The character actor has been doing double duty, shifting between a comic turn by day in the Sacha Baron Cohen film and an intensely dramatic lead role every night in the Arthur Miller play, now on Broadway.
For two years now, Mark Strong has been doubling as Agent Sebastian Grimsby by day and Brooklyn longshoreman Eddie Carbone by night.
"The two things are literally diametrically opposed: One is a very erudite piece of art and the other is a fantastic piece of crazy!" laughs Strong to The Hollywood Reporter. "I went from a wonderful standing ovation at the Young Vic to Sacha Baron Cohen in a jester's hat pissing on my leg."
The actor described the rigors of his daily back-and-forth between stage and film, which began in early 2014. He was rehearsing elaborate stunts for The Brothers Grimsby (in which he stars in one of the title roles, alongside Cohen) each day before fronting director Ivo Van Hove's stripped-down staging of Arthur Miller's A View From the Bridge at London's intimate Young Vic Theatre.
When the play transferred to the West End, winning Strong an Olivier Award for best actor, he was still busy with reshoots for the Sony comedy. That meant dressing in sleek suits for his day job and then changing into street clothes for the stage. The Miller production subsequently transferred to Broadway, where the critically lauded drama wraps its limited engagement on Feb. 21. On that date, Strong will not only say goodbye to the tragically conflicted Eddie Carbone, he'll also get closure with his British secret agent alter ego as well, as he flies to London for the Cohen comedy's red-carpet premiere.
Playing characters that take their cue from his name has always been Strong's goal, and trying two at the same time has been more of a reward than an exhausting challenge.
"Nobody gets the opportunity to do things as completely opposite as these two productions are — I love that," he says. "It keeps me busy and busy is good." Following the premiere of Brothers Grimsby (out March 11), the 52-year-old actor will shoot the gun-control film Miss Sloane, opposite Jessica Chastain, and a Kingsman sequel. "I can rest when I'm old," he says.
THR sat down to chat with Strong between matinee and evening performances of A View From the Bridge, touching on why he has a problem with the one-sentence summary of the controversial Miller play, what invaluable skills he's learned from both Cohen and van Hove and why he won't consider himself a "leading man" — ever. The following is an edited version of that conversation.
It's so hard to believe that you've been doing Sacha Baron Cohen's specific brand of comedy after intense performances of A View From the Bridge.
It's chalk and cheese, the sublime and the ridiculous! This play has a built-in prologue and epilogue. It doesn’t matter how weary I am before we start, the shower in the beginning gets me up there, and the shower after that cataclysmic downpour at the end takes me back. And when you've done it many times, it's like a Pavlovian response. You would think that having to delve deeply into your emotions would exhaust you, and it does on one level, but actually I'm very energized at the end of the play.
And when you've got two little boys — they're 10 and 8 — they'll pull you out of character. You can't be a highfalutin actor with them because they'll go, "What are you doing?!" They just want their dad. It's wonderful.
What's something you'll take away from playing the imploding patriarch Eddie Carbone?
How little you need to be effective in the theater. I'm not saying every play should be done without set and shoes, because obviously that's ludicrous. But when it was known that we would do it without set, I was kind of worried. I wondered how that would work, and actually, it's been exhilarating. Once you take away the necessity to persuade the audience that what they're seeing is real, it's amazing what you're left with: basically, the story, the narrative, the characters, the emotions. People have described it as the clearest version they've ever seen because it's unadulterated by the stage business — usually there's lots of meals and eating, the very Italian behavior, and all that is unnecessary, you realize. What happens next, what's going on in their minds — that's all you're really interested in.
Strong plays Eddie Carbone in A View From the Bridge. Photo credit: Jan Versweyveld
What did you and director Ivo van Hove discuss in characterizing Eddie, who is often described as having an obsession with his niece, Catherine?
Actually, Ivo is very hands-off in what he asks from you in terms of performance. He conceived the look of the production and the idea that we'd be barefoot and there'd be no set, and he concocted moments like the shutter that comes down in the end. When we were doing it, he asked us to learn our lines before the first day of rehearsal, so we all came with a very strong idea — I certainly did — of who I thought Eddie was. And we were pretty much on our feet performing from day one, if not day two. Literally standing up without a book in your hand, doing the show.
Having been given that opportunity to learn everything before we started — and I'll do that now whenever I do a job because it's wonderful access to the character before it gets infiltrated by everybody else — I had a through-line for him which, in my mind, was always about his responsibility to Catherine, his role as a man and a father figure in terms of protecting her, and the promise that he'd made to her dying mother. Those were the things that I perceived much more strongly than any sense that he was inappropriate or sexually interested in her.
Whenever I read evaluations of the play, and certainly in students' notes and things like that, it brings up this idea that he is inappropriately interested. But it's only [Eddie's wife] Beatrice's perception of the fact that it's time for Catherine to leave because she's 17 and on the cusp of womanhood. She says she can't sit there in her underwear while he's shaving, and "you throw yourself at him like a little girl," which obviously we do in the play. But there is nothing that Eddie or Catherine says or does in terms of the writing or stage directions that suggests any sexual interest.
For example, right at the very beginning, he says her hair looks lovely, "turn around, let me see the back." What I do is look at her hair and go, "If your mother could see you now, she wouldn't believe it." I know that there are productions in which Eddie uses that opportunity to look at her ass or to suggest a sexual interest there. What Miller has done is really rather brilliant — it's the audience that fills in the blank, and Beatrice. They're just behaving like a father and a daughter who have been intimate and comfortable with each other since she was a baby. The actor playing Eddie has to make that choice, which way he's gonna go — and you can go both ways, I'm not saying my version is right, it's just my particular version. But I've been playing it my way with absolutely no sexual interest and I've had friends afterward go, "Oh, come on! Of course there's a sexual interest there!" It's what the perception is, and that's what great art — without being too pompous — should be about: in the eye of the beholder.
How has it been to finally perform this Brooklyn-set text in New York?
Broadway was somewhere I always wanted to bring this play because it's totally relevant here. Miller worked on the docks in Brooklyn; this story comes from people he talked to in Red Hook. And when you're in England talking about Flatbush Avenue or Times Square, it's exotic, it's theatrical, it's from somewhere else. This audience knows what you're talking about when you say Flatbush Avenue.
Strong received the best actor Olivier Award for A View From the Bridge in London. Photo credit: Getty Images
Did you spend time down on the docks?
I did. It's still pretty bleak down there — the transport isn't really in place for Red Hook. It's probably, more than any of the other coastline over there, not dissimilar to how it might have been. I have a line to Catherine where I say that "I want her to work in a lawyer's office, maybe in New York in one of those nice buildings," and I always do this pointing gesture. In London, it didn't really have any relevance. It was only when I went to Red Hook and looked back across to the buildings in Manhattan that that gesture suddenly had meaning. And now when I do it, in my mind I have a picture of those skyscrapers, what Eddie is actually referring to.
Have there been any memorable American audience reactions?
I'm a bit of a stickler for accents; if they're not working, they take you out of it. But one guy said, "I'm Italian-American and I grew up in Red Hook," and he paid me the enormous compliment of saying, "You totally took me there." People have been very kind about the accent and embodying this guy when it's obviously not my heritage. The whole idea of playing something you're not — if you can nail it, that's just the most satisfying thing.
Having said that — and the person shall remain nameless — an American actor, with whom I'd worked and had seen in a film with a British accent, was pretty good. Not perfect, I'd say it was about 90 percent there. And then I met him, and there's no way I could've told him, "You were at 90 percent," so I found myself going, "Your accent was perfect," just because I wanted to make him feel good about it. He looked at me and said, "I know." But it does mean that whenever someone says to me, "Your accent is perfect," I take it with a pinch of salt.
I think New Yorkers would tell you if your accent is bad, and if you're not hitting the New York you're going for.
That's interesting because when we first came here, we were too New York. Probably because we had learned most of our idea of Brooklyn from New York mob movies. We were told to calm down our accent slightly. In England, everyone thought, "Oh gosh, you sound so authentic." But we came here and they said, "You sound stupid, nobody sounds like that."
Over these two years, how have your evenings onstage compared to your days shooting the comedy Brothers Grimsby, playing Cohen's estranged sibling and a secret agent?
The difference in dialogue is fascinating. Miller is so perfect — he's a craftsman. And the next day, I was improvising on the Grimsby set. At first I was very resistant to it and didn't feel I was very good, and I remember thinking, "Isn't this why we have writers? Because they're better at writing than actors are at improvising?" All I could think of was how perfect the dialogue was that I had been doing in the Miller play compared to the rubbish I was coming up with in Grimsby.
Strong plays Cohen's long-lost spy sibling in The Brothers Grimsby. Photo credit: Courtesy of Sony
And oh, my God, every day felt like they've dreamed up some new humiliation for me: being down a dirty, wet alleyway in a beautiful suit and having to lie on the ground as Sacha fell on me and smashed a bottle over my head a number of times. And then I was a trapped in this sort of silicon, sleeping bag-sized contraption for three days, in very close confines with him, so we had to be good friends in order to survive that. I loved working with Sacha. He's just great fun. He was very supportive and I have a lot of respect for him and the kind of work he does. Very different thing for me to do, but comedy is not easy.
How are your comedy chops now?
I've never really thought of myself as a comic actor, even though I've done films like Kick-Ass and Kingsman, which have a comic element to them. To go into an out-and-out comedy where the genre is unmistakable was something I'd never done and wasn't sure I could do, but I discovered that the best thing for me to do was be the straight man. You look at all the movies that have two guys; one's the straight man, one's the comedy guy. I quickly realized my job wasn't to worry whether or not I was being funny, but rather to be the audience's representative in the movie: watching Sacha, thinking, "What the hell is he doing?"
Do you now consider yourself a leading man?
No. I still consider myself a character actor because that's what I want to be, that's where I think the most interesting roles are. When I started, I was at university and they had a studio theater you could experiment in, and I would play 70-year-old characters and anything that required a lot of dressing up and makeup and different accents. I gravitated toward things that were as far removed from me as possible, and that for me is the joy of acting — playing characters. You can cross-fertilize over various films, theater productions, television shows, and play interesting characters without having to carry the whole thing, which isn't always that enviable a job. Over the years, I've played the head of the Jordanian secret service in Body of Lies, the evil Lord Blackwood in Sherlock Holmes. …. The opportunities to play these fascinating characters come about precisely because you're not shackled to playing the lead. Having said that, I've thoroughly enjoyed playing Eddie Carbone and having his storyline absorb audiences in the way that it has, and I've really enjoyed the company as well. And that's true of Grimsby. I'm really not hung up on whether I'm a leading man or not; I'm not afraid of it and I have no problem with it.
What's an early piece of career advice you still hold onto today?
"If you want 40 years in this business, there's no hurry." That's from the first day of drama school at the Bristol Old Vic. Because the imperative these days is for people to become instant stars. You've got to literally be in the thing that makes you a huge star. But where do you go from there? What are you gonna do for the next 40, 50 years if you want to be an actor? If you want to be famous, fine. Be famous at 21. If that's what you're about, then you're a different kind of actor. But that won't sustain over a whole career — in fact, you can probably count on fingers the actors who have managed to keep working and remain famous for their whole careers. If you're an actor and you enjoy what you're doing and you want longevity, follow your heart and do those parts. They may not the ones that will get you all the attention, but they might be the ones you really love doing for yourself. I just keep taking the work I'm interested in — some of which you'll see and some of which you won't. And it doesn't really matter. I've always loved working, and as long as I'm happy and doing what I love about this business, that's the best I can do, really.