MARK Strong once worked with a tantrum-prone actor. He won't name names: "I can't tell you. He's famous now" - but he explains that the actor in question would refuse to get into a car if the seat was still warm from the previous passenger.
Strong launches into the story while offering to sit in either of the two sofas in a London hotel room. It's a cautionary tale which "just goes to show the madness of it all" - and possibly his way of saying he is not like that. It's unlikely anyone would mistake Strong for a prima donna. Unlike his friend Daniel Craig, Strong, 48, has in the past been reticent about taking leading roles: relishing the fact he can still have a pint in peace at his local pub.
He and Craig got their big break on the BBC's landmark TV saga Our Friends in the North in the mid-90s. And while Craig has slipped into James Bond's loafers, Strong has become Hollywood's go-to villain, an occupational hazard for English actors. It started when he played a Kray-like gangster in the TV series The Long Firm in 2004. "People saw it and thought, 'Oh, he's very good at villains, isn't he?'," he says.
In poured offers of more of the same, all characters he wanted to play. "So I did them. Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead. I'm not going to sit around worrying, 'Am I being typecast?'"
He's a cracking baddy, brimming with magnetic Mephistophelian charisma. In the flesh, at well over 1.8m and granite-jawed, he's a commanding presence - and impeccably tailored, like a walking GQ cover. He is open and friendly but measured . On screen that control is marshalled into barely leashed rage: whether he is playing a knuckleheaded henchman ( RocknRolla ), dastardly aristocrat ( Robin Hood ) or occult-dabbling peer ( Sherlock Holmes ). Playing the villain is an honourable profession, says Strong. Often, after the lead, it's the next best character in a script: "They're written to be flamboyant. You get the best clothes, the best lines and you're in and out, a necessary part of the movie, but you don't have to carry it."
Isn't there a bit of him that wants to carry it, I ask. Strong fixes me in his unflinching gaze. "Maybe now it's time, and maybe those roles are coming my way. When I was at drama school, the principal told us, 'If you want 40 years in this business, there's no hurry.' But maybe now it's time."
Interestingly, his most memorable role was not a villain but poor Jim Prideaux in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. Strong was proud to be part of the best-of-British cast, which included Gary Oldman, John Hurt and Benedict Cumberbatch.
Strong was born Marco Salussolia in London to a young Austrian mother; his Italian father walked out before he was born. As a boy he was a watcher, looking to see how people tick - and being an outsider has shaped his acting. "Not in a feel-sorry-for-me way, but I'm an observer," he says. "I grew up without brothers and sisters and I was at boarding schools from age six to 18." His mother packed him off when he started getting to be a bit of a handful. "It sounds very Dickensian, but it wasn't a tragic episode," he says. "It served its purpose. I haven't turned out too bad," he grins.
Which of his characters feels closest to him, I ask. He pauses. Any of them? "No," he says. "I don't think I'd know how to do that. I'd feel a bit naked. What I enjoy is finding a piece of costume, a wig, an accent or a turn of phrase - anything that takes me away from me."
It's hard to imagine a character further from himself than the pious Arab sultan he plays in his latest film, Black Gold.
Strong has played Arabs before, in Body of Lies and the George Clooney movie Syriana.
Does he worry about the historic baggage involved, the faint whiff of blacking up?
"A friend asked me the same thing: 'Is it cool to do that? Not being an Arab?' Yes, it's acting. You don't have to shoot heroin to play a heroin addict."
I suggest that his "man's man" charms are chiming with cinema's recent embrace of more rugged characters. He agrees.
"The tradition of Richard Burton did fall by the wayside. We've all become so metrosexual. But it's coming back. The movies are looking for strong men these days. Just look at Daniel Craig and Michael Fassbender. That's just fashion, it comes and goes."
- ©The Daily Telegraph, London
- Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy releases on March 9.