Mark Strong has to be one of the hardest working actors in Hollywood. He's also the villain-du-jour, most recently appearing as the evil Lord Blackwood in Guy Ritchie's, Sherlock Holmes and as mob boss Frank D'Amico in the violent smash-hit, Kick-Ass.

But any nerves at the thought of interviewing an actor who exudes such menace on screen dissolve the moment Strong introduces himself.

Softly spoken, courteous and charming, he's a man for whom the word 'gent' seems entirely appropriate. And the fact he can play villains with such conviction supports Sir Ian McKellen's belief that Strong "is the greatest living actor in England right now".

"That is an unbelievable compliment and I hope he wasn't being mischievous when he said it," says a black-clad Strong as he sits back in his armchair.

"He is one of my great inspirations because he is such a consummate actor and I would definitely say some of the reason I've got any idea what to do in this business is because of him," he adds, having worked with McKellen on stage in the 1990s.

Strong didn't start out as an actor though. "For me, all those people on TV or on stage or in films were on another planet and had nothing to do with the world that I lived in," he says.

Instead, Strong studied law in Munich, where his Austrian mother was living at the time. "My teachers at school were always on at me to try and get into Oxbridge because I speak fluent German but I didn't want to go there and do German, so the only way I could think of bypassing their desire was to say, 'Look, I got in to do law in Munich.'"

But having begun his studies, he soon realised his heart wasn't in it. "What I was interested in was pretending to be a lawyer," he explains.

"I liked the idea of shoehorning myself into other people's way of thinking, of wearing somebody else's clothes, somebody else's hair, using somebody else's accent. I was fascinated by the idea of transforming myself into someone I wasn't, I don't know why."

He enrolled on a drama course at Royal Holloway University and then studied at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School before getting his first role in the Worcester Swan Repertory Theatre.

"The guy who gave me the job there took over from a guy at a theatre in Manchester, which meant I got a second job," says Strong.

Suddenly Strong had two theatres on his CV, "which got me into the Royal Shakespeare Company" and that in turn made way for his debut at the National Theatre.

"The National Theatre then gave me a lead and that got me into television," he says. In 1996 he won the role of Tosker in Our Friends in the North, a seminal piece of work that also made stars out of Strong's co-stars, Daniel Craig, Christopher Eccleston and Gina McKee.

"I think that was the first moment that I'd done anything significant that people would recognise or remember," says Strong but it wasn't until he won the role of gangster Harry Starks in the TV series, The Long Firm, that people noticed Strong could make a believable bad guy.

He's since admitted he had to fight for the role as people thought he was "too nice". Not only did he meet his future wife, producer Liza Marshall, while filming the series, his performance also sparked interest from the film industry.

"Somebody described the performance as being a filmic performance, whatever that might mean, but it certainly seemed to yield some interest from film-makers and that got me into the movies."

Strong shot two moves, Oliver Twist and Syriana, close together. "I think people went, 'Hang on who's that Lebanese guy torturing George Clooney and who's that big guy in the ginger wig in the scene with Ben Kingsley?' The characters were so different that people got interested."

This month Strong appears as a villain once again in Ridley Scott's epic, Robin Hood, starring Russell Crowe.

"Robin Hood's anti-establishment and we're always fascinated by rebels and underdogs and he fulfils that role," he says.

Strong plays Sir Godfrey, who as a life-long friend of the newly anointed King John, uses his influence to betray England to King Philip of France.

"Every good morality tale has a good and bad guy," says the actor. "Godfrey's job in this, in broad strokes, is to be Robin's nemesis, and the man we love to hate."

It marks the second time Strong has worked with Scott and Crowe, the first being Body of Lies in 2008.

"The film set's an intense environment and you want to know you're with people you like and who you get on with," says Strong.

It also meant they understand how each other works.

"It's about the dance, that when you're with a dancing partner you know what the footwork is, you know where they're going to put their foot, so you don't tread on each others' toes."

Thankfully for his friends and family, Strong isn't prone to bringing his characters home but he does say he found shooting the final showdown in Kick-Ass, which saw the 6ft plus Strong, (pretend to) pummel 12-year-old Chloe Moretz's, Hit Girl, nothing short of disturbing. Apart from that, he can switch his villain mode on and off in a moment.

"Well I think if you come from the theatre, you're used to it," he says. "That's the training I come from, where you can turn it on when it's required and that's what you need to have as an actor."

Particularly on shoots such as Robin Hood, where scenes involved over a thousand crew and extras and required actors to spend hours waiting to be called on to set.

"You can't be ready to go from 6am until 3.30pm because you'd drive yourself crazy," says Strong. "Basically you just wait and the moment it's your time, you switch into it."

Thanks to his chameleon ability to physically and mentally immerse himself in a character, Strong has so far managed to star in huge movies without the pressure of being a 'movie star' but that's set to change.

Strong's currently filming John Carter of Mars, the first of two science fiction blockbusters, the second being Green Lantern, which he'll begin filming this summer. Both movies are set to be trilogies.

"The idea that I'm sticking my head above the parapet does worry me because I don't want to become someone who's known for being known," says Strong. "I want to be known as someone who plays interesting characters."

Not that Strong's sitting at home concocting a master plan. "I can't say, 'OK, now I want to play a lead in a romantic comedy,' you have to wait for it to come to you and all you can do is choose the things you like or things you can make something of and they can take you in a direction."

"What I'm really enjoying at the moment are these massive canvasses of these huge studio productions because I haven't done that before and if acting is anything, it's having the option to do lots of different things."

"I've got these two massive franchises that I'm involved with and I don't know what that means, whether I'm only going to play aliens for the next five years or something else will come along. But not knowing is part of the joy."

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