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Q&A: Mark Strong on 'Low Winter Sun' and TV's British invasion

August 19, 2013|By Meredith Blake
  • Mark Strong stars in "Low Winter Sun" on AMC. (Alicia Gbur/AMC/MCT)
Mark Strong stars in "Low Winter Sun" on AMC. (Alicia Gbur/AMC/MCT) (Alicia Gbur/AMC / MCT )

Maybe it's the bald head, or perhaps it's the haunted-looking eyes, but British actor Mark Strong has a track record for playing baddies, from murderous aristocrat Lord Blackwood in "Sherlock Holmes" to the scheming antagonist Godfrey in "Robin Hood."

Now he's portraying a rather more complicated (though still imperfect) character, the anguished Detroit cop Frank Agnew, in AMC's new series "Low Winter Sun." It's a role the British actor knows well: He also played Frank Agnew in the 2006 British miniseries upon which the drama is based.

During a break at the recent gathering of the Television Critics Assn. in Beverly Hills, Strong talked to The Times about reprising the role for American TV, why his fellow Brits are invading the small screen and whether he suffers from "Bitchy Resting Face."

So aside from the accent, is there anything different about the character you're playing in this version of "Low Winter Sun"?

It’s a very difficult question to answer, actually, and of course it’s the most obvious one to ask. I’ve been trying to rack my brain forever to work out what the differences are. I mean, I look the same in both, albeit eight years older. And one character was Scottish and one was American, so they sound different. But I suppose the drive, the impetus is me, so in a way they are the same.

Presumably, since the AMC series is longer, there will be more differences down the road?

The differences will become pronounced. It’s 10 hours as opposed to three hours. We pretty much took all the best moments from the original and made that the bedrock of this U.S. version, but what’s been great, and I’m so happy I made the choice to do this, it’s gone off in all sorts of different directions.  It’s as if you’ve taken and just blown it up and just made it larger and more intense.

So as an actor, what is the appeal of playing the same role again? Is it the desire to change certain aspects of your performance?

There were things that I changed. In the original, the scene in the kitchen where they talk and he says he’s not drunk enough is absolutely in floods of tears. I wanted it to be much more subtle, and what we eventually came up with is that opening shot of just that one little tear trickling down. So it’s a very kind of Zen explanation of his state of mind. So there was an opportunity, I suppose, to make it a little better.

How did it happen that you got cast to play the same part?

I think [showrunner] Chris Mundy was looking for somebody who could play "the Mark Strong part" until somebody said, “Have you asked him?” and he said, "No." Susie [Fitzgerald], who’s the creative head at AMC, said, "Oh, he makes movies, we’re never going to get him. And somebody said, "Well, just ask him."

And of course when they did, I was well up for it, because funny enough I’d been talking about various other TV shows, all of which I’d said no because I didn’t want to leave home. But because I’d started the process of thinking what it would mean to go away from home for 4.5 months, and whether I was amenable to that, what it would mean to sign up for a project that could potentially last for 5 or 6 years. So I’d done all that thinking, so when it came ‘round, the fact that it was a part that I did before, that I wanted to take further, and I didn’t want anyone else to play him either, meant that the decision was an easy one.

That probably puts Chris Mundy in an interesting position, given how well you know the role — you're the authority on it. Did he ever come to you with questions about your character?

No, because I think everything I had to say about that original character is there and they took the best of that, and the U.S. version is his and the writers’. They’re the ones that have taken it to the next level. I think they already knew what kind of character Frank was from the original.

There are so many British actors on TV right now, and most of them are playing Americans , like your co-star Lennie James, Damian Lewis on "Homeland," Hugh Dancy on "Hannibal" and Andrew Lincoln on "The Walking Dead." What's that all about?

My theory is twofold. There’s what TV has become, which is different from what it was 10 years ago. There’s this theory that the studios are just doing these big tentpole movies for hundreds of millions of dollars and all the interesting little indie movies now don’t exist, so all those writers have gone to TV. TV has changed, and it’s changed for the better.  In the past, all the cable channels were trying to find shows like the network shows, and now it’s the exact opposite. All the networks are trying to find shows like cable. That’s why I think British actors are happy to do it, because the quality of the writing is so good and the potential for character development is so great.

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