Stephen Lang admits that one of his first thoughts upon reading the script for “23 Blast” — about a high school football player who goes blind, then manages to return to his team — was “‘This can’t be true.’ But it is! It is true.”
The film, opening Friday (10/24), has the esteemed “Avatar” and “Gods and Generals” actor/playwright in the real life role of Coach Willard Farris. It was Coach Farris who had the audacious idea of putting football-loving young Travis Freeman back into action after he became completely sightless. He turned him from a “gazelle” into a “pitbull” by moving him into the position of center.
Recounts Lang, “My agent said ‘I want to send you a script for a football movie that Dylan Baker is going to direct,’ and I was immediately intrigued because I’ve known Dylan for years as a very, very fine actor. And I thought that was exciting.” Once he read “23 Blast,” Lang realized, “‘This is actually a very delicate film. It would be a simple thing to slip into a cloying kind of sentimentality.’ But, in a way, you know, that’s not my problem. I can only be responsible for what I do.”
He went ahead and made the movie on the story’s actual location in the hamlet of Corbin, Kentucky. The youthful cast includes Alexa Vega (“Spy Kids”), Mark Hapka (“Criminal Minds”), Max Adler (“Glee”) and Bram Hoover — with stalwart support from elder actors including Timothy Busfield, Fred Thompson, and Baker himself.
Then, “Cut to several months later and I went to see it, and I was absolutely thrilled because there was an authentic, simple honesty to the film; not one time in the movie did it ever get syrupy or sentimental,” Lang declares. “It delighted me, and it filled me with admiration for Dylan and for the editors and the production team. You know, it could have gone another way, but I thought he elicited lovely performances from a cast of really, really vibrant and fine young actors. I thought the old pros did their jobs just great.”
“23 Blast” is one of a flurry of diverse projects Lang has taken on before battening down to reprise his role as Colonel Miles Quaritch in James Cameron’s three “Avatar” sequels — all of which are to be made simultaneously. Besides the inspirational sports flick, he was in the recent Stephen King “The Good Marriage,” and next month, he’s taking his Beyond Glory solo show on the road with plans to perform in “eight or nine states.”
Speaking of the consuming experience of making “Avatar,” he notes, “I’ve already been there once — and now instead of one ‘Avatar,’ we’re doing three! I’m thinking for the next couple of years, probably beyond that, it’s going to really dominate my life. So it’s good to be able to get other stuff done and exercise my chops before I plunge into that — something I’m really looking forward to plunging into.”
The excitement in his voice is palpable, in fact. “It’s great stuff. Sometimes it comes easily, but sometimes it doesn’t come easily because there’s so much technical wizardry that has to occur simultaneously in the ‘Avatar’ world, and it’s kind of one foot in front of the other, working scene after scene,” he says. “We’re looking forward to the whole process. We know that not only do we regard it as an extraordinary thing — which we did when we were making the first one — the world has expectations as well. We better be good.”
Meanwhile, he’s looking forward to the unveiling of “23 Blast.” Certainly, coming in the wake of month after month of player scandals that have rocked both the professional and high school football establishments, the story comes as a breath of fresh air.
Lang tells us that a classmate of his happens to be director of public relations for the NFL. “She’s coming to see the film and she is so looking forward to it,” he notes with a smile. “She says, ‘I just want to see something about football in a positive light.'”
Despite the recent spate of negative stories, Lang believes that football “is a very venerable institution. What is that line — ‘When sorrows come, they come in battalions.’ I think there’ve been battalions of sorrows, but still, it is a great, great game.” He pauses, then can’t resist adding with a laugh, “It’s not baseball, but that’s just my opinion.”
Both Freeman and Farris were on the set a number of times during production of “23 Blast.” “We filmed in Corbin and Corbin is a small town,” points out Lang. “It was very nice to meet them. I think the fairest thing to say about what I did — it’s a creation. But I’m not going to say ‘loosely based’ — it was based on this man, Coach Farris, who is clearly a good man. Obviously, without the coach being part of the whole thing, it never would have happened.
“It was terrific having the folks around,” he adds. “They weren’t there on a daily basis. There was never a feeling of ‘I wish they would get out of the way.’ I never felt that at all. I think they’re all quite pleased. What was a very significant event in the history of this town, and of course, high school football. Aside from Travis, high school football is a very important element in that town in terms of a sense of community. So to be able to have his story told, I think, is a really important thing. Everybody was extremely supportive.”
He enjoyed portraying the Coach. “Very often the coach in this type of film is a real hard ass kind of guy, a bit of a drill instructor, real tough. And I think that Farris has that; he stands strong, but there’s also this side where you’ve got heart, and he cares about his people. It’s immensely helpful,” notes Lang, “that the first time you see the coach, he’s coaching six year old boys.”