by Adrianna Paidas
photography by Robert Ascroft
It’s the middle of the afternoon on a Wednesday and Mark Strong is lost somewhere near the freeway in Detroit. The man who slowly ripped off George Clooney’s fingernails one by one on the big screen, the man who almost squashed Robert Downey Jr.’s Sherlock Holmes during a sword fight, is pulled over on the side of the road quietly begging his navigation device to cooperate because he has no idea where he’s going.
I suggest that the well-articulated British voice on the other end try inserting his final destination into his cell phone. Perhaps the navigation app will help Strong find his way.
“Well, I can do that,” he says unconvincingly, “but it’s worrying me because I’m talking to you through my cell phone and I don’t know if I can do both.”
His distressed tone is surprising… and a little alarming. You would think a man who’s pretty much played every type of villain – and earned a dignified reputation as a movie star badass along the way – wouldn’t prevaricate so much about a plan of action. I was waiting for him to throw the navigation system out the window, say “F*** it”, and speed off down the highway as ZZ Top’s “La Grange” echoes in the background.
But no. If we were in one of his films, the situation may have played out like that. But amazingly, he’s a laid back, urbane husband and father, nothing like the adrenalized vigilant “baddies” he’s so well known for playing. The born-and-raised Londoner is thoughtful, intelligent, endearing, and a bit of a jokester.
Case in point number one: The whole reason why Strong was out and about in the first place was to find cards and presents for those who’ve worked the past five months on the set of his newest show, Low Winter Sun, AMC’s newest cop drama.
“It’s tradition,” Strong says. “Just a way to say thanks to everyone.”
Again, this is odd, I think to myself. Strong’s 50th birthday was the following Monday. Shouldn’t he be receiving the presents?
And then the funny man comes out: “Well I’m going to give them the gifts today and quietly remind them that my birthday is in a few days’ time.” He snickers and then stops himself short of any wrong judgment. “No, no, no. I’m joking.”
Strong’s tactful personality is a result of his upbringing. Raised by his Austrian mother and originally studying law, Strong was on a straight and narrow path. He attended law school in Germany where he lived for a while with his mother. Every class down to constitutional law was entirely in German. That didn’t leave much room or time for acting out.
It wasn’t too long before Strong realized law wasn’t the right direction. He wanted the BMW, the trench coat, the brief case, and all the perks that go along with the job, but he didn’t want a dry and monotonous career.
“I realized you’ve got to try and choose something in your life that you’re going to be able to enjoy, otherwise you won’t sustain it,” he says. “Acting, for me, turned out to be that [something].”
Part of the reason Strong is so intelligent is because he didn’t drop out of school and go straight to Hollywood. As soon as he realized he wanted to be an actor, he went to university and studied English and Drama.
Strong even went as far as describing the philosophers he studied there, a clear sign that he wasn’t the type of student to doze off in class. Between courses, he would help stage plays at school, both acting in them and helping in production.
So after University, it was on to two years of drama school at a very well respected institution in London to perfect his craft.
“The first thing I ever remember being told by the head of the drama school was, if you want 40 years in this business then what’s the hurry? You’re on a learning curve,” he remembers aloud. “I’ve played villains. There was a time where I played villains for a good four or five years and all the most interesting characters I was being asked to have a look at were villains. So I just played those for a while.”
Strong is speaking of his antagonistic roles in 2007’s Stardust, in 2008’s British gangster flick Rock’N’Rolla, then again in 2009 as the infamous Lord Blackwood in Sherlock Holmes. A year later he played the unmerciful mob boss Frank D’Amico in Kick-Ass and took up a fight against Russell Crowe as his adversary in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood adaptation.
Yes, his physical appearance does fit the bill of the bad guy. But ever since his performance as homosexual British gangster Harry Starks in the BBC series The Long Firm back in 2004, directors have known the dashing Brit can look the part and act the part, no matter what it might be.
“I’m in this for the long haul and if a short period of time involves a particular kind of character, that doesn’t phase me,” says Strong.
It would be easy to accuse him of rationalizing his talents, but he’s not. He says it in a confident tone, like he’s proud of these characters he’s created and is frustrated at always getting the typecast question first in all his interviews.
“Look, I mean I’m not a spokesman for villains,” he says. “Film is a broad church. It encompasses everything from silly comedy to the most worthy subject matter you can find and everything in between. If I only did the movies that I thought were important both socially and politically I’d only work every few years, to be honest. I like mixing it up. I don’t choose my parts to set myself up as a spokesperson for humanity. I’m one step removed from reality. I’m just telling stories.”
And damn good he is at telling these stories, some of which cover subject matter that is extremely politically-driven. He played a CIA executive in Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty, a performance that left him almost unrecognizable, it was so true to life. But perhaps his most underrated role is head of Jordanian General Intelligence in Body of Lies. Playing a respected political figure in Jordan, he spoke Arabic so pristinely, nobody suspected him to be an outsider.
When Strong isn’t on set, he’s spending time with his family and friends in London. He’s got two young boys, one of whom is lucky enough to have Daniel Craig as a godfather. The two are long-time friends, though you would never know because they both do an incredibly effective job keeping out of the public eye.
A native of London, Strong wouldn’t want to live anywhere else in the world. He’s been stationed all over Eastern Europe, in Rio, Sydney, Cairo and Tokyo for films, but has found nowhere he’d ever want to live more than the UK capital.
“I’ve never lived anywhere else and I don’t want to live anywhere else,” he says. “But I have to say – and it’s not just because I’m talking to you – but the one city that I love as much if not more than London is New York. Like London, it’s just such… you can never conquer it. There’s always something going on. Every time I get back there I find something I didn’t know was there.”
Plus, he can’t get a pastrami sandwich at two in the morning in London like he can in New York City. He desperately hopes London will follow in Manhattan’s late-night-food-run footsteps and keep its restaurants open later. Strong reads the local newspapers wherever he is to stay abreast of breaking news. He knew there was a mayoral race taking place in New York City and couldn’t get over how much these politicians on the low end of the totem pole, mayors in particular, are scrutinized by the media.
“There’s a very intense scrutiny if you want to run for mayor in the U.S,” he says. “I don’t think we quite have that in the UK, but I think we’re headed that way because I think people are beginning to realize the power that the mayor can have.”
Next up for Strong is his AMC drama series Low Winter Sun, where he’ll reprise his role as good-cop-gone-bad, Frank Agnew, a sort of good-hearted everyman losing the battle with his own inner demons and the evils that surround him. As for the gifts he decided to give the crew when they wrap? He hired an ice cream truck to arrive on set so everyone could enjoy some sweet treats.
Yeah, a real badass.