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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 12:00PM

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.
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Mark Strong and Athena Karkanis
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.

Mark Strong 7

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.

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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





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