Mark Strong: 'The joy that I've had in my career is variety'
The actor talks about his new film Nocebo, his role in the Oscar-tipped Tár, and a potential return to the Kingsman franchise.
Mark Strong certainly can't complain about a lack of film projects at the moment. The Kingsman star has completed as many as five movies currently awaiting UK release, and the first of those – Nocebo – arrives in cinemas this weekend.
The psychological thriller comes courtesy of Irish director Lorcan Finnegan, and stars Strong and Eva Green as an overworked couple whose world is thrown into disarray when a mysterious Filipino caregiver (Chai Fonacier) suddenly shows up on their doorstep, armed with some seemingly strange cures for the mysterious illness which has been plaguing Green's character. To give too much away beyond that point would be to veer into spoiler territory, but suffice to say it's a fascinating film with a very particular atmosphere – one in keeping with Finnegan's previous film Vivarium.
Strong had seen that earlier film and been quite taken by it before he got involved with Nocebo, finding the world the director had created "really interesting," and so when the chance came to meet Finnegan over Zoom he immediately mentioned the possibility of the pair working together one day. The script for Nocebo was sent to him a few months later, and he knew instantly it was a project he wanted to be a part of.
"Lorcan's talent is that he can take something off the page and give it that uneasiness," Strong explains during an exclusive interview with . "Reading [the script], I was struck by the kind of juxtaposition of Chai's character and Eva's character and the meeting of the two worlds. Obviously, a lot of the stuff that you read in the stage directions you need to wait until the film is made in order to get that sense – but I think his talent lies in an ability to know exactly what kind of mood he wants to create with the film."
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Part of Finnegan and screenwriter Garret Shanley's extensive research process for the film was to really throw themselves into the world of shamanism in the Philippines, something which plays a huge role in the events of the movie. They met with various witch doctors, black magic practitioners, and other relevant people, applying much of what they had learned to the script. But this research was something Strong himself did not partake in – for very good reason.
"My character is very skeptical, so in a way I didn't really want to find out about it or fall in love with the notion of this very different type of medicine," he reveals. "But I did talk to Lorcan about it. And he said that he and Garrett had been to the Philippines and had seen a ceremony like the one that Chai undertakes in the movie. And they found it really fascinating.
"So that was enough for me, I kind of understood that the purpose of all that was to be mysterious, unusual, and a little bit almost supernatural. But the fact that it was rooted in reality, I thought, made it all the more powerful."
Another thing that attracted Strong to Finnegan's work was the strong political underpinnings of his films. Whereas Vivarium took aim at the Irish housing crisis, Nocebo makes pointed criticisms of colonialism and the exploitation that occurs under global capitalism, and this was something Strong was especially keen to explore.
"It's one thing making a movie or telling a story that is entertainment, but to be able to address an issue like Lorcan does in the film of class, of privilege, of different societies coming into contact and different cultures coming into contact – I think that makes it much more interesting," he explains. "And I love the idea that there's this sort of very privileged, easygoing couple with the life that we all supposedly aspire to, suddenly having the rug pulled out from under them because of a very tragic event that could easily pass for a random piece in a newspaper that nobody pays any attention to.
"I think it's very brave of Lorcan to bring that into focus. Also, the idea of fast fashion that he kind of incorporates in there – the idea of where are these clothes coming from that we're wearing? Who's actually doing all the work behind the scenes, and what conditions are they working under? We're benefitting from their work, so what does that all mean? I loved that there was a strong political message threaded through the whole thing."
The cast for Nocebo is not particularly large, but Strong was delighted to work with both Eva Green and Chai Fonacier – "a huge star back home in the Philippines" – while he also had kind words for his young co-star Billie Gadsdon, who plays his daughter in the film.
"She is just a joy," he says. "I mean, we got on really well – we did lots of dancing together off camera, we laughed around, she's got a lot of energy and I was happy to sort of absorb that energy. And the two of us got to know each other as well as we could off-camera so that all the stuff that was on camera would be as believable and as realistic as possible.
"Her sister [Beau Gadsdon] is also an actor and funnily enough, I've just worked with her in a movie with Ian McKellen, in which she also plays my daughter. So all the members of the Gadsdon family are eventually going to be playing my children at some point!"
That film with Ian McKellen is The Critic, one of many movies featuring Strong scheduled to arrive in cinemas in the coming months. Indeed, in addition to Nocebo, the actor has a role in another new release coming out this very week – the animated feature Charlotte, which tells the true story of a young German-Jewish painter who fled Berlin on the eve of the Second World War to seek a new life in the South of France. As well as Strong, the film features the voices of Keira Knightley, Jim Broadbent, and Sam Claflin – and the actor says it was a "fascinating" project to be a part of.
"I hadn't been familiar with the story, but I liked the people very much when I met them and they asked me to get involved with it," he explains. "And there is something quite satisfying about doing voice work, because you're not on display quite in the same way as you are in a [live-action] movie.
"I was really interested to learn about her," he adds of the film's central character. "It's an incredibly tragic story but sort of imbued with a sort of artistic love of life, that bittersweet thing that makes for great stories. I play an artist who admires her work and takes her under his wing, and they become very fond of one another – just at the point, unfortunately, when all the National Socialist problems start to kick off in the Germany that they're living in. So they managed to have a sort of short relationship, which revolves around her art and their mutual artistic taste that is then brutally destroyed by the advent of the Nazis."
Perhaps the most exciting project on the horizon for Strong is Tár, the new film from director Todd Field which has already been released to huge acclaim in the US following a Venice Film Festival premiere earlier in 2022. The film – which stars Cate Blanchett as a fictional composer-conductor and is being tipped to pick up several Oscar nominations – will arrive in the UK early next year, and Strong can't wait for audiences on this side of the Atlantic to see it.
"I suppose if there's one edict I try and live by as far as work is concerned, it's always looking for the best work with the best people – you want to work with the most talented people in your industry," he explains. "And Todd Field and Cate Blanchett are two of those people. I loved [Field's earlier film] In the Bedroom way back that he'd done with Sissy Spacek and Tom Wilkinson, and then he'd sort of been away from the industry for 15 years or something, so he came back with this very dense script.
"It took me a few times to read it to get to know it, but the minute he asked me to be involved I was on board – I didn't really even care particularly what it was, I just wanted to get involved. And actually to play a character who is based on a real person who was obsessed with Mahler, and to create a sort of look of that person was just fun. And to get to do all my scenes with Cate? That's joy."
Fans of the Kingsman movies might also be keen to know whether Strong is likely to make any further appearances in the franchise as Merlin – with a sequel and another spin-off film both currently in the works. The agent was killed off during the events of Kingsman: The Golden Circle – but death hasn't stopped other characters in the series from returning, and director Matthew Vaughn has previously teased that Strong could be in line for a comeback in the next film. So, has the star heard anything?
"In that Kingsman universe, everything is possible – so there is a possibility," he says. "I know they're making a third one, so we'll have to wait and see on that score.
"But all I'm really trying to do is mix it up, you know, try and do as many different things as possible – because the joy that I've had in my career is that I've had variety. I think people often get stuck doing one thing only and I've been able to have a lot of variety."
As if to illustrate this point, he discusses three other upcoming projects – a "gritty story set in Ireland" titled Borderland, a "little indie movie" with Jodie Comer and Benedict Cumberbatch called The End We Start From, and a follow-up to the Netflix comedy Murder Mystery starring Adam Sandler and Jennifer Aniston. And he also mentions another filmmaker he's especially keen to work with in the near future.
"There's a really interesting guy called Ti West who's made a couple of movies just recently," he says. "He's doing a third one of those having done X and Pearl, and the third one is called MaXXXine, and he's about to shoot that. I saw those two movies and I thought they were really kind of strange and weird and terrific and great, and I got to have a chat with him about it.
"So if a part comes up in the third one he's doing, then he'll give me a ring and I'll probably go and do it. But like I say, all I'm really trying to do at the moment is find interesting parts in interesting projects, and the more I can vary those projects, the better!"
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