Mark Strong: Ive seen people I know become very famous. Its nothing I would recommend

The Kingsman actor on not playing the fame game, the hit-and-run joy of character acting and his punk-rock past

Mark Strong is one of the UKs most successful cinema character actors, with almost 60 film credits in 25 years, including Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Zero Dark Thirty and the Kingsman series. On stage, he won the 2015 Olivier award for best actor for his role in A View from the Bridge. An only child, Strong was born in London and brought up by his Austrian mother, who worked as an au pair. His Italian father left when he was baby. He lives in north London with his wife, the producer Liza Marshall, and two sons.

You studied constitutional law at Munich University. You could now be an anonymous functionary in the German legal system. What made you want to become an actor?
I had fantasies of being a European lawyer, but I quickly realised I probably just had fantasies of wearing a raincoat and carrying a briefcase and driving a BMW. I thought that would be cool. But the study of law is so dry, especially constitutional law in German. I came across a class in Munich only Germans could have a course called Theaterwissenschaft, which means theatre science and it was way more interesting than what was going on in the lecture halls. I just managed to get in on that somehow, and that opened up the whole world of theatre, acting, performance.

Youve forged a very well respected career but youre not famous in the celebrity sense. Has that been a conscious decision?
Totally. At the beginning I didnt know what fame was or how it could affect your life, so I was probably eager to be noticed and try to become well known, because I believed then, like most young actors, that it would lead to more work. What actually happens is that good work leads to more work. Over the years Ive been doing it Ive seen people I know very well become extremely famous and there is nothing about it that I would recommend. I cant imagine anything worse than being in a position that youre not allowed to live your life privately.

In 12 years youve been in 44 films. That doesnt include your work on stage or TV. Do you ever take holidays?
The reason it seems like so many is because Im a character actor. I can be in a film and only do a couple of weeks work. And the glorious thing about film is that you only need four or five good scenes and youre in it. I definitely have that working-class thing of youve got to keep working. You cant turn down work. Youve got to keep occupied and make sure theres food on the table. I do get antsy if I havent got lines to learn, a character to play. But yes, I do take holidays.

Were you conscious of being different as a child?
I knew I was outside the regular family system that most of my friends came from. That didnt bother me at all. All it made me do was fall back on my own resources to decide what kind of person I wanted to be. Id look at one person and see how theyd come bounding up to you and everyone would think, Wow, what a great guy. So I thought, I want to put that out into the world and have people feel relaxed in my company, but then you dont want to be taken advantage of, so youd need to develop some steel and Id observed that in people who were very good at getting what they wanted. I just literally put together behaviours because I didnt inherit [any] from a father and my mum wasnt around because I was at boarding school.

Youve come across a lot of actors. Do you find yourself gauging their abilities? If so, what happens if youre working with someone you dont rate?
Yes, you do look at other actors and performances, because thats your business. Im not sitting at work ticking off whether I think the actors Im working with are any good, but instinctively you watch peoples choices and wonder whether you would have made the same one. And that hopefully makes you a better actor because you need to get in touch with what you do best. But were also in a business where perhaps if youre handsome or beautiful you might find yourself getting roles that youre not deserving of in terms of your talent, because there are a ton of actors I know who are really good and not working, and many who arent that good who are.

In Kingsman: The Golden Circle youre alongside Colin Firth, Julianne Moore and Jeff Bridges. Do you enjoy hanging out with other actors or do you prefer to stay in your trailer with a good book?
Depends who the other actors are. Generally I like to shoot the breeze. When else do you get to have 20 minutes downtime with Halle Berry while theyre setting up a camera? Most of the actors Ive worked with and respect, I want to have a conversation with them and find out what theyre really like. Im like anyone; I make a lot of my assumptions about actors I dont know from what I read about them. And then Ill find those judgments are often completely confounded when I meet them in real life.

Watch a trailer for Kingsman: The Golden Circle.

Electric Hoax and Private Party are names of bands you sang in. Did music lose an undiscovered talent?
Absolutely not. I enjoyed being in punk bands for the performance. They were school bands. I was house electronics captain which meant I was in charge of the amp and the speakers. That was the time of punk and heres three chords, go and form a band. We literally did that and played very loud bad music that we loved. I think the music world is better without me.

You are also an Arsenal fan. Should Arsne Wenger stay or go?
I was asked just recently who was my man of the year and I said Arsne Wenger, just to be contrary really, because the hurricane of dissent is just down the coast. Im pro-Wenger because I think hes reinvented English football. You cant push him out. The man should be afforded the dignity of going when he wants to.

Kingsman: The Golden Circle is in cinemas from Wednesday

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