definitive. So he felt “the stakes got magnified” while making the movie “Death of a Salesman” compared to acting it on stage.

Lang also starred as Colonel Miles Quaritch in the 2009 epic film, “Avatar,” which was screened at Northeastern last night, followed by a question and answer session.

Tonight, Lang will give a talk examining the process of creating “Beyond Glory,” his solo play about the Medal of Honor. The event is scheduled from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in 90 Snell Library. On Wednesday, Lang will participate in the panel discussion, “Acting in a Virtual World,” from 6 p.m. to 8 p.m. in 320 Shillman. Both are open to the public.

Created in 2009, the Artist and Practitioners in Residence Program brings innovative, creative individuals to campus to create interdisciplinary dialogues that engage and energize the Northeastern community.