Mark Strong talks about lending his voice to Studio Ghibli's Arrietty and why he jumped at the chance to fulfil a long-held ambition. He also discusses some of his forthcoming roles, including John Carter, The Guard and Welcome To The Punch.
Arrietty is a lovely movie. I'd imagine there was plenty to recommend it to you...
Mark Strong: For sure, I think it's an absolutely beautiful piece of work. And I've known Studio Ghibli since I worked on Body of Lies when Leonardo DiCaprio asked me if I'd ever watched Castle in The Sky or Spirited Away and I said that I hadn't. He subsequently got me copies of both and I fell in love with the studio. He was fascinated by the storytelling and mastery of the films. I watch them now with my children and they are just magical.
And Arrietty is inspired, of course, by Mary Norton's The Borrowers...
Mark Strong: Yes, and I knew the story of The Borrowers as well and have seen adaptations, so that was another part of the appeal. I think they blended [the stories] seamlessly.
What did you like about voicing the character of Pod?
Mark Strong: I liked that he's the solid centre and very accomplished, so Arrietty looks up to him. He's very good at what he does. And I loved being able to play that kind of father figure.
It must also lend you a lot of kudos with your children, particularly your six-year-old, given that you usually play the villain...
Mark Strong: Oh for sure! They haven't been to see it yet but I'm dying to take them. And as you say, I've played so many villains that they haven't been able to see very many of my films, where I usually get blown away!
How did you find voicing the role? Emily Mortimer said that when she did the European voice-over for Howl's Moving Castle she found it slightly strange as she could also hear the Japanese version in the background...
Mark Strong: Yeah, that is strange. But you have to obey the fact that what you're being asked to do has been created and conceived in Japan with a Japanese voice and a Japanese sentiment, so it's not un-useful to have the sound of the original in the background. But at the same time, the way that the Japanese communicate with each other is different to what we do, so while it is useful to have as a reference you also have to make it European. But I found the process to be very simple and I also had guidance in getting the right sense of feeling and tone that they were seeking.
Were you at all surprised by how active you became in the booth?
Mark Strong: Well, it helps to move around and give some life to the voice. For instance, there's a sequence where Pod is climbing a table and letting himself down on a rope... he's a very physical character and they're very tiny in this enormous world, so it helps to move around a bit. But I just like voicing films in general. I do a lot of documentary work and it's a short hop really to narrating a character, especially if you're on film and you're there in a visual way. It sounds obvious, but voicing an animation really focuses you on the way that you're communicating through your voice. It's a very specific ability that you need to be able to have in order to pitch it just right.
You seem to be busier than ever at the moment... and just a few years ago you commented on how amazing your life was at that moment. There's no sign of things slowing up...
Mark Strong: I've been very fortunate, especially in that the work I've done seems to have bred more work. I've also got to work with a number of directors a few times, which means that if they're asking you back, you must be doing something right [laughs]. But it's a wonderful position to be in.
Of the forthcoming roles, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy looks amazing and boasts one of the best British casts in recent memory...
Mark Strong: It was amazing company to be in and I can't wait for people to see it. I play Jim Prideaux, who is one of the spies, and who will be familiar to anyone who has read the book. But I'm reluctant to say more for fear of giving anything away for the people who haven't.
You also were a part of the ensemble for John McDonagh's critically acclaimed The Guard...
Mark Strong: I was the honorary Englishman on The Guard but that was a terrific experience... the script just made me laugh so much when I read it and I had a wonderful time shooting it on the west coast of Ireland. John knows his film history and he also knew exactly what he wanted the film to be and then boldly went out and made it.
The response has been phenomenal. It's in the UK top 10 without having been released in England - based on its Irish success alone...
Mark Strong: Really? That's great. In the film industry you never really know if all the various ingredients will come together - sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't. As an actor, you don't have much control over those things. It's a director's medium in that sense. All you can really do is minimise the risks of being involved in something that might not work and look for something that also suits you. Essentially, there are various reasons for doing things... to do with character, narrative, which director you're working with, location, etc. So, you consider each role with those things in mind and try and make the right choices to achieve a good consistency and variation. The Guard was just a lovely experience to be a part of.
How was working with Andrew Stanton on sci-fi adaptation John Carter [of Mars]?
Mark Strong: Andrew Stanton is great and incredibly enthusiastic about what he is doing. He's also really in control of the source material - he knows exactly what vision he wanted from the film. What's also amazing about that is that John Carter is derived from such rich source material, coming from Edgar Rice Burroughs. So, rather than something like a comic book vision, this is coming from a Victorian point of view.
On the subject of comic books, how was your experience on Green Lantern and do you know if there will be a sequel?
Mark Strong: It was great fun. I had a great time doing it and I love the film. The economics dictate whether there will be sequels, so we'll have to wait and see. But I'd love to continue playing Sinestro - anyone who knows the comic books will know what happens to that character and we nodded to that at the end of the movie. So, it would be nice to be able to see it through.
And you're currently shooting Welcome To The Punch, as another villain, with James McAvoy...
Mark Strong: Well, I'm not actually a villain. My character was a bank robber who gave up his life of crime and has been living in Iceland for years. So, as the film begins he has basically left all that behind him until an incident occurs that forces him to return to London, where he comes to the attention of the detective [McAvoy] who was trying to capture him when he was engaging in his criminal activities. The ensuing film is a cat-and-mouse chase around London and it's great. It's essentially an action thriller, so I've been diving around, firing guns and it looks great so far.
You've also been quoted as saying you'd love to play a Bond villain opposite Daniel Craig. Can we expect that anytime soon?
Mark Strong: I didn't actually say that. What I said was that playing the villain is an honourable profession and the Bond movies, in particular, have elevated it to a higher status. But saying that, I'm sure if they asked me I wouldn't say "no" and Daniel is a very good friend. But let's wait and see.
Interview: Rob Carnevale Photo: Optimum