The Brothers Grimsby Mark Strong addresses the elephant in the room, compares Sacha Baron Cohen to Arthur Miller
Mark Strong has been acting since the mid 1980s, often as deep voiced authority figures in dramas such as Zero Dark Thirty — where you may not have recognized him due to his movie wig — The Imitation Game, Syriana, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and last year’s action comedy, Kingsman: The Secret Service, where the played the a straight-laced Q character named Merlin.
In The Brothers Grimsby, he plays an MI6 spy and government hitman who is reunited with his long-lost vulgarian sibling, played by Borat creator Sacha Baron Cohen.
In his enthusiastic review of the film, EW’s Darren Franich called the film “an upstairs-downstairs spy comedy … Cohen’s best work in a decade,” and also wrote: “Barely over 80 minutes long, Grimsby fits in a trip to decadent London and scrubby Grimsby, to Africa and South America. It has one of the single most disgusting sequences in movie history.”
That’s a reference to a scene in which Strong and Cohen take refuge inside a female elephant. (Cohen posted part of the scene on his Facebook page, which can be viewed below.) It might seem paradoxical that Strong, who experienced possibly the greatest success of his career very recently with his two-year-long stage endeavor in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, is now receiving his biggest exposure for a bawdy spy farce. But we began our recent conversations by talking not about the differences between highbrow drama and below the belt comedy, but the similarities.
Entertainment Weekly: You just recently finished this run as Eddie Carbone, the tragic hero of A View from the Bridge, in an amazing, challenging stage production of that Arthur Miller play. Were you shooting The Brothers Grimsby while appearing in the play?
Mark Strong: Funny enough, they ran hand in hand. I finished in London on the Young Vic run of A View from the Bridge and the very next day I started filming on Grimsby. And then when we did the West End run in London, the reshoots came up. And now I literally just finished the play last weekend in New York and here’s the Grimsby premiere.
Is there any ways in which you can compare these two projects?
Well, it does seem insane that the very erudite and serious Arthur Miller play has run hand in hand with this crazy, anarchic movie. But I think there is something, a kind of connection between Miller and Sacha. It’s that they both scratch away at the veneer of civilization. Miller is interested in the idea that underneath the surface, everything isn’t quite right. Sacha is the same in his comedy. He scratches away at people’s sensibilities. To see how far he can take things by pushing their buttons.
Are you drawn to that?
Yeah. I mean, I’m fascinated by the stories that Sacha has told me. He told me there were plenty of occasions when he would have security or a bodyguard standing around. And then something dangerous would happen and he’d turn around to see his security literally running out the door. I think at that rodeo, for example, in Borat, he was in mortal danger. And the same when he ran naked through the group of people at the end of that film. I think he jumped in a van and they were thumping the sides of the van. Yeah, he does put himself into very dangerous situations.
You’ve never really done this type of ribald comedy. Who thought of you to costar opposite him?
Well, first of all, they were looking for somebody who could believably be his brother. Sacha’s a tall guy, he’s dark. And I kind of fitted that bill. And I think somebody was watching TV and heard my voice, actually. And [Grimsby producer] Erik Felner, who I know, then gave me a ring and asked if I’d be interested. And then I went into improvisation with Sacha. And it all happened very fast. I got sent three scenes. But we just threw them away and improvised. They shot something on a hand-held camera in the room, quickly edited it together and decided I was the guy.
Had you been told when you signed on about the ridiculous scene with the darts? Sacha Baron Cohen’s character has to suck venom out of your scrotum.
Yes. I’m pretty sure that was in the original script. And when it came to shoot, those scenes took days to film. We improvised around those scenes as well, so I did spend three or four days with my pants around my ankles for the dart sequence. And I spent several days cuddling up to Sacha inside a silicone sheath in a studio for the elephant sequence.
I’m curious about making the elephant scene. I couldn’t believe my eyes as I was watching it. It’s surreal. I think Salvador Dalí would have loved it.
It was almost like a silicone sleeping bag. It was tiny. We were snuggled up together like a pair of lovers for about three days in this tiny space. I think some of it was lit by the flashlight on an iPhone, because it was way too small to get any lights in there. And we were soaked to the skin. It was a pretty harsh and hostile environment. And it was hot and it was damp. And we spent days in there. I think that was the basis of our now very firm friendship.
What was the substance that, shall we say, eventually squirts on you? Was it yogurt?
It was some sort of benign moisturizer. Our skin felt absolutely fantastic after we got out of there.
And what was going through your mind while filming it? Were you skeptical that it would be funny?
It was really hard work, honestly. But it’s always fun when you’re around Sacha and he’s always a real professional. He’s constantly on the search for laughs. So ever though we were tucked up for three days, it was all done with a view to make this the best that we possibly can. So it feels like more of an adventure.
I could be wrong but I think The Brothers Grimsby is the first comedy movie to make a joke about Bill Cosby. There’s also a killer gag about Donald Trump getting AIDS. Do you appreciate topicality in humor?
To be honest, yesterday at the premiere, those moments got some of the biggest laughs. People feel excited to be involved in watching something with references as immediate as those are. To have things as fresh and as alive in a comedy as Bill Cosby and Donald Trump, I think it’s great.
What are you’re feelings about Trump?
Generally, I feel like a lot people do. Which is that I never thought he’s be this successful for this long. And I think everybody is slightly in shock. Well, I shouldn’t say everybody. Obviously he has a lot of supporters. But some people seem to be in shock that he’s come as far as he has. And it looks like he’s going to get the Republican nomination and I don’t think people imagined that when he first said he was running. But it’s a democracy. And he’s apparently the man that some people want with his finger on the button.
Are you being recognized a lot more recently, because of The Imitation Game and Kingsman? Those are successful movies where you played British characters and looked like yourself.
Yeah and it’s a shame. I’m losing my anonymity. I love the fact that I can go about my daily life with my head below the parapet and have this amazing job but still keep a life unfettered by being recognized.
When you were in New York City for the play, you used to walk home from the theater every night.
Yeah, all the time. I used to walk there in the afternoon and back at night, every day.
Is that how you stay so fit? People might be surprised to know that you’re 52 years old.
I blame all those young guys in their 20s coming out of Drama School now. They all go to the gym and they start looking really, really fit and then they take their shirts off and everybody expects all actors to look like that. So suddenly you’ve got me and Liam Neeson and other older guys who think, “Oh, Christ, now I’ve gotta get down to the gym.” Which was never the case when I started out.
When you were doing A View from the Bridge and getting all these incredible reviews, you joked that Brothers Grimby was going to erase all that goodwill. But what do you hope people take away from it?
I hope people take it in the spirit in which it’s intended. We all need a bit of comedy in our lives. And the main thing is, just relax and enjoy and don’t be afraid to laugh. Anarchic chaos can be hysterical.
And what about for yourself? Are you glad you took this leap into utter lunacy?
Oh, yeah. As an actor, that’s what you want. You want variety. I want to try things that I’m not used to and push my own envelope and see what I’m capable of. There’s no point in playing the same part again and again in different guises. I just wanted to have a go at comedy and if you’re gonna have a go, there’s nobody better to have a go with than Sacha Baron Cohen.