Interview: Why actor Mark Strong is an accidental anti-hero

Mark Strong tells Alice Jones that he never planned on becoming an actor. He just happened upon a picture of Titania...

On the morning I'm due to interview Mark Strong I receive an e-mail from his publicist politely requesting that we meet near to the actor's Queen's Park home as he doesn't want to stray too far from his new-born baby. It's disarmingly, and perhaps a little disappointingly, New-Man-like for the brooding actor who is best known for bringing the serial philanderer and wannabe rock star Tosker (in Our Friends in the North) and the East End gangster and porn king Harry Starks (in The Long Firm) to the small screen.

It's reassuring, then, that within hours he has changed his mind and is striding into the louche drawing room of the Soho Hotel, baseball cap pulled low over his eyes, a smattering of stubble darkening his face, swearing liberally about the state of the London traffic.

We are here, after all, to talk about his latest villainous incarnation in Stardust, Matthew Vaughn's surprising follow-up to his gangster debut Layer Cake. In this British take on a classic Hollywood fairy tale, Strong plays Septimus, the seventh in line to the throne of the mythical Stormhold, ruled over by an ailing King (Peter O'Toole). Ruthless and scheming, he will stop at nothing to remove his brothers (a stellar line-up of Brits including Rupert Everett and David Walliams) and find the fallen star (Claire Danes) who holds the key to the kingdom. Also chasing the star are the witch Lamia (Michelle Pfeiffer), who believes that it holds the promise of eternal youth, and the lovelorn Tristan (Charlie Cox), who wants to impress the lovely Victoria (Sienna Miller).

Strong decided to play Septimus "like a ballistic missile" – and it shows, as he smoulders his way through every scene, putting on a flowing black wig and his best evil purr, even uttering the immortal line, "All right, twinkle-toes?" to Robert De Niro's unconventional pirate.

"If you think about Shakespeare, you remember Richard III and Macbeth before you remember Ferdinand, whose role is just to fall in love and be a bit of a wimp," he says, sipping on his fresh orange juice. "I love the baddies. More important, though, is making the baddies somehow, weirdly, understood."

He's had plenty of practice lately, having made seven films in the last year. Still to come is his "horrendous" botoxed LA agent (opposite Daniel Craig's fading star in Flashbacks of a Fool), a cocaine-addicted 1930s nightclub owner (Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day), "a cultured, charming Nazi" (Good), Archie the gangster in Guy Ritchie's RocknRolla and the violent guardian of the Queen (Emily Blunt) in The Young Victoria.

He's currently shooting Ridley Scott's new Middle Eastern epic, Body of Lies, in which he plays the smooth-talking, Savile-Row-suit-wearing head of the Jordanian Secret Service. "A fantastic wildcard," he admits. "But why play safe and think: 'well, no, unless he's white and from London and talks like me, I'm not going to do it?'" He ascribes this purple patch to his recent appearances in Syriana (playing the Iranian agent who tortures George Clooney's character) and Roman Polanski's Oliver Twist.

Until now, Strong has maintained a fairly low profile, partly, he thinks, by never wanting to play the kind of leading characters we root for and partly because he has hopped about between theatre, television and film. His first job, straight out of Bristol Old Vic drama school, was doing nine plays in nine months at the Worcester Swan Theatre. There followed a nail-biting six months when he thought he'd never work again. It turned out to be the only time the actor, now 44 years old, would find himself unemployed.

He first carved out a brilliant career in the theatre, including spells at the RSC and the National – where, along with Kate Beckinsale, Stephen Dillane and Sally Dexter, he workshopped and later starred in Closer – and in high-profile parts in The Iceman Cometh with Kevin Spacey at the Almeida, David Mamet's Speed-the-Plow in the West End and in Sam Mendes's Twelfth Night at the Donmar.

In 1996 came his big break in Our Friends in the North alongside fellow unknowns Christopher Eccleston, Gina McKee and Daniel Craig, who is now godfather to Strong's two-year-old son. Strong had no idea it would be so successful.

"And Dan didn't either. I remember walking down the street with him one day saying: 'do you think this is going to be any good?'", he says. "It was only afterwards I realised that it's a serious political look at the state of the nation for those 30 years. I think people related to it because it was a really intelligent piece of television."

It could all have turned out very differently. Marco Guiseppe Salussolia was born in 1963 in London to a teenage Austrian au pair and a second-generation Italian immigrant who walked out when he was a toddler. Far from being a precocious young performer ("Perish the thought!"), he became a tearaway and, aged six, was sent away to a school for difficult children. At boarding school in the 1970s he played bass in a "noisy punk band" called Private Party and performed in one play, Derek Benfield's farce The Post Horn Gallop. "I played a scout-master and the whole gag of that character was his knobbly knees peeking out from his shorts," he says wryly. "I only did it as a giggle really and it never made me want to do any more."

Although bilingual, he was "too lazy" to sit the exams to study German at Cambridge and instead went to read law in Munich. After a year, he missed his friends and came back to London, alighting by chance upon his English and drama course at Royal Holloway .

"On the way to G for German in the prospectus, I hit for D for drama and there was a picture of a guy in a dinner suit and a girl in a big white dress and it said 'Oberon and Titania in A Midsummer Night's Dream'. I thought they looked fabulous. It was around the time of Brideshead Revisited and everyone wanted to be fabulous."

These days, life is rather fabulous for Strong. While his career is on a comfortably upwards trajectory ("In the past, if I didn't work, I didn't eat but now I feel I can not work and I won't starve"), he's also blissfully happy at home with his partner, who works in television, and their two sons, who, along with learning lines, take up most of his free time.

"I had this extraordinarily bizarre moment when, two Fridays ago, my missus gave birth to our second child at 11am and by the same time the following day I was sitting around a table with Ridley Scott, Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio in Rabat in Morocco, rehearsing a scene we were going to shoot the next day." He rubs his eyes in disbelief. "This year has been insane."

'Stardust' opens today

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering