Mark Strong interview from the Sunday Times, August 14, 2011. By Jeff Dawson
For a man described by Sir Ian McKellen as “The greatest living actor in England,’ you’d expect Mark Strong to garner more street level recognition. But no. “I get Stanley Tucci and Andy Garcia,” he laughs, mimicking the yelp of a passer-by putting a misplaced name to his face. “Also Dimitar Berbatov.”
True, in the flesh, the tall, athletically lean, shaven-headed Strong doesn’t typically resemble his screen selves. But, stick a costumier’s rug on him, preferably one with a widow’s peak, and he’s a foreboding presence — the scene-stealer of films like RockNRolla, Body Of Lies, Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass, Robin Hood and The Eagle.
He thinks McKellen, with whom he appeared at the National in Richard III and King Lear, back in the 90s, was just being nice. “I’d be amazed if that’s what he actually said.” But with a whacking 66 film and TV productions under his belt (“Christ,” he splutters), Strong might also count himself our very own James Brown, proverbial hardest working man in showbiz.
He’s been directed Roman Polanski, Peter Weir and Danny Boyle; Ridley Scott, Matthew Vaughn and Guy Ritchie have made him a house player; he’s acted with Robert De Niro, Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe. In Syriana, he enjoyed the cinematic distinction of torturing George Clooney. "I got to pull his nails out,” he says. “In between we had a cup of tea.”
Strong can still be seen in The Green Lantern, the CGI superhero extravaganza in which he plays galactic weirdo, Sinestro, the gone-to-the-dark-side tutor of Hal Leonard (Ryan Reynolds), an earthling enlisted to a sort of intergalactic police force. His chameleon skills know no limits. “My wife (producer, Liza Marshall) was with Eric Fellner. He said he'd seen the trailer ‘and was Mark in it?’… And I quite like that. Transformation was always the thing that I got a real kick out of. I love the idea of doing something where people aren't quite sure that it’s you."
He folds himself into a chair at the grand St Pancras Hotel, not far from his old stamping ground of Islington. On a Monday morning, he's still aching from his regular Friday football game, in which he hoofs the bladder with the likes of Patrick Marber, Rupert Graves and an ensemble of theps, directors and writers. “If you dropped a bomb on that game you'd wipe out half the film industry," he quips.
Word is that Strong has a bit of a short fuse, someone his teammates were oft extricating from an on-field brawl. But, turning 48 shortly, he’s now a peacemaker, he assures. “I’ve learnt my lesson."
The sense of underlying menace has been an asset. Case in point is The Guard, the new Irish crime thriller in which Strong — albeit in a supporting role — adds a typically violent (yet whimsically philosophical) element to proceedings, an addition to a roster of screen baddies that includes Lord Blackwood, the occultist adversary of Sherlock Holmes and Frank D’Amico, the drug Lord who (controversially) beats up 11-year-old Hit Girl in Kick-Ass. Even amid the posh frocks of Young Victoria, Strong lent a brooding malevolence as Sir John Conroy, manipulator of the fledgling monarch.
Recalling an eye-rolling groan from Alan Rickman, who once scoffed at my mention of his excellence as a film villain (such roles were but a sideshow to his true calling, darling), one treads warily in describing Strong in such terms. But he doesn’t mind. "I’m totally happy with it. There’s a long tradition of British actors who've got into the movies by paying baddies, of which Alan Rickman is one. The truth is, if you're not playing the lead they're the next best part."
He had been drawn to Green Lantern’s Sinestro by his discovery that in the original 1941 artwork, the character had been modelled on David Niven. “One of my heroes, always has been,” he declares, confirming his adoration with an eager regaling of passages from The Moon’s A Balloon and Niven’s drunken exploits with Errol Flynn. The lukewarm reviews —“they’re not critics’ favourites, these kinds of movies”— have been offset by some box office chart-topping both sides of the Atlantic. A sequel has been commissioned.
Mark Strong was born Marco Giuseppe Salussolia. He never really knew his absconding Italian father, brought up by his Austrian mother, an au pair who had come to London at 18. His assumed moniker is not a stage name, but rather changed by deed poll on the part of his mother as a means of “starting again and giving us a sense of belonging.”
Still, the Austrian roots are deep. Strong speaks fluent German and, for a while, studied Law at the University of Munich. "I imagined myself as a sort of international lawyer, but I think what I saw was the image — the briefcase, the raincoat, like Alain Delon, and driving a BMW."
Some reports have Strong as a troubled youth relocated to a young offender’s institute. But this has been wildly exaggerated, he corrects. As a six-year-old child of a single parent, he had been offered a pace at a state-run boarding school in Surrey. "Originally it was called the Asylum for Fatherless Children," he says, citing its Victorian charitable foundation. As he puts it, society, forty years ago, was "way more enlightened than it is today,” in terms of giving kids a leg-up.
When his mother moved to Norfolk, he boarded again at Wymondham College. Later, after Munich, he studied theatre at the Bristol Old Vic. “For me it was completely exotic. Having done the law and realising how dry it was I had an epiphany about what I didn't want to do.”
You can take the boy out of Islington but not the Islington out of the boy. An Arsenal season ticket holder to this day, it was a case of "where art met life” when Strong got cast as Colin Firth’s best mate in Fever Pitch. “On the front of the book there was a picture of a little kid in his Arsenal kit. I went to the audition with virtually the same photograph, me in my mum’s back garden.”
For much of the 80s and 90s, Strong enjoyed a solid theatre career. In 1996 came an auspicious moment, his casting in the acclaimed TV drama Our Friends In The North, alongside Christopher Ecclestone, Gina McKee and his good mate Daniel Craig. "This was a shoot that lasted a year and we had to age from 20 to 50. A lot of people didn't want to commit for that length of time, but I was very happy to do it and was very lucky that it was so successful."
Strong also had another big TV window as Harry Starks in the Krays-esque gangster drama, The Long Firm, produced by his wife, who went on to become Head of Drama at Channel 4 and now runs Ridley Scott’s production outfit, Scott Free.
Strong’s own film career came rather late. “Probably only six or seven years ago with Syriana, so I’ve been making up for lost time." For his first day of shooting on Scott’s Body Of Lies, he raced straight from the delivery room and the birth of his second child to be on set in Morocco. "As only a producer can, Liza very conveniently gave birth to him the night before I was due to start."
His turn in that film was quite magnificent, almost walking off with the picture as the ambiguous head of the Jordanian secret service. Throw in his Iranian torturer in Syriana, the imprisoned Russian playwright of The Way Back and his own ethnic mix would seem to have helped him keep it interesting.
"Arabs, Jews…. aliens," he says, before wondering whether such a statement might be taken the wrong way. He pauses. "I’m an Austrian-Italian Londoner, so to play those things that I’m not is precisely what I’m interested in as an actor. I love accents and I love costume and I love wigs and I love anything that can transport me to somewhere else. The difficulty I’d have is playing myself." He might have have added the Mexican assassin of the Coen Brothers’ No Country For Old Men had Javier Bardem not made himself available again after initially ruling himself out.
The enormity of The Green Lantern —“You’re a very small cog in a very large machine” — has been balanced with smaller films in the shape of action thriller Welcome To The Punch with James MacAvoy, which he’s currently shooting, plus the afforementioned, The Guard, which has been getting raves. The film is not just a tour de force by Brendan Gleeson as a rogue cop in the island’s wild west, but was one of the most enjoyable shoots he’s ever worked on, Strong says, “drinking way to much Guinness and laughing far too hard” at the cast and crew’s remote Connemara hotel.” Don Cheadle, who plays an FBI agent brought over to help thwart Strong’s gangsters arrived on set the day Strong finished “I saw him at breakfast and I remember thinking, ‘You have no idea what you’ve just parachuted into.’”
Also in the can are John Carter Of Mars, from a sci-fi story by Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Black Gold an epic about the oil boom in 1930s Arabia with Antonio Banderas. Most intriguingly there is the hotly anticipated big screen adaptation of Tinker, Taylor, Soldier, Spy in which Strong plays Jim Prideaux (Ian Bannen on TV) to Gary Oldman’s George Smiley. “Arabs. aliens and spies,” he says.
He’s thrilled with the way it’s turned out “The fractured nature of the novel has been well realised in the movie. You have to work much as you do when you read the novel. They haven’t fallen for the trick of making the narrative linear so you get spoon-fed. And I have to say, the performances are amazing”
All this exposure isn’t necessarily good for you, of course. "The problem is, the more well known you become, the less people are prepared to accept you looking very, very different."
The Green Lantern is released on DVD, October
The Guard opens August 19
Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy opens September 16