The Kingsman actor on not playing the fame game, the hit-and-run joy of character acting and his punk-rock past
Mark Strong is one of the UK’s most successful cinema character actors, with almost 60 film credits in 25 years, including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy,
Zero Dark Thirty and the Kingsman series. On stage, he won the 2015 Olivier award for best actor for his role in A View from the Bridge . An only child, Strong was born in London and brought up by his Austrian mother, who worked as an au pair. His Italian father left when he was baby. He lives in north London with his wife, the producer Liza Marshall, and two sons.
You studied constitutional law at Munich University. You could now be an anonymous functionary in the German legal system. What made you want to become an actor?
I had fantasies of being a European lawyer, but I quickly realised I probably just had fantasies of wearing a raincoat and carrying a briefcase and driving a BMW. I thought that would be cool. But the study of law is so dry, especially constitutional law in German. I came across a class in Munich – only Germans could have a course called Theater wissenschaft , which means theatre science – and it was way more interesting than what was going on in the lecture halls. I just managed to get in on that somehow, and that opened up the whole world of theatre, acting, performance.
You’ve forged a very well respected career but you’re not famous in the celebrity sense. Has that been a conscious decision?
Totally. At the beginning I didn’t know what fame was or how it could affect your life, so I was probably eager to be noticed and try to become well known, because I believed then, like most young actors, that it would lead to more work. What actually happens is that good work leads to more work. Over the years I’ve been doing it I’ve seen people I know very well become extremely famous and there is nothing about it that I would recommend. I can’t imagine anything worse than being in a position that you’re not allowed to live your life privately.
In 12 years you’ve been in 44 films. That doesn’t include your work on stage or TV. Do you ever take holidays?
The reason it seems like so many is because I’m a character actor. I can be in a film and only do a couple of weeks’ work. And the glorious thing about film is that you only need four or five good scenes and you’re in it. I definitely have that working-class thing of you’ve got to keep working. You’ve got to keep occupied and make sure there’s food on the table. I do get antsy if I haven’t got lines to learn. But yes, I do take holidays.
Were you conscious of being different as a child?
I knew I was outside the regular family system that most of my friends came from. That didn’t bother me at all. All it made me do was fall back on my own resources to decide what kind of person I wanted to be. I’d look at one person and see how they’d come bounding up to you and everyone would think, “Wow, what a great guy.” So I thought, “I want to put that out into the world and have people feel relaxed in my company”, but then you don’t want to be taken advantage of, so you’d need to develop some steel – and I’d observed that in people who were very good at getting what they wanted. I just literally put together behaviours because I didn’t inherit [any] from a father and my mum wasn’t around because I was at boarding school.
I like to shoot the breeze with actors. When else will you get 20 minutes’ downtime with Halle Berry?
You’ve come across a lot of actors. Do you find yourself gauging their abilities? If so, what happens if you’re working with someone you don’t rate?
Yes, you do look at other actors and performances, because that’s your business. I’m not sitting at work ticking off whether I think the actors I’m working with are any good, but instinctively you watch people’s choices and wonder whether you would have made the same one. And that hopefully makes you a better actor because you need to get in touch with what you do best. But we’re also in a business where perhaps if you’re handsome or beautiful you might find yourself getting roles that you’re not deserving of in terms of your talent, because there are a ton of actors I know who are really good and not working, and many who aren’t that good who are.
In Kingsman: The Golden Circle you’re alongside Colin Firth, Julianne Moore and Jeff Bridges. Do you enjoy hanging out with other actors or do you prefer to stay in your trailer with a good book?
Depends who the other actors are. Generally I like to shoot the breeze. When else do you get to have 20 minutes’ downtime with Halle Berry? Most of the actors I’ve worked with and respect, I want to have a conversation with them and find out what they’re really like. I’m like anyone; I make a lot of my assumptions about actors I don’t know from what I read about them. And then I’ll find those judgments are often completely confounded when I meet them in real life.
Electric Hoax and Private Party are names of bands you sang in. Did music lose an undiscovered talent?
Absolutely not. I enjoyed being in punk bands for the performance. They were school bands. I was house electronics captain which meant I was in charge of the amp and the speakers. That was the time of punk and here’s three chords, go and form a band. We literally did that and played very loud bad music that we loved. I think the music world is better without me.
You are also an Arsenal fan. Should Arsène Wenger stay or go?
I was asked just recently who was my man of the year and I said Arsène Wenger, just to be contrary really, because the hurricane of dissent is just down the coast. I’m pro-Wenger because I think he’s reinvented English football. You can’t push him out. The man should be afforded the dignity of going when he wants to. Interview by Andrew Anthony
Mark Strong: ‘I had fantasies of becoming a European lawyer, but I probably just had fantasies of wearing a raincoat and carrying a briefcase.’