After more than a decade, Mark Strong has returned to the London stage. His last live performances came 12 years ago alongside Simon Russell Beale, David Bradley and Helen McCrory in the cast of Sam Mendes’ widely acclaimed final productions as the Artistic Director of the Donmar Warehouse, Uncle Vanya and Twelfth Night.
Since those seminal shows that, he admits, were always going to be a hard act to follow, he has become a byword for quality on the big screen, building a reputation as an actor who, no matter the quality of the production around him, will always turn in an exceptional performance worth parting with time and cash to enjoy.
From Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy to Kick-Ass, Stardust to Sherlock Holmes, he is one of Britain’s finest character actors… which is why, of course, the opportunity to see him perform live, and in Arthur Miller’s devastating tale of obsession A View From The Bridge, is so very exciting.
In person the eloquent Strong is far from the poster boy for nefariousness that he so often plays on screen, though the charisma that makes him such a watchable performer and the jaw line to die for are still very much present.
He spoke to Official London Theatre about playing Eddie Carbone in the Young Vic’s innovative production of the A View From The Bridge, playing baddies and the wisdom that comes with returning to the stage after a decade away:
This is me dipping my toes back in the water and having the massive good fortune of being able to do this play at this venue. I didn’t want to make a big entrance. I was really looking much more for something I could work on. That’s why the choice of Ivo [van Hove, the director] and this cast and the Young Vic is perfect. It’s exactly what I was after, to get into a room and think about what theatre is and why it’s still fascinating. Why in this age of technology we’re still happy to go into a room, switch the lights off and watch a bunch of people pretending to be other people.
I will always choose a character over a script. If a script is okay but the character is brilliant, I’ll still do it. There may be other actors for whom the script is paramount. For me it’s creating the character – without getting too pretentious about it – that is the really exciting interesting bit.
Eddie Carbone is about as interesting as they come. The guy’s homophobic, although he’s not intelligent enough to realise that. He can’t get it up; his wife is complaining that he’s not being a husband. He’s got an unhealthy obsession with his niece. There’s lots about him which is not particularly likeable. That’s the challenge, to play this guy and not just make him reprehensible but try and make people understand what makes him tick and why he is the way he is. With Eddie, the language often tries to take you down a path where you’re just berating everyone. I’m trying to start Eddie off as a regular guy, because that makes the fall more intense, it makes the tragedy more interesting. I’m trying to find anything in there I can that’s gentle, understanding, loving, certainly at the beginning.
Sometimes American actors find it difficult to play the bad guy. They overdo it. They’re frightened of making them real. Their culture is all about the hero and the bad guy is only there to be vanquished, whereas we have Richard III or Macbeth. We have a tradition of understanding, if not venerating, badness for want of a better word. Very few people intend to be evil. They’ve all got a mother or a sister or somebody that they will be tender and nice to, even if it’s a puppy.
Having done Death Of A Salesman in the 90s at the National, I heard every line from that play over months and months. You realise what an amazing writer Miller is, what a true constructor of plot he is and how no lines are wasted, everything connects to something else, there’s always a reason.
I wasn’t sure initially how you take this very classic traditional play and do what Ivo is doing with it; essentially that seems to be stripping everything away that will get in the way of you and Arthur Miller’s intentions. By eliminating set, eliminating props, keeping it to the actors talking to each other, that’s all you have to concentrate on. You’re getting the play, you’re getting the story, you’re getting the relationships of the characters and you’re not watching actors being impressive with props. It’s been incredibly exciting. I hope it’s as rewarding for the audience as it has been for us because we’ve all really responded to it.
I did law for a year, didn’t like it and perversely chose the diametric opposite. I thought if I’m going to spend my life doing something I want it to be interesting. So I went to university and I did an English and Drama degree. I had a great training and then I went into rep at the time when you could nine plays in nine months. I went to the RSC. Ralph Fiennes was there, David Calder was there, Anton Lesser… it was a phenomenal roll call of actors who you not only got to see on stage but off stage. That’s just as important, to see how those guys behave off stage. If they all ran around like pompous arses it wouldn’t be something you wanted to get involved with, but it was intelligent, humble and complimentary. I just remember thinking “I want to be a part of this.”
I don’t sit around at home playing chess with my career. It’s kind of random and it just so happens that over the last 12 years all the film parts that have been turning up have been too interesting to say no to.
With movies you tend to work at home, bring your performance in and hope it slots in with everybody on the day. You spend day after day dovetailing your idea of character with everybody else’s idea of theirs. I can’t think of anything better than going to work and spending all day talking about Arthur Miller and the characters he’s created.
I genuinely don’t really care what people think. I’ve had successes, I’ve had failures, life goes on. I think when you’re a young man, every job takes on significance because you want to impress and have success with it that will bring more work. That isn’t the issue now for me, the issue now is being able to enjoy the process.