HE last time I saw Mark Strong he was beating up an 11-year-old. The time before that, he was pulling off George Clooney’s fingernails. He’s played an assassin in Revolver, a traitor in Tristan & Isolde, an alien super villain in Green Lantern and the chilling Lord Blackman in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes.
He is one of those actors you will almost certainly know through his work but probably not by name. He’s one of the hardest working men in Hollywood, with an unbroken run of great films, in which he tends to play the characters we love to hate, rather than the glorious hero. It’s a niche he cemented when he went head to head with Chloë Moretz’s foul-mouthed pre-pubescent in comic book adaptation Kick Ass. This has helped him follow in the footsteps of legendary Brits Gary Oldman and Alan Rickman as Hollywood’s go-to baddies. All of this makes it hard to detach Mark Strong the actor from the menacing characters he plays.
“I love playing the villains. They’re great fun – we all love the bad guy. We all love dabbling in the dark side of things,” he says. “Look at the Bond villain. It’s now become an established character. Look at Breaking Bad, where a humble chemistry teacher finds out he has cancer and starts to cook crystal meth, becoming a dealer to provide for his family. And look at Dexter, who is a serial killer we are allowed to like because he kills other serial killers. We have a fascination with the dark side of things, and as an actor, I share that. Plus bad guys get the best lines and the best clothes.”
His uncanny ability to metamorphosise goes a long way in explaining why people often can’t place his face. In 2007 science fiction movie Pinbacker, for example, he spent six hours a day in the make-up chair to create the character’s dramatic facial scars. In both Stardust and Tristan and Isolde he was given a long wig.
But Body of Lies, in which he stars opposite Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe, was his favourite role costume-wise. “I played the head of the Jordanian secret service and the costumes were incredibly dapper. The costume designer took me to Huntsman on Savile Row, where we found all of the stuff for the character and the guys there made me the most beautiful three-piece suit. I wear it whenever I can without wearing it so much that it looks like the only suit I own.”
This it isn’t the only fortuitous sartorial meeting he’s had: “I was really fortunate to meet Ozwald Boateng at the premiere of Sherlock Holmes. He said to me, ‘If you ever want a suit, let me know’. At the time I didn’t take it seriously. It was my wife who said, ‘What? Go and see him right now.’ He’s made me a couple of suits over the years. If you’re wearing Huntsman or Ozzie Boateng, you can’t go wrong.”
BORN Marco Giuseppe Salussolia (his mother later changed his name by deed poll) in Islington to an Italian father and Austrian mother, Strong started off on the stage, getting his first break playing the first murderer in Richard III at the National Theatre. He later swapped the stage for the small screen, joining the cast of BBC serial Our Friends in the North, in which he starred alongside Daniel Craig, who is now godfather to his eldest son. “It opened up the world of TV to me and once I’d done that, I felt like I was working on similar things again and again. I made a decision to stop doing TV and wait for a good film to come along.” The six-month wait before he bagged his first movie role was the last time the 49 year-old found himself unemployed.
His latest project, Welcome to the Punch, sees him team up with British director Eran Creevy, who he met by accident at a hotel in LA.
“We sat down by the pool in a very ‘Hollywood’ way and he took me though the script – what he intended to shoot and how he intended to shoot it. I remember sitting listening to some music that he had on his iPod. We shared an earphone each and he tried to explain to me musically the idea he had for the film. I liked him, I liked his idea and that’s how it happened. If I saw that scene in a movie, meeting a director by the pool in LA, I wouldn’t believe it. It was just very fortuitous that he and I both happened to be staying there.”
In Welcome to the Punch, he plays former criminal Jacob Sternwood, who is forced to return to London and a life of crime to help his son, who is involved in a heist that goes wrong. This gives detective Max Lewinsky (played by fellow British actor James McAvoy) one last chance to bring him down. So far so hackneyed: but don’t be fooled, Strong says, this isn’t just another low budget British gangster flick. “I’ve worked with Guy Ritchie many times and he and Matthew Vaughn invented that genre with Snatch and Lock Stock. But Eran shows a completely different kind of London.
“He’s made the city look amazing. It’s extraordinary that nobody has ever shot Canary Wharf the way he has. It makes you realise just how beautiful London is.”
And London is exactly where Strong plans to stay. Despite his growing stardom, he says he is content living a relatively normal life in Queen’s Park, where he stays with his wife Liza Marshall and their two sons, Gabriel and Roman. “I’ve got no desire to live anywhere else. I was born here, my wife was born here, my kids were born here and this is where we’re going to stay,” he says. “I feel like I have a lovely balance in London. I’m able to keep my head below the parapet. I get on with my work, I have a family and I get on the tube. It just so happens that I’m doing this job.”
It is this attitude that distinguishes British actors from their American peers, he says. “We’re professionals. We turn up on time, we know our lines, we hit our marks and we’ve been trained to do the job. We’ve had over 400 years of acting as a tradition – it’s not something exotic for us. We go to drama school, we learn how to do it and then we try to earn a living from it. In America people can get carried away. The stories about the way some actors behave off set are hair-raising.”
Next up for Strong is a remake of Low Winter Sun, a series he originally filmed in the UK six years ago, for AMC, the network behind Mad Men and Breaking Bad, which will see him head to Detroit for five months for shooting. “I’ve been really aware of all of the British actors out there doing TV. You’ve got Damian Lewis in Homeland and Idris Elba in The Wire. Then they came calling for me.”
When asked about just how busy he is, he responds modestly: “People always say, ‘You never stop, you must be really busy’ but the truth is, I’m not.” He is, though, already working on his next film, in which he stars opposite Nicole Kidman, and he’s dabbling with the idea of returning to the stage (“I’m just looking for the right play”).
So, if you’re not already acquainted with Mark Strong, 2013 is the year you certainly will be.
Welcome to the Punch is in cinemas now.