Peter Gill, playwright and theatre director
Mark Strong
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Brightest star in Mamet's plow

Imogen Edwards-Jones meets the actor Mark Strong on the eve of his stage comeback, The Times, 14th March 2000

In the age of the headline-grabbing celebrity thespian, Mark Strong is an old-fashioned actor — always employed, always well received, yet unassuming enough to pass unnoticed in his local café, where I find him quietly sipping coffee and reading the newspaper. Perhaps most recognisable for his television roles in Our Friends in the North with Christopher Eccleston and Births, Deaths and Marriages with Ray Winstone, Strong is getting ready to beguile West End audiences as film producer Bobby Gould in Peter Gill's revival of David Mamet's 1988 black comedy, Speed-the-Plow.

"Even though I've done 30 plays in 12 years, I haven't done a Mamet before," he says. "I've seen a couple of his plays, like Glengarry Glen Ross, but I've never acted in one. And I tell you, it's been a fantastic experience so far."

Strong's co-star is Patrick Marber, the Olivier-winning writer of Closer, which starred Strong at the National. "It's a short, punchy, funny, dark play about two Hollywood producers sitting around talking about making a film," explains Strong. "They've got a big star who's agreed to leave his studio and make a film with them. Then this girl [Kimberly Williams] comes into the picture and upsets the applecart.

"There's a bit of sexual tension, but mainly it's an exploration of art versus commerce and good versus evil. Ten years ago it was seen as a poke at Hollywood, now I think it has relevance about the way people talk about film in Britain."

The production may be Strong's first Mamet, but it's also Marber's acting debut. "We stayed good friends after Closer," explains Strong, "and we did a lot of reading together for this. But as it turns out we are very different actors — he is first and foremost a writer and a director, so he has a very analytical style. I'm much more instinctive and emotional. The methods are different but the results are the same." And they are both doing American accents. "I played an American in front of another American when I did The Iceman Cometh with Kevin Spacey at the Almeida, so I'm quite used to it," says Strong. "But I don't think it's a disadvantage doing Mamet if you are an Englishman. His writing is very musical, which makes it easier.

"It's fast, punctuated, intricate dialogue that you can't busk and you can't ad lib around," he grins. "It's like a dance, you are literally dancing with the other person. There are no complete sentences, there are sounds as well as words."

It wasn't just the Mamet script that drew Strong in, however, it was also the prospect of getting back into the theatre. His involvement in television dramas such as Bombers, Trust and In the Name of Love, as well as a spell in Hungary filming István Szabó's Sunshine with Ralph Fiennes, have kept Strong off the stage for more than two years.

"It's the longest time I've been away," he says. "I've never left a gap like that before. What I was looking forward to most of all was getting back into a rehearsal room and having the time and the space to work on something over a period of time, rather than turning up on the day and seeing how it goes." He is also looking forward to performing for a live audience again. "I'm really happy to be back in front of real people," he enthuses. "It's the immediacy of their reaction that I like. I mean, they will either applaud or throw veg."

Not that there's been much veg throwing in 36-year-old Strong's extraordinary career. From the National Theatre to Fever Pitch with Colin Firth, from the Royal Shakespeare Company to The Buddha of Suburbia, he has been extraordinarily successful for a man who claims to have stumbled into acting more or less by mistake. "I didn't know what I wanted to do. I thought, perhaps I should become a lawyer because it would make my Mum happy," he says, explaining a year spent studying law at Munich University. "But I very quickly realised how dull it was and that it wasn't for me. So I chose acting as something that wasn't dull. I was never one of those twinkletoes who'd been desperate to climb on stage from the age of three."

He was born Marco Giuseppe Salussolia, the only child of an Italian father and an Austrian mother who emigrated to London in the 1960s. His mother changed his name by deed poll so that he would "fit in". "I think she probably just opened a dictionary," he laughs. Educated at various boarding schools in Surrey and Norfolk, he spent most of his childhood away from his family while his mother worked in Germany. "School was in a little field surrounded by loads of other fields, so they gave us lots to do to keep us busy. I had a great time. It was where I learnt to relate to other people, not having grown up with brothers or sisters."

After a drama degree at Royal Holloway, and a postgrad course at Bristol Old Vic, it wasn't long before Mark was clocking up his stage hours in rep. "It was gold dust — it gave me the chance to learn and make mistakes without being punished for them," he says. "I have played everything from second spearholder to the lead at the National."

His big break came after an eight-year apprenticeship on stage when he landed the part of Tosker Cox in Our Friends in the North. Since then he's never been out of a job. "It's the slow steady build," he muses. "It's a question of how long you want to be in this business. I still want to be doing this in my sixties, so I'm in no hurry. I feel like the more you learn the better the parts are to come."

After Speed-the-Plow, Strong will be back on the small screen in Channel 4's Anna Karenina, and then there's Sunshine, which opens later in the year. But he's determined to maintain that low profile. "I want to stay working in good quality stuff," he says. "I don't want to be a celebrity and I'm not particularly interested in the money. The older I get the more I realise there is no substitute for quality. I just want to do intelligent, well thought-out work because in the end that's the most satisfying."

Speed-the-Plow opens at the New Ambassadors Theatre (0171-836 6111) on Thursday. Sunshine opens in the spring.

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