Last year, I was able to visit the set of Fede Alvarez’s movie Don’t Breathe in Budapest, Hungary, along with a number of other journalists. We got to chat with the cast — which includes Jane Levy, Daniel Zovatto, Dylan Minnette, and Stephen Lang — about the upcoming thriller. But one thing that really stood out for all us after seeing the sets and sizzle reel (and Lang talking to us in a bloodied wife beater) was Lang’s role as The Blind Man (his only known name in the film). The movie is about a group of kids in Detroit who decide to burglarize a blind man’s house, expecting an easy score. But there are a lot of question about who the villains are here, as Lang’s character turns out to be a formidable foe for the intruders.
Director Fede Alvarez told us that Lang was “born to play this role,” referencing his military roles in the past, which is similar to this character. “So it’s just someone that knows what it is to be a military guy and suddenly been confined to this life and this house by himself alone.” When first trying to think of who could play the blind man, and who could pull it off, “as soon as somebody named Stephen Lang it was like, ‘Oh, fuck yeah.’”
A lot of the movie takes place in dark spaces, and Lang even wore special contacts that made his eyes look clouded over, but also actually prevented him from actually being able to see. Lang spoke about that in our conversation, saying:
“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 … 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. “
As far as how that affected his performance, Lang continued:
“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.”
When we asked Lang about using the contacts and how much he could see, he said that he relaxes his eyes, which “cuts it down to just shadows.” Of course I had to know … what exactly does that mean?
I spend my life in makeup chairs, for example. I self-hypnotize all the time because if you are going to be in a chair for an hour and a half or whatever, you really want to kinda go down. That’s what I do. So I’ve been doing it for years. It’s not that hard. You just sort of learn to do it.”
“Slang,” as he is called by everyone, also told us about how he prepared to play a man without sight:
“Well, one of the things is closed eyes, of course. And when I asked, “Why do you keep your eyes closed?” It’s because there’s no point opening them, for one thing. [But it’s also] 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 do that. You want to create differences, but you don’t want them to be radical. You don’t want them to be too extreme. But his reality, his movements become kind of maybe a little more hyper real.
There are beats will 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…
As far as whether or not the blind man — “he’s a very isolated character” — is a victim or a villain:
“Well, he’s really not a villain. 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? OK. 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?”
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 brokenhearted 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. Sometimes Fede likes to bring up Clint Eastwood in Gran Torino.
Still, Fede Alvarez told us that even though Lang’s character starts as an underdog, things are revealed that mean that “there’s no way he can let them go. There’s not [another] option. He has to kill these kids.”
Don’t Breathe hits theaters August 26th.