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Mark Strong Takes Us Inside The World Of Cruella - Exclusive Interview

Mark Strong has been one of the busiest actors in the entertainment business since he kicked off his screen career in 1989, leaving lasting impressions on every project he's taken part in thanks to his piercing stare and looming presence. Several major filmmakers have certainly taken notice of Strong's talent, including Guy Ritchie (who cast Strong in "Sherlock Holmes" and "RocknRolla") and Matthew Vaughn (who used him in "Stardust" and the "Kingsman" movies).

And while Strong has played his share of protagonists — including a small but pivotal role in the World War I epic "1917" — his penchant for playing memorable villains has served him particularly well. In fact, he's upped the ante to supervillainy in the DC films "Green Lantern" and "Shazam!" Sometimes, though, Strong's characters aren't so black and white, which is certainly the case in his latest film "Cruella," the origin story of Cruella de Vil that serves as a prequel to the classic animated and live-action versions of Disney's "101 Dalmatians."

In "Cruella," which opens in theaters and begins streaming on Disney+ with Premier Access on May 28, Strong stars as John the Valet, a close confidant of Baroness von Hellman (Emma Thompson), a 1970s London fashion legend with a dark secret involving an orphaned street grifter named Estella (Emma Stone). But John's feelings about his evil boss are unclear, and his motivations remain a mystery as the Baroness hires Estella, a move that in turn launches the young fashion designer's transformation into the fearsome villain Cruella de Vil.

In an exclusive interview with Looper, Strong reveals what drew him to join "Cruella" and discusses his work with Stone, Thompson, and the film's director Craig Gillespie, all while revealing his thoughts about playing another supervillain in the comic book movie realm.

Strong loved playing a character with a mysterious quality

Thank you for taking the time, Mark, and congratulations on "Cruella." You've had such an amazing career, and it seems like you're constantly working. It seems to me that you have your pick of projects, so I'm wondering, how did Craig Gillespie nab you for this one?

Well, it was Craig Gillespie, frankly. I mean, I feel like I nabbed him a little bit. I'm a great fan of his. I loved "Lars and The Real Girl" and "I, Tonya," and I was aware of him as a director. And when we got the chance to meet, I actually went to meet him before I'd even read the script. And he just said, "Listen, I wanted to see you first because you don't say much in the first half of the movie. It's not a huge part, but it's a pivotal part and I want you in it." And I think the reason is that I suppose people just automatically assumed I would be the bad guy. So when you're watching it, you're thinking, "Hang on, something's going on here." But also, it was a wonderful part to play. It's very different for me to play a silent, watchful kind of guy.

Exactly. One thing I love about a lot of the characters you play is there seems to be this air of mystery about them. The way you comport yourself, it feels like there are some thoughts ticking up there in your mind, but the viewer doesn't know exactly what they are. And lucky for you, again, there are those sorts of thoughts like there's something going on with John the Valet in "Cruella" that were needed for this film. That must be wonderful, because you're a character that isn't so easily explained.

Exactly. All characters that are complicated or multi-layered are automatically more interesting. So if you can sell a vibe at the beginning of the film, which I do, you then discover over the course of the movie it might not be what you originally thought it was. I found that interesting and I thought it was worth getting involved because really, it's up to the director, up to Craig, which shots he uses. He gives John the Valet his presence in the first half of the movie because you're constantly referring to him, but you're not really sure why or what's going on with him. And I found that air of mystery was really interesting.

Cruella's origin story offers a different perspective of the character, Strong says

I loved the original animated version of "101 Dalmatians," as well as the live-action version. Did either of those films play some sort of part in you wanting to get involved with this film?

Yeah. I saw the animated movie when I was a kid. My mum took me to the cinema in London to go and see it, and I remember it vividly because it was one of the first things I ever saw in the cinema. And then obviously, as you say, there's the live-action version, which was great fun, but I thought this was a cut above because what it does is very cleverly give you the origin story. It allows Cruella to manifest at the end of the movie as the evil queen that she is, but you're kind of sympathetic towards her. You understand her because you've been through this whole life of not having a family, not being treated very well. You're with her, and I think that's what the success of this movie is.

Warning: Minor spoilers ahead

There's no question about that. And again, that provides an additional challenge for you as an actor. It's not like you're playing against one dimension of her character the entire film. The character transforms, so another appeal must be, "Hey, you know what? I need to make some adjustments along the way because I'll be looking at her in a different light at some point."

Yeah. The history that he has with the Baroness means that he's got a secret with her and he plays his cards very close to his chest about what he knows. And the transformation of Cruella as she passes through to the end, they obviously have a kind of rapprochement right in the final scene where she comes back to Hellman Hall and he's there, lighting the fire [as if to say] "Welcome home." And it does give the sense that this gang is going to go on for further adventures, I think.

Working with the two Emmas

What is your takeaway from working with Emma Stone? It's a transformative performance for her.

She's riveting. When I went to see it, I saw it on a computer when I first watched it because I had to have a look in order to see what the film was. And I didn't really get what I got and then I said, "Look, I need to see this on a proper, big screen." And there was a screening arranged and I went to see it and she blew me away because she's note-perfect with the character all the way through. You get a sense of somebody who is malevolent and vicious, but you're also on her side. That's a really difficult thing to pull off, and she just does it brilliantly all the way through.

And then, of course, Emma Thompson — you know where the bodies are buried, essentially, with her character, and she makes evil seem so much fun. It's got to be just a joy to be a part of that evil, that delicious evil, if you were.

She glides, doesn't she? She glides with this evil thing going on and I think she's just so watchable and so brilliant. And she carries off those clothes and you really believe; you get a sense of who that person is — and you love to hate her.

Strong says he's very proud to be involved in 1917

You were in "1917," which is easily one of my favorite films in the last decade. Actors can have favorite films and certain memories from some films, but I think you can walk away from a film like "1917" beaming with pride, because the historical significance of this story is presented to us in a very different light. You didn't have a huge role in it, but everybody was so pivotal in that movie.

Yeah. I was very proud to be involved in that film. I'd done some plays with [director] Sam Mendes years before and he rang me up and said, "Listen, I want you to come and play this part. It's not a huge part, but everybody else in it isn't playing a huge part, either. It's really about the two boys, but I think you would suit this guy." That's the way he saw me, and I was really proud, yeah, to be involved in it, because of the historical context and paying some sort of homage to those guys who went through hell.

But also, to make a serious movie like that, I try and mix it up if I can, do you know what I mean? I love doing big studio pictures and big heightened comic book movies, they're great fun. But I loved that movie. It was a serious, important piece of filmmaking, and I like to try and do that wherever I can as well.

Mark Strong says he's all for an MCU role

You mentioned comic book movies, and you played Sinestro and Dr. Sivana, two big DC supervillains. If you were given the chance to play for the other team, for the Marvel Cinematic Universe — Disney — keeping it in the family with "Cruella" —

I'm making my way slowly over there. [Smiles]

Who would you like to play maybe as a villain in the MCU? Any dream Marvel characters that you would like to play?

I don't know. Would I be allowed to play a Marvel character now that I've played two DC characters?

Some people have crossed over.

Yeah? Would the fans allow it? I remember when I played Sinestro, the most important thing to me was that he would look like he does in the comic books, because otherwise the fans wouldn't stand for it. And the same was true of Sivana — I tried to strike a vibe where if you're a comic book fan, you will realize that I've done my homework and I love playing those parts. I suppose if I was to do something in Marvel, if I were allowed to do it, Lex Luthor is who I'd love to play. Obviously, I've got the hair for it and —

Well actually, Lex Luthor is DC, though, so you would still be in DC for that.

Oh, of course he is! Of course he is!

But that's still a good choice!

Sorry, of course he is. In my mind, I've always had Lex Luthor as someone, so maybe that's okay. Marvel Universe? That's difficult, I don't know. I don't know. I'm not sure, I don't know if I'd be allowed to do it, frankly.

Well, you and I both have the hairstyle for Professor X in "X-Men," so how about that?

Yes, well that would be an amazing thing. What about Mr. Freeze? I remember seeing some fan art recently that somebody had done of me as Mr. Freeze. And I thought that looked good, but I'm not sure if he's Marvel or DC, but there's so many rich, varied characters. They're always great fun. They're all great fun to play.

Also starring Kirby Howell-Baptiste, John McCrea, Joel Fry and Paul Walter Hauser, "Cruella" is playing in theaters and streaming on Disney+ with Premier Access.