Mark Strong on acting, insecurity and life without a father: ‘I got angry as I got older. It took years to fix’ | Mark Strong
Mark Strong has a good face for villainy – spare and inscrutable, with thin lips and “eyes like tunnels”, as Arthur Miller might have put it. On camera, he gives a sort of fractional disclosure, expressions altering in tiny increments, so that watching him perform is often an exercise in judging how much good can reasonably be seen in the bad. He specialises in antiheroes and authority figures, from gangsters (Kick-Ass, The Long Firm) to heads of intelligence (The Imitation Game, Body of Lies, Zero Dark Thirty). His latest incarnation – as a surgeon who operates in the criminal underground in the TV drama Temple, now in its second series – melds these roles as he crosses and recrosses the line between conscientious and cruel.
Although highly regarded for his work across stage, film and TV, Strong is not a big winner of awards (though he earned an Olivier for his outstanding portrayal of Eddie Carbone in Miller’s A View from the Bridge in 2015). He comes across as somehow outside the system. He is reputable rather than starry, plays parts rather than leads and has retained the air of a jobbing actor. Surely at 58, after 30 years of nearly constant work and more than 100 screen credits, with a voice so sonorous and distinctive it draws you to the depths, he deserves a bigger breakthrough. Is he frustrated by the lack of leading parts?
“Traditionally, the villain was always something you did if you couldn’t play the hero,” he says. “Whereas I’m happy with the villain. There is something fascinating psychologically about people who are dark. You know: where’s that coming from? What’s it about?”
Besides, he says, “The thing for me was always about working. And if you’re a leading actor, unless you’re extremely successful, you spend a lot of time waiting for projects to come along. And I never wanted that pressure. I just wanted to be working.”
That mindset is understandable in the early phase of a career, but Strong has just finished filming scenes with Cate Blanchett in Todd Field’s Tár, is soon to go on stage with Helen Mirren in Oedipus and plays the lead in his next film, about a bank heist. He doesn’t mean he worries about work now? “Erm … still, a little bit,” he says, sheepishly. “You always wonder what’s coming, if it’s coming, whether it’s going to be any good.”
He has always had this fear of idleness, and I wonder if it comes from his working-class upbringing – his Italian father left when he was young and his mum, who had moved to London from Austria, worked as an au pair and in a clothing factory. “It’s more that there was no safety net. The knowledge that if I fucked up, there was no one to bail me out,” he says.
As a child, Strong felt like an outsider. Does he still feel that? He lets a few seconds pass. “Yeah, probably. And I don’t say that to sound interesting. I mean, genuinely, when you’ve grown up without a blueprint, or a traditional blueprint … It’s like people who never went to university always think they missed out. Or people who haven’t been to drama school who act.” With those people, he says, he is always at pains to tell them: “No, no, you probably didn’t miss out.” University was mostly about going to the pub. You can act without having been to drama school.
But the truth is, he knows what it is to feel something is lacking, and knows it can’t be easily argued away. “I suppose I have that a little bit about life,” he says with a small laugh. “I think I’ve missed … I might have missed something. The handbook.” He mimes pages opening and shutting, and claps his palms together. “The handbook that tells you how you’re supposed to grow up and become an adult.”
Strong was born in Islington, north London. His mum “worked really hard”. “On sunny days, she used to leave the pram on the street because the flat wasn’t that big, and the neighbours all knew me.” He has black-and-white Super 16 footage of these scenes. Baby Mark, or Marco, in his pram – as with many children of immigrants, his mum changed his name by deed poll to anglicise him – the neighbours clustering around him like “real family”.
Strong is unsure how old he was when his father left. “My mum’s never told me,” he says. This would seem to be a gaping hole in his personal history, but he doesn’t experience it like this. He has no memories of his father; no photograph. “And if you don’t remember somebody that you haven’t grown up with, I don’t feel I’ve missed out on anything,” he says, forgetting for a moment that he missed out on the handbook of life; or maybe he is answering himself like he answers the people who missed out on university. He missed out and didn’t miss out.
Strong was christened Marco Giuseppe Salussolia – the same name as his father. He looks Italian, and with his angular white shirt collar breaching fine grey knitwear, is dressed for a stroll on the Via dei Condotti in Rome. He feels a strong connection to Italy. When watching the Euro 2020 final between England and Italy he “really did feel like a neutral”.
“When I go back there, I feel like I’m at home,” he says. “Liza [Marshall, his wife] says, ‘My God, you look just like everyone!’ Especially when I get a tan. I’ve been looking into whether I can reclaim that heritage.”
Italy’s “law of blood” makes it possible to claim citizenship through the paternal line. “I would love to do that,” he says. A friend of a friend who does family trees is helping him investigate. He and Liza have two sons, Gabriel and Roman, aged 16 and 14. “I would love them to have a share in that as well. So that when they grow up they can take part in Europe.”
It must have occurred to Strong that if he goes in search of his Italian heritage, he may find his father. But he seems unfazed by this possibility. “I could find him if I wanted to. I’m pretty sure he knows who I am,” he says. After all, if his father were to type his own name into Google, he would immediately see thousands of pictures of Mark Strong. “He’ll have seen a movie that I’m in,” he says. I can’t help thinking of the fact that he has made so many.
“But it’s that thing – we’ve had two completely separate lives. I totally understand … ’cos he remarried, he’s got a different life, and I’m not sure he wants to get back in touch. I’m sure he would have done if he wanted to.
“I’ve grown up on my own and made up my own life, if you like … I don’t want somebody coming in who has any claim on that whatsoever.”
In a way, Strong long ago laid claim to himself, because from the age of six his mum sent him to a state boarding school for children of one-parent families. When he was 11, she returned to Austria, and he stayed behind.
Boarding school was very regimented, and this is probably why he likes “things that are systemic”. “You had to strip and make [your bed] in the mornings. Some senior would walk through the dorm kicking the end of your bed to wake you up, then you had to go downstairs and lay the table for breakfast … And you had to lay it properly because if you didn’t, some bright spark senior would give you the punishment of drawing 100 correct table layouts.” His wife thinks this boarding school life is “the root of all evil”. He still makes the bed each morning.
There was a prescribed time for writing home. His mum kept the letters. Strong read them recently and they are pretty much the same. “Dear Mum, I am well. Hope you are well. Please send sweets.”
This feels poignant to me, but Strong sounds amused by his childish self, as if it is funny that sweets were all he wanted, or all he asked for. “I was a really quite easy-going kid. I took everything in my stride. Because there was no blueprint, I was open to anything.”
In a very literal way, it makes perfect sense that lacking a script, Strong started to act. He moved to Munich to study law at university (his mum was living there by then) – but became fascinated by the antics in a classroom he passed on his way to lectures. One week, he looked through the windows and the students “were falling into each other’s arms”; he throws back his arms to demonstrate. He was “totally bewildered”. People falling, no safety net, except each other. Only later did he realise it was a trust game. If he had had some sort of authority figure in his life, he might not have done what he did next.
“I’m sure they would have dissuaded me. At that time, headed for the law, they would have all said: ‘You’re nuts!’ But I had nobody saying that to me.”
He returned to England and started a degree in English and drama at Royal Holloway, followed by stage school at Bristol Old Vic, after which he “did theatre” for 10 years. Cast and crew became another sort of family, the script and stage directions a blueprint of sorts. “You’ve got to say exactly what’s on the page, and you’ve got to move exactly where you’ve got to move because other people are relying on you.” And the audience, of course, provided “that intangible connection”, the emotional feedback “that feeds the soul”.
I wonder if the possibility that his father will one day seek him out is always in sight for Strong, like a winking light seen out of the corner of an eye. He says not. “See, that is a very romantic notion. That’s the angle people come at me from when they say, ‘Oh you should, you know, you should catch up.’ And if I’m dead honest, it’s not anything that I need. I believe it would only cause problems, if only to my mum. I’ve got to be respectful of her effort as a young woman. Because he’s not only my dad, he’s her ex-husband. It would be terrible if we suddenly became great mates and she’d done all the work. So I am mindful of her. But also, I now have my family, and they take all of my love and attention.”
He thought a lot about the sort of father he wanted to be. “I was always aware that there’s instinct, and then there’s … controlled behaviour. I was always asking: ‘What’s the best way to be a good dad?’ I had to learn patience because things could make me fly off the handle. The boys are growing into two lovely young men, so I feel proud.”
Strong has an impressively moderated demeanour. He is personable and open. It would be understandable if he had been an angry child but he says he was not. “I got angry as I got older. The tension started to creep in.”
He plays football with other actors, directors and writers in a side called the Friday Rovers, and some years ago the captain wrote to him after Strong had yet again attracted the attention of the referee (“never physical, but a lot of verbal silliness”). The email contained the line: “Where is the rage coming from?”
Strong isn’t sure of the answer to that when I email him again a few days after we speak. “Anger is usually born of frustration, so maybe the complications and responsibilities of adult life?” he says, as if hazarding a guess, although surely he keeps a more precise answer tucked away for himself. He “fixed” the issue but “it took years”. In any case, on the pitch, he is no longer “the guy that does the moaning” – but control versus instinct is a bit of a running theme.
It is funny to think of him losing the plot on the pitch, because in front of the camera and on stage he has absolute self-mastery. “Whereas the thing about physical movement like football is, you’re on the edge of not being in control. Great players can be in control,” he says, citing Maradona, though I’m not sure that’s who I’d pick as a model of control. “Acting, on stage and on film requires discipline.” His technique is about control of the minutiae, those subtle adjustments to eyelines and marginal tilts that make him seem so commanding.
It is curious that, lacking what he has called “an authoritarian figure”, Strong has played so many of them. He was even the voice of the government in its Covid-19 public service advertisements. “But I’m not sure there is a link to having had an authority-free upbringing,” he says. So he hasn’t played the part he missed out on – or didn’t miss – as a child? “I certainly don’t seek out those kind of roles,” he replies. “They just seem to come my way.”