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Mark Strong: He turned down 'Body of Lies' at first because its shooting was too close to his wife's due date. He changed his mind after she asked, 'Are you crazy?'

October 09, 2008|Michael Ordona | Special to The Times
  • THRILLER: Mark Strong, left, says working with Leonardo DiCaprio on ?Body of Lies? was better than he?d imagined. ?Leo was brilliant,? he says.
THRILLER: Mark Strong, left, says working with Leonardo DiCaprio on ?Body… (Warner Bros. )

ONE CAN'T throw a rock while at multiplexes this weekend without hitting Mark Strong. He's in the Ridley Scott-Leonardo DiCaprio-Russell Crowe counter-terrorism thriller, "Body of Lies," and the Guy Ritchie-Gerard Butler London gangster flick, "RocknRolla." Chances increase if screens are still reflecting "Babylon A.D." -- but good luck recognizing the target there.

In the Ritchie film, Strong is the loyal right-hand man to a thuggish mobster; in the Scott, he's the quietly lethal head of the Jordanian secret service. Pretty much all the men have in common, besides superb taste in suits, is unshakable belief in the rules they follow.

"Obviously, if you're portraying a character that can embody that, they inevitably become quite likable, no matter how bad they are," said the 45-year-old actor by phone from London. "People respond to people who have a strict moral code that they adhere to; in a way they're sort of respectable."

But he knows it takes a group effort to make portrayals work, as "Body of Lies" proved: "Leo was brilliant, because my character would rise and fall on the amount of respect he gave me -- that this guy was genuinely influential, genuinely dangerous and genuinely necessary. He could have pulled rank and said, 'Hey, it's going to be all about my guy.' But Leo, as a consummate actor, gave me the power."

Even Strong isn't sure how many films he'll have out this year (the Internet Movie Database lists six). However, he qualifies his prodigious output by saying several of the movies represent favors to friends and he did only single scenes in some. "Body" and "RocknRolla," however, were major commitments and as different from each other as were his characters.

" 'RocknRolla' is very much a film about London," Strong said. "We were shooting things on the hoof. And there were scenes set on very busy streets in London where we would just jump out of the car and quickly shoot before a crowd could gather.

"That was the total opposite of shooting in Morocco, where everywhere we went there would be hundreds of people standing around watching. On some scenes there were four camera crews. Ridley was sitting in front of four monitors, cutting the scene in his head as we went along. So it was a much bigger operation."

Ritchie has described his kaleidoscopic film as inspired by how the influx of foreign money into London, particularly from Russia, is changing the city. Strong said there's more to it than that: Ritchie, he said, is "a magpie in a sense, in that he takes certain theories that he has about things, like new money from Russia, cigarettes, junkies, honor amongst gangsters, all of those things he loves to draw on.

"You know, Dickens used to write about these outrageous, crazy characters in London and these extraordinary plots that went on and on and were very intricate, interwoven. Guy has a little bit of that."

Strong worked with Ritchie on "Revolver" (2005) and will again in the writer-director's re-imagined Sherlock Holmes with Robert Downey Jr., and hopes to at least once more if the planned "RocknRolla" sequel happens.

Meanwhile, although Scott is one of his favorite filmmakers, Strong initially turned down "Body of Lies" -- the shooting dates were uncomfortably close to his wife's expected delivery date of the couple's second child.

"It was my wife who said, 'Are you crazy? This is Ridley Scott and Russell Crowe and Leonardo DiCaprio; you've got to do this!' " In the end, Strong was able to be present at the birth of his second son, then leave straightaway for Morocco.

"So I arrived and they were all fantastic about it, and we all went out and had a drink that night. But the next day I shot the one scene I did with Russell, and it was me, Russell and Leo sitting around a table with the director, and I must admit, I just sat there in that chair: 'Life doesn't get much better than this.' A father again and working with these guys. At the end of the day, I thought, 'I've achieved something here.' "

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Where you've seen him

Mark Strong has put together more than 50 film and television credits since 1989, mostly in England. Those who saw him as the goofy, harmless soccer fan in the original "Fever Pitch" (1997) might have been shocked to see him torturing George Clooney in "Syriana" (2005). He has been in two movies called "Sunshine" -- the acclaimed 1999 Hungarian film with Ralph Fiennes and the 2007 dying-sun extravaganza from Danny Boyle. He played Inspector Larry Hall on the popular TV series "Prime Suspect" in 1993, reprising the role 10 years later as Det. Supt. Larry Hall. He was recently in "Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day" with Amy Adams and last year menaced Claire Danes in "Stardust."

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