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Mark Strong

Brit actor on the making of Zero Dark Thirty

Mark Strong
Danielle de Wolfe
21 January 2013

Hollywood has had Mark Strong on speed dial for bad guy roles for nearly a decade – with characters such as Blackwood in Sherlock Holmes and Frank D’Amico in Kick-Ass helping carve his nasty niche. Now he’s switching sides, taking command of the search for the ultimate villain, Osama Bin Laden, in thrilling drama Zero Dark Thirty. ShortList talks spies, football managers and hairpieces with the London-born actor…

What did you think of the finished film?

It was amazing. I really enjoyed the fact that they’ve taken a non-Hollywood approach to it. It’s like a serious piece of journalism – it’s written and constructed with anti-glamour to try to show dispassionately what the events were that led to Bin Laden’s killing.

How much of the story were you familiar with?

Well, I knew what happened. When I met Kathryn [Bigelow, director] and Mark [Boal, screenwriter], I saw one scene. I got on board because of the intent they had to reproduce the facts of the entire build-up to what happened. The whole project was shrouded in an enormous amount of secrecy. People weren’t allowed to see a full copy of the script.

How was the script delivered, then?

I was sent it online, and you could only access it with a particular code. If you stopped reading it for a couple of minutes, everything went blurry and you had to reapply. That got me right in the mood.

What was your preparation?

The problem with playing a secret agent is that they’re very difficult to find, let alone pick their brains. I played him as if I were recruited into the secret services: efficient, functional, not over-dramatic or over-emotional.

Is your character real?

There is a head of the Afghan-Pakistan division of the CIA. I felt comfortable that they had done their research, and that all of the characters were based on real people. A lot of the discoveries were a result of Mark’s journalism.

Tell us about your ‘hair’?

Hair is like a piece of costume; you go with whatever is relevant to the character. I wasn’t so enthusiastic until Kathryn explained that a shaved head, like I have, in America, means military. They needed to soften him a bit.

What’s the worst wig you’ve worn for a film?

They’ve all been brilliant. You can’t catch me on that.

Have you ever thought about keeping any? Maybe your long, flowing, Stardust one?

My Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen one? Don’t want that one.

Your character in Zero Dark Thirty goes to Pakistan to shake the team up with a bit of table-beating…

At the point in the film where you’re wondering where they are going, he puts a rocket up them all and gives them impetus. There were only a small number of people left trying to find Bin Laden. They had almost given up.

You also filmed scenes with Tony Soprano and Captain Jack from Doctor Who. What was that like?

I thought John Barrowman was a TV presenter. But he’s a lovely guy. Talking to James Gandolfini was interesting. I was about to embark on [US adaptation of British mini-series] Low Winter Sun, so I asked him what it was like making The Sopranos. He said it was very, very hard work and that they shoot fast, with long hours. He had to hire someone to go through his lines with him. That’ll be something to look forward to.

Low Winter Sun is a remake of a British show you did in 2006. What’s it like to bring back an existing character?

Unusual. AMC [US TV channel] always had the rights, but it had taken time to get it going. They were looking for somebody to play my part, until somebody said, “Have you asked him?” I always turned down US TV because I didn’t want to go away, but the opportunity to take a character you’ve already created further, and put it in a different context, is very interesting.

You also have Brit crime flick Welcome To The Punch coming up. Do you enjoy playing cops and robbers?

I had never done an action movie, and this is an attempt to make an intelligent one. It is similar to Low Winter Sun in that it’s dark, but a lot of the stuff that’s being made at the moment is dark. People are fascinated with how others cope with adversity.

Do you have a dark side?

I’m just normal.

You spend a lot of time watching Arsenal…

Are you suggesting that’s not normal? I don’t have dark episodes, but I don’t have particularly light or frivolous ones either. Following Arsenal can be a chore at times.

What would be your solution to the Arsenal ‘crisis’?

I wouldn’t want people to read what I’ve got to say, because the medicine isn’t that sweet. Pep Guardiola was on my letter to Santa, but not yet.

Does anyone bother you at games?

There is a guy who sits behind me, and he says, “Mark, why aren’t you on Soccer AM?” I don’t want to parade my ignorance. You have to kick balls through hoops. I wouldn’t want to humiliate myself.

Zero Dark Thirty is at cinemas nationwide from 25 January. Read more on page 33