Mark Strong has made a career out of playing some of Hollywood’s most cold and calculating villains, but in Rowan Joffe’s stylish new psychological thriller, Before I Go To Sleep, he keeps audiences guessing to the last second about his true intentions. Strong plays Dr. Nasch, a neuropsychologist who is trying to help a vulnerable amnesiac, Christine Lucas (Nicole Kidman), recover her memories about her past without her husband Ben’s (Colin Firth) knowledge. Cast in the unusual role of a sympathetic character, the actor reveals a quite different side of himself than we’re used to seeing on screen.
In an exclusive interview, Strong spoke about how he found the script to be an absolute page turner that was impossible to put down, why the ambiguity of the role appealed to him, his approach to playing a character that treads a fine line between being trustworthy or untrustworthy, his contributions to his character’s look, Joffe’s directing style, how his iconic image as a bad guy worked to the film’s advantage, his respect for Kidman’s phenomenal technique, his friends and family screening, being a part of The Imitation Game, and his upcoming roles in Kingsman: The Secret Service, Grimsby, and Ad Inexplorata. Check out our interview after the jump.
MARK STRONG: I got sent the script as usually happens and you have a little look. I know it’s a bit of a cliché, but it was absolutely a page turner. I mean, I wanted to find out what happened next. I needed to know page by page what was going to happen to this central character of Christine, because obviously a character with amnesia like that is incredibly vulnerable. As an audience, you find out as she finds out who she is and where she’s from, and it was a great journey with all the twists and turns that were kind of unexpected. I had to finish the script, and I thought if we can emulate this in the film, it’s going to be a really good film.
What was it about your character that made you say I’ve got to do this?
STRONG: Superficially, he seemed pretty straightforward, but what I loved is how you can play with the audience’s trust of a character in the movie. We chose to tread a very fine line for this guy between being trustworthy and untrustworthy. Do you like him or do you not like him? Is he good for Christine or is he bad for Christine? We chose scenes and ways of liking him. Sometimes I’d wear a little pair of rimless glasses and sometimes not. We gave him a little bit of stubble, but then again, on the other hand, we gave him very cozy, warm clothes, and jumpers and things. What I liked was how we could play with the expectations of an audience to make a character that was unknowable really until the end.
It’s hard to figure out who’s trustworthy in this movie and who’s not. What was the hardest part of playing a character like Dr. Nasch and keeping the audience guessing?
STRONG: The fact is the hardest part is to play it straight, because the temptation is to veer over to being sinister or ominous at various times in order to try and con the audience into thinking that’s what you are, or by the same token being unbearably benign or nice in order to try and con them into thinking that you might be that. What I had to try to do was just play it dead straight and try and not second guess the audience. Just play it straight and allow the actual film, the lighting within the film, the scene itself, the music, and all the other factors to influence an audience. When you’re making a psychological thriller, what you need to do is have an audience on shifting sand so they’re never quite sure where they are. But if I flag that too heavily with the character, I think that’s the wrong way to go. I have to play him, as I said, just dead straight.
We’re used to seeing you play cold and calculating villains, but you reveal quite an unexpected and different side in this. Was that mystery and ambiguity part of the appeal of the role?
STRONG: Absolutely. I’m sure part of the baggage that I bring having played a lot of villains is also pertinent to the movie, because I’m sure people look at me and think, “Oh, I’m not sure I trust him or not.” (Laughs) I think it serves the purpose of the film if the premise is that you’re unsure of me because you’ve only ever really seen me play villains. It applies the same to Colin as well who tends to only play quite lovable characters. So I think the baggage that we both bring to the movie was pertinent to the film.
STRONG: He’s very specific. I mean, he wrote it as well and he has a very orderly writer’s mind and the same applies to his directing. He was on top of everything. He knew exactly how he wanted everything to be, right down to the fact when I made those telephone calls, I didn’t do it afterwards in a studio. I was outside the building in a car phoning her on a mobile phone so that we could just get that element of verisimilitude, of truth and reality, by literally having Nicole pick up the phone while I was calling her from a car outside the building. I think that’s how he operates. He likes it to be as real and as clear as possible.
Did Rowan allow you to have input into your character? Were there things that you suggested?
STRONG: Yeah, he did. I kind of decided what he should wear really. I felt that we needed to give him a warm, soft, corduroy, jumper, hush puppies or suede boots kind of feel about him and leave him with a little bit of stubble, so he seems quite sort of cozy perhaps, a little bit like a benign academic or something like that. But I thought it might be useful for him to have these rimless glasses on occasion, which for me are synonymous with untrustworthiness. (Laughs) I don’t know why, but I just thought very occasionally it would suit him in a fearful way that would complement the choice of clothes. So little touches like that I got involved with.
Do you think the fact your character drives a Peugeot rather than a Jaguar might give away too much?
STRONG: (Laughs) Exactly! I’m sure that is hugely relevant. The Peugeot is a very unthreatening car.
How was it working with Nicole? What was that experience like?
STRONG: I have an enormous amount of respect for her. She’s just done so many great movies and she’s been out there at the forefront of carrying films and being a movie star. On set, it really pays dividends because when you’re performing with her, she knows exactly how to play it. You don’t have to compensate for her in any way. And furthermore, she acts with you rather than with the lens, like what some actors do who only really act with the camera. It could be anybody standing in front of them talking to them. But she really connected and that made the whole thing so much easier.
STRONG: Oh yes, I have. It opened here a little while back actually and it did very well in the U.K. My friends and family loved it. I’ve put my friends and family through the wringer over the years, I have to say, by doing unspeakable things to people, not the least of which was pulling out poor George Clooney’s fingernails in Syriana. So, anything for them now, when I’m not doing something terrible, is a bonus. (Laughs) I just invited close friends and family, the usual suspects whose opinion I value but who I know will enjoy the film. I don’t know how difficult it is for them to suspend their disbelief because they obviously know me and what they’re seeing is not me. But interestingly, this character is probably closer to me than somebody like the evil Sir Godfrey in Robin Hood or Lord Blackwood who wants to take over the world in Sherlock Holmes. This is a character that’s English, he’s based in London, and so it’s closer to me than a lot of stuff I’ve been doing recently.
Can you talk about The Imitation Game and what it’s been like being part of such a special film?
STRONG: I loved making The Imitation Game and it’s really gratifying to hear the audience’s response to the character that I play. It was just a little thing that I did because I really liked the film and I liked Benedict (Cumberbatch) and I loved Morten’s (director Morten Tyldum) previous film, Headhunters. For me, it was something I did thinking, “Wow, this is a lovely quality piece of work.” To find out that it’s turned into quite the amazing film that you have is really the bonus. I have to say, when you make a movie, you really have no idea how it’s going to turn out as an actor. The important bit for an actor is the actual shooting of it, because the minute the shoot ends, it’s got nothing to do with you anymore. It’s taken up into the edit for them to decide the pace. Somebody else does the music. It’s a director’s medium really, so when you come to the end of it once a film has been done, sometimes you’re disappointed because it didn’t turn out the way you were hoping, and sometimes you’re incredibly elated because something exceeded your expectations, and that’s certainly the case with The Imitation Game.
Can you tell me a little bit about the character you play, Stewart Menzies?
STRONG: Stewart was a real-life character who founded the current Secret Service. He was a Special Operations executive during the war, and after the war he set up MI6 which is the intelligence branch that we use today. So he was kind of the founder of modern British spying.
STRONG: I’m excited about them all to be honest because I wouldn’t take a job if I didn’t feel that there was something I could do with it or there was something about it that would resonate either with me or with the public. So The Imitation Game I’m very excited about because it’s just a very good film.
Kingsman: The Secret Service I’m really excited about because Matthew Vaughn directed it. I’ve done a couple of movies with him — Stardust, which is one of my favorite films, and Kick-Ass, which is just a crazy, wonderful movie. And in Kingsman: The Secret Service, I get to work with Colin Firth again and I got to do stuff with Michael Caine, which was a real pleasure for me, and Samuel L. Jackson is in it as well being amazing. But more than that, or all of that, it’s going to be a real fun ride. It’s a big sort of spy action adventure film. I think Matthew Vaughn is a really incredible director. He’s made four or five movies now and every one of them is great. So I’m excited about that. That comes out in February.
Grimsby is a departure for me. It’s with Sacha Baron Cohen. He’s never missed and he’s eminently watchable. He’s got this script about two brothers separated at birth who come together later in life, and one is now a super spy. That’s me. And the other one has stayed behind in Grimsby and drinks, smokes, has 11 kids, is on benefits, and basically is a football hooligan. And the two guys get together and go on the run together. It’s kind of an out and out action comedy. It’s a genre I’ve never been part of before. So, I’m excited about that, too.
Ad Inexplorata occupies a special place for me because it’s an independent movie produced by the guys (Josh Penn and Matt Parker) who did Beasts of the Southern Wild, which was a beautiful film and those guys are really proper filmmakers. They’ve found a script and a director, Mark Rosenberg, who runs a company called Rooftop Films in New York where they screen films on rooftops. It’s been going for about 20 years. But basically he’s got an encyclopedic knowledge of movies and he wanted to make one. So he wrote this film about a one-man mission to Mars, and I went to upstate New York where they were shooting and filmed the spaceship sequences. I’ve just recently been to Albuquerque, New Mexico shooting the secretive installations. I think it’s just been submitted to Sundance. It’s that kind of a movie. It’s a much more small budget, independent American movie that I was so delighted to get involved with because everybody involved in the making of that film is a true film lover. So, I have a lovely mix of things coming up – from a huge studio picture to an action comedy with Sasha Baron Cohen to a very small, but very lovingly made independent movie.
Before I Go to Sleep is now playing in theaters.