'Cruella' Star Mark Strong On Working With Emma Thompson And His Long History Of Playing Villains [Interview]

Mark Strong's real role in Cruella is a bit of a spoiler. Then again, the appearance of the always-busy English actor in an apparently minor role is something of a tease – this guy is going to be important, but how?

As John, the dependable valet to Emma Thompson's Baroness (the real villain in this Disney villain origin story), Strong does what he does in so many other movies: he classes up the joint. The dependably great actor has left his mark on audiences via his work in films like Shazam!, 1917, Kingsman: The Secret Service, and Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy, so his appearance in Cruella is amusing to movie fans. This isn't just some background character. You're waiting for him to reveal something.

And Strong is very aware that he's being tasked with lending gravitas to a minor role. I spoke with the actor over Zoom about his work in Cruella, becoming a recognizable face, whether he's tired of playing villains, and if he hopes to return for a future Shazam! sequel.

Your part in Cruella is small, but important. But I like how once we see you – we see your face – we know this guy is important, but we just don't know why yet. How does it feel to have become so recognizable that audiences see you and know that immediately?

[laughs] That's very astute of you. I think that's probably why [director Craig Gillespie] cast me. Because he wanted the valet to have that sense of importance when the revelation happens in the movie, which I can't talk about because I don't want to spoil it. So he needs, in the first half of the movie, to be present. That was Craig's thing: he said, "I'll make sure you're present in the movie, even though you don't have that much to say." In a way, it was quite a joy to play a kind of still, silent type for once.

You probably get this a lot, but you command the screen. You walk in, and eyes go to you because you have such an intense look. People know the Mark Strong silhouette. As somebody who has cultivated such a strong physical presence in front of the camera, is that something you think about? Or is that something that comes naturally to you as an actor at this point in your career?

I don't know, I think everybody has their particular thing that they have naturally. I don't make an effort to do that. I think it's just what I think is most interesting to play depending on what character I'm playing. Maybe it comes from the theater as well, because you have to command the stage when you're in a room with 2,000 people. And obviously I did theatre for the first ten years of my career, so maybe I'm bringing an element of that with me.

Hollywood has realized that you play a great villain. But your part in Cruella is not really a villainous role, but you're portrayed as potentially being villainous. Is that something you relish, or do you kind of wish you could play the nice boyfriend at some point?

No, I love playing them. In Cruella, I think we're playing a little on the idea that, like you said, "That guy, he's important, he's probably the villain," we're playing on that a little bit. Because obviously as the film pans out, you realize things aren't quite what they seem. But I love playing them, not because they're bad or they're evil. It's not that I have a predilection for playing evil. Although, having said that, you do get to exorcise all of that rage and nastiness you might have, in a comfortable environment. You're not doing it in the real world. Whereas heroes and boyfriends and fathers, I can do that in my real life, so it doesn't feel like it's acting. Also, those villains, they're always interesting. They might be bad guys, but they're always interesting, and like you said, they can often own the movies they're in. They say a hero is only as good as its villain, so Shazam! would only work if you had a really good Doctor Sivana, and Bond only works if you've got a really good villain. So I love playing them because they're interesting characters rather than the fact that they're just evil guys.

You spent a lot of screen time in this movie with Emma Thompson, who is delightful and having a lot of fun here. We don't see Emma Thompson really cutting loose the way she does in Cruella as often as I wish we could. What was it like working with her and being able to share the screen with her as she just tears into the material?

She is just so brilliant, isn't she? I love watching her on screen being this evil baroness. I think she's not cutting loose because she's playing a very controlled, very dangerous vibe that comes across. She might also argue that she's wearing incredibly tight corsets and uncomfortable high heels, too. Every time we were having a chat, she'd have to rush off and get into another fabulous outfit and come back. She really had to hold herself in place. Some of these outfits were incredible. But she managed to exude from every pore this kind of nasty villainess. I think it was all about control.

I've gotta ask since you mentioned it already: Shazam!, I think that movie is wonderful, and you're so much fun in it. The scene in that movie where you unleash monsters in the board room...I think about that scene more than I think about lots of other superhero movie scenes in recent memory. 

Oh my God, it's pretty nasty, isn't it? I mean, it's his own family. The first thing he does is throw his brother out the window, and the last thing he does is that an evil monster basically eats his father. So it's about as bad as you can get. I thought the real fascinating moment in that scene was created by David [F. Sandberg], the director, who obviously comes from a horror background. It's when the people are sort of smashing up against the windows, and you know that there is chaos and violence and horrible stuff going on in that room, but it's just suggested. That's always the most scary, I think.

Any phone calls yet about you being in a Shazam! sequel? I know they're getting rolling on a sequel soon, and that first movie leaves you very much alive, ready to return and menace our hero.

There is unfinished business between Dr. Sivana and Mr. Mind, but I think Helen Mirren and Lucy Liu are going to be the villains in the second one.

All I'm saying is there's an opportunity for you to come back in number three and team up with Helen Mirren, right?

Yeah, that's always a big possibility. Mr. Mind has got unfinished business, I'm sure.

Cruella really does have a '70s crime movie energy running through it, which is unusual for a Disney movie. You're somebody who's played your fair share '70s gangsters and unsavory types. When you're acting in a movie like this, are you constantly aware this is for families, or is the process always the same?

I think you're in a heightened world, and you know you're in a heightened world. You know that world demands a bit of energy. So you're not performing in a way where you're dredging the depths of your soul. You're performing superficially. Do you know what I mean? It's a much faster, lighter kind of vibe, and there are lots of capers going on. The guys when they go off with young Cruella and they're off stealing things, lifting wallets, that kind of stuff. You get a real sense that you're in a caper movie at moments, so you kind of understand the tone when you go into it. I think Craig has delivered a brilliantly consistent film, and underneath it, he's put this incredible soundtrack. I think the music he's chosen for it is unbelievable. He really kind of recreates the '70s, it really gives you a flavor of the fun that we're all having in the film, and I hope people enjoy that.


Cruella hits theaters and Disney+ Premier on May 28, 2021.