Mark Strong.A Friend in the North who conquered Hollywood. Images: Shutterstock/Sky UK Limited
Mark Strong is one of Britain’s most successful actors. From his early breakthrough alongside Daniel Craig, Christopher Eccleston and Gina McKee in classic British TV drama Our Friends In The North to pulling out George Clooney’s fingernails in big budget Hollywood thriller Syriana, by way of an Olivier Award-winning starring role in Arthur Miller’s A View From The Bridge, Strong’s career has gone from strength to strength.
As his hit Sky drama Temple returns for a second series, the actor reflects on his pride at having reached the top of his profession after an unsettled upbringing.
As a 16 year old, I had come through the difficulty of early teens, where you are just raging against the world. I was feeling more like a young man but only equipped as a child. You can’t drive. You can’t buy your own stuff. You haven’t really got your own money, but you want to be independent.
I was saved by sport. I grew in height, put on weight, got really fit so I was able to play rugby and basketball and swam for my county. I was at a state boarding school in Norfolk. My theory about boarding school is that it’s fine as long as you’re visible.
If you haven’t got a talent, you’re not incredibly bright, brilliant at music, incredibly funny, or in my case, good at sport, you can become invisible and that boarding school environment can be awful. But I had a good time.
I don’t have brothers and sisters, my father’s never been around and my mum, who is Austrian, moved back to Germany. So I was in boarding school with no family in the country from 11 onwards. I had no blueprint for life from a traditional family structure. How are you supposed to behave? I wish I could just tell my younger self, in retrospect, that it was a huge bonus because it meant I didn’t have to do what my dad told me.
I didn’t have to compete with siblings. I could just be who I was. Through my teens I was free to work out who I wanted to be without any pressure. It would be lovely to be able to tell him to relax, that it’s going to be OK. Of course, it might not have been OK, that’s the truth of the matter.
I got punk in 1977 and was exactly the right age for it to speak to me. Punk gave me the confidence of an identity, because I could align myself with a tribe. When you’re searching around for who you are going to be, it’s a tricky time.
So to land on a style of music to call your own was very important. Punk also gave me an understanding of creativity and performance, which, until that point, I’d never really considered.
I was isolated from anything remotely countercultural so I started a fanzine with my friend called Neat, Neat, Neat – based on a Damned song. We cut pictures out of Sounds and NME and wrote our own articles, mimeographed the pages, and sold them for five pence to our mates. We felt like we were part of the conversation. Then we went a step further, bought instruments and formed a band. It gave me confidence to get up in front of people and make a racket with the songs we’d written.
But being a musical performer and an actor are almost diametrically opposed. In music, you have to be conscious of yourself – think Madonna or Bowie. But for an actor you have to get rid of the idea that you’re observing yourself and make the truth happen in the moment. So it didn’t turn me on to acting.
I would say congratulations to my younger self – you stuck to your guns
As a teenager, you’re learning about friendship, betrayal, trust and the big one, love and the ending of love for the first time. And those are very powerful emotions. I would advise my younger self to ride those things like a surfer. Deal with the waves as they happen.
If somebody you love leaves you or somebody you think is a friend betrays you, it’s not the end of the world. Learn lessons and make sure you don’t treat anybody else like that.
On paper, a boy from a so-called broken home at a tough state school in the middle of nowhere with no family support shouldn’t have had the opportunities to succeed. I would say congratulations to my younger self – you stuck to your guns.
The fact that I worked out a direction I wanted to go in and made it against all the odds is quite laudable. I have no idea where that dynamism came from. But I am impressed. I didn’t have family or friends in the business. I knew nothing about acting. That was another world to me. People in the movies lived on a different planet as far as I was concerned. So he’d be astonished because back then there was no concept of how you could get the other side of the camera.
I’m also aware enough to realise there were lucky opportunities that enabled everything to fall into place. I don’t think, as a lot of people do, that if you want something hard enough it will happen for you. I worry there’s a generation of people growing up being told that.
I single-mindedly pursued acting because there was no one telling me not to. I studied law and realised it wasn’t for me then I accidentally met a bunch of people in Munich who were all studying performance. I got in with them and realised this is the direction I wanted to go in. Again, having no parental influence meant I was free to try. Everybody thought I was absolutely nuts. But I didn’t have anyone going “Don’t be an actor, it’s not going to work – and most of them are unemployed, so you’ll never make any money.”
I’ve managed to achieve something I wasn’t expecting so I’m calmer now. The dynamic of moving forward, trying to find my place in the world has mellowed with age. Because I have found my place. So I don’t harbour any need to ride across the States on a Harley Davidson, climb a mountain or throw myself out of a plane.
I would love to show my younger self the moment I went to the RSC in 1989, put on a big set of gold armour and played the Bastard of Orléans in Henry VI. To stand on stage at the Royal Shakespeare Company doing a speech would have been a seminal moment to show him as a young man. To go on to the National Theatre and be given my first leading role by Richard Eyre in Napoli Milionaria with Ian McKellen? Wow.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Robert Downey Jr, Frances McDormand and George Clooney, they’re just normal people.
In life there are big turning points and Our Friends in the North was one for me. The range and the scope of it, the genius idea of having four individuals whose stories you followed through the political history of the country – I don’t think you could have sold the political side on its own, because a lot of it is a story about post-war Labour housing policy.
Who’s gonna watch that? But it was such a state of the nation piece. From the late 1960s through to the 1990s – from Harold Wilson through to Margaret Thatcher – and everybody had experienced part of that history.
I would mention to my younger self that when you end up working with Leonardo DiCaprio, Russell Crowe, Robert Downey Jr, Frances McDormand and George Clooney, they’re just normal people. They really are. If they’re eccentric, it’s the business that has made them like that. But when you get them on their own in a room, even though they have a talent, they’re just normal people.
I’d love to tell him not to be afraid of people who you’re told are better than you.
My mother was a young single mother and an immigrant and we were constantly moving around, so I didn’t have any firm base. I never found a place to belong. Each new place I found myself in I just threw myself into wholeheartedly then moved on. Over the years, I’ve had lots of friends who I haven’t kept in touch with, and I feel terribly guilty. But I didn’t have any foundation. So life’s journey was just moving on all the time.
You experience this moment, these people, that environment, then move on to the next one. That’s why I’m comfortable being an actor, because it’s essentially the same thing – each film set or theatre production is a new group of people from which you then move on. But what we’ve been able to give our kids is that they still live in the house they were born in. They still play and walk the dog in the park they were toddlers in.
I can relate to what I might tell my younger self because I’m doing it now to my two sons. It is all about kindness, generosity, thoughtfulness and avoiding and eliminating arrogance, meanness and ego. If you are mindful of others and generous with your time and personality, people like that will gravitate to you and you’ll have a much better time than if you try to win at all costs.
Be kind and empathetic and generous and thoughtful – that would be a good motto for life.
Season two of Temple is on Sky Max and Now TV from October 28
This article is taken from an interview in the latest edition of The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.
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