Superhero (and –villain) talk may be everywhere all of the time for sites like Cinematical, where genre material is as important as the quote-unquote more serious stuff, but it's rare to get real insights about playing these characters directly from the actors who portray them. But Mark Strong is not only one of the most articulate and thoughtful actors working today, he's one of the most generous: After interviewing him several years ago during the release of Body of Lies and RockNRolla, Strong was gracious enough to encourage us to reach out anytime we wanted to talk about the moviemaking process. And in the midst of screenings and interviews at last month's South by Southwest Film Festival, Strong checked in with some observations and insights about a couple of his high-profile projects, Green Lantern and John Carter of Mars.
Look for a longer interview on Cinematical next week in conjunction with Strong's role as the villain in Kick-Ass. But in addition to the answers he provided below about the two eagerly-anticipated fantasy films, Strong opined about the value, for him at least, in discussing his work with interviewers and journalists. "It's really rewarding to be able to talk about what it is that I'm trying to do," Strong said via telephone. "I'm having a ball at the moment, I have to say. On John Carter of Mars, I'm playing the leader of a group of people called the Therns, who are godlike race, and then going on to play Sinestro, never having played an alien in my life, that two have come along at once is quite interesting. I'm spending most of this year going in and out of space."
"It's fascinating, but once again, even though these guys are powerful, dark characters, it's all a different environment," he continued. "The fact actually that Syriana and Oliver Twist came out at around the same time, and then Body of Lies and RockNRolla were around the same time, and it's fascinating to me now that Robin Hood and Kick-Ass are going to be around at the same time, I think that's what you want as an actor because it allows people to see you doing very different things back to back."
Cinematical: I don't know if you saw it, but Warner Premiere released an animated Green Lantern film last year, but it felt more like Sinestro's origin story than Hal Jordan's. Whether it's in Green Lantern or other films you've done, what responsibility to do you take to bring a villain to life and yet not overpower the hero, be it your fellow actor or just the characterizations of yourself and him or her?
Strong: That is just standard good actor process, I think, knowing at what level he exists. I cite Leonardo DiCaprio in Body of Lies who did that with me, because his character had to be subordinate to my character, and obviously he's a massive star, and maybe you knew who I was. But in the scenes we played together, he gave me the power, and that to me is the sign of a consummate actor, and I see that as my job; I never go into a film thinking 'what can I get out of this? How can I get people interested in looking at me?' What I'm there to do is serve the story.
And with Sinestro, yeah, he is a fascinating character. I love the fact that there is all of this source material. But really you have to just concentrate on what is in this particular film, and he is very well-drawn in this film and I know exactly what I want to do with him. I think they have an intention to make more than one, which is amazing because then you get to follow the trajectory that Sinestro has through the comics, and that I would really look forward to as well. But in the first one, he is a very powerful presence, and I think his whole thing, Sinestro, is that he's very confident and very convinced in his own rightness and so kind of almost militaristic in his precision about how things should be that he has this single-minded way of the way the world should be, and that's what I need to bring to the film.
Cinematical: How soon are you starting to shoot?
Strong: It started today [March 16]. I mean, I'm in London, but they started today. I'm still working on John Carter of Mars, which I finish off in May, and then I go out to New Orleans in June.
Cinematical: Does it suit you better to work in London or are you comfortable traveling a lot for films?
Strong: Being that I've got two gorgeous little boys, being at home is a godsend because I just love spending as much time with them as I can. But I still have that thing in my body that is attracted by really good roles, so essentially I go wherever the good work is, and I try and make that balance work with my family. My family is paramount. So I've been really lucky, because Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood and John Carter of Mars all filmed in London even though they're all big studio pictures. Green Lantern is the first time I'll be going away for any length of time.
Cinematical: How has your experience been on John Carter of Mars?
Strong: It's an amazing experience. It's proving to be a fascinating jigsaw, and each moment, each line almost, fits into this vast plan that Andrew has, and he's been working on it for years. You have to have faith; you have to go in and do your stuff, because your piece of the jigsaw allows him to complete the puzzle, so I'm really enjoying it. It's a fascinating process, and I've still got quite a lot to go I'm filming for three months, the whole of March and then I've got a week or two in April, and then I'm out to Utah for a few days. So there's still plenty to go. We're right in the middle of it, but I find it fascinating. Last week I was performing in a massive warehouse with 400 extras on this floating platform in the middle of a battle between two opposing tribes, and the sequence took two or three weeks for an incredible four-and-a-half-minute sequence. It's amazing.
Cinematical: Talking about being in these logistically complicated blockbusters, how tough is it to take yourself out of the surreality of being in that warehouse on a platform and give that moment the emotional authenticity it needs? Is it tougher or easier because you're truly using your imagination as an actor?
Strong: Well you've come upon the crux, I think, of what makes somebody a successful actor in those kinds of movies. Because essentially you can't stay imagining a huge starship crashing through some massive dome above your head for 14 hours a day for three weeks, because you would go insane. The fact is you have a great banter with the rest of the cast, which you need to do as a kind of pressure-release thing, but your ability is judged by whether or not you're in the moment when the cameras roll – to completely get back into focusing on believably presenting a situation that isn't actually there.
That for me is where the hard work lies, and that marks people out as being able to do this stuff or not. You have to function on set a human being and be relaxed and calm and enjoy the process, but when it's time, that's what you're being paid for – you've got to get back in there. And it is difficult to haul your mind around and get back into the moment, because what you're presenting is so out of this world. But I love that challenge, I love doing it; I find it incredibly rewarding.