Sitting in the Dorchester at a table full of professional journalists with palpable cut-throat ambition while trying to ask a simple question was mildly terrifying. But the nicest guy in the room was Mark Strong himself, an actor who is most known in recent years for his delicious portrayals of gut-wrenchingly evil villains. His latest film, the epic Robin Hood, is no different-he stars as the sinister Godfrey, a treacherous schemer who betrays England to side with the French.
Though Strong’s favourite Robin Hood is the 1973 Disney cartoon, he admits that the newer side of the legend is much more captivating: ‘I think he’s always been quite light on his feet, and I like that this one was more visceral.’ The visceral nature of the new Robin Hood extended especially to the making of this version, creating an atmosphere of historical accuracy that, perhaps, did not involve (as much) singing. All props and costumes for the film were created with Mad Men-type hysteria regarding authenticity, which clearly impressed Strong: ‘The authenticity is vital I think because it means as an actor, you don’t have to compensate for anything. It’s interesting shooting with John Carter of Mars at the moment, which is basically in a big green warehouse, where spaceships crashing to earth are a man with a ping-pong ball on a stick.’
However, by this point, Strong works well compensating, especially with characters that might fall to easily into the category of cackling, maniacal miscreants. As he points out, ‘two-dimensional villains aren’t interesting, and so that’s what you’re always trying to avoid . It’s a necessity to have a villain in any kind of morality tale, which is what a film usually is, because you need something to juxtapose with the good guy’. However much work he puts into his portrayals, Strong is quick to stress that things could have very easily gone the other way with his career. Prior to becoming an actor, he studied law: ‘Bizarrely I chose the thing that was diametrically opposite, for vanity more than anything else. I thought that being an actor sounded good and it would be a great thing to say I did at parties. I realized actually that I was pretending to be a lawyer.’
Acting as a medieval warrior in an epic beachside battle scene in Robin Hood required much less pretending. Strong talked about the intensity of being there as 120 horsemen galloped towards him and his co-star, Russell Crowe: ‘we were going at each other, hammer and tongs, and there was a moment when he meant to hit me, and he got it wrong, and he looked at me as if to say, ‘that’s your fault’ . And I looked round at the 1500 people and thought, I’ll just take the blame.’
However, Strong looks fondly on his time with Crowe and director Ridley Scott: ‘They’re like an old couple, they bicker. It’s all to the good, because they’re both after the same end. They adore each other, but that allows them to be honest with each other, which is quite rare. Me? I’m Ridley’s squeeze, I suppose.’