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Q&A: Mark Strong on 'Low Winter Sun' and TV's British invasion

Maybe it's the bald head, or perhaps it's the haunted-looking eyes, but British actor Mark Strong has a track record for playing baddies, from murderous aristocrat Lord Blackwood in "Sherlock Holmes" to the scheming antagonist Godfrey in "Robin Hood."

Now he's portraying a rather more complicated (though still imperfect) character, the anguished Detroit cop Frank Agnew, in AMC's new series "Low Winter Sun." It's a role the British actor knows well: He also played Frank Agnew in the 2006 British miniseries upon which the drama is based.

During a break at the recent gathering of the Television Critics Assn. in Beverly Hills, Strong talked to The Times about reprising the role for American TV, why his fellow Brits are invading the small screen and whether he suffers from "Bitchy Resting Face."

So aside from the accent, is there anything different about the character you're playing in this version of "Low Winter Sun"?

It’s a very difficult question to answer, actually, and of course it’s the most obvious one to ask. I’ve been trying to rack my brain forever to work out what the differences are. I mean, I look the same in both, albeit eight years older. And one character was Scottish and one was American, so they sound different. But I suppose the drive, the impetus is me, so in a way they are the same.

Presumably, since the AMC series is longer, there will be more differences down the road?

The differences will become pronounced. It’s 10 hours as opposed to three hours. We pretty much took all the best moments from the original and made that the bedrock of this U.S. version, but what’s been great, and I’m so happy I made the choice to do this, it’s gone off in all sorts of different directions.  It’s as if you’ve taken and just blown it up and just made it larger and more intense.

So as an actor, what is the appeal of playing the same role again? Is it the desire to change certain aspects of your performance?

There were things that I changed. In the original, the scene in the kitchen where they talk and he says he’s not drunk enough is absolutely in floods of tears. I wanted it to be much more subtle, and what we eventually came up with is that opening shot of just that one little tear trickling down. So it’s a very kind of Zen explanation of his state of mind. So there was an opportunity, I suppose, to make it a little better.

How did it happen that you got cast to play the same part?

I think [showrunner] Chris Mundy was looking for somebody who could play "the Mark Strong part" until somebody said, “Have you asked him?” and he said, "No." Susie [Fitzgerald], who’s the creative head at AMC, said, "Oh, he makes movies, we’re never going to get him. And somebody said, "Well, just ask him."

And of course when they did, I was well up for it, because funny enough I’d been talking about various other TV shows, all of which I’d said no because I didn’t want to leave home. But because I’d started the process of thinking what it would mean to go away from home for 4.5 months, and whether I was amenable to that, what it would mean to sign up for a project that could potentially last for 5 or 6 years. So I’d done all that thinking, so when it came ‘round, the fact that it was a part that I did before, that I wanted to take further, and I didn’t want anyone else to play him either, meant that the decision was an easy one.

That probably puts Chris Mundy in an interesting position, given how well you know the role — you're the authority on it. Did he ever come to you with questions about your character?

No, because I think everything I had to say about that original character is there and they took the best of that, and the U.S. version is his and the writers’. They’re the ones that have taken it to the next level. I think they already knew what kind of character Frank was from the original.

There are so many British actors on TV right now, and most of them are playing Americans , like your co-star Lennie James, Damian Lewis on "Homeland," Hugh Dancy on "Hannibal" and Andrew Lincoln on "The Walking Dead." What's that all about?

My theory is twofold. There’s what TV has become, which is different from what it was 10 years ago. There’s this theory that the studios are just doing these big tentpole movies for hundreds of millions of dollars and all the interesting little indie movies now don’t exist, so all those writers have gone to TV. TV has changed, and it’s changed for the better.  In the past, all the cable channels were trying to find shows like the network shows, and now it’s the exact opposite. All the networks are trying to find shows like cable. That’s why I think British actors are happy to do it, because the quality of the writing is so good and the potential for character development is so great.

The other thing is, I asked someone this, why are you casting British people? Because I’ve always thought that it’s we have training, which means we know our lines, we hit our marks in an environment where you have to work fast and you can’t muck about. American actors are just as good, but the perception of the training of British actors lends itself to this process. And she said, "Well, that’s partly true, but we also don’t know who you are. You’re fresh, you’re new, you haven’t been doing TV for ages." James [Purefoy, of "The Following"] hasn’t been in other shows. Andy Lincoln hadn’t done any U.S. TV. The thing is, we’re unknown over here.

The series is interesting in that it's kind of a whodunnit in reverse: The crime happens in the opening minutes of the pilot, then we slowly start piecing together the motive.

As an audience you’re trying to piece it together, but then the cops, we’re trying to undo everything. In episode 3, a witness turns up who’s seen it and comes in and gives a confession and we have to undo his testimony and we kind of baffle his testimony. Instead of a normal cop show where they’re trying to get the information, you’re watching two cops kind of confuse a witness to give the wrong information because obviously if he’s correct then they’re in trouble.

So elements like that are what I think makes the show different. I love that confusion, and making the audience work, and not spoon-feeding them plotlines. That’s my taste, that’s why I agreed to do it, I think it’s AMC’s taste, which is why “Breaking Bad” is so successful, and I think it’s the audience’s taste, which is why “The Bridge” and “The Killing” are all being remade because that dark, moody Scandinavian drama has become really, really popular.

What are you watching on TV these days?

I love all those dark twisty shows, but my favorite show at the moment is “Girls.” I love watching it. I’ve forgot how self-absorbed you can be at 21 years old or whatever. And I love the characters, and I want to revisit every week and see what they’re doing. But obviously I’m a great fan of “Breaking Bad,” “The Wire,” ”The Shield,” “The Sopranos,” “The West Wing,” so I’m really happy to be hopefully a part of the world of those shows, if we manage to find an audience.

There's been a lot of talk about the antihero show and whether it's overstayed its welcome. Are you worried people might be sick of this kind of show?

Like everything, you can’t just flog a dead horse endlessly and every new generation wants to undo what the generation before did, but it’s a question of when the tipping point is. I don’t think it’s yet, to be honest, I think there’s some storylines and some psychology to be mined in antiheroes now, because I can’t imagine if you turned around now and made a show about a goodie, that anybody would be particularly interested.  I don’t think we’re there yet, and I’m not so sure that Frank is necessarily an antihero, I’m not sure what the definition of an antihero is exactly. I mean, he’s a guy who believes himself to be good who does this terrible thing. But that’s more like Greek tragedy to me, which is about some cataclysm, like a guy sleeping with his mom not knowing that it’s his mom That’s more what "Low Winter" to me feels like, a massive Greek tragedy.

So without giving too much away, can you speak a bit more about his motives?

He’s a guy who lives in a very difficult world, and he believes that this woman that he’s fallen in love with is his last chance for happiness in a Chekhovian way, she’s a shop that’s passing in the night and he needs to grab hold of it and her and be happy. He’s persuaded himself of that. And then someone kills her, and takes that away, and pulls the rug out. It doesn’t take much to persuade him that the person who did that needs to be eliminated and gotten rid of, and that pushes him over to the dark side. His motives are he believes this person has ruined his only and last chance of happiness, which is a great motivator when you live in the environment that he lives in.

You tend to play bad guys a lot. Why do you think that is?

When I got a part on TV a while ago, a gangster called Harry Starks on "The Long Firm." I canvassed hard for that part, because they all thought I was too nice. I got it, it won awards, and then suddenly I got loads of villains. I had to make a choice, do I play these villains? And the fact is, they’re great characters. There was Lord Blackwood in "Sherlock Holmes," Godfrey in "Robin Hood," Frank D’Amico in "Kick Ass," Septimus in "Stardust." I couldn’t say no to any of them. So then it looked of course like I just played villains. That’s why Frank is so great, he’s half and half. He’s a good guy who’s a bad ass.

But everybody saw me play this bad guy and they thought he plays good bad guys. And what’s happened since "Zero Dark Thirty" is I’m getting loads of parts for guys who know everything: The thing happens and then I come in and go, “Ah, but you see, the real reason it happened is because of this!”

You also look far less menacing in person than you do onscreen. How is that?

There is a mental state I have to click into as Frank. Frank is somebody who the world has happened to him and he’s trying to make sense of it and it’s all coming down and he’s got to negotiate the rapids, whereas me, Mark Strong, I don’t have that kind of problem.  Have you heard about this thing that's going on in the U.K., "Bitchy Resting Face"?  Maybe I have that in the acting version. So instantly when I’m acting I kick into Frank Agnew face.

So what else are you working on at the moment?

I'm doing a film with Benedict Cumberbatch and Keira Knightley, “The Imitation Game.” I’m in that, playing the guy who knows everything.


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