At the Gym with “Avatar’s”
How the veteran actor shaped up for his muscular role as
Col. Miles Quaritch in the blockbuster fantasy.
by Allan Richter
Fans of actor Stephen Lang might be forgiven for wondering whether his on-screen build in “Avatar” is the product of computer imagery. The sci-fi blockbuster, after all, broke new ground for its use of digital technology that depicts an actor’s movements as a computer-generated image. And Lang’s character, Col. Miles Quaritch, looms larger than life. A New York Times review of “Avatar” called Quaritch “a cartoon of masculinity,” and observed that Lang tore into the role “like a starved man gorging on steak.”
Actually it was protein shakes, and, no, Lang’s physique in “Avatar” was not chiseled by movie magic but by hours of disciplined training three to five times a week over eight months. Lang and “Avatar” director James Cameron wanted to build up Quaritch’s bulk to show the vivid contrast between the menacing character and the native creatures called Na’vi that inhabit the distant utopian moon Pandora. With his trainer Doug Sedlmair, Lang recently returned to the Saw Mill Club, the Mt. Kisco, New York, health and fitness club where he trained for the movie, to shed light on his regimen and share fitness tips.
“For ‘Avatar’ I was interested in creating size,” Lang, 58, explains. “The life forms on Pandora are very curvaceous, flowing and flexible; they’re almost liquid. With Quaritch, who represents the absolute other end of the spectrum, we wanted to do something that was all right angles, that was solid, metallic, aggressive and bursting. That was paramount in everything we considered, from the way I wore my clothing, which is one size too tight because we want him popping out, to the scars on my head, which are almost chevrons. So the workouts were really geared toward maximizing my size and the right angles. That all operates on an audience.”
From Dojo to Pandora
Lang’s interest in health and fitness did not begin or end with “Avatar.” For much of the 1980s, he frequented a karate dojo on Mercer Street in lower Manhattan. He credits martial arts—as well as the concentration needed to ride his black Kawasaki motorcycle—with adding focus and discipline to his acting. He left karate when “work took over,” he says, “and in a way I suppose I garnered what I wanted to get out of it and it was just time to move on. The deeper you get into karate the more responsibility you have to continue on. It’s one of those disciplines that can take over your life. I got tired of fighting, too.”
Wearing a maroon shirt bearing the emblem of his alma mater, Swarthmore College, Lang is leaner than he was in “Avatar,” a shape he prefers for his personal life over Quaritch’s bulk. When we meet, he is one week into his latest fitness pursuit, Bikram yoga, the popular “hot room” yoga program. “It’s increasing my flexibility on a daily basis. I think it’s really expanding my lung capacity so it’s making me stronger; there’s a lot of breathing. And it’s wonderful for shedding weight,” he says.
Lang demonstrates how, one week earlier, he could not touch his ears with his arms overhead because of an arthritic left shoulder and “because I was muscle-bound and have a lot of tension in there. Now I can do it. In one week the flexibility due to the extreme heat has relaxed a lot of things.” Yoga, he adds, has helped him “recognize the difference between the pain of injury and the pain of hard work, the pain of actually trying to rectify the injury.”
Lang keeps fit so he can be ready for any physical role that comes along. “I just want to be at a point of maximum health and preparedness,” he says. “If I’m not working, if I’m not doing a play or film, I approach it as if I’m an athlete off-season. The better shape I stay in now, the simpler it is going to be for me to be where I need to be. The type of roles I look for, and the types of roles I’m mostly considered for, has to do with a certain kind of a look. A lot of times they are in shape.”
In theater and film, he has played a string of military men, tough guys and heroes. On Broadway, he played Colonel Jessep in “A Few Good Men” and Happy in “Death of a Salesman,” and he gave a Tony-nominated performance as a homeless man in “The Speed of Darkness.” Off Broadway, he performed in his own play, “Beyond Glory,” earning a Helen Hayes Award nomination. On the small and large screens, his roles include the title role in “Babe Ruth,” Stonewall Jackson in “Gods and Generals,” and a brigadier general in “Men Who Stare at Goats.”
Lang was looking for a lean and lithe look for his recent work as the black-hearted Khalar Zym in the action adventure “Conan,” due out next year. “If he turned into profile, I basically wanted him to disappear,” Lang says of his “Conan” character.
“I wanted him to be like a knife, like a stiletto.” The action film’s many fight scenes and intense swordplay, Lang adds, made the role physically challenging.
For “Avatar,” Lang’s workout fell into two phases—building muscle and bulk, then sculpting what he built into a leaner frame. He worked out with Sedlmair for four months at the upstate New York gym, then continued the regimen on his own for four months on the “Avatar” set in New Zealand.
During a break in filming, Lang played G-man Charles Winstead in “Public Enemies,” last year’s gangster flick starring Johnny Depp as John Dillinger. Lang’s build, kept intact for his return to the “Avatar” set, was not out of character for the Winstead part. However, for another project that Lang shot during a break from “Avatar” production, the independent film “Christina,” Lang’s character was supposed to be emaciated from war rations so the actor hid his build by wearing clothes one size too big.
Balancing Mass and Muscle
Lang begins every workout with a 24-minute warm-up that includes brisk walking, jumping rope and exercising on an incline wall. After the warm-up, recounts Sedlmair, Lang’s trainer, “our goal was to build him up as big as possible during the initial stretch. The weight training he did was very difficult and high intensity. We pushed really hard every single time. He put out 100% trying to target individual muscle groups. We’d spend a whole workout just working on chest, another whole workout just working on his back, another working on legs.”
That approach let Lang put on more muscle in a short time. “When you do several muscle groups in one day,” Sedlmair explains, “your energy level is going to affect how high the intensity is for your other muscle groups. You might get through your first muscle group with very high intensity, then when you’re switching over to the next one you don’t have as much lift so you’re not going to be able to hit that muscle group as hard.”
The exception was when Lang was trying to burn fat and boost his heart rate in the latter phase of his workout with a chest press that also worked his legs, core, shoulders and triceps. “When he finished doing that high-intensity functional training piece of his program, he was in phenomenal shape,” Sedlmair says, “not just in terms of esthetics, but his overall health—his cardiovascular, his fitness level, his balance, his core strength, everything was at top level.”
The time Lang took to rest was as important as the workouts themselves. If you’re working your chest on Monday, Sedlmair says, don’t work it again until Thursday. Lang applies the advice to his workouts today. “That’s one of the things I picked up from Doug, and I run with it,” Lang says, noting he doesn’t work his biceps and triceps on the same day. “Sometimes I’ll combine biceps with forearms, and the next day I’ll do triceps. So it’s sort of a push-pull thing. One day I like to pull, whether it’s the back or biceps, and then I like to push, which is chest.”
In addition to loading up on complex carbohydrates to build his bulk in the initial stage, Lang consumed an array of sports nutrition products. To combat fatigue and help boost energy, he took green tea extract with natural caffeine. The actor supplemented his diet with 100% whey isolate protein to ensure he was getting needed branch amino acids and encouraging protein creation. “When you’re working out, your body is like a sponge and that’s when it needs these nutrients the most, because that’s when you’re building muscle,” says Sedlmair, who owns Complete Nutrition, a Bedford Hills, New York, vitamin store.
As “Avatar” filming neared, Sedlmair cut back on Lang’s carbs to get him as lean as possible. Instead, they focused on protein to help preserve the muscles the actor had developed. At the same time, Sedlmair ran Lang through a powerful cardiovascular training regimen of strength-and-endurance plyometric exercises, which call for rigorous jumping and sometimes use obstacles such as cones.
“To decrease his body fat but to maintain the hard-earned muscles he had put on, we made sure he was doing these long-duration, steady-state kind of cardiovascular sessions,” Sedlmair says. So that Lang’s body was using fat rather than muscle for energy, those sessions lasted more than an hour, but at very low intensity.
“Rather than trying to curl 50-pound dumbbells all the time,” Lang says, “now I do many more reps with maybe 30s and 35s.” Heavier-weight, low-repetition training can build strength but won’t sculpt the body like keeping muscles under lighter tension for longer periods.
“That was good for me to hear because I am not as big or as strong as I was,” the actor says. “I’m probably ten pounds lighter than I was two years ago. I try to stay under 170. Right now I’m probably 167. I think it’s good to stay five or six pounds underweight if you can because it’s too easy to put it on,” he adds with a laugh. “It also means that on the weekend you can really unwind, have a couple of drinks and eat the stuff you want to eat, because life is short.”
Legs to Stand On
Lang and Sedlmair say the actor’s workout routine underscored the need to work two often-neglected areas: legs and abs. Sedlmair had Lang incorporate leg exercises such as lunges and squats into just about every exercise. The actor added a plyometric squat to a chest press with a medicine ball, for instance, and worked his biceps with curls while doing a step-up exercise. “If his legs were weak,” says Sedlmair, “we’d be finished within 10 minutes of starting the workout.”
Adds Lang: “I have skinny little legs. Just like every other weight lifter I love the vanity muscles and ignore the legs. That’s one of the deficiencies of not working with Doug because all of that is your base down there. One of the reasons that I can’t lift as heavy as I did is because I don’t work my legs nearly as often as if I were working with him.”
Sedlmair didn’t want Lang repeating a common mistake many people make during exercise: overlooking internal abdominal muscles by relying solely on standard crunches. A strong core helps prevent injury, especially with a regimen as intense as Lang’s. So the trainer had Lang work his transversus abdominus, which helps stabilize the spine and is the deepest of the abdominal muscles, and the internal obliques, which help flex and rotate the spine and aid in breathing. Lang also worked his multifidus muscle, which supports the spine.
“A lot of people do abs as an add-on. I treat abs as if they’re another muscle group,” Lang says. “I do abs and then I may not do anything else. I don’t end every session with 100 crunches. Sometimes I’ll do a session with 300 or 500 crunches of different ab routines.”
Lang likes the idea that some of the exercises offering the greatest return do not involve fancy equipment. “If I was going to bring one piece of equipment with me, it would be a jump rope,” he says. “You do one-minute intervals, two-minute intervals on a jump rope, and you’ll get your heart rate up. You’ll get a good workout.”
He also favors pushups on his knuckles. Asked why, he jokes, “So you can win money in bars with it, is the main reason. But that’s also karate stuff. There’s still stuff I take from years and years ago. Ninety percent of the karate stuff I don’t do anymore, but I always do pushups on my knuckles.”
All told, Lang’s routine was extremely diverse, even incorporating “some old-school boot camp training,” Sedlmair says. Lang says the variety of exercises “surprised” and kept his body flexible, and he now embraces the approach.
Another residual benefit of the workout: an improvement in Lang’s diet. “One of the great things that Doug was doing was he’d pretty much stay on me in a consistent manner about diet, about eating frequently, but not eating large portions and being very conscious of what I was eating,” he says. “That stayed with me. I’m a lot more conscious of what I’m eating since I worked with Doug.”
For breakfast, Lang eats oatmeal with peanut butter. “That’s fuel to me,” he says. “It doesn’t have to taste great. It just has to get in there. Then lunch, again, is fuel in the tank.” Sometimes he’ll have a protein shake for lunch. “The meal I care deeply about is dinner. I eat a lot of chicken. On the weekends, I love pasta. I eat a lot of vegetables, a lot of spinach, broccoli. Sweet potatoes are great for you. My wife and I like to cook together and we like to eat together.”
Sure, Lang gets his share of fans who wonder if director Cameron’s big-budget digital artistry put those muscles on him. But “Avatar” has also brought Lang surprising attention from fans who are more enlightened. “People come up to me who are my age and say they’ve been inspired to do something about their body and health,” Lang says. “It’s a byproduct of the film I never looked for.”