An Interview with Stephen Lang: Bringing Stonewall Jackson to Life

Portrait of Stonewall Jackson
Kimberly J. Largent

[This interview took place in January 2003.] We watched in awe as he offered us the exceptional performance as General George Pickett in Gettysburg. Now, Stephen Lang takes the lead in Ron Maxwell's prequel entitled Gods and Generals. Stephen shared with me many of this thoughts and perspectives on these two Generals. While we talked, I found that Lang, as himself, exhibited characteristics of both the men he portrayed. He was sincere, dedicated and even reserved at times; other times, he was humorous, flippant and carefree. The interview was refreshing and afforded me the opportunity to reevaluate my own perspectives.

Largent: Let's go back to Gettysburg. Your performance as General George Pickett was exceptional. How did you prepare for that role?

Lang: The portrait in Killer Angels was so vivid and I have wanted to play that role for years; I guess in a way I've been preparing for a long, long time. When I arrived on the set of Gettysburg, I remember spending huge amounts of time on horseback and a tremendous amount of time with the other actors who were playing Pickett's brigadiers, Garnett, Armistead and Kemper, and a huge amount of time with [Tom] Berenger who played Longstreet. We spent time talking and improvising, socializing and I guess it just began to emerge organically.

Largent: You had only two weeks from the time you learned you received the role of Jackson in Gods and Generals until filming began. How were you able to prepare so quickly?

Lang: I had a little longer than that…about three and a half weeks, which still is not a lot of time. As it happened, I knew a good bit about Jackson, and I guess most importantly I'd been growing my beard at that point. I approached it in a fairly "Jacksonian" fashion which is to say I worked methodically and I worked as efficiently as I could and again I worked on the physical portrait of him-the walk of the man and certainly the look of the man, which of course in Jackson's case was more of a stretch for me than Pickett was. I think that naturally, I probably have more of a Pickett look than a Jackson look, so I worked very, very carefully with our makeup and hair people because I had a longer distance to go to get to Jackson. At the same time, I was totally submersed in literature of Jackson, which you know is an immense amount; I was using James Robertson's book as my main source since it's such a brilliantly balanced book. At the same time I was using Dabney and Vandiver, basically anything with Jackson's name on it. The third component was the tremendous amount of time with the script everyday. I approached it as basically doing a Shakespearian play where you really need to bind the script to you to become really intimate with it and that's not the case with most films, but this one there was so much language I really had to look at it everyday; I wanted it to become second nature to me…the cadences, the rhythm of the verbatim text, especially in his speech at Harper's Ferry. I also read the Bible a good bit. As a matter of fact Kali Rocha, who plays Anna Jackson, and I would read the Bible together as Jackson and Anna and I think that paid great dividends on the screen. I would read aloud and in the actual voice. I was working with a dialect coach on this, so I was always working with language. You're talking about coming to grips with the biography of the man, working on words, working on the physical and going over the grounds, being in the Shenandoah Valley as much as possible.

Largent: I read about the Jackson anecdote that Dennis Frye shared with you. It was about the evening that Ron, Dennis, Don Eaton and Kees von Oostrum had just completed spending seven grueling hours of line-by-line script review. When done, Don had made the comment "And Stonewall Jackson died." Apparently at that point, Ron's two dogs suddenly perked up and began barking their displeasure at the announcement. Were there any unusual occurrences that you can recall during filming? Anything happen that was eerie or unexplainable?

Lang: Well…yes…You project yourself into something and you do feel that someone is sitting close by, behind your shoulder. But I cannot speak of any absolute or eerie things that happened to me. I've never had a problem with ghosts or anything. In the times that I've felt presences, it's never bothered me one bit. I remember one time in Gettysburg getting tweaked during the night on my ear by some old woman (laughing). Maybe I dreamed it or something, but I woke up with a sore ear. Coming from the tradition of the theatre, and I've worked in many, many theatres where there are ghosts, I've been more intrigued by it than frightened. One of the things that gave me the warmest feeling was when Stonewall's great great granddaughter came to the set. It was like a real blanket of warmth. For sure, I felt very, very close to [Stonewall]. It was very reluctantly that I let him go.

Largent: You had such an incredibly strong presence in Gettysburg as Pickett. Do you think your performance in Gods & Generals will make viewers forget you were Pickett?

Lang: I felt a really good barometer on that were the reenactors because they were the ones I had a certain degree of concern about. But with the enthusiasm and passion with which they accepted me immediately as Jackson was really, really wonderful and heart-warming and gave me tremendous confidence in my own ability to do it. If I can convince them and be accepted by those guys as Jackson, then no, I don't worry at all about the rest of the viewing public. And when you do look at it, there's just no resemblance between the two. So I'm not too concerned about that.

Largent: I've read a couple of articles and watched a few interviews where there's been mention of your unwavering commitment to the role of Jackson, and the intensity with which you bring his character to life. What fueled such a passionate portrayal?

Lang: I would say that through my research and residing down in the Shenandoah Valley for the time I researched, I came to have such a tremendous affection for a man whom I consider to be an extremely charismatic and worthwhile American and someone who is not well-known to us in a way that other great Americans are. I felt that he'd been protected by the myths of legend in the Shenandoah Valley and I felt it was his time to come out. And I also feel defensive to some extent about him too, because I feel that dealing with Stonewall Jackson in many places outside of areas where he is known and really beloved, which is to say is Virginia, there is a dismissive thing that happens like "oh, he was a religious fanatic…he was really crazy…he was eccentric, he was a war martyr." And I take exception to that as lazy and dismissive and it's not true-any of it. I feel that he exemplified so much of what is really, really good about our country in terms of integrity. He is the American who rose through dint of shear hard work by his own bootstraps; he bootstrapped his way up…he made himself one of the greatest military figures not just in America, but anywhere. He was a good man, a worthwhile and a charming man in his way. So I guess the simple answer is I just fell in love with him.

Largent: The only similarity between George Pickett and Stonewall Jackson was their loyalty to the South; Pickett was flamboyant, Jackson was a dour somber religious man; which character did you feel more in alignment with and why?

Lang: Well, I'm not sure I totally accept either of those characterizations. I know where they're coming from, but I think that they are both incomplete. For example, for all of Pickett's flamboyance, there's something organically sad about him. Have you ever looked at any of the portraits of him? You can see it in his eyes-the sadness. He could be charming, but it was tinged with sadness. Stonewall, who is as you say, and certainly did have qualities of being a dour and somber man, was also an extremely charming man, was given to practical joking with his wife. There was an extremely joyful side to him. You know I don't see his attachment to faith as being a being a particularly somber attachment, I see it as being a joyful attachment and that's not just an impression I have, but from the way he was observed at prayer. I mean it could have an Old Testament fire to it and passion to it, but I just have these wonderful pictures in my mind of him striding through the woods in conversation with God. There's something joyful and abandoned about it. But I do have to say that playing Jackson, I shake my head with resentment at George Pickett, among others, who was so cruel and mean to Jackson when he came to West Point. It didn't reflect well on George. I think if I have any similarities it would be to Jackson in the sense that he was an extremely hard worker and I am an extremely hard worker in that I don't depend on my native genius (laughing). I don't mean to sell either of them short, I think there's a density to Jackson's soul, a complexity. There's no such thing as a simple man. But I do think he had a sensitivity and a depth beyond George; but George smelled better (laughing).

Largent: Hanging in my living room is Mort Kunstler's print entitled Julia, which I'm sure you recognize as the print of Stonewall Jackson seeing his newborn daughter Julia at Guiney's Station just a few weeks shy of his death. I can't help but feel sadness when I view it. Having portrayed Jackson, what feelings surface for you concerning his life? Were there times during the filming when the character controlled you instead of you being in control of the character?

Lang: There were times certainly in the scenes with Jane Corbin, played by Lydia Jordan, where it would get extremely emotional for me. I guess the reason you feel sadness is for the possibilities unexplored, the life that doesn't get lived. Yeah, I feel that about Jackson in a big way. He was a man who was interested in personal growth daily. To me, that is a person who will never petrify. Every walk of life, and it happens in my walk of life constantly, where people reach a certain level, and I don't mean of success, I mean of skill in what they are doing and sometimes it stops there and they begin to petrify. That Jackson was such a worker, it was so much a part of his being to do things, to get up and do things and to learn things that that would have gone on the rest of his. The obvious question that most people ask is how would it have affected the war had Jackson lived. But the more poignant question to me is what would Jackson have become if he lived?

Largent: If you could travel in back in time to the Civil War, who would you be most interested in meeting?

Lang: Well, if I get to affect things--

Largent: No, you don't.

Lang: Then I would have loved to have campaigned with Jackson in the valley. But if I could affect things, I'd like to meet [John] Wilkes Booth so I could thrash him or break his arm. He destroyed so much, not to mention he gave actors a bad name.

Largent: I recently interviewed Jeff Daniels and he commented that playing the role of Chamberlain led him to become a student of the Civil War. Was your interest piqued during these two projects or was there always a passion for history? Have you pursued any studies on the war outside the scope of the film?

Lang: It's funny you'd mention Jeff because we shared a house for awhile down in Stanton, Virginia and we'd joke about it, but we'd go days not speaking to each other at all, just seeing each other at meals, grunting occasionally, with books under our arms. It's like we were students going for our masters or PhDs. It was extremely academic around there. But when you're actually doing a picture on it, and you're so concentrated on it, you tend to let it go after filming. I have spent some time thinking on Stonewall, refining my thoughts on him. I have always been a history buff, I rarely read fiction and read a lot of history and biography. I have a particular interest in the history of science.

Largent: Obviously you won't be portraying Stonewall Jackson or George Pickett in the Last Full Measure. And since your absence would be unacceptable, any word on who you'll be playing in the final film?

Lang: I've found that by leaving myself in Ron's [Maxwell] hands, I've certainly come out wonderfully in terms of roles I've been able to play. I will be in the film, maybe it will be a kind of Where's Waldo (laughter). I'm sure I'll be in it somewhere, whether Blue or Gray…I'm looking forward it.


This item was created by a contributor to eHistory prior to its affiliation with The Ohio State University. As such, it has not been reviewed for accuracy by the University and does not necessarily adhere to the University's scholarly standards.