Chat-Worthy Actor: Mark Strong

Special thanks to guest blogger Samantha Klein of Banana Oil Movies for her outstanding contribution!

I have a confession to make. I play “Six Degrees of Russell Crowe”. Yes, I know it’s supposed to be Kevin Bacon, but I don’t watch Kevin Bacon stuff, and I’m a huge Crowe fan. I’ve seen over half of his movies so far, which makes it easy to connect him to pretty much anyone within about 3 moves. It helps me fall asleep. Lately, my weapon of choice has been Hollywood’s new It Villain, British-born Mark Strong.

Some of you (probably not regular readers) are scratching your heads in confusion right now, but trust me; you’ve seen the guy. He’s been called Andy Garcia 2.0, Alan Rickman 2.0, and Peter O’Toole 2.0. In interviews, he’s humble, charming, and clearly hard-working, as also evidenced by 14 credits on IMDb in the last two years; those in quite a number of notable films, I might add. In reviews, he’s always deemed a strong supporter.

So who is the guy? He’s the new face of menace, from Stardust to Green Lantern. He’s played villain (or at least semi-antagonist) to some of Hollywood’s most notable actors; Leo DiCaprio, Robert Downey, Jr., and Russell Crowe, to name a few. Still not totally clear? Well, that’s the danger of being a character actor. But here – allow me to enlighten you with a small sampling of notable (to me) Strong performances.

Mark Strong and Helen McCrory

1. The Jury (2002).

This Brit mini-series, recommended to me by rtm, features Strong as a troubled husband. He’s suffered a debilitating injury that has damaged his leg, his self-esteem, and his marriage to Rose (Helen McCrory), one of the jurors on the case. Rose seeks to escape from her stifling life by way of serving on the jury, quickly catching the eye of a fellow juror (Gerard Butler), and embarking upon a reasonably serious flirtation. Strong discovers the would-be affair, and drama ensues. This riveting performance is a true precursor to Strong’s current position in Hollywood. The character of Len is pure menace throughout. What truly impressed me, though, is that despite knowing he’s in the wrong, and being really creeped out by him, I found Len to be a sympathetic character. Yes, he’s scary. He does some bad things. But mostly, he’s a broken, beaten man who’s suffered a serious blow to his own confidence, and is just trying to hang on to something he loves. This, I think, is what Strong does best. He imbues characters of questionable (or sometimes quite obvious) moral and ethical standing with humanity. In the end, I felt nothing but sorry for Len, as someone unable to control his life or his own impulses.

2. Stardust (2007). I would argue that “the new Princess Bride” qualifies as Strong’s star-making turn. The devious, totally evil Prince Septimus is a really great villain. Strong plays him with snarling intensity and cold, callous concern for anyone but himself. This was my introduction to Mark Strong, and I was totally taken in by his performance. I think that probably happened a lot in Hollywood, too, since it is after Stardust that Strong has gone on a major tear. The amazing fight scene in which he is essentially a re-animated corpse was an astonishing piece of work, one which he apparently did himself, and this whole movie is a must for anyone looking to see what Strong can do.

3. RocknRolla (2008). Guy Ritchie’s mob romp is a whole lot of fun, and boasts a really great cast that includes the always-brilliant Tom Wilkinson and rtm/Samantha fave Gerard Butler. In my opinion, though, the movie belongs to Mark Strong. He plays Archy, Wilkinson’s mob boss’s right-hand man. In thinking about it, I would compare this role to that of Len in The Jury, but I think it’s more subtle and well-played. Technically, Archy’s a bad guy. He’s a mobster. He walks on the wrong side of the law. But for all of that, his character exemplifies a clear moral code and a sense of right and wrong within the framework of the world in which he lives. Archy is just doing his job, and he does it well, so you get that wonderful Mark Strong menace (tired of that word yet?), but you also get a sense of ambiguity in the sense that, when Archy believes that he, and other people on his level, have been wronged by the higher-ups, his sense of justice is very clearly defined. This, I think, is at the heart of what makes Strong so good. He’s got that look, and clearly his resume is skewed toward villains, but he’s got something more than that. I don’t think it takes a particularly great actor to stand around and snarl and/or look scary, but it does take a bit more nuance to give one’s character a more complex background than just “being the bad guy,” and this is something at which I think Strong excels.

Mark Strong in Body of Lies

4. Body of Lies (2008).

This, I believe, is Strong’s best performance to date. It takes some hard work to be billed under powerhouses DiCaprio and Crowe and still somehow manage to walk away with the movie. Strong is Hani Salaam, the head of Jordanian intelligence. He works closely, and contentiously, with DiCaprio’s CIA agent in an attempt to bring down a group of terrorists. So, in theory at least, Hani is not a “bad guy”. What he is, though, is an extremely suave, intelligent, and ambiguous figure. There are times when he seems to be playing both sides of the fence, but he’s mostly just playing his own game, in which he allows the CIA to think it’s running the show.

This performance is a marvel of highs and lows, with Hani one second charming and friendly (he calls Leo “my dear” most of the time), and in the next instant, we’re back to a sense of immediate danger that is somehow doubly frightening coming from Strong’s soft-spoken accent and impeccably tailored suit. All in all, the movie is decent but not great, but I would suggest it for the performances and the interplay between the three leads more than anything else.


So there you have it. A Mark Strong primer. I highly recommend that you check out this talented guy, particularly in these films, although I have heard good things about a number of others. Syriana and The Young Victoria, in particular, are supposed to be very good, and Sherlock Holmes is pretty much a must for Downey fans. AND, you can look forward to Strong in the upcoming Crowe/Scott Robin Hood (yes, I am horribly excited) and in the Ryan Reynolds-starring Green Lantern (as Sinestro!), due out in 2011. Many thanks to rtm for asking me to write this post and giving me the opportunity to gush a little about my new favorite character actor. Enjoy!

So what’s YOUR favorite role of Mark Strong?