Talking Movies

June 10, 2011

On Fassbendering

“To Fassbender: To very obviously derive too much enjoyment from one’s work”. That’s the Urban Dictionary definition at any rate. But, like the residents of Madison Avenue advertising firms in the 1960s being termed Mad Men, I defined it myself…

So, where on earth did I get the concept of Fassbendering from? Well, I first really noticed Michael Fassbender when he played Azazeal in Hex, and my reaction to the show was pretty much “meh, pale Buffy rip-off, but serious kudos to that guy who’s really enjoying himself far too much as the Big Bad”. Later on I realised that he was the actor from Guinness ad who dived off the Cliffs of Moher and swam to New York to say “Sorry” to his brother for hitting on the brother’s girlfriend. The fact that Fassbender had ended that ad by grinning and appearing to hit on the brother’s girlfriend again, suggested a trend – this was a guy who just couldn’t stop grinning mischievously because he was always enjoying himself far too much. Fassbender fell off my radar for a while so I only belatedly noticed that he grinned with some malevolence in Rupert Everett’s BBC TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, as he got to be both an impeccably impassive servant and a sadistic serial killer; who, several years before Heath Ledger’s Joker, took a distinct pleasure in being tortured by Holmes. I also later caught up with ITV’s Poirot and discovered that Fassbender had smoked, drank, drawled and grinned his way thru After the Funeral.

But his ridiculous role as Stelios in Zack Snyder’s bombastic 300 was where I really started to take this nonsense seriously, if you will. I have found among my circle that whoever watched 300 as a serious action drama thought it was unbearably bad, but whoever watched it thru the absurd prism of Fassbender (on my prompting) thought it was a deliriously great black comedy. Watching the film with Fassbender as your focus you realise just how much fun he’s obviously having. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning… Later he jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Well then, we shall fight in the shade”, with the air of a man once again enjoying himself far too much. Fassbender gets to be half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and, in his definitive moment of gleefulness, when the Persian mystics are throwing bombs Fassbender runs out, catches one and throws it back, then shelters behind his shield as the arsenal of bombs explodes. In the darkness lit only by bomb blasts we can’t see Fassbender’s face underneath his helmet until we see his teeth, as he grins. Fassbender does something awesome in the denouement to allow Leonidas to do something even more awesome, before holding hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines; where even dying becomes a blast…

But, daft as it sounds, it was Fassbender’s subsequent role in Hunger that led me to go online and define Fassbendering, because, when announcing the casting news from Cannes the Irish Times, for reasons best known to themselves, decided to accompany the story that Fassbender was taking on this big serious role in what one would expect to be a grim sombre film, with a photo of Fassbender cracking up on set – as if there was nothing on this planet, not decency, not logic, that could prevent Fassbender from enjoying himself too much… And indeed Hunger did provide one moment which I deemed Fassbendering above and beyond the call of duty. In the midst of a serious performance in a serious film he still managed to sneak in a scene where, after being beaten up and then dropped naked and bloodied on the floor of his cell, his Bobby Sands rolls over, blood streaming from his mouth, and slowly grins at the camera… On retrospect this is obviously the moment where Sands realises he can defeat his captors by doing this to himself by going on hunger strike, but would anyone but Fassbender dare to do communicate this by a grin, that also serves to indicate that he knows he is doing a great job with this role and still can’t quite believe his luck.

Fassbender had a straight man role in Inglourious Basterds opposite Mike Myers’ absurdist British officer, and then in one of the tensest sequences in the film, but I argue that he was able to play things straight because he didn’t need to Fassbender, he’d already infected the entire ensemble. Christoph Waltz’s ecstatic glee at his role is pure Fassbendering, especially his appreciation of the musical qualities of Italian names and Diane Kruger’s explanation of her leg injury, during which he has to go off to one side to laugh himself sick. The trailer for Jonah Hex left me in tears of laughter as Fassbender’s first appearance as henchman Burke saw him grinning manically while dressed as a droog and setting fire to a barn with someone trapped in it. You can only hope that one day Fassbender gets to truly cut loose with the madmen/auteurs behind the Crank films.

So what is Fassbendering? I used 300 for the definition because it’s the supreme example of a man just obviously enjoying himself far too much for something that’s meant to be paid work, hence my quip – “On being handed the cheque he probably said ‘No, really I couldn’t. It’s just been such a blast. Can I keep the cape?” Now, Fassbendering is not unique to Fassbender, but only in one sense as I will argue in a minute. I would argue that the Red Hot Chili Peppers can be audibly heard Fassbendering their way thru BloodSugarSexMagik because when you listen to it you feel that they would do this for free, they are so obviously deriving too much enjoyment from their paid work. But Fassbendering always has a positive undertone, what is enjoyable for the performer is enjoyable for the audience too, unlike fiascos like Ocean’s 12 where a group of actors obviously having a ball does not translate into the warm hug of the audience that the same actors having a ball provides in Ocean’s 11 and Ocean’s 13. Fassbendering therefore is high praise when I use it for another actor, as I have occasionally done (Iron Man, Speed Racer, The Importance of Being Lady Bracknell, Death of A Salesman, 7 Reasons to Love Scott Pilgrim, The Field, The Cripple of Inishmaan, Pygmalion, X-Men: First Class).

The part of Erik Lensherr is dark and vengeful, but there is some Fassbendering. The most obvious moments come in the recruitment and training montages where Erik suddenly reveals a hitherto unsuspected sardonic side. These are where any actor would grin widely at how much fun they’re having, even if Fassbender grins wider than most. The true moment that defines Fassbendering as something that only Michael Fassbender truly personifies comes in the extremely tense sequence in the Argentinian German Bar. Fassbender smiling widely drops loaded hints to the ex-Nazis, “They had no name. It was taken from them, by pig-farmers, and tailors”, his smile confusing the hell out of them, even as he slowly drains his drink, still looking affable, but perhaps to be feared. Fassbender is obviously enjoying himself far too much in this scene, but what’s more, to paraphrase Werner Herzog, he’s conveying an inner thought process of his character that other actors would not attempt – Erik really is obviously enjoying this Nazi-hunting business far too much…

May 25, 2011

Hex to Jonah Hex: The Rise of Fassbender

I realise with a shock that I’ve been neglecting Michael Fassbender in this blog, so it’s only right to devote my 100th blog post to the man from Kerry.

Fassbender has risen in just seven years from playing the villain in a Sky One show to playing the nascent super-villain in a keenly anticipated summer blockbuster. Next week will see a piece focusing on my concept of Fassbendering, but this week let’s focus on how he made this journey. Fassbender had appeared in Band of Brothers but arguably first truly came to public consciousness as the actor in that famous Guinness ad at the end of 2003 who dived off the Cliffs of Moher and swam to New York to say “Sorry” to his brother for hitting on the brother’s girlfriend. Characteristically Fassbender ended the ad by grinning and appearing to hit on the brother’s girlfriend again. He then played the resident Big Bad in Sky One’s Buffy homage/rip-off Hex. As fallen angel Azazeal he impressed with dark charisma, cut-glass English accent, and the distinct vibe that he was enjoying this part far too much.

2004 also saw him star in Canadian TV movie A Bear Called Winnie where, as a compassionate vet in the Canadian Army who rescued an orphaned bear cub en route to Britain for WWI, he showed an admirable ability to goof around with the adorable pet bear that would be immortalised as Winnie the Pooh. He then played the first of his continuing series of historical figures in Gunpowder, Treason and Plot as Guy Fawkes, and ended 2004 in Rupert Everett’s BBC TV movie Sherlock Holmes and the Case of the Silk Stocking, displaying his fine ability to be ambiguous as the murder suspect that Holmes insists is a killer despite all evidence clearing him. He then had a showy turn as he smoked and drank his way thru After the Funeral in 2006 as a dissolute possible murderer in ITV’s Poirot, before making the jump from TV movie to actual movie, and London to Hollywood; notably later than his contemporaries Colin Farrell and Cillian Murphy.

Fassbender’s ridiculous role as Stelios in Zack Snyder’s bombastic 300 was where things really caught fire. As the film opens with the 300 marching off to battle Fassbender is already grinning, perhaps because he’s realised just how flashy this supporting role is… Stelios is the Spartan who jumps in slow motion to chop off the arm of the Persian who threatens the Spartans with a thousand nation army, “Our arrows will blot out the sun”. Fassbender delivers the famous riposte in a supremely nonchalant manner, and later forms one half of a Spartan Legolas/Gimili style partnership in mayhem and has a slo-mo fight alongside Astinos where they attack and sever Persian limbs left, right and centre. When the Persian mystics are throwing bombs it is Fassbender who runs out, catches one and throws it back, then shelters behind his shield as the arsenal of bombs explodes. Who does something awesome in the denouement to enable Leonidas be even more awesome? Fassbender, of course. Who holds hands with Leonidas for their butch last lines? Fassbender. This is the kind of thing that gets you noticed when your film is an unexpected massive hit.

2008 saw him tackle two more historical figures and also contribute an upsetting turn to stark English horror Eden Lake. I reviewed that film and argued for it as a socio-economic horror as Fassbender and Kelly Reilly’s polite middle-class London couple travel to an idyllic camping spot only to be mercilessly harassed by hoodie-wearing teenagers who steal their jeep, leading to a nigh unwatchable scene where Fassbender’s innocent victim comes up against the gang’s barbed wire and box-cutters. If Fassbender had undercut his 300 image by playing sacrificial lamb to Kelly Reilly’s survivor type he made up for in Channel 4’s Civil War mini-series The Devil’s Whore where he scooped the most dashing role, coveted by Dominic West, as the Levellers’ leader Thomas Rainsborough. He made Rainsborough so charismatic that you could understand why people ignored the contradiction of an aristocrat leading a prototypical socialist movement. The series itself lost momentum after Rainsborough’s tragic demise, which not only underscored Fassbender’s outshining of West and John Simm as leading man, but ironically hammered home the loss to history of the progressive ideas of the Levellers; stifled by Cromwell only to return as demands by the Chartists in the 1840s and actions by Clement Attlee in the 1940s.

Fassbender combined elements of those roles as sacrificial lamb and charismatic leader for his tour de force performance as Bobby Sands in Steve McQueen’s debut film Hunger. I regard Hunger as a biopic so utterly oblique as to de-politicise its subject; indeed in its shocking single depiction of just what it is the IRA does it invalidates all accusations that McQueen and co-writer Enda Walsh are somehow ‘fellow travellers’. Turner Prize-winner McQueen reinvented the possibilities of cinema with a film that could almost be a video installation on how the human body slowly declines into death, and how beauty can be found in the mundane. Fassbender was luminous in his one lengthy scene with dialogue, where he argues with Liam Cunningham’s priest, forcing you to appreciate both his point of view and why men would follow this man out on hunger strike and die for him. Fassbender also emulated his acting hero Daniel Day-Lewis as he lost 14 kilos while playing the part and weighed just 59 kilos by the end of shooting. Writing about it at the time I praised Fassbender’s “awesome commitment to the part in the third act as he just wastes away in front of your eyes. This is a mesmerising performance of insane dedication that should see Fassbender go on to even juicier roles.”

And go on to juicier roles he did, as 2009 saw Fassbender work with two auteurs, and also Joel Schumacher. Tarantino’s riotous rewriting of history, Inglourious Basterds, oddly enough saw Fassbender being one of the few people playing things straight in his supporting role as Lt. Archie Hicox. As a former film critic dispatched behind enemy lines, most of his lines were delivered (allegedly in a Kerry accent initially) in his second language, German, bar glorious exceptions like “There’s a special place reserved in Hell for people who waste good scotch”. He then starred as Connor opposite newcomer Kate Jarvis as Mia in Andrea Arnold’s kitchen sink drama Fish Tank. A bracingly abrasive picture of life on an Essex council estate punctuated by moments of amazing lyrical beauty, Fassbender’s character opens up possibilities for his girlfriend’s two daughters in a stunning pastoral sequence where he gives them the attention and affection their mother denies them, and encourages Mia to channel her simmering rage at her life into focused attempts to escape it thru professional dancing. Arnold has made the most layered use of the possibilities of Fassbender’s ready smile, as his grinning Connor appears at first as the perfect surrogate father before she traumatically reverses that winning charm. This disquieting role emphasised Fassbender’s freedom from leading men’s crippling need to be loved in every role. Schumacher’s Blood Creek meanwhile may well be remembered eventually as the film where Superman and Magneto clash, but that would require that someone in the world sees it first.

In 2010 he reunited with both Dominic West and Liam Cunningham for Neil Marshall’s nonsensical historical British action film Centurion, which all concerned presumably filed under ‘guilty pleasure’. He ended the year in a nonsensical historical American action film as henchman Burke in Jonah Hex. His first appearance in the trailer saw him grinning manically while setting fire to a barn with someone in it, but sadly the film was shredded from its initial intentions. One hopes that Fassbender may eventually get to properly work with the madmen/auteurs behind the Crank films. And that leads us to right now, one week before the release of X-Men: First Class

So, why is Fassbender a personal hero? Obviously some of it has to do with Fassbendering, but it’s also because Fassbender is a genuinely talented actor with an immense range as well as a charming whimsicality. He can play comedy and tragedy, heroes and villains, equally well, and move from blockbuster to art-house, whimsy to avant-garde, with ease. His part as the younger version of Ian McKellen’s Magneto, as he begins the slow and half-justified decent into super-villainy, is one of the performances I’m anticipating most this year. X-Men: First Class, and Soderbergh’s Haywire in August, as well as Ridley Scott’s Alien prequel Promotheus next year, should catapult Fassbender into the genuine leading man status that Colin Farrell so narrowly missed out on through choosing big-name directors working on vanity projects rather than good scripts. Fassbender in addition appears to be about to make the leap without sacrificing his ability to take on interesting roles in smaller films; with roles as Carl Jung (his latest historical figure) in Cronenberg’s drama A Dangerous Method, Rochester in a pared down Jane Eyre, and the lead in a new Steve McQueen film Shame, all of which are due to be released in the same period as the Vaughn, Soderbergh and Scott blockbusters mentioned above.

The Rise of Fassbender is only just beginning…

August 9, 2010

Great Production Disasters of Our Time: The Avengers

Edward Norton was undiplomatically relieved of his role as Bruce Banner/Hulk in Whedon’s forthcoming The Avengers after one disastrous production meeting…

INT.LOS ANGELES, MARVEL CONFERENCE ROOM-DAY
DELANEY, not Mark Pellegrino’s celebrated agent but a Marvel Studios producer who by an amazing coincidence has the same surname, is seated beside JOSS WHEDON at the head of a long conference table. EDWARD NORTON sits at the opposite end with a stack of comics and books, while SCARLETT JOHANSSON and SAMUEL L JACKSON sit beside two empty chairs on one side, with CHRIS EVANS and CHRIS HEMSWORTH opposite them, beside another two empty chairs.

DELANEY: First off I’d like to thank all of you who showed up today, for taking the time to come here to meet your new writer/director for The Avengers, Joss Whedon.
WHEDON: Hi everyone. This is just a sort of informal meet and greet to talk you through some of the broad ideas that I have for the direction I’m going to take the film in and-
NORTON: Well I’m glad that I’ve caught you in time then because I have some creative ideas I’d like to talk about regarding Hulk’s centrality in-

He is interrupted by ROBERT DOWNEY JR exploding into the room with a cup of coffee in each hand and a cell phone nestled under his chin against his shoulder. He precariously keeps everything from spilling or dropping while dancing over to sit next to Scarlett Johansson who he purrs at before facing the others.

DOWNEY: Hello, hello, hello – sorry I’m late, I’m trying to find a Moriarty. (nods) Sam the man. Scarlett witch. Buffy-man. Delaney. (beat) And, two new guys.
EVANS: Chris Evans – Captain America.
HEMSWORTH: Chris Hemsworth – The Mighty Thor.
DOWNEY: You’re both Chris? Oh man that’s too much for me to deal with this early in the morning.
JACKSON: Robert, it’s 2pm.
DOWNEY: Is it? Am I that confused with the time? What time is it London then? I’ve been annoying Ritchie all morning/day/night. I’m just gonna call you Cap’n.
EVANS: Fine with me.
DOWNEY: And I’ll call you Chris.
HEMSWORTH: Okay. Aren’t we short some actresses?
DOWNEY: Oh, Gwyneth’s in London. She said she wanted to spend more time with – iPhone, iPod?
JOHANSSON: Apple!
DOWNEY: Yeah, that’s what I meant.
NORTON: Where’s Jennifer Connelly?
DELANEY: We’re not sure if we’re using her yet.
NORTON: Well now hang on a minute!
DOWNEY: Oh, we should totally use her, and I mean that in as sexual a manner as the rating will allow. We should have like three different love triangles in the movie – one for each act. In the first act it can be all crazy Scarlett vs Gwyneth action for me, and in the second act it can be all me vs Ed for Jennifer-
NORTON: It’s Edward actually.
DOWNEY: -and the third act should be totally homoerotic, so that it looks like it’s me vs Cap’n for Gwyneth but actually we really totally want each other and the girl is just a medium for our inexpressible homosocial desires.
DELANEY: Whedon, don’t even think about taking him up on any of those ideas, especially the last. This film has been enough trouble for me already…
DOWNEY: (phone rings) Ooh, Ritchie.

Downey bounds to his feet and dashes out of the room with a cup of coffee.

WHEDON: (to Delaney) Are you sure he’s not on drugs?
EVANS: (to Johansson) Scarlett, did he just come onto me?
JOHANSSON: (to Evans) No Chris, he’s just still in Sherlock Holmes mode.
DELANEY: (to Whedon) Downey’s on fire right now commercially, this is one time where he can legitimately be high on life.
NORTON: (perturbed by the skittish nature of this meeting) Right…like I said I had some creative ideas regarding Hulk’s centrality in the film’s mythos. Now, I brought along a copy of Sophocles’ Antigone as well as a Hulk graphic novel by Jeph Loeb and some trade paperbacks of the late 1970s comics and I think that-

Downey re-enters the room talking, tosses his empty coffee cup and picks up his other cup of coffee, starts to leave the room again but his call ends just as he opens the door.

DOWNEY: Couldn’t you get Ian McKellen then? (beat) What do you mean too old? (beat) Well couldn’t we rewrite the part to make it less physical? (beat) Well get back to me with this mystery option of yours as soon as you can.

He turns around and walks back to his seat.

DOWNEY: Right, sorry about that. Where were we?
WHEDON: I was about to say that the broad theme I have for the movie is-
JOHANSSON: Can I just ask if my character will have some purpose other than titillation in a backseat in this movie?
HEMSWORTH: Can I take Jon Favreau’s part in that scene if we’re doing one?

Whedon starts to crawl up into a foetal position in his chair.

JOHANSSON: It’s just a bit insulting that Jennifer might not even be in the film because Gwyneth and I are already there to be eye-candy but not play a pivotal ro-
DELANEY: Jesus, Johansson! Do you have push the feminist line so hard at this point?

He starts to stroke Whedon’s head soothingly while cooing to him.

DELANEY: (Accusingly to Johansson) Doesn’t he have enough to do without making every female character he ever writes Buffy as well? He’s got to somehow combine four different franchises into one coherent film and also-
JACKSON:  Possibly save the Thor franchise, no offense, Chris.
HEMSWORTH: Hell, none taken, I haven’t even seen a rough cut of it yet.
DOWNEY: I think they should have just released the table read where Branagh did all the parts for the production heads, no offense.
HEMSWORTH: Starting to take offense, but broadly I agree that was fairly awesome.
JACKSON: How’s your film looking Cap’n?
EVANS: Okay, not great, but Hugo Weaving’s going to steal it, the Aussie bastard.
JOHANSSON: Where are we with villains for The Avengers?

Whedon suddenly comes alive again and crawls back into an upright position.

WHEDON: Villains? Villains! Villains, villains are important. Villains should have some depth and-
NORTON: Exactly, (takes a deep breath) now I figured that a conflict between legal duty and human feeling like Creon suffers would be perfect for giving a villain some depth and sympathy and that if Hulk were to be the Antigone to Fury’s Creon then-
DOWNEY: (phone rings) YEAH! (beat) WHAT?! (beat) Let me call you back. (hangs up) He wants to cast Jason Statham as Professor Moriarty for the next movie now. Thoughts, people?
WHEDON: (to Delaney) How come Ritchie gets to cast his regulars and I don’t?
DELANEY: (to Whedon) When you make a film that makes as much money as Sherlock Holmes I’ll let you use motion-capture to cast Nathan Fillion in every part, but until that day…
JOHANSSON: I like the idea of Statham, sounds like it could be a lot of fun.
DOWNEY: But I don’t want a Moriarty who spends his time telling his minions they’re ‘bang aht of order’.
WHEDON: You realise that in England if you met a guy on the street and he got in your face you’d be terrified if he sounded like Statham and just amused if he sounded like McKellen.
DOWNEY: I want someone who sounds proper British! Not Dick Van Dyke British!
NORTON: (lunges into a micro-second of silence) So, my concept would not only give a villain depth and problematise notions of heroism it would also give Jennifer a pivotal role. It raises interesting ethical questions and subverts expectations! (beams)
JACKSON: Whedon, man, could you move this along? I’ve got three other meetings to fit in this afternoon.
DOWNEY: Do you have to constantly make films now that you’re off drugs because you have an addictive personality?
JACKSON: How many cups of coffee have you had in the last hour? How many topics have you talked about since you came in here and how fast have you talked? Hm? Now talk to me about addictive personalities…
DOWNEY: Touche. I can see why your character is the boss of my character.
NORTON: And I think that basing the film around Hulk’s ethical dilemmas and introducing Iron Man as a Deus Ex Machina in the third act when all seems lost would utterly confound audience expectations and wow the critics globally.

There is dead silence around the room instantly, as jaws drop down and hang there

WHEDON: Edward, three things. (1) I’m directing this film, not you. (2) I can’t base a franchise cross-over around the weaker performer of the two franchises to date. (3) The story-lining stage is kinda over. We’re already thinking sets and costumes.
NORTON: You mean you won’t even consider playing this as a Greek tragedy?
DELANEY: NO! NO!! Look that where sort of craziness got Ang Lee’s Hulk!!
NORTON: Do I at least get some input into the editing process then?

Samuel L Jackson falls off his chair, he then drags himself up to table height.

JACKSON: Good God Man! We’re just actors!! Actors!!! (he falls to the ground)
EVANS: What he said.
NORTON: Wait, you have no interest at all in any creative input by me into this?
WHEDON: Interest in your acting ability, everything else creative I can handle…
NORTON: FINE! FINE! Well I can see I’ve been wasting my time taking this seriously when apparently all the rest of you want to do is make phone calls, drink coffee and bitch about casting choices. Well I am not just an actor but also a writer/director and an editor, and I had a vision that would have wowed millions around the globe and tapped into Jungian undercurrents but FINE! I’m not upset!!
HEMSWORTH: (giggles) ‘Don’t make him angry, you wouldn’t like him when he’s angry’.

Norton sits quietly fuming, fighting it, but then, he turns pale green and swells in size, but manages to restrain himself so that only his shirt bursts open, and then storms over and lifts Hemsworth in his chair and throws him thru the office window.

NORTON: HULK SMASH! HULK UNAPPRECIATED! HULK EXPOSE HIMSELF TO GAMMA RAYS FOR RESEARCH AND GET NO THANKS! HULK COMBINE COMIC-BOOKS WITH GREEK TRAGEDY FOR SUPER-STORYLINE AND GETS ACTORS PASSING OUT IN RESPONSE! GARH!!

Norton/Hulk storms out of the room, yanking the door off its hinges as he goes.

DOWNEY: Hulk/Edward doesn’t play well with other children.
DELANEY: Shut up.
EVANS: Looks like we’re going to need a new Hulk.
WHEDON: If you write something that means ‘Edward doesn’t play well with other children’ in the press release then I won’t push Nathan Fillion to replace him as Hulk.
DELANEY: Okay, I’ll write something like “We need an actor who embodies the creativity and collaborative spirit of our talented cast”. Deal?
WHEDON: Deal.
DOWNEY: Ooh! I think I know someone who’d be good for Hulk. I’ve been hearing a lot about him – some wiry guy with real intensity, name’s James Marsters I think…
DELANEY: Frak My Life.
EVANS: (beat) Should we tell people that Edward Norton actually is the Hulk now?
JACKSON: (to himself) I had no idea his method went so deep! I’ve gotta apologise to the man, that’s a level of commitment all actors should aspire to.
JOHANSSON: (looking out the window) I’m just glad we’re on the ground floor…

April 23, 2010

Who the Hell is … Mark Strong?

This second in a series of occasional features celebrating character actors who deserve more attention focuses on the current blockbuster villain of choice Mark Strong.

I first noticed Mark Strong when he starred as an East End Jewish gangster in 1960s London in the BBC 2 four-parter The Long Firm. After that he had minor film roles as the torturer who pulls out George Clooney’s fingernails in Syriana and as the crazed Russian cosmonaut trying to destroy humanity in Sunshine. Matthew Vaughn gave him a more substantial film part in Stardust as the surprisingly bloodthirsty villain of the fairytale who continues to duel even after his death, in a show-stopping piece of mechanical special effects. At this point Strong became a fine actor who should be getting better parts, like Linus Roache in The Chronicles of Riddick, with a minor role in another Vin Diesel mess Babylon AD. Thankfully that didn’t derail him and Vaughn’s old collaborator Guy Ritchie gave him a high profile gig in Sherlock Holmes as the evil revenant Lord Blackwood. Vaughn cast Strong again in his next movie, the outrageous Mark Millar comic-book flick Kick-Ass, as Frank D’Amico the crime-lord driven to distraction by amateur superheroes ruining his business. Vaughn has now been joined in praising Strong by Ian McKellen who called him the greatest actor in England at the present moment.

Strong, like Ben Kingsley, possesses features which casting agents deem capable of portraying a span of nationalities from Jewish to Syrian, via English and Italian. But he can do this without it seeming insulting because of his chameleon like ability to change for each role – a complete lack of vanity which saw him buried under fright make-up and shot out of focus for his appearance in Sunshine, or, as Vaughn raved to me in a 2007 interview for Stardust, to go limp like a rag-doll, be wired up to a rig overhead, and be physically puppeteered for a swordfight as a magically animated corpse. So, now that you know who Mark Strong is look out for him as The Lord Villain (not the actual character name but accurate) in Robin Hood, and as Sinestro, the renegade alien Lantern, in 2011’s long-in-development Green Lantern. Geoff Johns has been masterminding a resurgence in the comics title of late and an unreliable appraisal of the screenplay last year suggested that this was going to be the real deal. The casting of Strong along with Ryan Reynolds as Hal Jordan/Green Lantern and Blake Lively as Carol Ferris certainly bodes well for a movie as romantic, thrilling and sweeping as Johns has made the comics.

It would be a great pity if Strong was reduced to playing villains for the rest of his career but for the moment let’s just enjoy an unsung actor having his star ascend by sheer talent and hard work.

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