British actor Mark Strong, 51, has made a career of being a supporting actor in some of Hollywood’s biggest films...
I’d sooner play a supporting part than the lead for one simple reason: they are the most interesting to play. I quickly realised after leaving drama school that I could be a far more versatile actor by playing antagonists. These are what we call the character parts.
Often, the supporting characters are more complex. They are not necessarily hampered by a storyline that revolves around them so you can have a lot of fun with them. I’ve been lucky enough to play parts like Mussawi in Syriana. I mean, I got to pull out George Clooney’s fingernails.
I’ve played some brilliant supporting parts in my career so far. They include Lord Blackwood in Sherlock Holmes, Godfrey in Robin Hood, Frank D’Amico in Kick-Ass and Merlin in Kingsman: The Secret Service. Merlin, in particular, is the glue of the film – he links all
the desperate parts.
Rule number one when playing a supporting role is understanding your character’s purpose. They always exist – in fiction, anyway – to serve the narrative. You’ve got to work out what you’re doing and why. You cannot just go in and show off or change your lines or you could throw the whole film off balance.
American actors usually want to be the hero. If you act with one and the balance of power in a scene doesn’t favour them, they’ll often have a problem with it as if you’re getting one over on them. It just makes me think, “We’re telling the story, so what does it matter?” I shouldn’t name names…
American culture reveres the hero, so they feel they have to be that guy. British actors aren’t the same. I grew up playing complex villains like Macbeth and Richard III. There’s an honourable roll call of British actors who did that – Anthony Hopkins, Jeremy Irons, Alan Rickman, Gary Oldman, to name a few. And that’s because we’re not obsessed with being the hero all the time.
It is very hard to sustain being the lead for your whole career. Unless you’re Tom Cruise or George Clooney, you’re going to have a shelf life because it’s too easy to become typecast as a heartthrob or action hero.
Supporting actors, on the other hand, can go until they drop. Because you’re constantly appearing as different people, you never exhaust the audience’s perception of you.
Let’s not forget that supporting actors get all the best deaths. I’ve been hanged over a half-built Tower Bridge by a chain and shot in the neck with an arrow while fleeing a battle on horseback.
But my favourite was being pulverised into dust as I was blown off a Manhattan balcony with a bazooka. When I saw Kick-Ass at the premiere, everybody cheered and clapped. I thought, “That was just classic.” You know you’ve played a good bad guy when you get an ovation when you die.
Kingsman: The Secret Service is out on Blu-ray and DVD now from Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment