EXCLUSIVE: Mark Strong talks about maintaining his poker face for “Before I Go to Sleep”

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It comes as no surprise that renowned British character actor Mark Strong is a pretty fair poker player. He’d have to be. His screen reputation is “unadulterated villainy” (Sandra Hall, Sydney Morning Herald). He was the bad guy in everything from “Sherlock Holmes” to “Kick-Ass,” “The Guard” to “Welcome to the Punch.”

“You’ve got to have a good poker face” with that resume, he says with a chuckle. “You try to play it neutral, because you can’t give away your hand.”

He was warned by colleagues and others that he was acquiring baggage. The former Marco Giuseppe Salussolia, with his steely eyes and flinty, hawk-like features, could easily be typecast as a classic Brit villain. Heck, he even picked up some extra cash in a notorious TV commercial in which he, Sir Ben Kingsley and Tom Hiddleston declared that all the cool villains are Brits, and they all drive Jaguars.

It was “”Aren’t you worried, ALWAYS being the bad guy?'” Strong says. “I understood the question, but I could never turn any of the parts down. They were too interesting.

“Most of the guys I play have very strong characteristics. I’m drawn to those guys. Villains wear their hearts on their sleeves. They have a very definite intention within the story, and are key to the movie.”

And he just knew, he says, that someday directors would see past his ability to menace and start playing around with it. In films such as “Tinker, Tailor, Soldier Spy”, “Anna” and the Oscar-contending “The Imitation Game,” he could be conflicted, ambiguous or heroic.

Strong’s baggage helps make his latest film, “Before I Go to Sleep.” Nicole Kidman plays a woman with a form of amnesia that wipes her memories almost clean with every night’s sleep. Something precipitated that condition. Who will give her, each day, a straight account of who she was and is, and what might be her problem — her husband (Colin Firth) or this fellow who says he’s her psychiatrist (Strong), and adds “Don’t tell your husband you’re my patient”?

“Maybe the hardest part I’ve ever played,” Strong says, “maintaining the mystery, being neutral. I can’t put that ‘point of view’ that so many of my characters show openly, out there. The audience has to wonder who they can trust.”

In this poker game, the deck is stacked with casting — the charming Colin Firth, the “unnerving” (Hall again, Sydney Morning Herald) Strong, the occasionally deceptive Kidman. Strong decided his doctor would wear a little stubble, “even the tiny glasses I wear in a few scenes have a sinister glint about them. He’s not your natural, obvious, friendly and helpful doctor.”

His rep as a heavy also pays off with the sorts of comic roles he’s given — the upcoming “Kingsman: Secret Service” and Sacha Baron Cohen’s “Grimsby” play around with it. And like any Brit villain, he can always escape his screen image by returning to the stage. He developed a passion for the plays of America’s Arthur Miller some years back, even got to meet the man during a British run of “Death of a Salesman.” His recent heralded lead performance as Eddie Carbone in “A View from The Bridge” has warranted a revival of that production, opening in London’s West End in March.

Meanwhile, he’s playing with his newfound reputation for ambiguity. But might “Before I Go to Sleep” give away too much when the stubbly, steely-eyed Strong slips behind the wheel of the doctor’s car, which is French-made, not British?

“Maybe,” he says, chuckling. “You can’t ALWAYS tell the bad guys by their cars. Still, Peugot’s not really a bad guy’s car, is it? Not like a Jaguar!”

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