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
The crowd enjoy Latitude Festival 2014

music
Arts and Entertainment
'I do think a woman's place is eventually in the home, but I see no harm in her having some fun before she gets there.'

Is this the end of the Dowager Countess?tv
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Martin of Coldplay performs live for fans at Enmore Theatre on June 19, 2014 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

music
Arts and Entertainment
Keith from The Office ten years on

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Maisie Williams prepares to enter the House of Black and White as Arya Stark in Game of Thrones season five

tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Muscling in: Noah Stewart and Julia Bullock in 'The Indian Queen'

opera
Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TVViewers predict what will happen to Miller and Hardy
Arts and Entertainment
Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright in season two of the series

Watch the new House of Cards series three trailer

TV
Arts and Entertainment
An extract from the sequel to Fight Club

books
Arts and Entertainment
David Tennant, Eve Myles and Olivia Colman in Broadchurch series two

TV Review
Arts and Entertainment
Old dogs are still learning in 'New Tricks'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Tonight we honour Hollywood’s best and whitest – sorry, brightest' - and other Neil Patrick Harris Oscars jokes

Oscars 2015It was the first time Barney has compered the Academy Awards

Arts and Entertainment
Patricia Arquette making her acceptance speech for winning Best Actress Award

Oscars 2015 From Meryl Streep whooping Patricia Arquette's equality speech to Chris Pine in tears

Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Latest stories from i100
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.

    Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

    Climate change key in Syrian conflict

    And it will trigger more war in future
    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    How I outwitted the Gestapo

    My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    The nation's favourite animal revealed

    Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
    Is this the way to get young people to vote?

    Getting young people to vote

    From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot
    Poldark star Heida Reed: 'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'

    Poldark star Heida Reed

    'I don't think a single bodice gets ripped'
    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

    Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
    Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

    Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

    Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
    Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

    The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

    Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
    With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

    Money, corruption and drugs

    The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
    America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

    150 years after it was outlawed...

    ... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

    The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
    Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

    You won't believe your eyes

    Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
    Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

    The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
    War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

    Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn