Interview: Lord Blackwood Himself, British Actor Mark Strong
by Alex Billington
December 27, 2009
If you've seen Sherlock Holmes, or at least seen the trailer, then you probably know who Lord Blackwood is. British actor Mark Strong plays Blackwood, Holmes' "depraved adversary" in the movie, and is not only quite devious and brilliant, but also seems to have supernatural powers. Just before I talked with director Guy Ritchie, I got on the phone with Mark Strong. Despite the sinister nature of the villain's he plays, he's one of the most down-to-earth and incredibly humbling actors I've ever had the pleasure of interviewing. This time my focus was on Sherlock Holmes, but I also threw in a few questions about John Carter of Mars.
This is the second time I've talked with Mark Strong. Last year I did an exclusive profile on him and talked with him on the phone for over an hour. I don't say this often, but he's an actor that I could talk to endlessly, not only because he always has so much to say, but also because he's extraordinarily talented and incredibly smart and has a immense love for his craft. So without further ado, read on for my newest interview below!
Mark Strong: How are you doing?
I'm great. How are you?
Strong: Good. Yeah. Very good. Very excited about the next year or so, because I've got some wonderful things all just bubbling under, about to come out, and I must admit, I'm pretty proud of every one.
Yeah, I know. Everything looks great. I mean, I've seen Sherlock Holmes -- you're fantastic in that. I'm really looking forward to everything. The new Robin Hood trailer came out, and I think I saw you a couple times in it, coming out of the water, swinging a sword, so you do have a lot of good stuff coming up.
Strong: Yeah. It's great. It's a very exciting time. Kick-Ass as well, I'm really looking forward to.
Yeah! I guess they just showed it at the Butt-Numb-A-Thon, the Ain't It Cool event, but I wasn't there. I heard everyone loved it, though.
Strong: Oh, good. I don't think you'll be disappointed. It's a really witty film. It's good fun.
To get into Sherlock Holmes a little bit, I guess this is the third time you've worked with Guy Ritchie, right?
Strong: Yeah. That's right.
What's it like working with him now? Have you developed a certain dynamic with him because you're so familiar with his style and he's familiar with the way you work? What's it like with you guys on set?
Strong: I think actors who work with directors regularly all feel the same. I know Ridley [Scott] and Russell [Crowe] and Leo [DiCaprio] and Marty Scorsese, they -- because I've chatted to both of those guys, and what it does, working with somebody again and again, is it means that you eliminate "the dance," the need for the dance that you have to do with somebody when you first meet them and first work with them. It basically means: "You put your foot there, I'll put my foot there, and how are we going to kind of work around each other, and what is our shorthand going to be with each other?" Basically, by the time you get to work with somebody after a few times, you're just straight in. They know what you think, you know what they mean, and it means that you can get on and do the job without having to tip-toe around each other.
What was your first impression of the Sherlock Holmes script when you first read it?
Strong: When I read it, it was a very straightforward Holmesian whodunit, I thought. It was a very kind of -- it read very traditionally, and slightly theatrically, as well. I have to say that while we were shooting it and working on it, it developed an awful lot from the original script. A lot more banter was introduced between Robert [Downey Jr.] and Jude [Law], for example. And Blackwood, the task with him was always just to bring him back from being too theatrical. We didn't want him to be a mustache-twirling pantomime villain, but on the other hand, we wanted him to be bold and confident and scary so that you would genuinely believe, a) that Sherlock saw him as a threat, and b) that all these guys would follow him so he could commit his deeds.
That seems like it was part of the story anyway, how he pulled everything off, in essence. And I don't want to give away any of it, but just the progression of the film up to the final climactic moments, and then the explanation of what you did and how you achieved everything was a fascinating part to watch.
Strong: Yeah, I agree. I think it's lovely that he kept that whole whodunit nature for the Holmes purist. I think you get a real satisfaction from seeing a plot that is extremely convoluted, and you get a real pleasure from seeing everything solved at the end. That's quite an old-fashioned detective trick, I think, a detective story trick. And if the Holmes purists are at all worried that they're not going to get the Holmes they want, I think that's certainly one strand that is true to the traditional Conan Doyle, as well as the fact that everything in the movie does actually come from the novels and short stories, apart from Blackwood, interestingly. But in any case, that whole Holmes with a peaked cap and a magnifying glass and a meerschaum pipe, that was all invented. None of that actually exists in the novels and short stories. That was a look that was created for Holmes by the people who made the first few movies.
You touched on this a little bit, but if you could go into it further, about what you worked on with your character, and how much work you did with Guy and with the writers to develop Blackwood further once you were cast.
Strong: Well, the things that we had to look at that were significant were that he had to be a worthy adversary for Holmes, so we had to make him truly and genuinely frightening, if possible. We created that, I suppose, by -- costume is very important. We realized that the Victorians controlled a third of the world in that point. Their empire was expanding. The Industrial Revolution was gathering pace. They were extremely confident people. That, plus the fact that Blackwood is a member of the aristocracy, is a Lord, and then we wanted to develop a real confidence about him, and even make that spill over into a kind of ambitious sort of narcissism, so we dressed him to impress, basically, with this incredible outfit.
I also chose to wear that wig with a slightly harsh shaved sides of my head to give a real Prussian strength theme. And then a voice, we decided, needed to have gravitas in order to be able to lead all his acolytes into following him to take over the world. So those were the things we worked on visually, and Guy was very keen to, as I said, prevent him from becoming too theatrical, even though a lot of his lines are quite showy lines. But the trick is, Victorian times… they were quite keen on the idea of show. Hypnotism was coming to the fore, escapology was something they were becoming interested in, so the idea of a showman isn't particularly unusual for that period of time, so all those elements and ingredients went into making Blackwood.
How much of it was done practically? Because to complete that "magic trick" of having you be so confident and such a powerful adversary came from doing a lot of the effects practically. The one that pops to mind is when you were in the meeting and the American ambassador shoots a gun and bursts into flame and falls out the window. Those moments, seeing that guy light up on fire, your face was just blank, like it's something you had planned out and were completely prepared to do. But I would imagine if you were seeing that in person, it would actually be a lot scarier. Were those kind of effects done practically on set?
Strong: Yeah. What we needed to -- well, that moment is an interesting moment because it's a fantastic idea. This guy turns up in the rain to this meeting, and while he's in the rain, constituent in the raindrops are some chemical that get onto his cloak, in the knowledge that should he try and pull a gun and fire it, the spark would then ignite all of that, and he'd catch fire. And, of course, it's a fantastically showy moment for everybody sitting around, because it looks like Blackwood has made him explode with the force of his will.
But if you actually think about it, the amount of effort involved in creating that moment that Blackwood would have to -- there's a lot of luck involved that the guy does pull a gun, and that the rain has stayed on his cloak, or the chemical has stayed on his cloak. It's wonderfully ambitious, and the fact that he remains blank while he's doing it, because all the thoughts racing through his head are, "Oh, my God! This is perfect. I can't believe, a) that it's worked, and b) I can't show any emotion because I need these guys to believe that I do this every day… that I have the power to make somebody combust with the force of my own mind."
So, practically, though, the guy didn't catch fire on the day. I mean, that was added. That's an effect that was added later. That demands its own discipline, that you have to stand there and imagine this guy bursting into flames and crashing out of a window.
Of course. That's essentially why I'm so fascinated by your performance. That moment, and so many of them in this film in particular really stand out, where to pull that off and make it seem that everything was that fluid and that it all happened at that moment is pretty impressive.
Strong: Thank you. Well, you see, that's what makes him a worthy adversary, and also, I think the audience has to sort of believe, "Oh my God, you know, this guy, he's got something." So it was fun to create him.
You always play a lot of different characters, and especially recently, you've been playing a lot of villains. Do you try to differentiate your different villains so that we never feel there's an overlap? As in if I go see Kick-Ass or Sherlock Holmes or something else, that I'm never going to think to myself, "Oh, it's Mark Strong I'm seeing," rather than a character in particular?
Strong: Oh, I hope so. I truly hope so. That's exactly what I try and achieve. And I feel like if you were a straight leading man, that is much more difficult, because essentially you are the guy in the middle of the story, and you can't really do much to yourself, because your job really is to be yourself. What I love about playing the villains is that I can adapt them. I can use wigs. I can use costume. I can use accents to create these different characters. The one, I suppose, unifying thread amongst them all is that they have a bad side, but what I try and do with all of them is find out why.
I think with good guys, you never really think, "Why are they good?" But with bad guys, you might find yourself thinking, "What's made them like this?" So, psychologically, I find them really interesting, and I can find different ways to differentiate them.
For example, say with Blackwood, there's a scene in which his father confesses to Holmes that Blackwood was conceived in a Masonic ritual. Now, that made me start thinking, "What kind of a childhood is that?" And how bizarre for that man to have that start in his life -- a father who obviously doesn't really care, and a mother who wasn't his father's wife conceiving him after a Masonic ritual. That's pretty bizarre. So that gave me the impetus to allow him to try and achieve what he's trying to get, because he's misunderstood, and he deserves it because he's been treated so badly.
With Frank D'Amico, for example, in Kick-Ass, there's a guy who is a mafia guy who's sort of achieved -- he has reached the level where he's not really involved in the dark stuff anymore. But these damn kids, the superheroes, start messing with his business, and that's what makes him turn and become bad.
In Robin Hood, Sir Godfrey, Robin Hood's nemesis, with him it's a need to control his environment, i.e. the country, because he's thinks that the people who are running it aren't doing a very good job. So I can vary the intentions of each of these dark characters. I can find different things that they're after. I suppose you'd call it their motivation. I can find different motivations for them all. That, coupled with the ability to change the physical look of them all and the way in which they achieve what they achieve, gives me that differentiation, so that's what I try and do with each of them.
Strong: So that's a very long, convoluted answer, but it's a fascinating question, and I genuinely believe that I am able to vary them, and that's why I think I'm lucky, and that's why somebody said to me, "Are you stuck in the villain roles?" And I said, "Absolutely not. Swap the word 'stuck' for 'enjoying.'" I'm enjoying them because they give me leeway to make them all different.
Well, the reason I ask is because it's almost a catch-22 in that you become such a unique character in each of these roles, that you're hoping people don't recognize you in them, but in the acting world, that's exactly what I think you'd want, to be recognized as a that actor.
Strong: Well, weirdly, though, Alex, I prefer to take a back seat. I don't want people to say, "Oh, you know, that's Mark Strong."
Strong: I want them to lose themselves in the character. And sometimes you get a real opportunity to do that, like with Hani Salaam in Body of Lies. I know people who know me who didn't know it was me. The best compliment I was paid was somebody saying, "I knew you were a Jordanian, [but] I thought you were Iranian," which obviously I'm not. So I think it doesn't matter if you play the same kinds of parts, as long as you, the actor, sink yourselves in -- if I can sink into those parts and sort of disappear, that's what I'm after, really. That, for me, is then creating a character, and it doesn't matter how many of these villains you play, because they're all different. I don't think you have the leeway to do that if you're a straight leading man, I have to say.
That's such a great point, and that's why I love character actors, and that's why I love talking to you and watching you act, because I get to see that more often, and I love seeing a character really become such a unique, brilliant character. Heath Ledger with the Joker is another example of that working beautifully.
Have you been offered any lead roles? Would taking on a lead role be something you'd consider doing?
Strong: Sure. I mean, I played leads on stage. I've played leads on the television. I've had leads in smaller movies… and yeah, I mean, I love the mercurial nature of being an actor, and I will take on anything if I think I can do something with it. So, whether it is playing a lead, whether it's being a villain, whether it's being Pinbacker in Sunshine -- Danny Boyle wasn't even intending to cast an actor in that part. He was going to cast an athlete, a physical gymnast, who didn't really say much. But I said to him, "That's the part I want to play," because it was another stretch of something that I've not done, so I'm up for anything, really, if I can bring something to it.
I noticed that it says that you're cast in John Carter of Mars, the upcoming Andrew Stanton film.
Strong: That's right. Yeah, which I'm really looking forward to.
Could you speak a little bit more about your character? It looks like you're playing one of the aliens on Mars named Matai Shang, if I'm correct, right?
Strong: That's right. I play a character -- well, they're all based on these Edgar Rice Burroughs books in the 30s, called Princess of Mars, and the character in there called Matai Shang, who is the ruler of a race of people called the Therns, and basically they have godlike status. They're a mythical race that the Martians, the people who live on Mars, aren't even sure exist. So, basically, we exist over and above, like the Olympian gods in Greece, the people that actually inhabit the planet. So that's going to be -- when I met Andrew and he showed me the mood boards and things and his vision for it, it's really intoxicating, because he's such a good storyteller, and obviously extremely talented, so that's something I'm really up for.
I'm just curious because we almost know nothing about it. I mean, we've got Andrew Stanton, who's coming from Pixar and his animation work, now making a live-action, or part live-action, movie. I'm curious how it'll even look or how it'll work?
Strong: Yeah. It's going to be fascinating, especially in the light of Avatar, because, if I know anything about Andrew Stanton and Pixar, they always want to be in the vanguard of everything, so I'm sure that they will be very conscious of what James Cameron's been able to achieve in his movie, and try and take it further.
Definitely. Exactly. I've seen Avatar, too, and I loved it. An amazing film.
Strong: I'm sure. I'm sure.
The visuals in it are incredible, and I think it will really change the way films are made in the future.
Strong: Yeah, I can't wait to see it. I haven't seen it yet, obviously. Alex, I've got to fly now because I've got to go and talk to another journalist.
Thank you to Mark Strong and Kate for this opportunity once again. I always love talking to him! Sherlock Holmes is currently playing in theaters now, so go see it as soon as you can!