“Excuse the blood on my Crocs,” says Mark Strong, gesturing at the red splatters on a pair of chunky white foam clogs. “I’ve just come from stemming some blood.”
The Crocs, as you’ll have guessed on an actor who makes regular appearances on Best Dressed lists, are costume. Strong is wearing surgical scrubs on the set of Sky thriller Temple, an eight-part series about an illegal medical unit set up far below London’s streets, based on Norwegian original Valkyrien. In it, Strong plays surgeon Daniel Milton, a protagonist who makes questionable moral and ethical choices for the right reasons.
Milton is the kind of character, Strong explains, that will test viewer affection. He’s a good man, but one who crosses a Rubicon over the course of the drama. “You push people to the edge where they’re thinking ‘Oh my god, the guy’s terrible’ and then you bring them back because they realise he’s doing it all for love.”
Terrible guys have been a mainstay of Strong’s acting CV for over a decade. He’s performed human sacrifices in Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes, plotted with the enemy in Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood, trafficked drugs in The Guard, played Martian war games in John Carter, and been the comic book baddie in Green Lantern, Kick-Ass and this year’s Shazam! Villainy though, wasn’t always his on-screen speciality.
“The weird thing was about the villains, I played good guys for years!” Strong laughs. “And then a villain part came along and they all went ‘ooh no, he can’t do that’ and eventually I got the part and they went ‘he’s great isn’t he?’”
Temple producer Liza Marshall jumps in, “No more Mr Knightley!” in reference to his 1996 role as the romantic lead in ITV’s adaptation of Jane Austen’s Emma.
“Then suddenly it was all villains,” Strong continues. “It went from Mr Knightley to Harry Stark in The Long Firm. That was the part. After then a lot of villains came through.”
2004’s The Long Firm was a four-part BBC adaptation of Jake Arnott’s novel about Stark, a charismatic, psychopathic, gay gangster in 1960s London. When the role came up, the series makers initially weren’t keen to cast Strong. “Because he’d played nice guys, they thought he couldn’t do it,” says Marshall. “Tosker [Strong’s character in Our Friends In The North] is really sweet, and in Births, Marriages and Deaths – that brilliant one with Ray Winstone, he was a really nice guy…”
How did Strong convince The Long Firm that he could handle the dark side? “The producer was on my side,” he smiles, nodding his head towards Marshall. “Liza is that producer, in fact.”
“It was quite a journey to convince my bosses at the time that it was a good idea,” she remembers. Marshall and Strong aren’t just co-producers on Temple, they’re also married with two children.
Based on his previous work, The Long Firm creators didn’t think Strong could play a character based on the brutality of the Kray and Richardson brothers. “Harry Stark murdered people with red hot pokers!” laughs Strong. “They just didn’t see that I could plumb those depths, but Liza knew that I could … I wonder where she got that from!” he laughs. No reflection on the home life, Marshall assures us.
The Long Firm opened the door to a series of hard men for Strong, roles he’s enjoyed but is trying to shake off in favour of playing more complex psychologies. “You get a lot of scripts that you read and suddenly you realise you’re menacing somebody with a knife or a gun in the first few pages and you can see which way the script is going.”
It was the part of Harry Stark in The Long Firm that prompted Ridley Scott to cast Strong in his 2008 action-thriller Body Of Lies, which led to his villain’s role in Scott’s 2010 feature Robin Hood, Marshall tells us. She remembers Scott telling the couple at a dinner for Body Of Lies that Strong had The Long Firm to thank for the part, and Strong telling the director ‘Oh my god, my wife produced it’. That in turn led to Marshall working with Scott as head of his film and TV production arm Scott Free between 2009 and 2014.
Before he made his name as Harry Stark, Strong had gone up for the role of a Bond villain during the Pierce Brosnan era. He didn’t land the part, and the audition experience was a formative one, he tells Den Of Geek.
“I cocked it up,” says Strong. “I’d underestimated what it would feel like being in the room. You can be at home and you can practise and do your lines but when you get into the room and the moment comes where everybody sits back and says ‘okay then, give us what you’ve got’, that’s quite a tense time.”
On the day of the Bond audition, Strong explains, he hadn’t been prepared for how many high-powered executives would be in the room. Ever since then, he says, preparation has been his watchword. “Leaving it late or leaving it to the last moment so you can catch something unexpected – which some actors do, and I admire that – that’s not me. I like to prepare.”
Preparation for Strong’s surgeon’s role in Temple involved the grisly business of observing real-life surgical procedures. He learned the correct way to make scalpel incisions on a torso (the trick, apparently, is going around the belly-button) and was memorably presented with a freshly removed chunk of human lung “like a piece of old boot leather.”
For filming Temple’s surgical scenes, Millennium FX created prosthetic torsos packed with real-feeling organs and pumped with flowing blood under which the actors lie on an inclined bed, so their heads show above the prosthetic gore. They might have to lose some of the red stuff in the edit, suggests Strong “because audiences can sometimes be a bit squeamish.”
As for physical violence, though Temple takes place in a heightened world and his character gets into “a couple of scrapes”, says Strong, don’t expect the kind of choreographed action for which the actor’s become known. Daniel “finds himself on the end of a few beatings, probably deservedly” Strong laughs.
The bottom line of Temple, Strong and Marshall agree, is about the love of a man for his wife. If he found himself in his character’s position, how far would Strong go? “When love is at stake? I’d go pretty far!” he nods. “For love, I’d go pretty far.”
All eight episode of Sky One’s Temple will be available to stream from Friday the 13th of September. We’ll have more on the series later this week.