Saturday 24 March 2018

Only a Strong impression of menace

Mark Stong seems a perfect screen villain, but in real life the star, who spent time in a home for fatherless children, puts family first, says Evan Fanning

Evan Fanning

WHEN Mark Strong speaks, it's impossible not to feel a slight sense of menace in the air. It may be just conditioning -- a by-product of watching the 47-year-old play the kind of roles where, simmering just below the surface, a psychotic gangster is waiting to emerge -- but it's hard not to seem slightly intimidated in his presence.

Not that there's any need. "What am I, the f***ing Queen?" he says, embarrassed at being ensconced in a large throne-like chair as I enter the hotel room.

While he is nothing but pleasant, it seems Strong brings this air of menace to almost everything he does, including his latest role as Sinestro in the lavish CGI-fest that is Green Lantern.

Strong plays the leader of the intergalactic squadron of Lanterns who is charged with bringing their latest recruit, an altogether human Ryan Reynolds, up to speed to save their existence.

The majority of Strong's work was done in front of blue screens in practically empty studios, where the effects and backdrops would be added in later. "It's not dissimilar to theatre," he explains of the process. "When you walk out on stage, you can see the audience and you know you're not in Chekhov's Russia. You can see the lights, there's a stage manager with a clipboard in the wings. You have to create it out of your imagination. Standing on a blue box doing it to the camera crew is the same thing."

The menacing air he brings to the character has its purpose. Fans of the DC Comics will be aware that Sinestro turns to the dark side and becomes a super-villain, and Strong is merely keeping the door open for this character development should the proposed sequels go ahead, something to which he is more than happy to commit.

"It's so different," he says of working on such extravagant projects. "The next two jobs I'm going to do are low-budget indie films, and that's sort of where my heart is at. That's the kind of actor I think of myself as, coming from the theatre. So to be able to go and do these epic movies that might have a life after the first one is a lovely part of being an actor."

Indie films may well be where his heart lies, but Strong seems a ubiquitous presence in pretty much every major movie made these days. His success has been a long time coming, after many years as a theatre actor, before breaking into television with his performance in the series Our Friends in the North. He subsequently made the decision to leave television behind to focus on a film career, and hasn't looked back.

"I did Polanski's Oliver Twist and Stephen Gaghan's Syriana at the same time -- one Dickensian character and one a torture scene with George Clooney. Completely different. I know for a fact that the Coen brothers saw those two movies and were like, 'That's the same guy? Who is this guy?' Which is consequently why I got to meet them for No Country for Old Men.

"But that was the start of people wondering who I was. The two coming out together and being so different was a real bonus, because it meant you could demonstrate to people that you had versatility. The same thing happened with Body of Lies and RocknRolla. As a result of those movies, they opened doors."

What he is adamant they haven't opened the door to is a life of celebrity. Strong, who has two children with his wife, producer Liza Marshall, counts Guy Ritchie, Daniel Craig and Jamie Oliver as close friends, and he's seen first-hand how life changes when everyone wants a piece of you.

"I'm not interested [in fame]. I'm genuinely not interested," he says. "It doesn't bring you anything. What I'm interested in is having the respect of my peers, ensuring that I can work with the best people in this business. I don't want to be photographed going out to restaurants.

"I'm just really delighted that I don't have to put up with that. It comes as part and parcel of fame. I don't know anybody who genuinely enjoys it. I think that's difficult for people to understand who don't have it. They think, 'Oh, it must be great'. It's interesting for about five minutes and then it becomes a burden because you are constantly running around trying to have a private life in the glare of publicity. I'm very happy. I'm a working actor. I'm not interested in being famous."

So how do Ritchie (who has cast Strong in three of his movies), Craig (godfather to Strong's eldest son) and Oliver (with whom he plays poker) deal with their insane levels of fame? "They learn a technique to cope with it but not one of them is excited by it. You have to run around trying to outwit the paparazzi, which is a real bore."

Fame is not something that was in any way tangible to Strong as a child. Born Marco Giuseppe Salussolia in London, he endured the kind of tough upbringing that in itself could be the storyline of a movie. Strong is an only child of a single mother. His Italian father left when Mark was a baby and the pair have never had any contact.

His mother, who was Austrian, changed his name to Strong to try to make things easier for her son and together they lived in a one-room flat in East London.

When he was five, he went to live in a home called the Asylum for Fatherless Children and travelled to school each day. Forced to sink or swim, Strong chose the latter and feels certain there is a correlation between the difficult situation he was in and his chosen profession.

"Often people talk about their fathers being great influences or their mothers being great guiders or their brothers and sisters -- having to play off them is the thing that gives you your identity, because you're trying to create your own individual world.

"But I didn't have any of that, so I had to play off the general public and everyone I met in my life. I'm sure that made me a bit of a magpie in terms of collecting characteristics and the way I felt about people, and that has probably served me well as an actor."

His memories from this time, he insists, are far from what you might expect from someone of that era. "I don't remember it being tough or Dickensian," he says. "It wasn't really a tough time at all. In fact, it was enlightening. I got to meet other people rather than be an only child at home."

His hardiness was further tested when his mother moved to Germany when he was 11, but, once again, his steely determination came to the fore. "She wouldn't thank me for saying she left, but it was tough in the Seventies," he says. "There was the three-day week, there was rubbish in the street and it looked like England was going to the dogs.

"She's Austrian, she could speak German and they were having an economic miracle, so she could earn far more by working over there and support us much better.

"She moved to Germany when I was 11 and I stayed in boarding school. I remember it being quite exotic. I remember thinking that at the end of term I get to go on a plane and fly to Munich, rather than bung my clothes in a car and head down the road."

Though his own experience of fatherhood came late -- he was in his 40s when the first of his two sons was born -- he is still revelling in the life changes it has brought, and even feels that it has contributed to his success as a movie actor in recent years.

"It changes your life completely," he says. "It changes the way you view the world. It changes the way you view yourself, because you're no longer the most important thing in the world.

"In terms of work, it's probably no accident that my movie career has coincided with the birth of my son, because I get to travel for short periods of time rather than have to commit myself to a long-term play for example. I can earn well, which means I can take care of the family. It has changed things, but for the better."

When the work calls him, the transformation begins from private family man to crime boss, psychotic killer, back-stabbing noblemen or intergalactic warrior. It's all in a day's work for Strong.

"I'm a character actor," he says. "That's what I see myself as. I love playing characters. I don't enjoy playing myself and I've very rarely played myself. I like the idea of transformation. I like keeping people guessing and keeping myself guessing by playing things that are as different from each other as possible. I could be a jack of all trades and master of none. But that's the way I like it.

"In life, I don't go around threatening my wife and kids, and telling people that I'm going to kill them. Well, only now and then."

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