For a man who has played all manner of villains, psychopaths and weirdos, Mark Strong comes across as exceedingly Zen. He may have yanked out George Clooney’s fingernails with a set of pliers (in Syriana), shoved a burning poker down the throat of a rival (in The Long Firm) and dispatched a young girl to kingdom come (in the superhero movie Kick-Ass), but in person he exudes the calm of a Buddhist monk.
Even his voice is soothing (he used it to good effect as a narrator of Who Do You Think You Are?), although there was a period about ten years ago when playing football with his friends, ‘where I would get quite aggressive on the pitch’, he admits. ‘I’ve calmed down quite a lot.’
For a man who has played all manner of villains, psychopaths and weirdos, Mark Strong comes across as exceedingly Zen
Few do pent-up aggression on screen like Strong. Ever since he broke into the public consciousness in 1996 with his role in the BBC series, Our Friends In The North, he has barely left our screens. The series also starred a then unknown Daniel Craig, to whom Strong remains close and who is the godfather to Strong’s 14-year-old son, Gabriel. ‘I was over in Brooklyn recently and I went over and saw them,’ he says of Craig, his wife Rachel Weisz and their one-year-old daughter, ‘and he seems very happy.’
It’s a picture of domestic bliss that is perhaps a far cry from the days when Strong and Craig, fresh from their success in Our Friends In The North, shared a flat in London’s Stoke Newington, where one imagines them surrounded by piles of dishes and queues of women round the block. ‘Well, I’m quite tidy, so maybe I did all the dishes and the tidying up.’ And the women? ‘I’m staying schtum,’ he grins. ‘We were young actors just at the start of our careers and we did have a great time, so I’ll leave it to your imagination.’
Given that Strong gives such a good baddie, it seems a missed trick that he hasn’t yet played a Bond villain, especially since he’d finally get to torture Craig’s James Bond for not doing the washing up all those years ago. ‘It would have been nice to act together as it’s Daniel’s last Bond. We’d have had great fun, but I think maybe it’s better that we’re not doing it because people might not accept it as a genuine thing within the Bond movie, knowing that we’re pals. I did audition for a Bond film once, back when Pierce Brosnan was in the role, but the audition didn’t go particularly well, so that was that.’
Certainly, 56-year-old Strong would have made a pretty good Bond himself. ‘Thank you, I think so too!’ he grins. ‘It just never came my way.’ Is there any jealousy between him and Craig? ‘No,’ he shakes his head. ‘It doesn’t help to obsess about things that might have been.’
It’s a level-headed attitude, one that he perhaps developed after enduring a somewhat complicated childhood. Born Marco Salussolia to an Italian father and Austrian mother, his dad walked out when he was very young, leaving his mother, Waltraud, to raise her only son alone (she changed his name to Strong to help him fit in better at school). ‘She was a very young mum and had come over to Britain, learned the language, worked two jobs and was raising me. Understandably, she found it really hard.’
At five, he was sent to a state-funded boarding school in Surrey until 18. ‘Its remit was to cater for single-parent families. Of course I missed my mum when I was there, but I’d see her in the holidays. When you’re a child you just deal with what you’re given.’
Strong and Daniel Craig (far left), pictured in Our Friends In The North, shared a flat in London’s Stoke Newington early in their careers
His mother later moved to Germany to find work. ‘Britain was going through this whole crisis in the Seventies – power cuts, the three-day week, rubbish in the streets, that kind of thing – while Europe was having an economic miracle,’ says Strong, ‘and as she could earn three times more money abroad, it was a simple question of maths.’ It meant that from the age of 11 he would fly to Germany on his own during the school holidays. ‘Somebody would take me through the airport, put me on the plane and I’d be collected at the other end. My mum couldn’t be with me all the time, so I’d wander around on my own. I learned to be independent from a young age.’
His upbringing also played a part in his choice of career. ‘If you don’t grow up with a traditional family structure, you’ve got nobody to emulate. So I made my decisions of what kind of guy I was going to be through watching other people. It was unconscious, but I was always observing people and that was invaluable when I started to act.’
Originally, he had intended to become a lawyer and, fluent in German, he studied in Munich for a year before changing tack. ‘I had an instinct that I wanted to act and so I pursued it.’ He returned to the UK, spending two years at the Bristol Old Vic, and has barely stopped since. ‘My mum loves watching stuff I’m in,’ he says, ‘and she’s really looking forward to this latest thing I’m doing.’
Strong’s latest project is Temple, a dark comedy set in the bowels of London’s Temple Tube station. He plays Daniel Milton, a surgeon who sets up a secret clinic in order to treat his wife (Catherine McCormack) after conventional medicine fails to cure her life-threatening illness. He’s joined by transport worker Lee (Daniel Mays), medical researcher Anna (Game Of Thrones’s Carice van Houten) and Jamie (Tobi King Bakare), a fugitive bank robber.
‘Daniel faces lots of moral and ethical decisions in order to save the wife he loves,’ says Strong, ‘and what really attracted me was how far you could push an audience in terms of his dubious morality while still keeping them on side.’ It’s wonderfully dark at times and the first episode features an operation scene that isn’t for the faint-hearted. ‘It’s an underground clinic, so they’re sort of operating in battlefield conditions. It isn’t ER. Saying that, I went to Guy’s Hospital to watch an operation. I figure I could take out a kidney now if I had to.’
Strong acted alongside Craig in Flashbacks Of A Fool. Is there any jealousy between him and Craig? ‘No,’ he shakes his head. ‘It doesn’t help to obsess about things that might have been’
Strong’s wife, Liza Marshall, is an executive producer on the show, which is adapted from the Norwegian series Valkyrien (‘we jumped on a plane to Oslo and got the rights from under the noses of the Americans!’). They have been together for 18 years and as well as Gabriel, they also have an 11-year-old son, Roman. Strong balks at the idea of sending Roman to boarding school, ‘not because I had a bad experience, but more because I’m enjoying my kids’ company. I want a family unit who are present.’
Having never met his dad, nor tried to contact him, did Strong worry about becoming a father to two boys? ‘I do realise there’s a disconnect sometimes that comes from my not having anything to relate to in terms of how my father treated me, so I have to be very careful. If they’re fighting, for example, to realise that’s just what boys do and it’ll pass, rather than jump in and be a mediator and try and get to the root of why they’re squabbling.’
Those peace-loving, Zen instincts of Strong, it seems, are impossible to keep down.
‘Temple’ begins on September 13 at 10pm on Sky One