Mark Strong is talking about death – his own violent, gruesome death – and he’s chuckling amiably. We agree – it becomes him.
There’s no doubting he’s very handsome indeed – dark eyes, nearly 6ft 2in, lean frame and gleaming pate, shiny as a champion conker – but for some reason he’s not really what you’d call romantic hero material (though he quickly points out that he did, in fact, play Mr Knightley in a 1996 TV production of Jane Austen’s Emma, “and he is pretty much one of the loveliest men in English literature”).
Rather, he’s the film and TV industry’s go-to guy when a script calls for ruthless killer or heartless hitman. In the main, he does evil dudes who meet a sticky end. It’s the way it has to be. “I tend to die horribly,” he laughs. “It comes with the territory of playing a bad guy. In the morality tale that films are, the bad guy has to be vanquished so we all feel better.”
And bad guys – or at least tormented, conflicted characters – are what attract him to a role in the first place. “That’s the stuff of drama, really, and it’s the stuff that, as an actor, you want to find. If you’re too simplistic and two-dimensional, there isn’t enough to really perform and make them interesting. The more multi-layered he is and the more twists and turns you can find in a character, the more interesting he is to play.
“I guess I’m just drawn to the dark side.”
So his CV contains, for instance, the evil Sir Godfrey in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood; wicked mob boss Frank D’Amico in Kick-Ass; vile Lord Blackwood in the Jude Law/Robert Downey Jr bromance Sherlock Holmes and umpteen other nasty pieces of work besides.
His most recent conflicted character is cop-on-cop killer Frank Agnew in the Detroit-based drama Low Winter Sun, made by the production team behind Breaking Bad and hailed as its must-watch, TV-as-addictive-as-crystal-meth successor. But, while Strong delivers a creditable Detroit accent in the role, he played Agnew as a Scot in the original Low Winter Sun, a Channel 4 two-parter set in Edinburgh which screened in 2006.
“It was two one-and-a-half-hour episodes and I was there for a few weeks,” he says. “I know Edinburgh and love Edinburgh – I’ve been on the Festival there and on the Fringe – and I loved the fact that it was such a character in the original. It lit brilliantly and at night it’s such a brooding, gothic presence and that suited the drama we were making. It was a very tough, brutal story about a couple of cops killing another cop and having to deal with the psychological fallout. At the same time my character was trying to track down a girl he was in love with who he’d inadvertently got involved in the skullduggery. He was feeling guilty and terrified that she was in danger, so it was a tough storyline. But Edinburgh suited it perfectly.
“My favourite bit, I think, is when I am up on the Mile and I get a phone call. I can hear the train announcement at Waverley station in the background and I run from the Royal Mile to Waverley and we did the actual route. So often in TV it’s cheated and you get annoyed: ‘Hang on, that’s not the way you would go!’ So I loved that.”
The series won a Scottish Bafta, so he clearly wasn’t the only one. But did he manage to master the Scottish accent? “That seems much easier than it actually is,” he says. “Thankfully I was surrounded by some very kind Scottish actors” – among them John Sessions and Alex Ferns, who played violent Trevor Morgan in EastEnders – “who would help me out if I was going horribly wrong. I’m sure you can hear a couple of moments in there when I’m not absolutely correct but I think I made a good fist of it.”
While Edinburgh played the gothic backdrop in the original, Detroit acts as an appropriately apocalyptic one in the remake. “They’ve had such trouble over the last few years with the bankruptcy that’s just been declared and people not being able to afford their mortgages and houses literally crumbling in the street. The backdrop really suits the American version because the same moral ambiguity the character displays is mirrored by the city.”
The character, too, has evolved in the new version. “Rarely, if ever, do I get the opportunity to revisit a character several years down the line, let alone transpose him from Edinburgh to Detroit, so it was too interesting a prospect to let go by,” says Strong. “And, because it was over a longer period – it’s ten hours this time – there is much more of a storyline around his search for his girlfriend. I was more able to demonstrate how this perceptive cop was a complete loser when it came to his emotional life. I didn’t want to play him as a hard-bitten Detroit cop, I wanted to play him as a flawed individual. In the Edinburgh version he’s much more of a hero.”
He was less certain, though, about the amount of time it would take him away from his family – wife Liza, a TV executive, and two sons, Roman and Gabriel, aged eight and five. “The only reservations I had were about leaving the family, leaving home and living in America,” he says. “I’d so far managed to avoid that. All the movies I’ve done, I’ve really only ever been away for a few weeks at a time, but this was a solid period of four months and I wasn’t sure how I would cope with that. As it was I was terribly homesick.”
The Strong clan decamped to Detroit for a few days over half term, and that made the separation easier, he says. “They were in my apartment and their laughter was around and I could imagine them there and they knew where I was so that made it much easier from then on.” He also went home for a weekend over July 4. “Those two oases in the middle of filming made it feel better. But you’re still away and it’s not the same as being at home.”
He admits he’s “very lucky” and is rarely out of work. When we talk, he’s in the middle of filming The Imitation Game with Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, a film about the mathematician Alan Turing who helped crack the Enigma code during the Second World War, as well as rehearsing for Matthew Vaughn’s The Secret Service, “a kind of spoof James Bond movie with Colin Firth and Michael Caine”. But when he has some down time, he plays football – “I grew up an Arsenal supporter and, although I’m not rabid, I’m a season-ticket holder” – and recently took up boxing, after training on set for Low Winter Sun. “In the third episode I had to look like I knew what I was doing in a boxing ring, so I went to a gym called Bad Boy Gym in Detroit and was trained by Tommy ‘The Hitman’ Hearns, five-time world champion. I’m now realising boxing is a very technical and very difficult sport; it isn’t just two guys lamping each other.”
Still, you’d think those dark, brooding looks would be unmistakeable in the street, but he says he manages to maintain a pretty normal life. “I still use the Tube in London, I walk around town a lot. I’ve seen people looking at me, thinking, ‘I know that guy from somewhere,’ and they’ll sometimes come up and ask for a photo or an autograph, but people are usually very polite; it’s never got to the level where it can be very intrusive.”
Unlike his good friend, Daniel Craig, who starred with him in the 1996 TV series, Our Friends In The North, and is godfather to his eldest child. “You just can’t go out,” he says. “With the best will in the world, some people just can’t help themselves. They’ll run over, and everyone has a phone, and everyone’s phone has a camera, and everyone’s got a Facebook page, so it’s too fascinating an opportunity to get your picture taken with James Bond. Which does mean you can’t move very easily.”
Most of the time, however, Strong is just happy spending time with the family. It’s quite a vivid mental picture: the Strongs snuggling up on the sofa for a DVD night, arguing over who gets the last slice of pizza while watching Dad die. But he’s careful about what films he lets his boys watch. “I try and avoid random television, but I will allow them to watch movies as a treat. If there’s a story, I encourage it and, in doing so, I explain that’s what I do for a job, and it is just a job. It doesn’t mean I’m important or anything like that.”
A favourite is Jane Goldman and Matthew Vaughn’s 2007 fantasy, Stardust. “It’s such a great film, but for some reason the studio didn’t market it, so it never came out with a bang in the movies. It just kind of disappeared.”
Word of mouth and a slow burn now mean it’s something of a cult classic – who wouldn’t want to see Robert de Niro in drag dancing to the can-can? In the film, Strong plays Prince Septimus, whose finest hour is a surreal sword fight during which his limp, dead body (controlled via voodoo doll by Michelle Pfeiffer (I did say it was surreal) battles with the young hero. “I was on wires and I had to do the fight with my eyes closed and trust Charlie [Cox], who I was fighting with, to have his sword in the right place at the right time. We rehearsed that for so long and I think it’s really effective.”
It’s another opportunity for Strong to die painfully and dramatically – first he gets set on fire, then his arm and leg are broken before finally being drowned. “That wasn’t as painful as being blown off a balcony with a bazooka like in Kick-Ass,” he counters, “or an arrow through the neck like in Robin Hood, or hanging from Tower Bridge in Sherlock Holmes – I can’t quite let the boys see them yet.”
Jim Carrey recently withdrew from publicity tours for Kick-Ass 2 in the wake of the Newton shootings in the US, saying: “I did Kick-Ass 2 a month before Sandy Hook and now in all good conscience I cannot support that level of violence.” So where does Strong stand on the violence- in-films debate? He thinks carefully before answering. “I understand that the world of film and the world of drama is one of make-believe,” he reasons, “and what we would hope is that people who come into that world understand that, and suspend their disbelief. I think some people have a certain predilection to being affected by violence – that’s going to happen anyway – and most people understand it isn’t real. But the older I get, the less I want to see things with violence in them. Nor do I gravitate towards scripts that have a lot of violence. But you have to be very careful with it, that’s the truth.”
He’ll find out soon enough if he’s going get another shot at developing Frank Agnew’s complex character. “You make a series,” he says, “and if it’s successful you make another one. When you sign up for it, you sign up for five or six seasons. The thing goes out, they have a look at whatever they need to have a look at – viewing figures, critics, even the appetite at the channel can override those, if you have someone at the channel who likes the show and wants to give it another bash, they will. So if they feel they want to take it further, they have until Christmas to tell me whether they’re going to renew it.
“I think we’re getting more viewers than Breaking Bad got in its first season, and Mad Men. Those shows and the channel were relatively unknown then and people were able to find them in their own time. AMC is now a major player and Low Winter Sun has been held up as the new Breaking Bad. And those are tough shoes to fill.”
Fortunately tough shoes are Strong’s stock in trade.
• The complete series of Low Winter Sun is out on DVD and Blu-ray on Monday.