The label of “hardest working man (or woman) in show business” is one that’s often bandied about haphazardly and yet British actor Mark Strong often seems to be the perfect candidate for that label by appearing in four to five movies a year, often in the least likely of places. For instance, how many people knew going into Kathryn Bigelow’s Zero Dark Thirty that an hour into the movie, Strong would show up as a CIA executive?
We’ve been big fans of Strong for many years, at least back to 2008 when he appeared in Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies, Guy Ritchie’s RocknRolla and Jason Isaac’s drama Good, playing three very different roles. In fact, when we interviewed Ritchie for his movie that year, we had an extended interchange about how impressed we were with Strong’s impressive work in all three films.
And yet, in the four-and-a-half years since then, this writer hasn’t had a chance to interview Strong being that he’s a busy actor who doesn’t do a ton of press outside of his native England. Since then, awareness of Strong’s work has increased with his appearances as the main villain in Guy Ritchie’s blockbuster Sherlock Holmes and playing Sinestro in Green Lantern.
That brings us to his latest film.
A number of years ago, director Jean-Jacques Annaud (Enemy at the Gates) made a movie called “Black Gold” which is now being released in the States as Day of the Falcon in which Strong co-stars with Antonio Banderas, Freida Pinto and Tahar Rahim. Strong plays Sultan Amar of Salmaah, the leader of an Arab kingdom who gets into conflict with Banderas’ Emir of Hobeika over newly-found oil in the desert region. It’s a dramatic film that involves the sons of both men and builds up to a series of enormous battle sequences.
The good news is that the release of that film suddenly gave us our chance to talk to an actor we’ve been wanting to interview for years. In recent weeks, Strong’s been doing press for Zero Dark Thirty in the UK as well as the upcoming crime-thriller Welcome to the Punch, so maybe it shouldn’t have been a big surprise that our interview began with a little confusion
ComingSoon.net: I remember hearing about this movie years ago and then it sort of disappeared, but then recently it reappeared and I was surprised by how much I liked it. I really liked “Enemy at the Gates” and this has a similar level of action and drama in it, so how did you get involved and why did you decide to do it?
Strong: A number of reasons. Every movie has a kind of checklist about it that you go through as an actor. I mean, I cannot speak for anybody else, but I do, and those things generally are the standard of the script, the quality of the director, the part itself and how interesting it is, where it’s based. Those kind of things all come together in order to help your choice. I’m sure you’ve heard that many times before. But on this one, it was because I really liked what the director was trying to do with the script. I’d seen Eran’s first film, “Shifty,” and it’s a good film and he made it for very little money and I think that’s always a sign of somebody who is a good storyteller. What was fascinating about the second one when we met to talk about it was his notion that he wanted to make a London-based thriller more in the style of Michael Mann perhaps than Guy Ritchie because over here, we’re very used to very slick action thrillers coming out of the U.S. that are really about parochial issues to deal with every day cops and robbers in the U.S. But to us, it’s exotic. The problem in England has always been when we try and make movies like that, it doesn’t look as exciting as the ones that come out of the States. So I think that was what really fascinated me, whether we could make that kind of a movie.
CS: That sounds very fascinating, except that I haven’t seen that movie yet. I was talking about “Day of the Falcon,” which is the one that I just watched and was going to talk to you about.
Strong: Which one?
CS: “Black Gold?”
Strong: (Laughs) Oh my God. I was talking completely about the wrong movie. I’m so sorry.
CS: No, it’s funny. I haven’t had a chance to see that other movie yet, but no, “Black Gold” is coming out here as “Day of the Falcon” very soon.
Strong: That’s hysterical. I just finished doing the press of “Zero Dark Thirty,” and I’m just getting ready to do the press for “Welcome to the Punch.” I’d completely forgotten in the middle of all that, that “Black Gold” is coming out again. I’m really sorry about that.
CS: No problem. You’ve made a lot of movies over the years, so I imagine that happens a lot.
Strong: Yeah, the same applies to “Black Gold,” if I could segue into that. It’s exactly the same thing in a sense that you’re looking at the director, the part, the script and we’ve gotlisten, Jean-Jacques Annaud is a very established and an extremely good director. I met him and Tarak in Cannes when I was over there for the premiere of “Robin Hood.” I sat down with them and talked about this epic movie that they were planning. They were so enthusiastic about it that it was hard not to be enthusiastic myself. I just had never done anything like that before. I’d never played that kind of a part. Originally I thought they wanted me for the Antonio Banderas part because he’s much more kind of Western looking, so the chance to get to play a very traditional Arabic character like that, I mean, it just doesn’t happen except perhaps in the theater. It very rarely happens on film that you’re allowed to play characters that far removed from you. The whole concept was very intriguing, the idea that there was this epic movie they were planning out in the desert and that I would get to play a part that I probably would never be offered anywhere else ever again. I laughed. I mean, I sat down when Tarak gave me the script and read the thing from beginning to end. It was a beautiful sunny day. I was on the Croisette and it was just a beautiful thing to read. It was a really wonderfully epic story. I wanted to do it for that reason.
CS: You played an Arab before in “Body of Lies.” When you get a part like that, do you generally have to work on a different accent and how much accent work do you have to do wen you take on a part that isn’t British?
Strong: I do a lot because you take on an enormous amount of responsibility when you try and play a character that is from another culture. I mean, you have to treat it with respect. I was very surprised when Ridley Scott offered me the part of Hani in “Body of Lies.” He was the head of the Jordanian Secret Service. I couldn’t quite understand why he’d done that, but I think because the character was an anglophile, he wanted to cast a Brit who could play an Arab rather than the other way around. I’d also played a third generation Lebanese Muslim that studied in the U.S. in “Syriana.” I had a scene in the film film where I have to interrogate and pull George Clooney’s fingernails out. So this was the third Arab that I’d been offered where I was starting to think, what is it with the Arab characters? Perhaps it’s my Italian heritage. That Mediterranean element means that I can straddle the divide between East and West. But as an actor, that’s what you want. You want to be versatile, at least I do, and I want to play characters as far removed from myself as possible just to test yourself. Yeah, I had to do a little work on the accent to make sure that I got it right, so after the first couple–certainly on “Body of Lies,” I talked to a Jordanian actor I’d known over here–I just listened a lot to the way Arabs spoke English and tried to emulate that, which is pretty much what you do with any accent anywhere in the world.
CS: You mentioned locations and I notice that a lot of movies you make end up in exotic locations whether it’s the Middle East or “John Carter” which you shot in the desert somewhere. You’re not doing the typical studio soundstage type movies. Is that something that appeals to you, working outdoors in these environments?
Strong: (Laughs) I have a family, so with all of the things that I do, something to consider is how long a job is going to take me away from my family. I’ll factor in a number of other things and decide whether it’s good or not good to get away from them, but I don’t know. I think it’s not a choice I actually make because I could go on to say that the location is never really a principle factor. It’s quite a hard checklist that I mentioned before. I usually respond more to director, script and character, and then you suddenly get told, “Oh, by the way, you’re going to Jordan and you’re going to be filming here.” The same thing happened with “Zero Dark Thirty.” I went to meet Kathryn Bigelow in L.A., accepted the job on the strength of a very strong scene that Mark Boal had written, and then I discovered the whole thing was filming in Jordan and Chandigarh, in India. I had no idea that that was going to be the case. Same with “John Carter”–we ended up somewhere in Utah. Again, I didn’t really realize that was going to happen. I tell you what filming in places like that does, and it certainly was the case with “Black Gold,” is there’s no acting required. I mean, you’re really there. I really was that guy on that horse in the desert leading my 200 guys into battle. You are in the location in the desert and it can’t help you as an actor more because it’s the real thing.
CS: I have to say that you really have a commanding presence on a horse. I don’t remember you having done much riding in previous movies (maybe “Robin Hood”) but I have to assume you had some experience because you had some tough scenes to act while atop that horse.
Strong: No, I don’t have a riding background. Funny enough, I remember at the time thinking it was really strange, but at my drama school in the last couple of weeks, we finished all our audition shows and everything and we finished the final play and we were just kind of hanging on until the end of the course. The principal had decided that we should all go horse riding for a couple of days, partly it was a character-building or a team-building exercise. But mainly, because in this business you need anything that can help you to get a job, and he decided that if you were comfortable around horses, that you can get on and off a horse and look like you knew what you were doing, if you could handle a horse and look like you knew what you were doing, the next time you went for an audition with a director who asked you if you were comfortable around horses you could say, “Yes,” in all honesty because I think a lot actors probably get into a job and then the director will ask them, “Can you ride a horse?” They’ll go, “Yeah, yeah, sure, I can ride a horse.” Then, of course, get there and find that it’s a hell of a lot more difficult than they imagine, especially because it isn’t just a question of being on a horse and looking like you could be on a horse, it’s repeating the same action again and again. It’s hitting your mark on a horse rather than with your own feet. You’re doing it with horses’ hooves. It’s incredibly complicated, and I think you need to be able to ride to do that. Basically, I just learned over the years.
CS: Were you present during the battle sequences because that’s really where the movie explodes and those scenes are stunning.
Strong: They’re awesome, aren’t they? I wasn’t unfortunately there. My stuff was all shot pretty much right at the very beginning, before they went to Doha and did all the stuff in the real desert. Mine was all done in a sort of crumbling hilltop town in Tunisia. I always regret not being able to go with them for that second half of shooting, but when I saw it in the film, I was absolutely blown away by those sequences.
CS: I’m actually bummed I didn’t get to see it in the theater. I just watched it on a screener. I might have to see it on a screen just to get the full effect.
Strong: Yeah, it’s really truly epic.
CS: You always seem to be working on something, so what are you currently working on?
Strong: Well, “Zero Dark Thirty’s” out, so I’ve just finished doing the press for that movie, okay, but I’m about to go do a film called “Before I Go to Sleep,” which Ridley Scott is exec producing. It’s directed by Rowan Joffe, Roland Joffe’s son, who’s a writer/director. It’s based on a best-selling first novel by writer S.J. Watson and it’s a three-hander about a woman who wakes every morning with no recollection of what happened to her in her life so far. Every morning she wakes and her memory’s been erased as a result of an accident she had years before. She doesn’t recognize her husband and she has a doctor who’s trying to help her come to terms with that. Nicole Kidman is playing the woman, Colin Firth is the husband and I play the doctor.
CS: Wow, that’s a pretty amazing cast right there.
Strong: Yeah, it is a good cast and an extremely effective script, a thriller because what happens is you learn about an essential character that Nicole – the character’s name is Christine. You learn about Christine as she learns about herself and there are revelations and twists and turns within the script that are breathtaking. I think it’s a really well-adapted piece of work.
CS: You’ve obviously worked with Ridley Scott a lot and you’ve worked with Guy Ritchie and Matthew Vaughn. Do you think you’ll be doing something again with either Guy or Matthew? Have you talked to them lately about doing some more stuff with them?
Strong: Yeah, I always keep in touch with them. I just spoke to Guy the other day because he’s just done an advert with David Beckham that I thought was very witty and I just rang him and said that I thought it was great. In fact, Matthew, funny enough, rang me about four days ago, saying he’s got a hold of “Black Gold” and he put it on not knowing really what to expect and really loved the movie and actually rang me to tell me that he thought it was a really great adventure story and he really responded to it. So, yeah, I absolutely keep in touch with them.
CS: Right, as I said before, it was really surprising to not hear anything about the movie for many years and then it kind of reappearing and actually being quite decent.
Strong: You know what? It’s been interesting this process. I’ve never done a movie before that has come out and then it’s come out again in a sort of revamped guise with a new title and get a second bite at the cherry. It’s fantastic though, having this opportunity because I think it’s a gorgeous adventure story. The pressure on movies these days is so immense. So many films come out every week. If you just look in the paper at the number of films that are reviewed, everything is competing and there’s very limited space. What happens if you have the misfortune to come out during a week that say some Spielberg movie comes out or something that grabs all of the attention, your film can fall slightly by the wayside. Also in the UK, they only have a limited number of cinemas and instead of showing the latest big American movie, the smaller European films can’t get a look in. If they’re not sustaining any interest in the cinema, then they just kind of disappear, so I think it’s wonderful that this movie is getting a second chance.
CS: Absolutely. Listen, Mark, it’s been great finally talking to you. I know you have other interviews to do but I hope we get a chance to speak for some of these other projects down the road.
Strong: Cheers. It was nice to talk to you. I mean, if we ever cross paths on a junket or whatever, just come and say “hello.”
CS: You have yet to be at a junket I’ve attended and I was in England when you did the “Green Lantern” junket in L.A. Actually, I was supposed to fly down to the set of “Green Lantern” as well, and I got stranded in Charlotte instead, so we’ve missed paths a couple times now.
Strong: (Laughs) Well, I enjoy the website. I often just shift in and out of various film websites, and I really enjoy yours. So we’ll cross paths sooner or later.
CS: Absolutely. Good luck on this other movie, all right?
Strong: All right, yeah.