“Maybe I look like a man with secrets”After years of playing the villain, the British actor is now on the other side of the good-bad divide in highbrow dramas and high-concept comedies
In The Imitation Game, which is in the running for Oscars on February 22, Mark Strong plays the head of British secret intelligence, pulling strings and offering wry encouragement for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing.
It makes a change from being a baddie. “I played villains for years,” says the 51-year-old, who did rather good being bad in films like Body Of Lies, Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, Kick-Ass, Green Lantern and John Carter. “Then it took care of itself, because directors would say to me, ‘I know you’ve played the bad guy, so let’s turn things around.’ The last few years I’ve hardly played villains.” His current thing is spies, and during a long talk with The Red Bulletin over coffee at a London hotel, he revealed plenty of top secrets.
THE RED BULLETIN : Did you feel while making it that The Imitation Game would be an ‘Oscar movie’?
MARK STRONG: You never know, because there are so many hurdles to jump over for a film to come out, but the script was fantastic. I was expecting a dry decoding film – there are elements of that, but so much more. It’s a perfectly crafted movie.
You play Stewart Menzies, the head of what became MI6. Are you an actor who tries to be like his real-life roles?
Not really. You have to decide if it’s useful, at which point the internet makes research very easy. I looked him up, but in the movie, he is the guy watching over everything, and that’s what I had to deliver. The best way to do that was to give him a weary, knowing quality and not get bogged down in whether or not he had a moustache.
Did you take the part because it came with a few jokes – something you’re not associated with?
I only subsequently realised, at a screening, when everybody laughed, that I’d created a character that was very wry and I loved it that people could take humour from that because other parts of the film are so sad. You can’t have this story about this man without steam being let off somewhere.
Your next movie, though, is the new Sacha Baron Cohen film…
In which I also play a spy. It’s called Grimsby, and I play a spy in Kingsman: The Secret Service, Matthew Vaughn’s new film. Maybe it’s the age I’m at: I’ve ascended to a level where I look like a man with secrets. With a hint of menace, of course.
August 5, 1963; London, England
Bond and villain
Strong calls the man who plays 007 ‘Dan’, because he and Mr Craig have been great friends for 20 years since working together on a BBC mini-series, Our Friends In The North.
Coen, Coen, gone
Strong got down to the final two to play Anton Chigurh in No Country For Old Men, but the Coen Brothers chose Javier Bardem instead; the Spaniard won an Oscar playing the cattle-gun toting psycho.
You haven’t quite left the villains behind, though. You played one in a Jaguar Super Bowl commercial last year, with Tom Hiddleston and Sir Ben Kingsley.
Exactly. That led to Grimsby, I think. They wanted someone who could play Sacha’s brother, who is a superspy. I think they saw that and thought, ‘There he is.’
What can we expect from Grimsby?
The comedy envelope will certainly be pushed. People will be offended, people will laugh hysterically. But this is an action movie; we’re not relying on Sacha just doing what he does. Essentially it’s an odd couple story. Two brothers separated at birth, one goes to private school and becomes James Bond, my part, the other is a benefits cheat who drinks, takes drugs and is basically a moron. They go on the run together. It’s great fun. Making an action film is exhausting, but Sacha wanted to do a lot of improvisation because that’s his thing. The longest take we did was 43 minutes – that’s half a movie in itself! There is a lot of footage. So what I’m saying is that I don’t know what to expect from the film because we’ve made three films’ worth of stuff.
Did you find yourself getting funnier as you did more long takes?
I realised that the gag of my character is not that he’s funny, but that he can’t quite believe that his super-slick world has been invaded by his idiot brother. That situation is funny and Sacha is where the laughs are.
Do you enjoy taking on varied roles or are you out of your comfort zone?
I really want to try and mix it up. I was in a play in London between playing film spies: A View From The Bridge at the Young Vic. I finished the play on a Saturday and started filming Grimsby on the Sunday. So I went from a very erudite performance of an Arthur Miller play to Sacha peeing on my leg through a doorway. Acting can be a funny old game.