Spoilers for Sherlock Holmes and Kick-Ass 2 lie ahead. We’ve also marked a bit in big red letters where we talk about a specific Kingsman 2 spoiler.
While Matthew Vaughn has been the director responsible for a string of fantastic movies, his talisman in front of the camera and a core part of his cinematic journey since Stardust, is Mark Strong. As the superbly villainous (or some might say driven) Septimus, a character just as mesmerising dead or alive, Strong imbued him with a roguish evil that really made him stand out in a packed and stellar cast line-up. His next project with Vaughn saw him take up arms (and fists) against a teenage due in Kick-Ass, doling out a new definition of ‘Daddy issues’ yet giving Frank D’Amico a slightly empathetic core in wanting the best for his son.
However, his turn as Merlin in Kingsman: The Secret Service enabled him to give depth to a part that could have been too cold and clinical if misjudged and allowed, as usual, to steal scenes in an effortless way. It’s one of the aspects of his performances that I love the most and a rare gift to be able to absorb attention, without having to resort to any dramatics, even when playing more stoic characters.
In The Golden Circle Merlin is thankfully given a much larger role and one that allows the character a lot more development, both comically and dramatically, turning a supporting role into a lead in the best way. Mark Strong was on fine form when we spoke to him first thing in the morning, with such a soothing manner that it’s amazing he’s ever had to extract information from anyone on screen other than by asking – we would have told him anything he asked by choice, he was that lovely. So when he walked into the plush hotel room and our time allocation was checked, it led into a discussion about interviews themselves after he confirmed that “We’ve got a royal twenty minutes!”
Oh fantastic. Well, apart from for you maybe!
No, no it’s good. Do you know I don’t mind these things, if it’s something you think is worth doing then it’s something easy to talk about.
Yeah, it’s weird isn’t it? I always worry. It was Linda Hamilton who told me she considered it to be a part of the job and that you’re signing on for it.
What do you worry about? That we might think it’s boring and not want to do it or something?
A little bit, but I always worry more that I’m going to mess it up!
I get this unholy amount of adrenaline before they start.
I think that’s a good thing though, because an actor I can certainly identify with that. You do a play, or you go on set for the first day of filming, if you don’t have nerves and you don’t have any kind of adrenalin pushing you forward then something is wrong.
I always think it means you don’t care.
Quite, because you don’t care! Yes, that’s probably it.
The films you’ve done, with Mathew Vaughn in particular, have been fantastic and are some of my favourites, Stardust being a particularly special movie for me.
What a great film that is. So undervalued at the time.
Massively, so it’s one of those films – if we have time we’ll come onto it – but it’s one of those films I always like to mention, because I don’t know anyone that has seen it, that hasn’t loved it.
No, it’s an extraordinary achievement. I think… I seem to remember when Paramount decided when it was time to release it, that they’d just do a screening in the US on the lot and that was it. They didn’t open it big. I don’t think they had faith in it for some reason. I think they were wrong and I think they have been proven wrong by the fact so many people love that movie.
Congratulations then on your return to Kingsman. I was over the moon actually, because I thought Merlin was such a great stoic character in the first one, even though he’s allowed his one moment of breaking from his stoicism towards the end. It must have been great coming into the second one and having so much more time to develop him. Were you aware that if a sequel was greenlit, you’d get another crack at the character?
I didn’t know – I never know to be honest. I look at films I have done in the past like Green Lantern was meant to carry on, but didn’t. John Carter was meant to carry on, but didn’t. And ironically the ones that did carry on I got killed in, Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass. They did get a second one, but I got killed in those! So I’ve not had a huge amount of luck with sequels, but then I’ve not really been a huge fan of sequels necessarily. Whenever I’ve done a play when it moves onto a bigger theatre, I tend to not have gone with it, because I feel you do it at the time for that reason and often with sequels the problem can be that everybody is trying to recreate something that was amazing.
What sets this apart, genuinely I think is that Matthew [Vaughn, director] knew – he was absolutely aware that sequels are very dangerous which is why I think he didn’t direct the second Kick-Ass, because there are a number of boxes you have to tick. You have to not only be as good as the first one, probably better to keep your core fan audience. You’ve got to develop the characters, there is no longer a surprise in the second one because in the first one nobody knows anything as you’re building a story. In the second one we aren’t building a story anymore, you know who all the characters are, so now you need to have a really dynamic plot and I think he’s ticked all the boxes really successfully.
That’s a really long winded way of saying no I wasn’t expecting a second one, but I’m really glad that there is!
It must have been nice to have played a straight arrow as opposed to the villainous roles you have played in some of Matthew Vaughn’s other films. I love the fact it starts with Merlin saying, after the initial explosion, that you can only shed a few tears in quiet on your own and then a few scenes later he’s crying into his whisky.
He’s a great character, Merlin, because he’s part matron to them all, he’s part hard ass trainer to them all. He’s incredibly gifted, technologically, so there’s a lot of things that he’s really capable of. You wouldn’t mess with him, but he’s kind of the glue that holds everything together. He trains the new guys and he keeps the older guys, once they become agents, in line.
So he has a fantastic overview of the organisation and that was a great character to play and also it was important that he was liked, because certainly in the first one, there was a whole group of people that Eggsy came from who you were supposed to perceive as the enemy and the Kingsman were our heroes. Merlin was somewhere in-between. He couldn’t be as classy as Harry and he couldn’t be as street as Eggsy, which is why we chose that accent for him and that look for him.
So he doesn’t get to wear the Kingsman suit and the shoes and all of that. The tiny details were fascinating on the first one – so the mantra was Oxfords not Brogues, or the code. Merlin unlike the others has a pair of shoes that has one strip of brogue on. They’re all wearing Oxfords or they’re wearing Brogues, but he has an Oxford with one strip of Brogue. I mean that’s the fine attention to detail that Matthew pays. It kind of told me who that character is. He sits somewhere in the middle. He has to be able to straddle both classes if you like.
Did you get much of a backstory for him?
No, I invented that backstory for him, for myself. I mean he has a military background. I think decades ago he might have been somebody’s Batman. You know in the trenches in the First World War. He’s that kind of guy.
And it’s interesting for him in The Golden Circle, as there is more reference to the military and his relationship with Harry, you get the impression that they have fought alongside each other.
In the opening scene of the first one they are on a mission together, aren’t they? He’s at that mission where Eggsy’s Dad jumps on the grenade.
Of course! And it was nice to see that Merlin kept his clipboard I noticed.
Yeah, yeah! Does the big knife come out of the clipboard in the movie? I can’t remember if it’s still in.
I think he gets it toward the end. He’s handing out the weapons and he gets it.
That clipboard had a spring loading mechanism with a massive knife that came out, but I think the scene in which that’s used is in isn’t in the movie, which is such a shame. I watched the first one, when I saw a screening of it and I didn’t really see the film properly, because I was watching so many moments I wasn’t at that other people were in and so many moments that didn’t make it in. So I spent the whole time technically watching what was in and what was out and it’s a shame that that’s gone, but at least I get to use it when I hack down the jungle at the end.
Huge spoilers for the film in this bit!
I had high hopes that he was going to get to use that knife more and then that was not to be. Who decided where to take the character this time?
Yeah, Matthew. Matthew and Jane (Goldman). It went backwards and forwards and I don’t know how much I’m allowed to say. In the original script that came up – I kept getting calls from Matthew while I was in New York I think while was doing A View From A Bridge on Broadway. He kept saying “Listen I’ve got something to tell you. I need too, I’m not sure…”, and he kept prevaricating around the houses and ultimately he said “I think Merlin is going to die in this one, how do you feel about it?” And I said “Well I don’t feel great about it? But, if it you feel it’s necessary for the movie…” if there’s one thing I know he can do is tell a great story.
And then he rang me and said “No, no he’s going to get blown up and survive.’ And I said “Oh great.” And we shot… when we got together everybody was like Merlin can’t die, so we shot an ending where he survives. I don’t know if you remember there’s a scene where Channing Tatum is dancing in the movie and he’s wearing this strange blue suit and when the pool table is opened and all the weapons appear, there’s a blue suit. That’s a ballistic resistant piece of Statesmen kit and the idea is it resists ballistics. So Merlin is wearing it when he is on the mine.
So when he gets blown up what then happens is you cut to Poppy’s diner, the guys are in there weeping and he comes in crawling through one of those dog flaps and he says something like [adopts accent] “What are you crying at give us a hand!” Basically he’s lost the bottom of his legs and then at the wedding at the end he appears with bionic legs. But what Matthew realised from the story having shown it to test audiences and I totally understand this. They felt cheated. It’s such an emotional moment and you’re really not expecting it, but the feeling is ‘oh my god Merlin is gone’. To then have him turn up again five minutes later. The audience were kind of like ‘oh come on!’
I was gutted. That development between Merlin and Eggsy… by the end of the film I was more in favour of Harry being the one to stand on the mine. My affection had transferred completely.
That’s why Matthew is a very clever storyteller, he knows that. He’s made Merlin such a loveable character that for that to happen. I think people were really shocked and to then have him come back crawling through, in a sort of comedy moment…
It kind of robs the moment.
Kind of and I totally get that. Having said that, he has said nobody dies in the Kingsman universe.
I did think that. What’s great about that universe is that you’ve got so many possibilities you can do what you want. You’ve got Colin Firth’s character who came back. You can be rebuilt.
Who knows and it could be a recurring theme that someone who gets bumped off in every movie, then re-appears! [laughs] I was at the wedding in a Kilt and I was at the scene where Jeff Bridges character suggests Halle Berry’s character could become an agent. I was there in a wheelchair, but they painted me out. But the emotional impact of him blowing up on that mine is testament to Matt and Jane’s storytelling.
Huge spoilers end!
When was your first proper encounter with Matthew Vaughn, because I was trying to work out if it was around Revolver and the Guy Ritchie link?
What I remember is, I was on holiday in the US with family and I got a call from Jase Flemyng, who is a good friend of mine, who said “Matthew is thinking about you for his next movie.” He’d just made Layer Cake. I went “Oh great” and never heard from him and then Dexter Fletcher rang me up and said “Apparently Matthew is circling around for you for his new movie.” I thought great, I haven’t heard from the guy. I kept getting the messages that Matthew was thinking about it. Finally, I got a call saying “Do you want to come in?” and it was Stardust, it was to play Septimus.
That’s the first time we worked together and like I say I’ve got a real soft spot for that film. I just think it’s brilliant and then obviously having done that, I remember Matthew turning up one day with a small clip of the beginning of Kick-Ass – the bit where the guy jumps off the roof and I remember thinking ‘What’s that?’ Having made a fantasy movie I was like ‘Where’s he going now?’ Then he asked me to play Frank D’Amico which was just great and completely opposite, or alternative to Septimus – I mean, still pretty evil, but it’s led to now playing Merlin who is a rather lovely character.
It’s funny you saying about Stardust, it was 2007 when Stardust and Sunshine came out and for me, as a movie geek, that year firmly put you on my radar, because those two film were so great. Was that a year you remember standing out in terms of those films being released?
It’s wonderful if you get two movies coming out at the same time that are different. I actually think that’s what got me started in films. I was doing a lot of theatre, I’d been involved with television and I remember thinking ‘How do you kick into movies?’ I’d done a lot of television and got comfortable with it and knew I wanted to have a go at making films and then I made Syriana and Polanski’s Oliver Twist and they both came out at the same time.
In Oliver Twist I played this ginger haired, buck toothed, top hat wearing character named Toby Crackit. In Syriana I played like a third generation Lebanese Muslim who was torturing George Clooney. Those movies came out at roughly the same time and I got a meeting with the Coen brothers as the result of both of those films, as they’d seen both and they couldn’t believe it was the same actor. So that combination of movies got me going in one sense, but doing Stardust and Sunshine gave me two very different characters, which is always useful because people realise that you are versatile.
No matter how many times I watch it, the challenge of the undead sword fight in Stardust always looks incredible. Is that still one of the most difficult things you’ve had to choreograph?
I think it is, I think it is and I hadn’t done enough at that stage to realise quite how complicated that was, I just took it in my stride. What so you’re going to hang me on wires? Have my eyes closed and have a fight with Charlie Cox? What I didn’t realise, obviously, is that if you have your eyes closed you’ve got no way of knowing where your opponent is, or where their sword is, or where your sword is, or where you’re hitting, so it was really difficult.
Basically we had to choreograph this very tight sword fighting sequence and I genuinely had my eyes closed, because there was no way to cheat it. It relied really on Charlie to be able to hit me in exactly the right places, so I could block, or defend, or hit him without injuring each other, while hanging off wires! I’m also very proud of the moment when I’m walking along and Michelle Pfeiffer has that model of me, which she breaks my leg with and my leg flipped out to the side and it looks like there’s an almost an acute angle, where it looks like it’s been broken. That was not an effect, it was literally me throwing my leg out, but the boot was so heavy that it actually went beyond what I was intending! [makes a strained sound] It was one of those lovely, fantastic little moments that happens.
That whole sequence – the burning of the sword in the hand, obviously, there was no red on the sword I had to fake that. That whole sequence had to be completely imagined, because we wherein a sort of green space and I’m really proud of it, I have to say. And another thing that Matthew is brilliant at is the final fight in anything. So, you’ve got me dead, fighting Charlie Cox, being manipulated by Michelle Pfeiffer. In Kick-Ass you’ve got me beating up a twelve year old girl, or getting beaten up by a twelve year old girl. He loves the concept of an unusual fight. So, in the first Kingsman you’ve got Sofia Boutella’s character, Gazelle, with the metal legs fighting Eggsy. There’s something great about the morality of a good guy, bad guy fight at the end of a movie, but he always puts a little twist on it and just makes it slightly different.
And it’s intimacy. I always think with action movies they aren’t given the respect they deserve and there is a big gripe at the moment with big Hollywood blockbusters that it will always end in a big CGI fight. So, the reason those fights work so well, is because there is an intimacy there. You don’t lose the power that’s been building up to that moment in pure spectacle.
I think you’re absolutely right. Watching guys, or superheroes smashing each other over the head for five minutes before the end of a movie, it doesn’t really do justice to what’s gone before. I think you’re right and the mismatch though, of those fights, is also absorbing because you’re wondering what’s going to happen, rather than anticipating it.
It’s going to make it unpredictable.
Yeah, his always have something unusual.
How has your relationship with Matthew Vaughn evolved over the years? Now you’re sort of several films down?
We’ve become really good friends. I really admire his tenacity and his talent, his ability to write a story and to have his finger on the pulse as to what people really want to go to the cinema and see. To reinvent himself from Layer Cake, to Stardust, to Kick-Ass, to X-Men: First Class, to Kingsman – I mean that’s an amazing journey.
I mean every one of those films is good and has been successful and that’s very unusual. So, I admire his talent, but as a guy he’s very loyal. He’s an honorable, loyal guy. I trust him and I really hope Merlin does come back for the third one, because I really want to work with him again, because there’s nothing better than being on set with somebody you not only get on with, but who you know knows how to make a good movie.
He’s also a director whose films there’s always something to love in, yet even some of the directors I grew up on like James Cameron, John Carpenter all those kind of people – even they haven’t sustained that same level of joy for me.
Look at Ang Lee, he seemed to tackle every genre and then even he falters. Even Peter Weir who is probably one of my favourite directors, tackles all those different subject matters, you know? It’s not a given that every movie you ever make is going to be successful or be good, but Matthew so far, touch wood, is on the right trajectory.
Finally, on our site we have a long running tradition of asking what your favourite Jason Statham film is, but obviously I suspect you have a bias on that…
I like him in Lock, Stock I have to say, because when he started out he didn’t know anything about the business, I think. He was an Olympic diver wasn’t he? So there he was, drafted into make a movie that they were all making by the skin of their teeth and he was sort of new and fresh and he just kind of went with his instinct on that one and I suppose subsequently what he’s done is invented himself as this action hero and is very successful at it, but there is something about the naivety of that first performance and finding his feet. That would be my choice!
Mark Strong, thank you so much!
Kingsman: The Golden Circle is in UK cinemas now.