Looking at his recent filmography, it seems like villainous roles come a dime a dozen for character actor Mark Strong. But the reason he’s so frequently asked to play baddies is because he manages to bring something new to each of them: from the sham magician in Sherlock Holmes to the foul-mouthed family man of Kick-Ass, each of these characters is markedly different. And for those familiar with the mythology of the Green Lantern comic book series, Sinestro is simply next in line; but the combination of an understated origin story and Strong’s dexterous development of the character turns him into a compelling fulcrum against which Ryan Ryenolds’ Hal Jordan can find his sense of heroism.
Movies sat down with Strong earlier this week for an exclusive chat about Green Lantern. In addition to dishing a few details about Sinestro’s possible direction in a sequel, he talked about some of his other upcoming projects, and explored how he picks his roles in order to protect himself from the one thing that might limit his creativity – namely, stardom.
Movies.com: How have interviews for Green Lantern been so far?
Mark Strong: They’ve been very good. I’ve never done a superhero movies before; I’m English, so the superhero culture wasn’t anything I grew up with. DC and Marvel were around, but I wasn’t really aware of them. Consequently, superhero movies are a genre that I’m aware of, but obviously I’ve never been involved with as an actor or as a fan. So scratching the surface of this stuff is extraordinary; not only do you find that the source material is vast and deep and endless, but that the fans are totally diehard. So it’s been an interesting journey, and my hope is that the film will do two things, which is it will appeal to the fans that they will feel like they’re getting this thing they love, but more importantly, I think it needs to somehow attract an audience like me of people who don’t know anything about it, and not only attract them but deliver as well. So I’ve been fascinated to see people’s reactions.
Movies.com: What’s been the nature of the questions you’ve fielded?
Strong: The similar questions are the ones of ‘what drew you to the role?’ and ‘how did you prepare?’ – those kind of questions that are always interesting. But in this, there’s a definite ‘were you aware of the genre and the mythology?’ and obviously I wasn’t, and that has been really fascinating. And you know what I’m like as an actor; I like to mix it up and do as many different things as possible, and for me this was another place to go that I’d never been before.
Movies.com: Whether or not you address what specifically happens to Sinestro in the future, there’s an enormous amount of mythology to condense into a two-hour film. How much do you look at the source material to incorporate the larger mythology and how much do you just focus on the script?
Strong: You have to play the script. When you do something that’s adapted from a novel, it’s the same. Sometimes it isn’t always useful to read the novel; you play the script, in The Way Back, for example, it wasn’t particularly helpful to go and read the book because Peter had crafted a story based on the book. By the same token, this story is based on the Green Lantern comics, even though it deals with the origin story, which is pretty accurate – I don’t think the fans will be upset – but you have to initially play what’s in the actual film that you’re making. Having said that, I know where he goes, and I know stuff about the whole mythology kind of having read widely about it, so it’s impossible not to have that in your mind. Whether or not an audience will pick it up is neither here nor there. Those that know, they will see it, and those that don’t, it won’t bother them. So I had in my mind that I had to create this guy who could believably be corrupted by the yellow ring, and they say about politicians, power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely, that’s the sort of angle I took for him, which is that this kind of need for order and control is precisely the thing that spills him over to testing the yellow ring.
I had an interesting conversation with Geoff Johns of DC, who said, it’s almost his desire to strengthen the Green Lantern Corps itself, it’s almost that desire that is the reason that he experiments with the yellow ring. Because he wants to set up a Corps to fight the Green Lantern Corps to make the Green Lantern Corps even stronger, perversely. So all of that was in my mind.
Movies.com: Was that something that he came up with or which was an existing part of the Lantern mythology?
Strong: Geoff? Well, I presume it must exist because he knows it like the back of his hand. But he’s s committed, Sinestro, that the implication was it’s that very commitment that tips him over. So he’s not inherently evil, it’s just a desire, this sort of slightly too-manic desire to make the Corps perfect.
Movies.com: Do you have a consistent process that you undergo when you start developing a character?
Strong: There are a number of techniques to always bear in mind, not the least of which is see every reference made to your character. This is what I used to do in plays: every reference that you make in the play or the film, every reference that another character makes about your character in the play or the film, and that’s just the bedrock. That’s where you start from – you find out in the world of the film how that character is referred to – and then it’s up to you to color it in. And what was amazing was the source material, the drawings of this guy, not even what he said, but the way he was drawn – often teeth bared, fists clenched, I mean, so powerful. That was a big indicator to me what direction to go in.
Movies.com: Well, what’s sort of your entry point for most of these projects? Is it the material, the script, the director, or does it vary?
Strong: Well, it can vary. The director is very, very important because they make the movie, as I said. On the other hand, John Michael McDonough had never directed a movie before and I was happy to work with him. You know, Ron Creevey, who directed Welcome To The Punch, has only directed one film before, but I’m happy to work with him, so that isn’t the only thing. The director’s very important, but the character, whether I feel I can do something with it. I just don’t want to play a part where you ghost through the film and you’re not present in any of the moments of the film.
But I always feel like there’s five moments in the film - you know, moments where people come out to the cinema and go, “Wow! What about that bit where… wasn’t that bit amazing when…” and if you’re in one of those, you’re in the movie. If you’re not, you’re not really in the movie. So the part is important. And you know, the story itself. For example, the Romanian film [I’m doing] - I absolutely totally can’t get it out of my head what it’s about. It’s this crazy little event in Romanian history that they can’t seem… it’s an itch I can’t scratch. So it varies, is the long answer to the question.
Movies.com: It doesn’t seem like a lot of audiences have a handle on you as an actor, because you’ve already played so many different roles, that I expect people won’t have an issue with you playing Romanian or any other ethnicity, for that matter.
Strong: That’s great. I just want to remain below the radar, I have no interest in becoming well-known. I just want to play these great characters and deliver them and to make them exciting so that people watching the film will enjoy them. That’s genuinely what I’m after. And I’ll continue to do that for as long as I can.
Read the rest of our interview with Mark Strong, focusing solely on his role in Disney's John Carter, right here.