About a week ago, I got to speak to an actor whose work I really admire: Mark Strong (IMDb resume). While many of you might not know his name, if you ever saw Body of Lies, he played a character named Hani Salaam and he was the best performance in the film. Since then, Strong has booked a ton of very high profile gigs in some of Hollywood’s biggest movies. Clearly people noticed his work and as a fan, I’m excited to see him in more movies.
Anyway, the reason I got to speak with him is he plays the villainous Lord Blackwood in director Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes. During out conversation we discussed the promotional process for Sherlock Holmes and what he’s had to do, working for Guy Ritchie again, what he did to prepare for the role, and so much more.
And for fans of Peter Weir, since Strong is in Weir’s latest film The Way Back, he talked about making that film and why he wanted to be in it. He also talked about John Michael McDonagh’s The Guard and Kevin McDonald’s Eagle of the Ninth.
Trust me, it’s a fantastic interview that’s well worth your time. Hit the jump to read it.
And if you missed part one from last week, click here, as Strong talked about Andrew Stanton’s John Carter of Mars, Matthew Vaughn’s Kick-Ass, and Ridley’s Scott’s Robin Hood.
Collider: I thought Sherlock Holmes was great and I’m sure you’re seeing the buzz online with people really seeming to enjoy the movie.
Mark Strong: Oh good. Are people enjoying it? I hope so. I haven’t seen any reviews or anything. I don’t really know what the feeling is about it, so I hope it’s decent.
No, there’s a lot of positive stuff online. Everyone thinks it’s going to do very well.
Mark Strong: I hope so really for Guy because he’s such a lovely man and I love working with him and I know Robert and Jude worked really hard and it would be great for them if it was a success.
I’m confident. But let me ask you…we’ve talked a little bit about this promotional process but what has the last week been like for you doing just a ton of press, talking to a million people? Can you sort of describe it?
Mark Strong: It’s like a military operation. It’s full-on. You find yourself sitting in a room for days on end doing, I think I was doing 40 meetings a day with people who only literally get 4 or 5 minutes to ask you questions. And then there’s the press conference which you saw, and then I’m doing some TV over here in New York. I’m in New York now, I don’t know if you knew that. So I’m doing some TV stuff here. I did some TV and press back in London before we even started the individual interviews, so it’s pretty full-on. But somebody asked me halfway through it how are you doing? Are you getting jaded? And the truth is, no. Because I think if you work as hard as I do to get something right and as interested in the result as I am, I don’t have any problem talking about it. I could talk about it ’til the cows come home because I’ve worked so hard to get the thing right in the first place. It’s fascinating having the opportunity to explain to people how you came about making the choices that you did. So it’s been full-on but I thoroughly enjoyed it is the short answer.
Just taking a moment to sort of examine what the last 2 years have been like for you as an actor, you’ve been in a lot of movies up until recently. But it seems like the last year or two you’ve really landed some choice parts in a lot of really big movies from Sherlock Holmes to the others movies that are coming out in the next year or two. How has this been like for you as an actor to sort of be getting to the next level?
Mark Strong: It’s been incredibly satisfying because I feel like I’ve been doing this for quite awhile. I’ve done a lot of theatre in my time, a lot of television in my time, the movies is a relatively new phenomenon for me. I’ve made movies over the years but it’s only really the last five years I’ve been making them exclusively with no theatre or no television. I seem to have been going from job to job and director to director. So very, very satisfying to finally have gotten to a point where I get the opportunity to work with the directors I really want to work with and rub shoulders with the actors that I really want to work with. You know but basically getting to do my job with people who are at the top of their game. It’s been, yeah very, very satisfying.
Jumping into Sherlock specifically for a second, Lord Blackwood is a completely original character. Not based on anything in the books. Did you still feel the need to re-read many of the classic books and research a ton of the world? Or did you come at it from a different perspective in your preparation?
Mark Strong: I was aware of the books-the novels-growing up because as a school boy as I said at the press conference, Conan Doyle’s in your literary DNA. He’s part of the makeup and certainly Sherlock Holmes you’re totally aware of. And having seen the physical incarnations of Basil Rathbone and Jeremy Brett, you just know all about that subject. I’d only read one of the novels and somebody pointed me towards the short stories while we were filming and they’re really a great read. And if I can get boys like that 11-year old nephew to go back to the books as a result of this film, that would have been a triumphant success and that would be worth everything. So I think the novels and short stories in themselves are amazing. Personally, I didn’t feel the need to go back there because as you said Blackwood isn’t in it. All I needed to do with Blackwood was the opposite in fact. The fact that he’s not in the novels means that he can be anything. So they really let their wings fly with this twisted Machiavellian evil character that probably supersedes anything Conan Doyle would have imagined. So I had to go back to more, not the source materials the novels and the short stories, but more to the Victorian period and more to the psychological understanding of what makes somebody bad, really. And the Victorian period through up the whole notion of showmanship. They were interested in escapology and hypnotism at the time and the Empire was growing and the industrial revolution were growing at pace. They were very good at what they were doing. So there was an interest in the occult and spirituality and other things that allowed me to give that to Blackwood. And the other thing was the look of him was very, very showy. We tried to create to a showman that would be an equal advisory for Sherlock Holmes. And as for the psychological element, you know his conception…that was the thing that I drew from the film was the way he was conceived by his father in some strange ritual gave me the starting point to think this kid’s upbringing must have really been quite unusual and probably festered the hatred that he now has as an adult for all of those around him. So that’s what I drew it from. It’s a very long-winded answer to say rather than from the novels, I drew it from the period and from the psychology of the character.
That makes complete sense. You worked with Guy Ritchie on RocknRolla and obviously Sherlock Holmes much bigger endeavor. How was he to work with on-set? Was he the same Guy Ritchie or did he do things a little differently?
Mark Strong: He was the same, because really the dictate on set that you have to fulfill is the same whether you’re doing a small budget movie or a big budget movie because essentially it’s the actor’s truth and the camera rolling. And that’s the same on a small budget or a big budget. And for Guy, I think the enjoyed, as he said at the conference, having the deeper pockets of the American studios to allow him to realize a film with basically just more stuff in it, you know, more extras, grander vistas, all of that. So he enjoyed that but it didn’t affect him, no in any way. He was exactly the same as he’s always been on the 3 movies that we worked on.
Well you also did another period piece Eagle of the Ninth which is a film I’m also really looking forward to. No trailer has been released. I’ve seen a few images. Could you talk about working on another period piece like that which I believe you did before Robin Hood or did you do it after?
Mark Strong: No it was just after. Robin Hood was the first half of the year and then I went off and I did that in sort of just about August/September time. What’s great about that film is it’s a much, much smaller scale film obviously, but the team working on it. You’ve got Kevin McDonald directing. Michael O’Connor who won an Oscar for The Dutchess creating these incredible costumes and you’ve got Anthony Dod Mantle who shot Slumdog Millionaire photographing it. You’ve got Jeremy Brock writing it, who’s a phenomenal writer. Duncan Kenworthy producing who did Four Weddings to a Funeral and Notting Hill. They all have such incredible pedigrees, all these people that it’s cast iron credentials that movie. And the actual story, when I first got it, I thought oh Roman story what’s this going to be like? But it’s a page-turner, you know and it’s cliché but I wanted to find out what happened at the end. And it’s a quest movie between a Roman solider and his slave basically going to find out what happened to his father who died when the 9th legion was destroyed in Scotland. And it’s going to be a fascinating film that because I think Kevin McDonald is a real talent.
Oh I think he’s an incredible director. Speaking of incredible directors, you worked with Peter Weir on The Way Back. I have to say I don’t know if you’re ever going to top this year.
Mark Strong: (laughter) Oh don’t say that. I know exactly what you mean. I think at the moment like I said because the movies are relatively new for me, I feel like a kid in a sweet shop. I mean, given the opportunity to pick the best parts with the best directors and they’re coming thick and fast. So rather than play a career game of just choosing one or two, I kind of figure I’m going to work with all these people because I’ve got a lot to learn and you do learn on every job from every person you work with and the privilege of working with such talented people means I can watch them work. I can learn and the when things calm down, which they’re bound to, I can then pick the best jobs knowing that I have a reservoir of experience that will stand me in good stead. That’s really what I’m doing at the moment. I know it feels like I’m in lots of stuff but I’m not hung up on playing big parts. You know I only have a small part in Eagle of the Ninth, a small part in the Peter Weir film, but it doesn’t matter. These are people I want to work with. And as I seem to have a very good record of directors asking me back, you know, maybe that will happen again and as things do calm down, at least I’ll still be working with the best people.
Having the opportunity to work with Peter Weir, who does not make movies every year. He takes long breaks in between productions. That’s an opportunity that I don’t think many actors would turn down.
Mark Strong: Absolutely not. That’s why when he came and said, look it’s just a small part. Do you want to be involved? I didn’t hesitate to say yes. He hadn’t done anything since Master and Commander which was 5 years ago. And before that he hadn’t done anything since I think 5 years before that. He’d done the Truman Show I think it was.
That’s exactly right. It’s long breaks.
Mark Strong: Exactly. So, it’s something you can’t pass by. Same with Ridley, same with Kevin McDonald, same with Andrew Stanton now. I’m going off to do John Carter of Mars and that’s an offer I just cannot turn down.
You were also involved in a movie called The Guard for John Michael McDonagh. Did this already wrap? Are you filming it right now?
Mark Strong: I literally finished it about a week ago. It’s just again, this thing I was saying to you of gathering experiences. Having worked in some very large studio films and about to do one, this is a tiny budget Irish movie with Brendan Gleason and Don Cheadle. Written by a guy whose brother wrote In Brudges And I just read the script and I thought it was quirky and dark in the same way In Bruges is and it made me laugh and I wanted to be involved and again, I’m only in a few scenes but I just wanted to get involved because I think the script is fantastic. So again that’s just me gathering all these eggs into my basket so I’ve got a broad experience. It’s a modern thing and I play a London criminal who falls in with a bunch of Irish gangsters. Completely different from the period piece of Sherlock, the period piece of Nottingham, the Americaness of Kick Ass. It’s something different again.
Well any relation to In Bruges is a good thing.
Mark Strong: Yeah, absolutely. And I think it’s even funnier I have to say.
As an actor, that also has to be nice though to jump between these huge budget movies and a smaller film to keep you sort of, I guess, on your toes.
Mark Strong: Exactly that, yeah. I think if you just become known as or just find yourself doing huge studio pictures, that’s all people will assume you want to do. Whereas the truth is I want to do anything. Acting is a very broad church and the industry is a very broad church and if I can mix very large studio movies with very small independent ones and slices the part that vary from being the lead right down to being a cameo if you like, that is what I find very fascinating about my job. And I love finding different characters and creating different characters in as many different places as I can. And the mercurial quality of that of never stagnating or standing still is what I’ve always been interested in.
You play these very intense characters. Have you ever thought about branching into like romantic comedy or comedy? Have you done a comedy?
Mark Strong: Not really. Certainly not in the movies. I mean I’ve done comedy in theatre and I’ve done comedy on TV. It’s not my favorite though I have to say. Whenever I read a script I tend to gravitate towards the darker characters. They’re the ones, for some reason, I love to play. But Oliver Twist was a fairly comic incarnation in that it was Dickens and you know Archie in RocknRolla had a couple of rye moments I thought. So you know there’s a strand of….I have a best friend who’s dying to try and write a comedy for me because he thinks I’m pretty funny. It’s just never been seen in the movies. But that would be very interesting I think. You know, just always keep people guessing and I don’t think you can go far wrong.
I think it would be very interesting to see you in a different kind of role like that. But I can understand why you go for the characters you go for because there’s a lot of meat on the bones.
Mark Strong: Exactly right. I mean, it’s psychologically very interesting. I love picking them apart and layering them back together and then performing them. They’re just…I don’t know why I gravitate towards them for some reason.
Now, my final question: does being in a big Disney/Pixar movie get you into the theme parks for free for life?
Mark Strong: (laughter) I don’t know but with a 5 year old and a 2 year old boy I’m certainly going to ask that question.
I definitely think you should especially after your Utah trip.
Mark Strong: Yes, maybe I will. That’s a very good piece of advice. Thank you.