Exclusive: On Acting With Mark Strong - England's Secret Weapon
by Alex Billington
November 10, 2008
There's an English actor named Mark Strong who has been stealing the show right out from under big name actors like Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe and Tom Wilkinson. If you've seen either Body of Lies or RocknRolla then you'll probably recognize him - or maybe not, considering he plays two characters that couldn't be more unlike each other. On one hand, he plays the stern second-hand-man to the British high class gangster Lenny Cole and is famous for his "Archie slap"; on the other, he plays the levelheaded Chief of Jordanian Intelligence who walks a fine line between being a good guy and a bad guy. Speaking with Mark Strong out of character is as exhilarating as it is to watch him on screen - he's as fascinated at the art of acting and giving a great performance, different each time, as we are at watching those performances.
It all began when I watched Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla and walked out more amazed by the character of Archie than anyone else in it. Then a few weeks later I stepped in to watch Ridley Scott's Body of Lies with the knowledge that Mark Strong was in it, but without knowing who his character was. The moment Hani Salaam makes his appearance, I was stunned - I couldn't believe the same actor had played both roles. Not only was it the same actor, but he had stolen the show in both movies. It took a few more weeks until I could finally connect up with Mark over the phone, as he was back at home in London shooting two more big films - Guy Ritchie's Sherlock Holmes and Matthew Vaughn's Kick-Ass. It was an immense honor to speak with one of the greatest working actors of our generation who deserves to be in the spotlight more often.
"For the 20 years I've been doing this, I've always felt that the thing that I enjoy most, and the thing that I love about the business that I'm in and the opportunity that I have to do what I do, the best part of it is finding different characters to play, and varying those characters as much as possible. The idea that I can play a badly burned captain of a ship going to drop a bomb in the sun as well as the head of the Jordanian Secret Service as well as an old school gangster, that's what makes the whole thing worth it for me." The first role he referred to was that of the nearly-dead Captain Pinbacker in Danny Boyle's Sunshine (see photo below), just one of many films I'm sure no one knew he was even in. In addition to the three films we've mentioned so far, he has appeared in Syriana, Tristan + Isolde, Stardust, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, and even Babylon A.D.
Looking at that list, it's not too hard to notice that Strong seems like the go-to-guy for English filmmakers (such Ridley Scott, Danny Boyle, Matthew Vaughn, and Guy Ritchie) looking for an immensely talented character actor. "I think what happened is that I just played a couple of characters that got noticed. And I don't know why, I feel very lucky to be able to play on the one hand a Jordanian, or in Syriana, I was playing a Lebanese Muslim. But I'm half Italian." Strong first started out in drama school and progressed into acting on stage nearly 20 years ago, eventually moving into television and movies. He loves being recognized as different kinds of characters and loves being forced to come up with something unique each time. "As an actor, that's exactly what you want to be doing. You want to be playing things that are as far removed from yourself as possible so that you can have the challenge of exploring those characters."
While most moviegoers have a general sense of how an actor forms their character, Strong's explanation of how he does it is very enthralling to hear. It all starts with understanding "what the purpose of your character is within the narrative, within the story." From there he can begin to build the character, with experiences like rehearsals, discussions with the director, costume fittings, and stepping onto the set that all help him figure out exactly who he needs to be. "I sometimes find that a lot of it can come together literally during rehearsal on the day before you shoot -- [that] is where you can find what it is you're supposed to be doing." He also likes to throw in a bit of darkness. "I always also try and find, if you're playing a good character, find some darkness in there just to throw some relief and make it multi-layered. And by the same token, if you're playing a kind of dark character, you've got to find some redeeming qualities."
"I love the kind of, having been so linear doing theatre, I love the fractured nature of film. I just found it really fascinating. And in a way, giving yourself over to a director who then takes everything you've done, goes off into the edit and creates his film. I've always been fascinated to see what he's come up with." Those that have seen him in any of his roles, whether it be RocknRolla or Body of Lies or Stardust otherwise, know that his character is always very distinct, and that may stem from his background in theatre. In discussing his transition to film, Strong touched on a great aspect of acting that I'm sure most directors are akin to seeing. "I kind of like that in film, that it's instant, it's the moment. And that's the thing that exists. You can't adjust it like you can in theatre." Extending that idea further, Mark adds that, "I like the notion that you really have to do that kind of work on the psychology of your character and get it right. That's what's fascinating."
To be able to pull off such show-stealing performances, he must have some great inspiration, right? Not exactly, as he explains, "I try not to go and see too much, funny enough, because I like to invent it for myself. And I like to think that what I'm doing comes from me, rather than from something that I've seen somewhere." However, he admits that he's fascinated by black and white movies from the past and the performances of Humphrey Bogart and classic films like Night of the Hunter, His Girl Friday, and Rebecca. Here we finally get to see where his honesty in acting truly comes from. "I try to make sure that whatever I do, I do out of instinct. It may then be that obviously it's like something that people have seen before and not necessarily original or new, for example. But that's the way I prefer to work."
Whether you are familiar with him and his roles or not, Mark Strong is on the verge of becoming one of the next big actors. He's been working in film for quite a while but is just now starting to take on more prominent roles that get him noticed. He's already shooting Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass and gets to play the villain in both of them. "I love that," he says enthusiastically, "you can imagine, that's my favorite way of working." He also appears in Vicente Amorim's Good and Jean-Marc Vallée's The Young Victoria, a period piece that he co-stars in with Emily Blunt, amongst many other fine actors. And if all of this is only a sign of things to come, I'm certain we'll be seeing Mark in plenty of great movies over the next few decades, and eventually maybe some directed by American filmmakers. To put a wrap on this, I thought I'd leave you with Mark's inspiring answer to the question of if he would ever play himself.
"I don't think I could play Mark Strong. I don't think I could -- honestly, I don't think I could be myself on film. I would feel like there was nothing there. You have to take on broad characteristics of who you're playing. And that's the bit I find fascinating, whether it's, I don't know, a coat, a mustache, an accent, a trait of personality, whether they're happy, whether they're sad, any of those things. And I love putting those layers on and making a character. And if I was ever asked to strip all of those away and just be me, I'd find that incredibly difficult." (Thank you to Mark Strong and Warner Bros. for arranging this!)