Upon walking into the room – replacing the departing Eran Creevy, Strong says “now you know why I did the film”, as the enthusiasm shown by the gifted young filmmaker is there for all to see. Strong then proceeds to discuss his delight at working with Creevy, the pros and cons of working from home in London, his upcoming project Before I Go to Sleep with Nicole Kidman and Colin Firth, and why he always seems to be cast as the bad guy.
You can see all our coverage of Welcome to the Punch which is out this Friday 15th March here.
Had you seen Shifty?
I had seen Shifty, yeah, cos Jason Flemyng is a very good friend of mine and he was in it, and he talked to me about Eran as they’re great mates, and yeah it wasn’t hard once I met him to think he’s going places. He’s got a lot of energy and a lot of great ideas and I think he’s going to do well.
How much does the directors passion and personality come into play when meeting them? If you have an amazing script and you meet a director and they’re one of most boring people you’ve ever met, does that change your decision at all?
I dunno, I think you’ve got to feel confident that they will be able to handle the pressure and if you’re gentle and too nice you just think, wow, you’re gonna get eaten alive, because making a movie is a very difficult process, the buck stops with you. The actors and various heads of department, we can all be enthusiastic about it but every now and again you could just lose your energy and think, right, hand it over, and the last port of call is the director and if they haven’t got the energy and nous to deal with it, then they get eaten.
You’ve played your fair share of criminals and outlaws – was it about this particular character that attracted you to the role?
I think it’s because his criminal nastiness is in the past, so he has been, obviously, this terrible person, but you don’t know what he’s done, so when you meet him – he’s actually coming back to London for the love of his son and I thought that was very believable, that even criminals or villains love their children. Then of course the fact that he gets involved with this guy who is after him in order to diffuse a larger conspiracy, I just found very interesting.
I really liked the character of Jacob Sternwood, but he is the film’s villain – so was it tough to get the audience on side?
That was always the challenge, you know. Literally, we had to make him likeable somehow. Or at least respected and understood and that’s kind of there in the writing. But I think Eran went for me because he knew that I could make him soft as well. If you hated him the film would never work, but also the character of Max – although he is the good guy – has things about him that aren’t particularly likeable, there is something a little bit edgy about him that isn’t as sympathetic as a normal good guy would be, because he is so messed up. I loved the idea that either side of this divide, the so-called good guy and bad guy, they both had their own problems, and the fact that they team up is a great plot point I think.
How is it working with James McAvoy – because it’s a quite complex relationship? Was it the first time you’ve worked with him?
It is yeah, though I’ve met him a couple of times over the years, so I know him. I felt like I knew him. Acting is a bit like that, you come round to people that you’ve known over the years. I find myself nodding at actors that I’ve never met. I do. I went to a party at BAFTA the other day and said “hello, hello” and realised I’d never met you before in my life.
Like one big family.
Exactly. It’s quite a small industry and you think you know them. Someone asked me that question – have you worked with James before? It took me a while to work out whether I had or hadn’t, but I had met him over the years. But he’s very easy to work with as he’s very professional and he’s very ambitious and he’s very good at what he does. Just on a personal level when you act with him, what you want is somebody who knows what they’re doing opposite you, and it makes you better, it makes you up your game as well, and I think we did that for each other.
Did you have anybody in mind when playing this character? Did you have anyone from real life who you modelled this on at all? Or was it all from the page?
It was more a feeling. I don’t know if Eran told you, but originally Jacob, whenever some action was about to occur, would have a panic attack, and the back story was that he went to Iceland with his wife and son and his wife died, she was found at the bottom of a ravine, and we don’t know why she’s died, she may have committed suicide, or has she fallen? So the son blames his father because of his criminal lifestyle and making them move, so he then goes back to London. So Jacob is in massive insecurity and doubt and I just wanted that feeling to come across, as a guy who is quite softly spoken and a little worried about everything, just a little bit nervous. There was a slight flavour of vulnerability about him that I tried to find before anything else. It’s a shame that all that back story isn’t in the film anymore. I mean, it doesn’t matter because we all knew it so it’s all infused in the film in some way, but when you see the film if it’s slowing things up you’ve got get rid of it, so in order to keep it dynamic and moving they got rid of those little elements.
We’ve seen you all over the world recently – is it nice to do a London based film?
Yeah, it’s lovely to be at home. We did so many nightshifts on this – three weeks of nightshifts – that I would get home in the morning at dawn and my kids would be waking up. So I’d be running around jumping, leaping, climbing over things and get back at half six in the morning and think, ah great, I can get my head down. Then ‘aaaaay’ my kids will be there, wanting breakfast with me and they couldn’t understand why dad was tired. I’d get them off to school and then I’d have a few hours. Of course then there was no time to learn lines, because by the time you’re up and again and looking at the scenes you’ve got to do, they’re back from school and they don’t understand that you’ve got stuff to do. I love being in London and being with the family, but finding the time to do work was much more difficult.
Eran was talking to us about some of the influential movies that inspired this one, particularly Hard Boiled, Hong Kong cinema, some Tarantino flicks and that sort of thing – could you tell on set that this wasn’t your typical London crime thriller?
Eran told me to go and watch Heat, Infernal Affairs, French Connection – that’s the sort of world that he was trying to create. It doesn’t feel like that on set because they haven’t gone in to the grade or the dub yet with the movie, nor have they edited it or put the music on it, so it just feel like a cops and robbers movie because he hasn’t yet created that world that is now in the film, so we had to trust him. He was so clear about what he was aiming for, and we all hoped and were aiming for the same thing, trying to make that happen as well. You just went with it and hoped that eventually he would bring it all together in the edit and it would come out the way it has, so you just have to have faith. You can’t really tell on set that it’s happening, like the scene in the room with nan and the little dog when the shoot-up happens – that just felt bizarre. To have five blokes and this woman in this tiny little space, everyone had a gun on them and we all knew it was all about to kick off, and that could be straight out of Guy Ritchie that particular scene, so it’s really about Eran’s vision and the way that he has dialled up the reality to make it a little different from the norm, but you can’t tell that on set no.
The film works as a love letter to London and the setting is very important to the film – Eran said that you met him in LA – the fact that London is such an important aspect to this movie, was that something that attracted you to it as a Londoner? Particularly when out in America, was coming home a factor?
Well I just happened to be there, I was doing reshoots for something, I don’t go to LA much, I’m not an LA type actor. It might seem like I should do but I don’t actually and most of the American films that I’ve done have all been shot here, and I quite like going to LA, but for short periods. Drive a car in shades, live the dream for about a week and then get home. But Eran happened to be there and on a sunny day, two pasty Englishmen meeting around a swimming pool and having a chat about it – and I must admit, it seemed so far away at that point, and an unlikely thing, I just had to go with what he was telling me and that he could achieve it. He played me some music from the composer who eventually did the music and he started to explain it to me in terms of the music we were listening to and I just thought, well that’s a great vision – how you achieve that I don’t know, and good luck. But I said I was in and if he could do it that would be an amazing achievement and I really think he’s pulled it off.
How often does that happen? To have a conversation with a director about a movie and for it to end as you described?
Not all the time, because it’s a process and things change. Even during the shooting process you go off piece as far as the script is concerned. It’s very rare that you literally shoot the script exactly as written – you find moments and things will happen and then very important scenes – like the panic attacks, which we thought would be important and totally necessary – they dropped out. There were also chapter headings at various points in the movie, and one of those was “Welcome to the Punch because the Punch is an area of the docks where the particular container is. There was another one “The return of Red Diesel” as my character is called Red Diesel and when I’m on the plane coming back there is meant to be a sort of caption, but that slowed the movie down because what was happening was the film was dipping, sort of ending, and then you’d have a caption and it was starting up again, and that happened four times in the film, so it didn’t work and they just wanted the film to be linear and keep moving, so they cut those out. So it’s very rare in fact, that when you’re sitting talking to a director about what their idea is in that first meeting, that you end up with that. But he has had the strength and the vision to drive through exactly what he was after.
He told us that it actually ended up being a more serious movie that he had planned. Did you get any of that?
Interesting. And, no, I didn’t. I didn’t realise there was any light element to it at all, I thought it was always an examination of two very damaged people being forced together to fight a bigger foe. I saw it very straightforwardly as a morality tale. There aren’t that many light moments in it. But there you go you see, there is a whole process that has to be gone through. As an actor whenever I have ever been shown something that hasn’t been graded or dubbed I always think it’s terrible, I think “Oh my God” because I don’t have the vision that producers and editors have – they see something in raw material and they know what they can do with it. I don’t know that process, I only know the shooting process, not the post-production.
Is this something you’d like to do more – to work with rising directors?
I just want to work with good directors. I did Body of Lies with Leonardo DiCaprio and I asked him how he made his choices and he said he was director-focused, it’s the director’s movie, they take the raw footage, they edit it, they put the music on, they create the film, it’s their film – so if you want to be in good movies you want to be working with good directors and he tends to choose established directors. I would agree with him, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with Polanski and Danny Boyle and Ridley Scott and now Kathryn Bigelow, but they all had to come from somewhere, you know. Ridley was young once. And, erm… not that he could claim he’s old now to be honest, only in his 70’s, but I’d put my money on Eran, I think he’s got a really good take on the whole thing, and he’s a storyteller. You know, he’s got these stories bursting out of him that he needs to tell, you can sense it from him, and he also knows how and where to put a camera. To make Shifty for one hundred thousand and to make this for… 10% of what it should be, and yet make it look so amazing, you need talent.
So what else are we going to see you doing?
Well right now I’m shooting this film called Before I Go to Sleep.
The Nicole Kidman film?
Yeah, yeah. It’s a novel by a guy called S.J. Watson called Before I Go to Sleep and it became a bestseller and it’s a three hander. It’s about a woman who wakes up every morning and her memory has been erased overnight because she had an accident ten years before. Colin Firth plays her husband and I play her doctor and you basically follow her everyday as she starts to piece together her life and who she is, what’s going on, and as an audience you’re on that journey with her. I suppose they call it a psychological thriller. The book is fabulous and the script, I think, is even better. Rowan Joffe has adapted it and he’s directing it and that’s what I’m doing right now.
Here in London?
Yeah, it’s all set here in London.
You do seem to be very busy, is that how you like to work? To move from one project to the next and keep up that momentum?
It must seem like that, but when I look at last year for example, from January I did about two weeks in total in the Kathryn Bigelow movie as it was just a few scenes. Then I did three weeks on a film called Blood up in Liverpool and then I didn’t work again until the beginning of September, and that was the whole year, so I literally did five weeks in eight months, and I wasn’t doing anything else in that time, apart from playing football, hanging out with the kids and that kind of thing. Then suddenly I did this pilot for the AMC series.
What’s that called?
That’s Low Winter Sun.
Oh yeah, it’s the Channel Four adaptation isn’t it?
Yeah Adrian Shergold shot it six or seven years ago as a two parter about two Edinburgh coppers who kill a fellow cop and it’s now been transposed to Detroit and AMC – who make Breaking Bad and Mad Men and Walking Dead and are the kind of new kids on the block in terms of TV in the States – I’m playing the lead in the new one, so I did the pilot in September and I now have to go out in mid-April to Detroit for five months to shoot the rest of the series.
What’s it like playing the American version of your character?
Really fascinating. I’d always resisted doing American TV, I didn’t want to go away. But when somebody comes along and says they’re reprising something you’ve already done, you can’t let anybody else play your part. Also you never get the opportunity to revisit a part seven or eight years later, so I now get to revisit Frank Agnew and not only is he not from Edinburgh anymore, but he’s a Detroit cop, and that’ll be a fascinating journey to go on, and a lot of people at the moment are really into this golden age of television that’s happening, because writers love the creative arc they can have. Actors love the fact they you can create the character over many, many episodes and I just felt, where do I want to go from here? I’ve played a lot of character parts, all different kinds, from science fiction to spies to Arabs, everything, lots of villains – do I now want to limit myself? Do I want to do rom-coms? Not particularly. Period drama? Not particularly. Musicals? Not really. My agents were instrumental in this as well in the States, saying, “listen, why don’t you come in and do some telly, because people in America only know you as that British bad guy”, so this will be a way of reinventing things a bit.
Are you going to take the family out there to join you?
Well they’re in school and my missus works here so they’ll come and visit, but I’m not sure Detroit is somebody where Americans would invite you to bring your family to, but the suburbs around Detroit are really quite pleasant. I’ll try and get them over there but I’ll be going backwards and forwards.
You do seem to be cast in quite a few villainous roles, why do you think that might be? You seem like a nice enough bloke.
I think, like with anything, once you do something… There was this character called Harry Starks in a series called The Long Firm that I did for the BBC in the 90’s and I had to fight to get that part. It was a really dark character who had to be likeable, that was the brief. And the writer Joe Penhall who is a friend of mine and director, and the BBC thought that I couldn’t plumb the depths of evil needed to play this, but anyway we canvased for the part, we got the part, we won awards and then ever since the villains came calling, because people though, wow, he is a greta bad guy, and then it just keeps going. But funnily enough these past two years its all been good guys, this is kind of a throwback a little bit, doing Jacob, he is kind of the last of my bad guys.