INTERVIEW: Mark Strong Wants To Be The Bad Guy

mark strong lead

Getty Image

There are few — if any — character actors working today that possess more star power than Mark Strong.

While never quite the lead, Strong is the sort of actor that immediately elevates the prestige of the project regardless of how significant his role might be. Just think back to 2009’s Sherlock Holmes: this is a movie starring two of the world’s biggest movie stars — Robert Downey Jr. and Jude Law — yet it was Strong who put forth the most compelling performance as the villainous Lord Blackwood.

Villainy, however, isn’t the only trick up Strong’s sleeve, as the 57-year-old Londoner is perhaps just as recognizable for his performances as warm father figures — Merlin in the Kingsman franchise, for example — as he is for his work as menacing bad guys.

Ahead of Strong’s latest film Cruella, BroBible’s Post-Credit Podcast spoke with the always-excellent Strong about his ability to play more than one type of role, keeping creative integrity in franchise films, his instantly iconic death in Kingsman: The Golden Circle, when Danny Boyle’s 2007 sci-fi Sunshine will get the respect it deserves, and Strong’s beloved Arsenal Football Club.

His work in Cruella and crafting a character

Eric Italiano: Alright, folks, today we are joined by Mark Strong. You know him from appearances in his films such as Zero Dark Thirty, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Kingsman, and Shazam!. You can see him next as John the Valet in Cruella when it hits theaters and Disney Plus on May 28th. Sir, how are you today?

Mark Strong: I’m very good, how are you?

EI: I’m doing fantastic. It’s an honor to speak to you. I’m a huge fan of yours. Congrats on the film. I loved it, despite the fact that I’m a 28-year-old dude, so I doubt that I was the film’s target demo, but I really found myself enjoying it — grinning ear to ear. So, I want to talk to you about your performance. This is a movie with a lot of over-the-top characters and performances but in a good way. I think that’s what makes it fun, to the point that your character is basically the only one that isn’t this larger than life creation. When you’re in a film, does the extraness of other characters influence how you play your role? Are you trying to feed off their energy? How does that impact the way that you play a role when everyone else around you is so outlandish?

MS: Really good question. When you do theater, for example, you rehearse together. You have a four-, six- or eight-week performance schedule so that you can all work out what the other person’s performance is gonna be. When you do film, you literally arrive on set and you have no idea what the other person is gonna do. All you can do is prepare the stuff that you’ve done, bring to the table what you wanna bring, and hope that it fits. You have a brief moment to maybe run the scene before you do it and the director, obviously, can push or pull as he sees fit. But yeah, you have to make it up on the spot. But I always knew though that those characters were going to be larger than life, because that’s the nature of the film. And Craig Gillespie, the director, he said to me, “Listen, your guy is gonna be mysterious. He’s gonna have a presence. We don’t really know what’s going on with him. He watches. He listens pretty much like British butlers or valets traditionally do, and that’s gonna be the vibe of your guide,” because as you know, now having seen the movie, there’s something that happens in the movie that’s very relevant later on. And until that point, you don’t really wanna know, “Is this guy a good guy, a bad guy? Who is he?”

Which does Mark prefer: playing good guys or bad guys?

EI: Well, I think that’s the genius of casting you ’cause they’re playing with type and the expectations that we have of you. You’re somebody who could play a menacing villain and a warm father figure. Does either type of role stimulate you more creatively and how does an actor maintain that believability where they could flip back and forth between those two very distinct types of roles that I’ve seen you do?

MS: I have to confess, and it obviously feels really weird saying this, but I prefer [chuckle] playing the villains. I prefer the bad guy roles. I think the lovely father roles, they’re great, but I can do those in real life. I have some so I can be a lovely father at home. I can’t threaten the kids. [chuckle] I can’t exercise that, you know what I mean? I can’t exercise that in an anger and rage and evil and nastiness. It’s almost like therapy when you play a part like that because you’re basically doing something that you don’t get to do in real life, so it’s fun. We’re in the world of fiction, so it’s fun. And yeah, I gravitate to those parts and also because I find often they have the best costumes and the best lines, and they have really good storylines. They’re just great fun. I don’t choose them because they’re villains or bad. I choose them because often they’re the most interesting. If you think of Frank D’Amico in Kick-Ass is an interesting part to play, or Sherlock Holmes, Lord Blackwood was interesting. They just happened to be villains.

EI: I love you in that.

MS: Thank you.

Creative integrity in big-budget franchises

EI: Just to play off of how you choose roles, I find that Cruella — and you could expand this to your work in Shazam! and Kick-Ass and Kingsman — these are franchises, but just because something is a franchise and based on IP, it doesn’t mean it can’t be wildly creative and inventive. Does creative integrity factor into your choices when taking on a franchise role?

MS: Yeah. I mean, if you can have that opportunity to do that, then it makes the whole thing much more interesting. What you don’t wanna do is be too horned into something that’s just gonna be turned out and you’re just part of a team or a machine that’s gonna run for years and years doing the same stuff. You want something to be a little bit different. I feel like the stuff that I choose to do, whether it’s the big studio pictures or the little Indie movies or even theater, it’s all about variety for me. That’s the key thing. When I started out…

EI: Definitely. I was going through your films, there’s no… And as I just said, I’ve seen you do this sort of warm father and the outright villain, but there is no one Mark Strong role. And I think that comes very clear across when you go through the films that you’ve done in the last 10, 15 years or so.

MS: Great. Well, that’s been an active choice, because as an actor, when I started out, I wanted to do everything. And once you’ve played something, you wanna have a go at something else. And I can use theater… In TV, I’m doing a series at the moment, which is my own show, and it’s probably the closest…

EI: Oh, awesome.

MS: It’s called Temple, and it’s on Sky in the UK, and I think it’s on the Charter in the US. But it’s the closest to me probably that I’ve ever had to play. And it’s tricky because you’re just being yourself more than anything and what I love…

EI: I gotta say your real voice is a lot less scary than it is in films.

MS: Yeah, well, I have a little microphone that’s right here and I get to control my voice and I can get to do that, you know what I mean? You can do all of that sort of stuff.

The “Country Roads” scene in Kingsman: The Golden Circle

EI: I work for a site called BroBible, so I would be hung by my thumbs if I didn’t ask you about this. Are you aware of how many grown men out there were emotionally affected by your death in Kingsman 2? And do you remember your reaction the first time you read that script?

MS: Yeah. Well, first of all, what happened was Matthew Vaughn rang me up before I’d even read the script, and he said, “Listen, I think this is what’s gonna happen to Merlin in the second film.” And I was like, “Okay. Well, if you feel like that’s what needs to happen, then so be it.” And when I got to them, read the script and when we got on set to do it, that was the way it was gonna be. But remember, it was written by guys, you know what I mean? Mark Millar wrote the original. Matthew Vaughn… Although Jane Goldman had a hand in it, I think it was very much a kind of… It’s a guy’s death, isn’t it? Not only does he get to sing country road to do it, that he gets to murder some guy halfway through, just to remind you that he’s really dangerous.

EI: Well, I think a lot of the reason that it works is because, as I brought up a few times, your ability to play this warm father figure, that’s it right there. I find that that seem more than most, not that all guys are rough and tumble, but rarely will you get them to be like, “That scene had me balling.” Every single one of my friends is like, “Man, that death in Kingsman 2 gets me every time.”

MS: But they are a gang, aren’t they, those guys? Harry, Eggsy, and Merlin, they’re a team. They’ve come through the whole of the first thing. They come through the whole of the… They’re interwoven with one another in their lives, and that is the moment of ultimate sacrifice.

When Danny Boyle’s Sunshine will get the respect it deserves

EI: Yeah, love that. So I’m gonna ask you about a film that I hope you aren’t asked about much today. When do you think Sunshine is gonna get the credit it deserves? Because man, that is one of my favorite sci-fi films of all time and you’re… terrifying!

MS: Yeah. Well, the interesting thing about that was Danny Boyle I’ve worked with, I’ve done a play with him and I’ve done something on the television with him. We’ve never done a movie together, but he got me in and he said, “I’m doing this movie, but I don’t really know what part. I want you to be in it, but I don’t really know what part.” I said, “Has anybody bagged that Pinbacker part?” And he went, “Oh no, I think that’s… We’re gonna just get a stunt guy to do that or something because you know he’s covered in burns.” I went, “No, no no. I wanna have a go at that one.” Because when it was originally written in the script, the idea was that he was almost transparent so that when you saw him, he was just burning, but you could see through him.

EI: No kidding.

MS: But when they got on set, what they realized was in order to sort of dim the lights to make the UV work so that you could see that effect, there wasn’t enough light to film the scene. So it became very complicated and Danny had to make a choice about what to do with Pinbacker. And a bit like a shark in Jaws, he realized you’re gonna try and not see him too early. And actually, the first scene when you first see Pinbacker in that sun room is the best moment…

EI: And it’s the presence of Pinback that’s so scary, right?

MS: Yeah, yeah.

Arsenal Football Club

EI: Alright, Mark, real quick, ’cause we gotta wrap up, I wanna ask you something about your life itself. I’ve read that you’re an Arsenal fan.

MS: Yeah.

EI: What do you think about the protests and the sale of the clubs, ’cause football is my sport, so I’m really tied into this stuff. I’m just curious what you think about this.

MS: It’s just interesting. The Super League, for a businessman, makes total sense. So if you’re Stan Kroenke or the Glazers who run Man United, to have a Super League makes total sense because all of the people around the world, they wanna watch Barcelona play Chelsea and Real Madrid play Arsenal. They wanna watch those teams playing each other. You don’t necessarily wanna see Burnley versus Fulham, no disrespect to Burnley and Fulham fans, but you know what I mean? So business-wise, it makes sense. What they didn’t take into account at all is the fact that it just wipes out everybody else. If you are not one of those teams, everything else suddenly in the game becomes of so little interest. All of those fans, all of those players, all of those clubs become second rate, and they didn’t really factor that in. So it’s not a great idea.

Our goodbyes

EI: Alright. Well, Mark, thank you for your time. Great work on the film. Great work in general. I’m a huge fan. Hopefully, the next time we crossed paths, I could speak to you a little bit more ’cause this has been a thrill. Thank you, sir.

MS: Okay, thanks, pal. Nice to talk to you, man.

EI: Take care, Mark.

MS: You too. You too.

Make sure to check out Mark Strong in Cruella when it hits theaters and Disney+ Premier Access on Friday, May 28. Also keep your eyes peeled for our full review of Cruella, which we thought was excellent.

Subscribe and listen to our pop culture podcast, the Post-Credit Podcast, and follow us on Twitter @PostCredPod

(Apple | Spotify | Google Podcasts | Stitcher | Anchor)