Words by Issy Anthony
Mark Strong is an English actor and producer. He has appeared in films such as Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Kingsman, Kickass and Grimsby, and television series such as Our Friends In The North, Deep State and Low Winter Sun. In 2015 he won the Olivier Award for Best Actor in his performance in A View From The Bridge. He is currently starring in the second season of Temple, which he also executive produced.
Upon finding out that I would be interviewing Mark Strong, I was very nervous. I needn’t have been. As soon as Strong entered our Zoom call, it was clear that this would be a very enjoyable conversation. With a deep voice and a face that is often cast as the villain, one might imagine him to be rather gruff, but this couldn’t be further from the truth. We began with him asking what living in Brighton is like, talking of his own memories of being by the sea, its magnitude making him feel that everything is going to be alright. He later tells that all he wants to achieve is contentment, and I agree.
I ask Strong about his upbringing, which is rather different to the Oxbridge educated actors that he is now viewed alongside. Raised by a single mother who had emigrated from Austria, he was sent to a state boarding school aged six. When he was eleven his mother moved away, leaving him with no family in England. “The lack of family structure meant I had no blueprint for understanding how I should behave or what I should do. I always felt like an outsider because I felt like I was observing. I think actually that served me well as an actor because if you’re playing characters, you need to understand people”.
Aged fourteen, Strong was inspired by a spread he saw in Sounds magazine that said ‘Here’s three chords, now go and start a band’. And so he did. He doesn’t recall them being that good, but making a lot of noise, which seems to have been the point. Which is what makes it all the more interesting that aged 18, he did a complete u-turn, moving to Munich, where his mother was living at the time, to study Law. I ask why he went from having a penchant from going against the rules to seemingly following them. “When the band folded, I was still in school, so it was very difficult to continue my revolution because I didn’t have the means to do it”. His exams then started, and explains that the only way to appease his teachers about not applying to Cambridge, was to go to Munich. ‘So it was partly following the rules, and partly getting everybody off my back’.
Having had a rather unusual childhood, I ask if acting is a sort of therapy for him. “Drama is like therapy for the soul”, Strong replies. “You can play other people and you can exercise certain things within yourself through the characters that you play. I’ve played a lot of villains, so maybe that’s important as a way of channelling something that you can’t use in everyday life”. He also notes that being an actor involves constantly moving around, becoming close and then moving onto a ‘new family’, and the similarities this had with his childhood, as while at school his mum would often move around a lot. I remark that it is almost like he was raised to be an actor, which he agrees with, acknowledging that he took to acting easily.
What has always intrigued me about Strong was his knack for playing the ‘bad guy’, despite him being such a quintessential ‘good guy’ in real life. Strong laughs at this compliment, further evidence of my assessment, saying, “For me, acting was always about transformation, it was about playing what you’re not. I never really wanted to play myself, or play a nice guy, or be their hero. Often the villains have the best lines and the most fun”. For Strong, acting seems to be about two things: his desire to have fun, but more importantly, to work, and to do good work. He thanks growing up in a working class household for this strong work ethic. What he didn’t get into acting for was the fame, which he has made a conscious effort to stay away from throughout his career. “I quickly realised that there are some actors who become actors in order to get famous. The fire of fame, without getting too poetic about it, burns most people. There is nothing about fame that recommends it”.
“I want to be able to live a normal life and go out and buy a pint of milk without people feeling they need to take selfies with me’. Interestingly enough, Strong has had many run-ins with fans while at the shops, but it seems his attempt to not be famous has sort of worked. He recounts numerous times that people have recognised him, but they’re not sure where from, and he has ended up having to list his work to them. He also recalls an occasion where a stranger approached him, saying, ‘you’re the spitting image of Mark Strong’, to which he replied, ‘yeah, I get that a lot’.
We talk about Strong’s fondness for the alternative, be that his start in a punk band, or his musical taste for songs that are different from the original, like David Bowie singing Heroes in German. I ask if this transcends into the characters and scripts he chooses, and whether a character needs to be different to anything he has seen before for him to be interested. “That’s the holy grail really, because good writing will never be obvious, and will hopefully never just regurgitate normal tropes, you want good writing to be original. What I am always looking for is the kind of originality I can find in characters”. Strong admits that this is not always easy, as stories are often morality tales that involve the good guy overcoming the bad guy. What he is really looking for within these scripts is what is refers to as ‘anomalies’. In Temple, he plays a well-off surgeon with a family—a good guy. What makes him intriguing to Strong, and indeed to the audience, is, in his words, ‘when shit hits the fan, he very easily and quite casually crosses the moral rubicon and ends up in a very dark place’.
To promote Temple, Strong was ‘dragged kicking and screaming’ onto Instagram, which he admits to me he does not fully understand, having only realised on the day I interviewed him was direct messaging was. We discuss the rise of social media leading to the growth of the obsession with celebrity, and how so many celebrities not only have social media, but broadcast a lot of their life to their adoring fans. “I’m old fashioned in the sense that I think actors should sort of preserve their mystery a bit. How do you believe people’s characters if you know what they’re having for dinner every night?’.
I ask if he likes his character in Temple, and whether it even matter if he does. He pauses, eventually saying, ‘you have to find a way, if not to like them, then to at least understand them.’ I comment that the characters we, as an audience, seem most drawn to are the ones we love to hate, and the ones we hate to love. Strong’s own desire for complex characters, and his ability to understand their motives, is what makes him such a captivating actor, and one we will hopefully see on our screens for many years to come.
Season 2 of Temple is available to stream now on Sky Max and NOW TV