Despite the incalculable value they bring to their movies, the problem with most "that guy" actors – those character-types who add color to supporting roles time and again – is that they ultimately want to be "this guy" actors – leading-man and –lady types who command the screen. But Mark Strong is a unique case of both this and that: handsome and immediately familiar, he effectively dominates almost any scene in which he appears, but does so by transforming himself completely, and more importantly, generously sharing the screen with his co-stars. In just the past two years, among many other, he appeared opposite Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Wilkinson, Emily Blunt, and most recently, Robert Downey Jr., not only holding his own but bolstering both the entertainment and emotional value of each film.
His latest film is Kick-Ass, Matthew Vaughn's adaptation of the Mark Millar-John Romita Jr. comic book of the same name, and he plays Frank D'Amico, a Mafioso whose façade of respectability rapidly deteriorates after a former cop, his daughter, and a kid in a scuba suit dress up like superheroes and start screwing up his business. Cinematical was lucky enough to catch up with Strong via telephone to discuss his work on the film; in addition to discussing his discovery of D'Amico, Strong spoke at length about his reaction both during shooting and subsequently to the film's controversial choices, and offered a few observations about the challenges of keeping his identity as the guy who likes to lose it each time he takes on a new role.
Cinematical: At a recent press conference with members of the cast, someone mentioned that you were reluctant to kick Chloe Moretz in the head, even as your character. Were there discussions how far you would go or wanted to go?
Mark Strong: Well, I had no problem with the level of kind of comic violence in the scene that we were doing; I mean, it was hysterical to me that a 45-year-old guy should be having this kind of fight to the death with an 11-year-old girl. I could see that was otherworldly funny, different, strange, all of those things. But there was one particular bit at the end of the fight where having slammed her to the ground, and as I was on my way to get my gun to finish her off, Matthew wanted me to go and literally stamp on her head three times and smash her skull with the heel of my boot. And I went, okay, I don't think I can do that. And he said, "why not? It's all within the realm we set, the parameters that we've set for this film." But it wasn't even that I thought it was too violent; I didn't think it would be believable – that was my problem. It was that an 11-year-old girl who's completely unconscious with a grown man's foot smashing down on her skull would actually kill her; I don't think I would believe watching it that if you then cut to her groggily coming around, I would believe it. So it was about reality rather than the level of violence.
Cinematical: The movie itself kind of operates on a level of "comic book" reality, but attempts to contextualize that in some sense of realism. How tough was it to figure out your character since he's obviously a comic book villain, but the movie was supposed to be at least quasi-realistic? Or is that even a concern?
Strong: I think you don't try and complicate it for yourself by being too many things. I decided that the best way to play him would be to approach it dead straight, inasmuch as he is a gangster who has made good and his life is perfect, when suddenly he discovers that kids dressing up as superheroes are ruining his business. So on a level of reality, there's the confusion he feels of that going on, and the way he decides to go about attacking it, I think is based in reality. Then you could play with how far you took fury, anger, how you could play your emotions; you could play with that a little more because of the comic book element. So your performance could vary more greatly than it would in perhaps something more realistic, but – and I hate the word – but his motivation was based in reality.
Cinematical: Where do you see the balance, if one exists, for the character as a respectable businessman, a father, and of course a mobster?
Strong: That gives him the layers that you want as an actor, and it can make a character more interesting than just a two-dimensional villain. The fact that he has this relationship with his son, I found very interesting – that he's kind of exasperated by a boy who is obviously never going to be able to take over the business. Then this turns out to be very useful to him, and there is a moment just before the whole thing goes wrong where they kind of give each other a high five, and you go wow – they've actually bonded on some level in this crazy world that they're now living in. I found that very interesting. I loved the domestic scene where he and Frank's wife are all sitting around the breakfast table; it gave him an element that was different than just being a thug. On the other hand, the purpose of Frank in the movie is to be the nemesis of – well, the reason that Big Daddy and Hit Girl exist in the first place, and also to give you the stakes at the end of the movie. So I suppose basically for the good guy and bad guy to slug it out. So I thought he was a fascinating character; he was a cut above your usual two-dimensional villain, because he has that family relationship going on, and the fact that he is established at the beginning of the film and deteriorates through the movie gives him somewhere to go.
Cinematical: What if anything did you do to create a relationship with Christopher Mintz-Plasse, since through much of the movie your character sort of withholds his approval, but as you said, at one point they sort of bond with one another. Are you completely open with him, or does it better serve the film to reserve interaction to make the on screen relationship more authentic?
Strong: We met very early on; Matthew got us together for the rehearsals and to go over scenes which was obviously really useful because we needed to meet up and spend some time together before we actually started shooting in front of a camera. That was really useful, because we both got on really well, and I thought it was good casting for the two of us. But what was most fascinating to me was I realized I don't hang around a lot of kids his age, so there was a kind of a big part of Chris and his world that I just don't understand, and there's a big part of my world that he doesn't. It was not just our ages but the fact that he's from the States and I'm from England, so I found that really useful because it kind of automatically set [a certain tone]. I remember, for example, there was a scene going on that was really violent, and I remember turning around and thinking, my God, that is unbelievably violent – is that even legal? And Chris just turned around and said, "yeah, cool!" And me thinking, f*ck, that wouldn't be my response. But he's a young guy for whom this stuff resonates; he thought it was cool, whereas I was looking at it thinking, wow, that's really far out – that's going too far. So we automatically had a generation divide between the two of us that was interesting, and we automatically had the thing that bonded us because we got on so well. The work was done, so we didn't have to manufacture it.
Cinematical: Obviously there has been some controversy over Chloe's character using certain language, not to mention performing very violent action sequences. Do you have an opinion, either as an actor in the film or even as a parent, about Hit Girl being a character in a movie and something that may be impressionable to some viewers?
Strong: Well, I think that's the point, though, isn't it, Todd? I mean, I think if some people are pre-programmed to take this stuff seriously, there's not much you can do about it, but most people realize that this film is not really reality. It flirts with reality and it flirts with otherworldliness, but it exists in the cinema. So I don't have a problem with it. I mean, there are many actors who would argue that our job is to interpret the words on the page and not get involved in the politics of the message. But on the other hand, I did have to kind of consider the morality of doing a movie that involves Hit Girl, but to be honest, I never had a problem with it. I took it in the spirit that it was intended, which is it's meant to be challenging, funny, wicked, all of those things, and the fact that a girl like Chloe can do that and do it with panache surely speaks volumes. I can't believe that it's really going to cause anybody problems, and censorship in general, people's attitudes towards what it right and wrong, is a very nebulous thing. So it crosses cultural divides, it crosses divides of taste, but it doesn't mean that we shouldn't push the envelope. And I know there will be people out there that for them it's not their taste, and the simple truth is that they shouldn't go and see it.
Cinematical: Looking at your upcoming slate, I see you're working with Ridley Scott again, Martin Campbell, and Andrew Stanton among others. As you continue to be involved in bigger and bigger projects, is it as easy to find roles or ways to challenge yourself? It seems like when you were slightly lesser known, you could go in as an unknown quantity and transform yourself, but people really do want you as yourself in their film.
Strong: I think being slightly below the radar is a more interesting place to be because you can cast around and find [more challenging] projects and more challenging characters more easily. When you get involved with the more mainstream, big-budget films, the brush strokes become broader, and the characters become more obvious. The great thing is that I'm really enjoying working with these directors and being in these kinds of movies, because I haven't done it before. The whole business is such a broad church that I just want to try a bit of everything, and right now it seems to me that I'm right in this rich vein of fantastically interesting, dark characters. I don't believe I'm going to do this forever, but I'll do it for now while I have the opportunity to work with all of these people at the top of their game, and I know there will come a point when I want to try something else.
But you've got to bear in mind I've been doing this for 25 years – I did ten years of theater, I've done television, I've done good guys, bad guys, old guys, young guys. It's just that right now it feels like these might be the only things I'm doing, but the truth is that if you're not playing the main guy or the good guy, other than the villain, what else is there? There's the father, the brother, the best friend, and you know, these are parts which certainly in a broad-stroke big movie are pretty straightforward. So for me, the parts that I'm finding and I'm lucky enough to get are the most interesting ones. But you're right – when you become involved with these bigger movies, what's required of you becomes very obvious, and my job is to make those parts sing in a way that is unexpected, if I can.