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Mark Strong on Playing the Same Character Twice in 'Low Winter Sun' and Not Using Detroit for 'Ruin Porn'

Photo of Alison Willmore By Alison Willmore | Indiewire August 8, 2013 at 12:0PM

Mark Strong is getting a chance to do something few actors ever have the opportunity to -- to appear in the same role twice, in different contexts. He first played Frank Agnew in 2006 for the British "Low Winter Sun," a dark, two-part drama about two Edinburgh policemen who commit and then try to cover up a murder.
Frank Ockenfels 3/AMC Mark Strong in 'Low Winter Sun'

Mark Strong is getting a chance to do something few actors ever have the opportunity to -- to appear in the same role twice, in different contexts. He first played Frank Agnew in 2006 for the British "Low Winter Sun," a dark, two-part drama about two Edinburgh policemen who commit and then try to cover up a murder. He stars again as Frank in AMC's new remake of that miniseries, which transplants the action to Detroit and, with a first season set for 10 episodes and the possibility of a renewal, gives Frank and his colleague in crime (and law enforcement) Joe Geddes (Lennie James) more rope with which to hand themselves, or at least in which to get very entangled.

It's the first venture into U.S. television for the English Strong, who's been all over the big screen of late, with roles in everything from "Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy" and "Zero Dark Thirty" to "Sherlock Holmes" and "Kick-Ass" -- and it's a prominent one, with AMC teeing up the series for a premiere this Sunday, August 11th at 10pm, right after the return of "Breaking Bad." Indiewire sat down with Strong in Los Angeles to discuss the series, Detroit and the good guy as bad guy.

Do you consider Frank an antihero? "Low Winter Sun" starts off with him murdering someone, but he does seem to think of himself as a fundamentally good person.

What is the definition of an antihero? The person you are asked to follow and respect, but whose behavior is morally unsound? If that's a decent definition, then I would say that's exactly who he is. Especially with Walter White, we're becoming very used to the idea of the antihero -- the person you're not supposed to like, but you do.

It's interesting that drama has moved that way, because in the old days... William Hays, in the year of censorship, said that the bad guy was never allowed to get away with it. That was actually a tenet that was enshrined in the censorship rules. How far we've come, now it's almost the opposite -- it's as if you won't believe a straightforward good guy. And it's because we've become a lot more sophisticated in understanding ourselves and our understanding of TV drama.

Everybody's capable of something dodgy. I'm a fairly sound guy, but whenever a police car pulls up next to me, I always get slightly worried, do you know what I mean? Because I'm sure there's something, if they looked into my life and my affairs, that I'm doing that's dodgy. And I'm sure all of us are in the same boat, whether it's paying a nanny or a gardener in cash or parking illegally. None of us are good or bad, either good or bad, we're a bit of both. Drama is taking that to its logical extreme and making it very exciting.

"William Hays, in the year of censorship, said that the bad guy was never allowed to get away with it."

So, in a very long way to answer your question, yeah, Frank is an antihero, but I hope he's not just a traditional one, because I think he's a lot more complicated than your average antihero.

He seems, as opposed to Walter White or Tony Soprano, who set off down these burrows of criminality, to be more about digging himself out of one.

Yeah, good observation. They're already in that world and you're asked to like them. The thing about Frank is he's supposed to be the good guy, and he's trying to stopped himself from being dragged to the dark side, so he's constantly... Do you remember that cartoon "Pepe Le Pew," with the skunk that gets the cat and the cat is trying to get out of its embraces? That's Frank.

Is he a good detective? Because we're thrown into seeing him basically being misled. Is that because he's missing something or he has a misplaced faith in people?

He has a misplaced faith in people. He's also somebody who loves to try and mend broken things. The irony is that he's broken and can't see that in himself. And he's duped into doing something for love, and that has blinded him to be the great cop that he normally is. Everybody describes him as the best cop in the department -- his captain gives him the job of sorting everything out when shit hits the fan. Even Geddes, when they're faking the murder, says "You're the best at this. If you can't think of it, nobody else will." So he is definitely the best cop, and it's definitely ironic that he is coerced into doing something reprehensible because his vision has suddenly been blurred by love.

How do you see this as suited to being a Detroit story? Of all the cities in the U.S., that's one you can't choose lightly as being just in the background. It's got a particular weight, especially recently. 

Because I think Frank is Detroit. That level of him, the good and the bad, is mirrored by perceptions of Detroit. I mean, Detroit used to be the fourth largest city in the United States, with two million people. Now it's only 700,000, I think it's the 18th largest. It's just gone bankrupt. Everyone's perception of it is it's dirty, it's apocalyptic, it's a wasteland.

And of course there are elements that are like that, but other cities have that -- not as bad as Detroit, but they have their bad side. And it's the bad guy, isn't it? Detroit's the bad guy. Everybody said to me, "Oh, you're going to Detroit? You mustn't go to Detroit. Why are you filming there?" And I think that's why the show is suited to it, because the moral ambiguity of Frank is mirrored by the kind of schizophrenia of Detroit, which used to be this proud, amazing engine of the American economy, which is now an embarrassment.

It does also get saddled with being this metaphor for America in decline, but it's a place where people live -- it's got an economy and a community. Can you tell me a little bit about how the show uses details about the region?

The amazing thing about Detroit is that you can drive along a place called Lakeshore Drive in Grosse Pointe, and there are houses there the size of castles -- multimillion dollar houses with manicured lawns, the likes of which you've never seen. And then you've got Cass Avenue, which is where the junkies and the homeless people hang out. And everything in between. And the show mirrors that, because we have characters who live in the opulence that does exist in and around Detroit.

When people ask about the disaster of Detroit, they're mainly talking about downtown. 20 minutes outside, you've got these amazing suburbs. I mean, Cranbrook, this amazingly posh school, is a half-hour's drive from Detroit. It's uber-privileged. And I think the show mirrors that because we have characters that live in opulence, the criminals that are doing very well but that work out of Greektown. Greektown is a real place, and it's very dodgy, and we have scenes that take place there. The guys are working in a building that is literally falling down, like a ruin.

When the actual police detective came and saw the mock-up of the police offices that had been created, it was like, "Oh my God, this is it." It was real. And we came in and saw and were like, "Oh come on, this is way too much." And he was like, "This is it!" So I think we're trying to mirror Detroit in all of its forms. It's multifaceted, and it annoys me when people just think of it as this horrific wasteland. I mean, as a tourist, you drive from the airport and the first thing you notice are the ruined buildings, vacant lots, burned houses, and you think, "Oh my god, it's all true." Then the next thing you do is try to solve the problem, and you go, "Well, if I was in charge, this is what I would do..."

Alicia Gbur/AMC Mark Strong and Athena Karkanis

And what did you come up with?

You come up with all sorts of ideas, like, "Why doesn't someone clear away all those abandoned properties? Why doesn't someone clear them all away?" But of course, and do what with them? Where are you gonna dump all that stuff? All the metal and valuable stuff are gone, all that's left is brick and rubble. What's the financial incentive to do something like that? You quickly realize that everybody's thought of everything you've thought of before anyway.

Secondly, it's all a unique journey. There is nothing you can do, Detroit essentially has got to find its own level, and that's what the bankruptcy is about. In the end, you have somebody who is down there buying property downtown trying to encourage people to work there and get things going. You've got people starting up companies getting loans they wouldn't be able to get somewhere else. There's a burgeoning arts scene that's really intense and really great. There's a music scene. But they're all in little pockets, because the city is so vast.

"We're trying to show it for what it is, rather than use it as ruin porn"

Like I said, it was the fourth biggest city, it's enormous. And suddenly you pull away the manufacturing base and take out the industry, you've got a lot of workers who can't do anything else, who can't move, a lot of people who aren't paying taxes, who can't pay for school, so nobody's moving in. You've got these wide empty boulevards, you've got these skyscrapers that are completely empty. It's an extraordinary place, and I think we're trying to show it for what it is, rather than use it as ruin porn, which is what a lot of the photographers have been accused of doing. We're not doing that.

Not many actors get to play the same character twice. How much do you carry over, in terms of taking on that role again? Do you just start afresh?

You essentially start afresh, because culturally they're very different. The Scottish cop is very different from a Detroit cop, the environment they live in and grew up in is very different. The similarities are that Edinburgh is quite a dominant, Gothic, brooding city and Detroit has its own definite character as well. So as cities, they both have a very strong identity. But it was very schizophrenic when I drowned [Detective] Brendan [McCann] (Michael McGrady). I can remember doing it with Brian McCardie, who played Joe Geddes, drowning the same character in a sink full of lobsters. Whereas this time, we're drowning him in an Italian restaurant, so there are similarities, but essentially it's different.

Time's not moving very fast in the series, especially since there's an investigation unfolding...

The whole thing only takes place over a few weeks, really. And you start to realize that that becomes problematic when, for example, my character does to do a bit of boxing from episode three onwards, and gets a black eye. And I thought, "Great, I'll have a black eye!" And they went, "You do know you'll have to carry that for five episodes?" Because it would take that long to heal. So that's what made me realize it happens in such a short period of time. But that's the magic of TV; you can invent your own timeline. And the intensity of the fact that it happens over such a short period is what makes it enjoyable and keeps it immediate.

While cable's been a little different, the typical American series and season still tends to run quite a bit longer than a U.K. one. What's it been like, having the room to expand the story?

In the U.K., everything is written as two, four, six, eight... the longest I ever did was nine episodes. That was called "Our Friends in the North," and it was a BBC2 program about the state of the nation. Daniel Craig was in it -- whatever happened to him? -- Christopher Eccleston, Gina McKee and me. We were the four kids you follow from the '60s to the '90s. But every episode was written [first]. When we started on day one, we knew what happened at the end of episode nine. We knew exactly what we were going to be shooting and when. That doesn't happen here. Here, you have sort of a Hail Mary -- you begin and you hope for the best. And I had no idea where it would go, and I was fascinated to get the new episode on my mat and find out what was going to happen to my character that week.

I kind of liked that, perhaps because I'm used to the U.K. system, I found this system very exotic and I embraced it, rather than found it to be a problem. I think it's a great way to go because you can adjust stuff as you go along. I suppose what happens is that a lot of preparation goes into the drafting before they become final, whereas here you're kind of doing it on the hoof. But the idea that a character plays a scene in a certain way, and suddenly the writers see in that the potential to enlarge that character in a certain direction, that's brilliant. You can't write that in.

I remember episode four, I was about to go into a room and talk to somebody, and the director came up to me and went, "Just post this. Just ask that guy over there to mail this." And he gives me a parcel. Anyway, it transpires that in the nature of the story I was sending parcels to somebody in episode eight or nine. And it's wonderful that we plant that seed. I had no idea what that was, but it came to fruition later. I love that.

You've managed to have a diverse career, in terms of working in both film and television. Do you consciously look for a way to move back and forth?

It's funny, the idea of actors having a plan for their career, because you tend to sort of take what comes your way. But my trajectory has seemed to taken me into 10 years of theater, then into television with "Our Friends in the North," which was a big break, and then I did a couple of movies, "Syriana" and "Oliver Twist" with Polanski at the same time, that brought me to people's attention and launched me into the movies. Each are separate areas that I've moved through, and really it's been movies for the last eight or nine years. But I don't have any hard and fast rules about what I'm going to do. What tends to happen is that when you're doing movies the TV people don't ask you, and if you're doing TV then the movie people don't want you. It's weird, they're all separate clubs, and I've been very lucky to move in between them.

Over the years I've been asked to do U.S. TV and I've said no, because I didn't want to leave home. But this one I couldn't turn down because it was a part I'd played before, a part I'd created, and it was my part and I did want to take it further, 10 hours instead of three. And I didn't want to see anybody else playing my part. So I couldn't turn it down.

This article is related to: Television, TV Interviews, Interviews, AMC, Low Winter Sun, Mark Strong