That's British actor Mark Strong, who's been working in films for the past 25 years but is only now coming to notice for a string of impressively villainous roles. His chameleon-like ability to transform himself into any nationality may have prevented you from recognizing his 'Syriana' torturer (who memorably ripped out George Clooney's fingernails) was also the smooth criminal Archy in Guy Ritchie's 'RockNRolla' and the queen's manipulative adviser, Lord Conroy, in 'The Young Victoria.' You may have noticed a certain fellow lurking about films these last few years. Dark, brooding chap. Incredibly menacing. Looks a bit like Stanley Tucci or maybe Andy Garcia. Right now, he's looming over millions of filmgoers as the dreaded Lord Blackwood in 'Sherlock Holmes.'
That's British actor Mark Strong, who's been working in films for the past 25 years but is only now coming to notice for a string of impressively villainous roles. His chameleon-like ability to transform himself into any nationality may have prevented you from recognizing his 'Syriana' torturer (who memorably ripped out George Clooney's fingernails) was also the smooth criminal Archy in Guy Ritchie's 'RockNRolla' and the queen's manipulative adviser, Lord Conroy, in 'The Young Victoria.'
If audiences haven't noticed him before , Hollywood certainly has: He's worked with Ritchie on three films and just reteamed with his 'Body of Lies' director, Ridley Scott, for another villainous turn in 'Robin Hood.'
We caught up with Strong over the phone from his home in London and he chatted about why Lord Blackwood is a bit of a trendsetter, the enormous scope of 'Robin Hood,' why he enjoys playing villains so much, and how he narrowly missed out playing Javier Bardem's Oscar-winning role in 'No Country for Old Men.'
Tell me about working with Guy Ritchie. You're obviously a favorite of his.
Guy and I, we've done three films together now. He's surprisingly lacking in ego. He's not a shouter or a bully. He just likes to create an environment in which people can do their best work. Having done 'Revolver' with him and then becoming friends, he sent me 'RockNRolla' and said, "Have a look and see if you're interested in this." And pretty much the same thing happened with 'Sherlock.' I really enjoy working with him. We know exactly what the other's thinking and when he says something, I know what he means and when I do something, he knows what I mean, so it's much easier.
What was it like working with Robert Downey Jr.?
He is a wonderful kind of mercurial character who fizzes at a higher energy level than the rest of us. He's got a really wicked sense of humor and is incredibly bright and a real inspiration to be around, because his workload is enormous. The focus on him was pressured and he seemed to handle it completely easily. So it was a real joy to watch him at work.
What was the mood on set, usually?
It was really comfortable. Guy, in between takes, while we were waiting for things to happen, was learning to play classical guitar. Philippe Rousselot, the camera man, who's also a bit of a dab hand at guitar, brought his guitar in, so you've have these two classical guitars going in the background. Robert and Jude [Law] were having great fun. Rachel [McAdam]'s really, really bright and sweet. It was a pleasure to go to work.
You've played a lot of villains. Why did Lord Blackwood appeal to you?
As a villain, he's right up there. He's got a fantastic look and he's got people believing that he's in league with the devil, that he's committed murders before the film starts, he comes back from the dead -- he's got some fantastic ingredients for a villain. The main task was to prevent him from becoming a pantomime, a mustache-twirling villain, yet at the same time, give him weight and authority and enough theatricality so that he would suit the style of that film. I think if he had been anything other than the way he was -- he's a member of the aristocracy, he's dabbling in the occult -- he basically has to frighten everyone around him and terrify them into doing his will. What I really enjoyed about Blackwood was being able to take him as far as I did in terms of the performance.
The look was like a Gestapo agent, with the haircut and fur-trimmed leather jacket. Was that the thought behind it?
Yeah, it definitely was. That Prussian cut, where the side of the head is shaved like that, I don't believe it had come in yet, but it was about to come in at the turn of the century, so in a way, he's fashionably early. But there's something about the severity of that kind of haircut that I thought suited him. He's also, like all great villains, kind of an ambitious narcissist, so he cares a great deal about the impression that he's giving. I thought that combined "looking cool" with a little bit of meanness.
Did you have any input into the look?
I know the girl who did makeup and hair quite well, so we worked out that severe look for him to go with the flamboyancy of the leather frock coat and massive Persian lamb collar that he has. I love setting up characters like that. I love finding the look for them, a shorthand, so you can immediately work out visually what kind of a character they are.
What is the best part about playing a villain, as opposed to playing a nice guy?
I think it's that there's more psychological depth to be examined. Nice guys are expected to be nice guys. You don't question why they're good, you just accept it. With bad guys, I try to find out why they are the way they are. I don't believe anybody's inherently evil and if you play them as such, they're in danger of becoming purely two-dimensional. For example, with Blackwood, although he appears to be evil for its own sake, his father mentions that he was conceived at some Masonic ritual. And that just made me think, "My God, what kind of an upbringing could that have been?" He's probably harbored a resentment against his mother and father for the fact that he was conceived in that way. So, basically, it was the justification for why he was as nasty as he is. I think if you can find that in a bad guy, it makes it much more interesting. Certainly much more interesting, for me, to set up the character.
If someone wanted to see you play a nice guy, would they have to go back to the 1996 'Emma' version you did with Kate Beckinsale?
(Laughs) Yeah! Ironically, I played one of the loveliest men in English literature, Mr. Knightley. And, of course, before this rich vein of menacing, dark, brooding types manifested itself a few years ago, I was playing all kinds of stuff. Bit of comedy here and there, leading man of the theater, straight guys, everything. It's just that on film, recently, I've kind of gone down that particular kind of path. I must admit, I'm really enjoying it.
So you're not telling your agent, "No more villains, please!"
Well, no. Too often people get worried and think, "Oh, God, I can't go down that path" and they block off opportunities for themselves, rather than exploring what's available. I have total confidence that a role will turn up that will be so different from the ones that I'm playing now that I'll be able to enjoy everyone going, "Wow, he can do that!" But, of course, I've been doing this stuff for 25 years, so I know what I'm capable of. It's only the last few years that these bad guys have been turning up.
Your next major role is also a villain, in 'Robin Hood.'
Yes, there's also Matthew Vaughn's 'Kick-Ass' where I play a New York mobster. And 'Robin Hood', in which I play a medieval traitor. They're neither of them mummy's boys, I have to say. They're different enough that I can imbue them with different things. The lovely thing for me is that they're all different, one's a Victorian aristocrat, one's a medieval knight, one's a New York mobster. There's just enough difference in there that I'm not actually playing the same person. Whereas, if you're a leading man, you tend to play yourself in each given situation, but as a character actor, I can adjust all these bad guys to be different from one another. It makes it really enjoyable.
You also played a really memorable villain in 'Body of Lies.'
Yes, well, there you go. The head of the Jordanian secret service. Who believed a boy from London would be playing a part like that? But as an actor, that's what you want to do. You want to play parts that are as far removed from yourself as you can. A lot of my friends, who maintain that I'm a relatively charming guy, find it hysterical that most of the time I'm playing really, really evil pieces of work. Maybe it's the fact that it's so opposite to me that it's enjoyable. It's work. It's creating characters that are obviously not me.
You'd worked with Russell and Ridley before in 'Body of Lies,' but what it was like working with them in epic mode on 'Robin Hood?'
I was first in and last out. I was pretty much filming on the first day and the last day. My experience over the four or five months of filming was a real journey. The first day I arrived, there was a whole ambush sequence that was going to take three weeks to shoot. I came in, I got my costume on and I sat in a tent and at the end of the day, I was sent home without being used. That happened three days in a row. So by the time I actually got onto set, I was really up for it. I remember walking over the hill into the ravine where it was being shot and there were 200 people milling around like ants. There were 15 cameras down there, dead horses, people with arrows in their heads. It was really exciting and quite mind-boggling. And then it culminated in this shoot on a beach in Wales for two weeks. I asked the producer for these figures: We had 1,500 people catered for lunch, 15 cameras, a helicopter, 150 stunt men on the horses, 500 extras and I think 72 trailers on set, which is phenomenal, so it was a massive production. I just loved all of it. In the middle of it all is Ridley, like a general conducting his troops.