Mark Strong: 'You might think he's a terrible man, but he's doing it for the love of his wife'
Mark Strong knows playing the villain is often more fun, but that's not to say it's where he always wants to land. He tells Gemma Dunn why conflicted characters - a bit of both - make the most enjoyable parts
Mark Strong has made a career out of playing bad guys. Take John Carter, Robin Hood, Kick-Ass and Sherlock Holmes, for example, or his stint as Dr Thaddeus Sivana in superhero movie Shazam.
The truth is, he relishes playing them and we relish watching him.
But if we're talking villain territory, his latest TV outing does not quite read clear-cut baddie.
Strong (56) stars in Temple, a new Sky One drama about a respected surgeon who finds himself drawn into a world of doomsday preppers when he tries to save his wife's life.
The eight-episode run - a remake of the Norwegian TV Series Valkyrien - follows family man Daniel Milton (Strong) who, refusing to accept the cards he has been dealt, partners with misfit Lee (Danny Mays) to start an underground clinic in the tunnels beneath Temple Tube station in London.
Joined by guilt-ridden medical researcher Anna (Carice van Houten) and fugitive bank-robber Jamie (Tobi King Bakare), Daniel's moral boundaries as a husband, friend and doctor are soon challenged.
In the same sense, it plays with audience perception.
"He is a protagonist. You're in his head for the whole story," Strong says.
"You're watching him move from being an upstanding good man at the start to this guy who's crossed the Rubicon slightly and made some decisions that, while always out of love, are slightly flawed.
"So, there are times when the audience will support him and think he's doing the right thing, but there are definitely times when he might lose their confidence.
"It's the back and forth that I'm interested in. You push people to the edge and make them feel like he's terrible and then bring them back because they realise maybe he's doing this for a good reason.
"He's doing it for the love of his wife, basically. How can you move that moral and ethical boundary?"
Does the London-born star find playing an ambiguous rogue more satisfying?
"I'd played good guys for years and then (Harry Starks) came along and everyone was like 'no, you can't do that'," Strong recalls of his turn as The Long Firm's incomparable East End gangster.
"After that, a lot of villains came through, but I tried to steer the ship away from that and played some nice guys, but they're not as much fun, I have to say.
"I realised that what I really enjoy is conflicted characters, ones that have a little bit of both (good and evil). I'm sure most actors would say the same.
"Daniel is conflicted because he's a good man who's making these choices that you wouldn't normally associate with an upstanding member of the community.
"The funny thing is, every single one I've played I've really thought was a great character before they were a villain.
"Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass, Robin Hood - they were great and that's what I'm looking for."
Temple marks the first time the Kingsman actor has found himself dressed in scrubs for surgical training.
"We went to Guy's Hospital and watched them perform surgery on this man who was having part of his lung removed, which was fascinating," Strong says of the research element.
"I didn't know how I would respond to it, whether I would find it interesting or faint at the sight of blood.
"But it was fascinating, most of all because all those surgery scenes that are usually depicted on television are nothing like they are in reality.
"But the truth of this world is very important - you have to really believe that this guy is a surgeon - so I now know how you hold clamps and scalpels and all the rest of it."
Strong can recall a time when he was not as prepared, leading him to mess up an audition for a Bond baddie.
"I underestimated what it would feel like to be in the room," he says.
"You can be comfortable at home and do your lines, but when you get into the room and they say 'give us what you've got', that's a tense time.
"I just hadn't done enough preparation. That has been my watchword ever since then - preparation, preparation, preparation.
"When I did A View From a Bridge, I learned the whole play before we started.
"When we did the rehearsal of the Red Barn, I learned the whole thing.
"Leaving it late or leaving it until the last minute so you can capture something unexpected, which some actors do, I admire that but it's not me."
Is he expecting a run of medical parts to roll in now he knows the protocol?
"People do see actors in the part that they've played before - I've just finished a run of spies," he says.
"But the longer your career goes on, the more you're trying to avoid doing the same thing again.
"We just have to try to remind people that we're actors and we can do different things."
Strong's next role is a part in Sam Mendes' First World War epic, 1917.
"I feel like I can do anything - and I've tried a lot of different things," he says.
It is a confidence that extends behind the camera too, with Strong racking up an executive producer credit for Temple alongside his producer wife Liza Marshall.
"It's been fascinating and useful for me as an actor to be involved in the writing, casting and that whole world that you don't often get the opportunity to have a voice in," he says of his first time serving in the role.
"We (he and his wife) have connected on that level (working on the film) and I hope I have been useful.
"What she has in me as a producer is the actor's viewpoint, so if we are looking at casting, often she'll be looking at tapes, but I'll likely know the person.
"Or (I can also help with) writing. I have got an instinct for the writing, having done 30 years of speaking other people's words, and can help in that way."
"I haven't felt like I want to do that yet, although being a producer has made me more aware of the nuts and bolts, so maybe it will awaken something," he says.
"Right now, I enjoy getting scripts, reading interesting characters and working out how to play them."
- Temple, Sky One, Friday, 9pm. It is also available to watch on NOW TV