“Maybe I look like a man with secrets”There’s typcasting and then there’s Mark Strong. The British actor known for villainy is turning over a new leaf in recent years.
In The Imitation Game Mark Strong plays the head of British secret intelligence, pulling strings and offering wry encouragement for Benedict Cumberbatch’s Alan Turing. It marks a change from being a baddie.
“I played villains for four or five 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 two or three 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 contender?
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, clipped decoding film—there are elements of that, but so much more. It’s a perfectly crafted movie.
You play Stewart Menzies, who was the real-life 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 incredibly easy. I looked him up, where he’d gone to school, but in the movie, he is the guy holding all the strings, 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 mustache. Ironically, an actress I knew a long time ago is now married to his grandson. I got an email from him saying that they were rather proud of my portrayal of their grandfather.
The part came with a few jokes and light moments, something you’re not associated with. What was that like?
I only subsequently realized, at a screening, when everybody laughed, that I had created a character that was very wry, and I loved it that people could take humor from that corner 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. All pretty much one after the other. 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 friends for 20 years.
Coen, Coen, gone
Strong made it to the final round 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.
Exactly. That led to Grimsby, I think. They wanted someone who could play Sacha’s brother, who is a superspy à la James Bond. I think they saw that and thought, “There he is.”
It’s an action film, but also improvised.
Sacha wanted to do a lot of improvisation. The longest take we did was 43 minutes. So I don’t know what to expect, because we’ve made three films’ worth of stuff.
Did you find yourself getting funnier as you did more long takes?
I realized that the gag of my character is not that he’s funny but that he can’t quite believe that his superslick world has been invaded by his idiot brother. That situation is funny, and Sacha is where the laughs are.
Do you enjoy the challenge of such varied roles?
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.