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Body of Lies - Mark Strong interview

Mark Strong in Body of Lies

Interview by Rob Carnevale

BRITISH actor Mark Strong talks about the challenge – and thrill – of appearing with Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio in Body of Lies and working for a director of the calibre of Ridley Scott (his idol).

He also talks about how his career has gone into overdrive of late, working on Sherlock Holmes and The Young Victoria and what he thinks of close friend (and godfather to his son) Daniel Craig as Bond.

Q. Have you ever had a snappier wardrobe than the clothes you get to wear in Body Of Lies?
Mark Strong: No, never! They’re the real deal those suits. They’re from a Savile Row tailor called Huntsman, who are famously discreet. I have no idea who they make them for.

Q. Are they famously expensive?
Mark Strong: I think those suits start at about £4,000. Those suits would have been £10,000 or above. The fabric was unbelievable. The finish, the stitching… everything. I wouldn’t even dare to dream how much the shirts would cost. All of it was impeccable. I don’t know if you’ve heard but those suits were made for an Arab billionaire. He paid for them, there were 30 in the bowels of the building… we were trying off the peg outfits but he [the tailor] suddenly said: “Hold on a second…” And he ran downstairs and came back with six suits. I tried them on and they fit perfectly. The weird thing was that they had these slightly slanted pockets. He said: “The thing is, I’ve got 30 of them, he’s paid for them, but he passed away.” And as we were leaving the shop, he had to check the pockets to make sure they weren’t solid gold because some of them had been ordered with solid gold buttons.

Q. What’s it like going back into your own gear?
Mark Strong: Disappointing [laughs]. I mean going to work and having that hanging in your trailer to put on… you just spend the whole day walking around feeling like a million dollars – especially in Morocco.

Q. By your own admission, one of your favourite films is Blade Runner and yet here you are working with Ridley Scott? How does that feel for you?
Mark Strong: It’s a dream. When I think back to when I first started in this business, the notion that I’d be doing a film with Ridley Scott was mind-blowing. Not just Blade Runner, but Thelma & Louise, Gladiator and Alien. They were all films I grew up with. It’s really odd because someone always has a sheen about them before you know them… and then you meet them. He’s just an ordinary, lovely bloke. We got on really well. I mean, obviously you can’t have a working relationship with him if you keep going: “I think you’re amazing.” It’s the same with Leo [DiCaprio]. Before meeting or working with him, you think: “Gosh, that’s Leonardo DiCaprio….” But then you meet him and suddenly he’s an ordinary guy and you’re having a chat. It’s quite mind-blowing.

Q. Did you have one of those moments where your character, Hani, confronts Russell Crowe and has to go head-to-head against him?
Mark Strong: That was my first scene I did on the movie. My wife had given birth to our son the day before, on the Friday, and I’d flown out on the Saturday to Rabat. We were sat around a table like this, with Leo, Russell and me… my bags were unpacked. They’d been working together already, they were talking about the scene, shooting the breeze and the next scene was the one with Russell, Leo and me in Hani’s office. But then they found out that I’d had a baby boy the day before, so we had to go for a drink! Russell can drink for Australia. I got to bed the worse for wear and I think you can see, if you look closely in the film, my eyes are bloodshot [laughs]. But Russell was fine.

Q. Did he have any fatherly advice?
Mark Strong: No, there wasn’t really time to talk about our kids. The thing was I got there, we did this scene chat, we went out for a drink and then the next morning he suddenly transformed in this suit and wig… Did you know that it’s a wig he’s wearing in the film? He actually had a huge ponytail the night before. But suddenly he had this weird little crew cut. And although he was fine, he was a little bit moody because we were all a bit hungover, which was a lovely way to do the scene. But then, of course, in the scene I have to be very sceptical of his character and Leo has to be very ashamed that he’s spilled the beans. So Russell basically had to take the scene by the throat and do something with it… and he did. I was incredibly impressed with him. It made me realise: “Oh my God, you’re actually really good at this stuff!” he got up, he moved around and he drove the scene.

Q. But you didn’t let him walk away with it?
Mark Strong: Well, that was the character. But there was a part of me thinking: “Hang in there!”

Q. Your career does seem to have suddenly gone into overdrive…
Mark Strong: I don’t know how that happens. You see yourself at a certain level… when I first met my wife, I was happy to be doing little character parts in TV. I thought that’s what I’d do. I had no notion of how you got into movies, let alone work with Ridley and Leo. But it’s just thanks to this slow process of choosing the right parts, the parts working, and getting a reputation. I think the tipping point into movies was when I did Oliver Twist with Roman Polanski, and Syriana with George Clooney. They came out at the same time… much like RocknRolla and Body of Lies now. But when that happens I think it gives people an obvious opportunity to go: “Hey, he’s in that and that and you can see the difference.” Suddenly, you look like an accomplished actor.

Q. I’m always amazed that a good-looking guy like you needs to wear a wig. So, why do you do it?
Mark Strong: Originally, it was the dictates of people’s attitudes within the industry. So, when I came to do The Long Firm, for example, people felt they knew who you were because they see an image of a bald guy and think: “Well, he aint a leading man.” So, a couple of parts came up and somebody suggested it – I think it was Richard Eyre for a play I did at the National Theatre. I was playing a young Italian guy and he had to have hair – so he put me in a wig. It looked great. But then The Long Firm came along and Liza – my wife – suggested it and said: “Look, you’ve got all those images of those guys from the ’50s and ’60s and they have all that Brylcream. So, if you’re going to all the effort of wearing those clothes and perfecting the accent, what’s the difference?” And ever since, I’ve felt exactly the same. I feel it’s a part of the costume. Hani, for example, is very well turned out. I could have played it without [a wig] but it added extra to give him a very coiffed hair do. It adds a little bit of vanity and self-awareness to the character. You’re trying to do that anyway with your accents, so why not do that with your hair? The truth is, Russell was wearing a wig as well and most of the jobs I do nowadays someone is wearing a wig. I’m going to wear one in Sherlock Holmes too. It’s very greased back. But he’s a Satanist.

Q. Can you tell us a bit about your character in Sherlock Holmes? Why not Moriarty?
Mark Strong: Eddie Marsan is playing Inspector Lestrade and we were together the other day and said: “We should have been Holmes and Watson!” But I play Lord Blackwood, a kind of amalgam of all the villainous characters in Sherlock Holmes. I don’t know why he’s not Moriarty, I think because he needs to specifically be this guy. He’s trying to get himself arrested for a bunch of murders so that he can be executed and come back from the dead. He’s a Satanist and a cultist and looks like Dracula. I’m not sure this Sherlock Holmes is going to be one for the purists and people who know the books. It’s a romp. There’s a lot action in it, a lot of humour… there’s no deerstalkers or magnifying glasses. [Robert Downey Jr] plays him as someone who’s not able to see facts. So, every time he’s looking at something you’re honing in at little details.

Q. Are you enjoying watching Robert at work?
Mark Strong: It’s fascinating watching him. He must be one of the most successful actors on the planet at the moment after Iron Man and Tropic Thunder. It’s that thing I was talking about earlier and getting to this level; you suddenly find yourself doing stuff and going: “That’s Robert Downey Jr…” I’ve always admired him and now I’m watching him doing his thing, which he’s extremely good at. He’ll be a fantastic Sherlock Holmes – perhaps not the Jeremy Brett-type Sherlock but he’s made the role his own.

Q. What’s your role in The Young Victoria?
Mark Strong: I play Sir John Conroy. When the Duke of Kent died, he became the controller of the Duchess of Kent’s household. He had a wife and kids but he developed this thing with the Duchess called the “kensington system”, which sounds quite ominous. It was intended to control the young Victoria, so that they would become regent, or he’d become her guardian. So, when she became queen, he’d be the power behind the throne. But what really happened was that when she became queen, she banished him.

Q. So was he a nasty bit of work?
Mark Strong: He was an Irish adventurer. He’d come from a very, very traditional and well-known Irish family. He’d worked his way up to where he got to, but then over-reached himself.

Q. How far down the line is the real RocknRolla. Is that likely to happen?
Mark Strong: I don’t know. It depends on what [box office] business RocknRolla does and whether people want another one. I know that they’re written and that there’s a second and a third.

Q. Have you seen the second script?
Mark Strong: No, but Guy [Ritchie] occasionally rang me up and read lines to me down the phone chuckling. It was usually when I was in the supermarket, or trying to put the baby in the bath.

Q. Years ago, you were with Daniel Craig in Our Friends In The North? Have you stayed in touch and did you see any of Bond in him then?
Mark Strong: He’s a lovely bloke. He’s godfather to my son, Gabriel. I saw him the other day at the Bond premiere. It’s been fascinating watching him grow up into this role. As a friend, there were certain things we were no longer able to do. You can’t go to the pub together, or play in the park together because you have to be careful about that element of it. He’s rarely alone these days and he always has someone around him because he’s so busy. But he’s matured incredibly and I think he’s a fantastic Bond.

Q. Do you not get people recognising you in the supermarket?
Mark Strong: I do get people saying stuff… but often they don’t know what they recognise me from. And I enjoy the game of trying to work out what it is they might have seen me in because obviously there’s a very different audience for the various things I have done. But everyone is usually really polite and ask: “Is it you?” Rather than the fanfare that greets Daniel. But I like it that way. I think I might keep my head slightly below the parapet because I’m not really interested in that element of it… there’s nothing to be said for it. But if the work continues to be what it is now, then I’ll be really happy.

Read our review of Body of Lies

Sir Ridley Scott talks Nottingham and career success