Mark Strong may not be a marquee name, but he’s been the hissable villain (or one of the less good characters) in numerous blockbusters: in “Sherlock Holmes,” “Robin Hood,” “Kick-Ass,” “Green Lantern,” and many more smaller films besides. His sinister onscreen persona is put to good use in two new films in which you’re forced to wonder if he’s good or bad. “Before I Go to Sleep” is a twisty thriller where an amnesiac Nicole Kidman may be targeted by her husband (Colin Firth) or Strong’s helpful-seeming (or maybe not) doctor. He also has a small role as a shifty (or not) general in “The Imitation Game,” which tells of Alan Turing (Benedict Cumberbatch), the man partly responsible for cracking the Nazi’s Enigma machine, but punished because he was gay. But knowing of his villainous work only makes the films more fun.
Are you sick of people asking you about playing villains?
No, I’m not, because you can’t bite the hand that feeds you. The thing about being a villain in the U.K. is it’s an honorable tradition that goes back to Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Irons, Alan Rickman — you name it. People say, “You’ll be typecast.” But they’re such colorful characters. I couldn’t turn them down. And then I play these characters and presto! I get a director, with “Before I Go to Sleep,” who actually wants to use that baggage. Because the character definitely comes off as someone you don’t know if you can trust. At the same time, Colin has obviously been cast in the same way, because usually he’s a hero. But that’s called into question too. We all love him and suddenly, like Christine, the central character, we’re have no idea who to trust.
There are times in “Before I Go to Sleep” where you seem decent and helpful, and others where it seems you could be villainous.
We would pinpoint moments where we would make people unsure of him. For example, I chose to wear those slightly sinister glasses in a couple scenes, because they made me look a bit mean. On another occasion I would wear a soft jacket with a homey, gentle feeling, so you might think he wants to take care of her. We played with expectations, hopefully relatively subliminally.
Lord Blackwood in “Sherlock Holmes” is definitely evil, but someone like Sistero in “Green Lantern” is more complicated, more antiheroic.
Those are the ones I enjoy the most. If you are going to play a bad guy or villain, you need to find another level to make them more interesting. They can’t just be bad boys; they have to be as interesting as the hero, because then where’s the jeopardy? It’s why I think the Bond villains are raised to such exalted heights, because the good guys can only be as good as the villains. So if you can make the villain interesting and alluring and make people sit up and take notice, perhaps the fight between good and evil becomes more interesting.
A lot of actors who play villains say they try to play them as though they believe what they’re doing is right — that they’re not evil.
There are some guys who are horrible and evil, and they revel in the fact that they’re nasty. But I think a lot of bad guys don’t see themselves as the bad guys. There’s a fantastic sketch
by two comedians over here [David Mitchell and Robert Webb]. There’s two SS officers in the trenches during the second World War. They’re just there keeping warm, like two regular guys, and one of them says, “Have you seen that our caps have got skulls on them?” He points to the skull and bones on their caps, and he says, “Are we the bad guys?” That’s fantastic. That says it all.
There’s also that accent. Eddie Izzard has a bit about the stereotype of English actors playing villains in American films.
I think maybe the English accent has become synonymous with untrustworthiness. But it’s more than that. The American tradition exalts the hero: the homecoming king, the quarterback, the president. We’ve got Richard III, Macbeth. We’re unafraid of the dark side, if you’d like. Often I see Americans try to play villains, and it’s almost as though they have to make a cartoon of them. They can’t make them too real, for fear of anybody thinking someone can be as nasty as this.
You seemed to send up your streak of movie villains with “The Guard,” where your criminal is actively sick of being evil, but too bored to go straight.
I saw that as my farewell to villains. But then the Jaguar ad
came along [in which he, Ben Kingsley and Tim Hiddleston congregate for a bad guy hang-out].
You haven’t retired from playing villains, though, have you?
No, I’m ready, willing and able to play whatever comes my way, what intrigues me. If I feel I can do something with a character, I’ll do it. It just so happens those villains that came along had something about them that burned very brightly. But I’m not closed off to anything, I’m open to everything.
Let’s talk briefly about “The Imitation Game.” It’s a film about a great man who was jailed and driven to suicide because of his homosexuality. Your big breakthrough was actually playing a gay character, in 2004’s “The Long Firm,” as out mobster Harry Starks — a time when there seemed to still be a bit of pushback from certain groups against mainstream gay characters (though one could argue that never quite went away).
I was very fortunate to grow up in an environment where being gay or straight was completely irrelevant. I grew up with my mom, my dad wasn’t around, and I didn’t have any brothers or sisters. I had nobody telling me how to think. It just never occurred to me that it was important if someone was gay or straight. It always struck me as an odd way of judging somebody. I’ve always thought of choosing gay characters as like choosing an item of clothing or an accent or a wig. It’s just part of their makeup. What I love about Harry Starks is they didn’t stress the fact that he was gay. It was about him being intelligent and clever and witty and alluring. It’s what I love about “The Imitation Game” as well. The fact that Alan Turing was gay is only relevant because he was really badly treated by the establishment. And it’s absolutely unforgivable that they behaved the way they did. I think it’s a real shock to younger people to realize homosexuality was illegal in this country until the ’60s.
Like “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,” directed by the Swedish Tomas Alfredson, “The Imitation Game” is a British film directed by a Scandinavian: Norway’s Morten Tylden. What do you think they bring, as outsiders, to very English stories?
Just a different perspective. [Tylden] didn’t get lost in the Britishness of it, which is there anyway. What he fleshes out is the way people feel and interact. He brings out the larger themes of betrayal and trust. The clothing and the Britishness of it is not what’s fundamentally important. If you got a Brit to do it they’d probably be an absolute stickler for the clothing, the period, the accents, everything.
“Before I Go to Sleep” is your third movie with Colin Firth, who you acted with in the 1997 British adaptation of Nick Hornby’s “Fever Pitch,” then again in “Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy.” And early next year you’re back with him again in “Kingsman: The Secret Service.”
I saw Colin in a play in 1982 called “Another Country, in the West End. It was my first year at university, and he was one of the reasons I decided I would definitely become an actor. Then years later I did “Fever Pitch” with him. It’s a funny old world, is all I’ll say.