BBC sounds, music, radio, podcasts. Hello, I'm Lauren Laverne, and this is the Desert Island Discs podcast. Every week I ask my guest to choose the eight tracks book and luxury they'd want to take with them if they were castaway to a desert island. And for right reasons, the music is shorter than the original broadcast. I hope you enjoy listening. My castaway this week is the actor Mark Strong. His career took off after a breakthrough role in the landmark BBC series Our Friends in the North, first broadcast 25 years ago.
Since then, he's appeared in more than 60 films, as well as acclaimed stage and TV productions, revealing his immense creative agility. You've perhaps tried and failed to forget what he does to George Clooney? S fingernails in Syriana. He gave equally memorable performances in other thrillers like Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy and Zero Dark Thirty. He's at home in the sci fi fantasy and comic book Worlds of Stardust, Kickass and Shazam, not to mention Slick Action Series Kingsmen and 2009 Sherlock Holmes.
In 2014, he returned to the London stage in Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge, winning the Olivier Award for Best Actor. And the New York critics were equally impressed when the show transferred to Broadway. He credits a childhood spent in state boarding schools from the age of just six, with teaching him to take on roles as a way to survive these days. Audiences love him because he's so good, especially when he's being bad, he says. I love the buddies.
More important, though, is making the buddies somehow weirdly understood. Mark Strong, welcome to Desert Island Discs. Thank you for having me. You used the word transformation a lot and you love that kind of aspect of what you do, the make believe of it, you know, dressing up and inhabiting an entirely different world. What is that desire to transform yourself about?
Do you think there's something about the inhabiting of somebody else's persona, of getting into their soul, wearing their shoes, you know, just being somebody else? I just weirdly find it fascinating. I suppose it's probably because growing up, I didn't really have a sort of traditional family structure around me, siblings and all of that. So I realized I use characters maybe to just work out how to behave. You know, who to be. Yes.
Trying on different personality faces. So, Mark, you're currently filming the second series of your television show, Temple. It's about an underground surgeon who patches up villains while trying to find a cure for his sick wife. What sort of preparation did you have to do for that role?
Well, I went to St Thomas's and watched a surgeon performing some sort of terrible procedure on somebody's lung, which I wondered whether I'd be able to not faint, basically. How did you get on it? Really fascinating. He was watching it on screen and he had the instruments through two holes in the person's chest and he was basically manipulating everything inside the body while watching a screen. And he found a sort of particularly gruesome looking piece of the lung, cut it with a particular instrument that seemed to cauterize it at the same time and then sort of pulled it out through the hole.
And the person who was assisting came over and sort of showed it to me when he looked at that was like a bit of old boot leather.
And that was a bit of a stunning moment. But it made me realise that surgery often when we see it portrayed, it's done with classical music playing in the background. Everyone's in control. But actually they were all having a chat, whatever they were, they were going to do on the weekend. But they said, obviously, if there's a problem, we all know exactly what we're doing.
You're sharing your tracks with us today. I know you're very passionate about music. How did you go about narrowing down your discs to the eight that you're going to share with us?
I thought that I would want to take the tunes that I just keep coming back to in my life if I'm around with people and I just want to sort of put a tune on that. I want to dance around the kitchen to these are the ones I think that it just keep coming back to. And they're all sort of from a particular period in my life when I think punk happened sort of late 70s made me realise that music could give you your sense of self.
We'd better dive in and get the kitchen dancing started. What are we going to hear first and why?
We chose this Spanish stroll by Mink Deville and the reason I've chosen it will become self-evident. It's such a great tune. It's so cool. I just heard this when I was a kid and just thought, who is this guy? Who is this band? What is this music?
Mr. Gym, I can see the save you and I eyebrows and left hand on your head and thinking that you're such a lady killer. I think you're so slick, Laura. Spanish stroll by Mink Deville Mark Strong in 2014, you returned to the stage playing Eddie Carbone, the Italian American dock worker in Arthur Miller's A View from the Bridge. Now, much earlier in your career, you had appeared in Death of a Salesman at the National Theater. And I think you met Arthur Miller then.
Is that right?
Yeah, we were doing the play and the director at the time said, did we want to go and meet him over in Saltzberg? He was chairing some sort of artistic conference that was going on during the film Sound of Music. Yeah, of course.
Jimmy Christopher Plummer's house. That big house. Yes. In that house. What? Yes. There was some sort of gathering of people from all over the world who were something to do with theatre and salon of sorts.
It was a kind of how theatre works in society. And he was chairing it. And so we got on a plane, we went over just a few of us, and we basically helped them out with their lectures and what they were talking to each other about in Christopher Plummer house. And in one small room, we drag Arthur Miller away and do the play with him and he would sit and read it with us and listen to us read it with him.
And it was unbelievable. What did you take from what he said?
I absorbed his ease with us. There was no panic. He wasn't fretting about his play. He just was enjoying the fact that we were all in this creative endeavor together.
Your performance, in a view from the bridge, was the kind of reviews that every actor dreams of in London and New York. I wonder how it felt as a British actor playing the role of a Brooklyn rocker on Broadway.
I was terrified initially because I thought, you know, we're taking an American play not only to to the state, but to New York. And a lot of the lines in the play about Nostrand Avenue, which is a road at all Times Square. They were literally just a stone's throw from where we were performing. So I knew that we would have an audience full of people who knew exactly what we were talking about. But I have to say, there's an incredibly kind aspect to the New York theatre community.
They're very inclusive. They all come and see your show, then invite you out for dinner. And the audiences are really nonjudgmental. You know, the amazing people that came backstage, Paul Newman, Al Pacino, Harvey Keitel, Sigourney Weaver. I mean, everybody who was there at the time would come and see the show. And they were incredibly kind.
It's been an incredibly challenging time for for theatre in particular. And, you know, life events, industry across the board. Is it something that you miss is something that you worry about me extremely worried.
I mean, it's it's a really desperate time for theatre at this moment. I have no idea when people will be able to get back into a room and watch a play. I was about to do Oedipus with Helen Mirren in The West End. And we've had to postpone that. And the earliest we can even think of starting to rehearse is spring 2022.
It's time for your next disc. Today marks second up. What have we got?
My second disc is Are You Lonesome Tonight by the amazing Elvis Presley, who I used to hear a lot because my mum played him a lot when I was a kid. But what I love about this particular track is that he is his exuberance comes across. He kind of starts giggling and loses it, which is something that happens on stage quite a lot as well. And it's that giggle I just find really infectious. And I wanted to take it with me to the island because it just makes me happy every time I hear it.
I want. The world's a stage and each of us play a. The famous laughing version of Are You Lonesome Tonight by Elvis Presley, recorded live in Las Vegas in 1969. Armstrong so that won't bring back memories of your mum, Danielle. She was from Austria, but you're born here in Islington. In London. What brought her to the UK?
I think the 60s was happening in the UK and she was a girl in Vienna. And at 18, I think she decided she wanted to come and just check London out because it was the centre of the universe at that time. And she'd been in convent school and been running away a lot, didn't want to be there, and just got on a train and came over to London and got a job as an au pair and reinvented herself.
And then you came along. You were born Marco Giuseppe, Sala Solia. Your dad is Italian. Do you know much about that side of the family history?
No, not really. I mean, he he left when I was a baby, so I didn't really have an awful lot to do with him. I'm not sure where he is now. And the thing perhaps that we have in common is that neither of us seem to have needed each other particularly, which is sad on one hand, but on the other, what he managed to do was make me incredibly independent.
Yeah, I think having no authoritarian figure or figure that you had to feel you had to please or look up to meant I had to make it up myself.
So I'm guessing money must have been quite tight. The late 60s wasn't the easiest time to be a single parent.
No, I remember we lived in a one room in Stoke Newington and blessed my mum hung a washing line across the room and put a blanket over it so that we had two rooms. That was the idea. And she was working two jobs. She worked in the rag trade in a factory in Islington and then would come home and have to work in a bar in the evenings. So I spent a lot of time with with neighbours and just being taken care of in the kind of community spirit of Islington around that time was was really strong.
And what do you remember about your mum at that time? You know, as you say, she was young and she'd come to London looking for the fun and culture that was kind of here. She was working in the rag trade, but I know she was pretty snappy dresser.
Why? I remember her beehive. That's the thing. She had this incredible hairdo and she used to make her own clothes as well, these really thin sort of pencil thin skirts and matching jackets and heels and always looked immaculate.
She worked her way up, I think, in the drug trade and was a rap at one point where she travelled around different shops with swatches of material.
And I'd go with her sometimes and she'd just take orders from people, you know, try and sell them what the factory was making. It was a company called Paul Separates, run by an incredible family called the Solomon Family, who I'm still very good friends with. It was Sidney Solomon, who she worked for, who was largely responsible for getting me my education and getting me the opportunities that I've had.
He got you a place and a state boarding school.
It used to be an orphanage, I think. And then it became the asylum for fatherless children. I think it was called it was set up by a philanthropist. And by the time I got there, it was called Freedom School. And its policy was that it would take kids from one parent families.
I mean, that must have been bewildering. There's a photograph that my mother has of me looking very teary on the day that she left me in my uniform and said, okay, this is where you're going to be now for a bit. But I love the fact that I was with other kids my age because obviously being an only child, I didn't have anyone to play with. And suddenly I was in the middle of a bunch of people who were all my mates.
We'll find out a little bit more about what happened next in the moments before we get there. Mark, it's time for your third desk today. Tell us about this one.
This is David Bowie, who, when I was a kid and coming of age was my idol. I just thought creatively, musically, in terms of fashion. He was somebody that opened my eyes to the possibility of creating your own persona, if you like. And this track is heroes, but it's the German version called Helden. And obviously I speak German, so it has an extra resonance for me. In by David Bowie now, Mark Strong, as you said, you you're the person to assess that vocal performance because you were fluent in German before you learned English, I think pretty much I spoke a German word before I did an English word.
Yeah. Oh, did you? Yeah. His accent. It's pretty damn good. What was your first word then?
Do you know it was auto, which is car. Because my mama come over so young to London when the holidays happen and stuff. She would take me back home to see my grandmother and I'd stay with her. And she lived in a beautiful village called or town called Gladdening, which is now a ski resort. The back then it was just a kind of ramshackle rural community. And I had the most idyllic time just running around in fields and learning to ski because at the top of her road was a sort of an old ski lift with single seats that would take you up the mountain.
And part of it was to go up there and walk in the summer. But you could also go up there if it was snowing. So I just used to literally put some skis on my shoulder, walk the 75 yards up the hill to the lift, and then I'd be up there skiing all day.
It's been quite a change from Islington and Stoke Newington. It was, as I grew up a bit. I think being back in the UK was where I wanted to be. And in fact, when my mum then went back to Germany when I was eleven because England was going through a difficult time, she could earn more money back there. She asked me whether I wanted to stay here or go there. So I, I stayed here.
That is quite a decision to make at 11 years old.
It's a very difficult decision to be asked to make. Yeah. I didn't know anybody in Germany that was the thing, there was only my grandmother over there and she was in Austria and my mom was going back to Dusseldorf to go and work in a shop. And you have to remember the 70s, that that time it was the three day week there was rubbish piling up in the streets. There were power cuts. You know, frequently the lights would go out.
You would have to scramble around for candles. Yet Germany was having an economic miracle. She could literally earn three times as much working over there than here. So I just realized she had to go and do that. But I didn't feel that there was anything over there for me. I didn't know anything about Germany at that time. Having said that, I stayed here and stayed in boarding school over here, but I used to go home in the holidays.
So Christmas summer and Easter, I go and visit her. And that's where I kind of learned a bit about Germany.
It's time for desk number four. Well, the fourth track is by The Clash, a seminal band and one that had an incredibly kind of a big influence on my life, because when Punk arrived, it was OK, what the hell is this? This can be for me, not for the adult generation. And this is something that I can own. And the reason I chose and police and thieves is because there was a fascinating synergy between reggae and punk at that time.
I think they were both kind of protest music and there was the sense that punks and guys that like reggae could be on the same side, that these. Scaring the nation with guns and then is at the east in the. Finding the nation with their guns and ammunition is the clash covering Jim Mervyn's police and thieves.
So, Mark Strong, your teenage years were spent at another state boarding school in Norfolk, not exactly a crucible of punk, but the genre, the music, the culture found its way to you there. How did it happen? I used to listen to John Peel every night, 10:00.
I think he came on. He had a show for a couple of hours and I used to have a little radio that I would go to sleep with on my pillow and listen to everything that he was playing.
Punk was all about DIY. Anybody could do it. How did you go from being a fan to wanting to get up on stage and start a band?
I think it was sounds had a full page given over to three chords drawn onto the page and underneath it said his three chords. And I go out and form a band. And I took it literally.
So the guys in my dorm, we all got together and I said, You go and buy a guitar, you go and buy a snare drum and you go and get yourself a basin. And we just basically got the instruments. And at school, I was in charge of the electronics, the amp and the speakers so I could find a little room set up the amp and speakers we could plug in and make a noise.
Now, I know that illustration that you're talking about. It's by Tony Moon. It's called Three Chords, that this is a chord. This is a quote. This is God now former band. I've got to open my house. I mean, I started many a group, and so it was you find yourself on stage at Ashutosh Village Hall.
And I actually thought Village Hall. Yes. Good God, that was a seminal concert. I think there were more of us on stage than there were in the audience, but we threw ourselves around and had a good time. I think one of us left our exercise book behind with some of the lyrics to some of the songs. And I think there was a complaint from somebody who found the book to the school that what was this terrible filth that was happening in Nashville thought Village Hall.
So you were obviously doing punk rights to some extent. Yeah, we were making a noise and just kind of stupid lyrics, you know, but somebody managed to get offended. So we were really proud.
All of that then interestingly preceded you leaving school and going to study law in Germany. I mean, not the obvious path for an aspiring punk hero. What made you decide to do that?
I think I was conforming around about that time. I didn't really know where I was headed, what to do. I spoke German. So there was talk of me going to university to study German. I wasn't really enamored of that. I couldn't really get the teachers off my back at school. So the only thing I could think of was we discovered, my mother and I, that you could intermediate university if you lived there and the was that I had were enough to get me in there.
So I just sort of randomly chose law because I thought it would be a great thing to do. I thought it was grown up and and it would stand me in good stead. But I think I realized in retrospect, I just wanted to act being a lawyer, you know, I saw myself in a suit with a briefcase in a in a BMW with a raincoat, saving people or whatever. And it was just fiendishly difficult. And not for me.
By chance, though, you did have some next door neighbors who were inspired. Your next move, you were studying law. What were they doing?
They were doing. And only the Germans can call it this theatre vison shaft, which literally means theatre science. But they were playing chess games. And I just wondered what the hell they were doing. They seem to having a lot more fun than I was. A light bulb went off in my head, so I came back to the UK to go and do an English and drama degree.
So once you started studying drama at university and later at the Bristol Old Vic, how confident are you that you were on the right path, that you'd started to kind of find your way?
I knew that acting and theatre was something that I didn't have to work to be interested in it. It just was fascinating to me. In fact, when I was at drama school and we were leaving, a chap rang me up from the Wooster Swan Theatre before I'd left and said, look, I'm doing a season here. Do you want to come and be part of that season? And he said to me, You don't have to say yes because you'll have other offers.
And I didn't even consider the other offers or think of I just went, yes, yes, I'm coming. I just knew that I wanted to get going in that world. And I went to Western, did nine plays in nine months, which is like another year at drama school. And I loved every second of it.
It's time for your next track, Mark. Strong desk number five. What are we going to hear and why are you taking it with you today?
Disc five is just a catchy tune.
I remember just thinking not only is an incredibly clever version of satisfaction by the Rolling Stones, but it is unique and inventive and it gets me going every time it's my diva, OK? Senator John McCain coming off, set back, John and I try to catch up. I can't get no OK, get all when I'm riding in my car and a man comes on the radio, he's telling me more and more about some useless information.
DVO covering the Stones with satisfaction. Mark Strong, I noticed that there's a bit of a kind of running theme in your music of alternate versions. Unusual covers everything slightly at an angle today, which I find fascinating.
I think it's because I like not doing the obvious, just maybe in acting and in taste, not choosing the thing that everyone else likes or doing the thing that everyone else is doing. What's the other thing? You know, when you've played anger over 30 years, you've got to work out different ways to do it, you know? I mean, otherwise you're just doing the same thing every time. I like something that's a little left field if possible.
How easily do you take to being part of a company or an on set family?
I love it because in the absence of family as a kid and doing the psychology of myself, probably being part of a theatre group or being on a film set with a group of people is like it's like family. In that time you are incredibly close. You see each other at their best and their worst. Wake up with them, say goodnight to them. And it's an all day, every day. I mean, I just come off temple to 96 shooting days and you get very close with people.
So I love that family element. What I also love, ironically, is the fact that you say goodbye and you have to say goodbye. So you get to have another family somewhere down the line. And I'm sure that also comes from my my upbringing that, you know, I was in one school and then another school and then I was at my mum's house. I just moved on from place to place. And in life, I think I've always just I've moved on forward and acting gives me the opportunity to do that.
It's time for your sixth desk now.
What have you chosen for desk six is a nod to my clubbing period, and it's a tune that raises the hairs on the back of my neck. It's You've Got The Love by Candi Staton, but it's D.J. Erens Bootblack Mix, which has a phenomenal place.
Like sometimes I feel like I know I can count on. I just don't care about see. Sometimes I think the going is just too rough and.
No matter what I know, and then I feel like you've got to love the source featuring Candi Staton, Aaron's bootleg mix. So, Mark Strong, your career got a massive boost when you were cast in that BBC One drama series by Peter Flannery, Our Friends in the North. Your co-stars were quite the roll call, and it was a huge break for all of you. Daniel Craig, Christopher Eccleston, Gina McKee and you. The piece is 25 years old now, but still seen as a landmark in TV drama.
Did you have any sense that it would go on to be so revered and important at the time?
No, none whatsoever. I didn't realize that at all. I remember Daniel and I walking through the streets of Newcastle going, do you think this is going to be any good? Because we just didn't realise and I'd been in the theatre doing plays and to do a long shoot like that, I think it was nearly a year probably of shooting and ageing from sort of 20s, up to 50s was no big deal for me because that's kind of what I've been doing in the theatre.
So I just did it thinking, great, this is a good piece of writing and they're great actors and I just hoped it would do alright.
And it was a drama on a very broad canvas. Housing policy, corruption in the Northeast, police corruption in London, the miners strike.
But that's what made it so successful. I think it was a political state of the nation piece that looked at our country from Harold Wilson through to Margaret Thatcher, but through the eyes of four fairly ordinary individuals who were growing up at the time. And that's it's it's a special thing, I think is the synergy of those two things. It's time for desk number seven.
What are we going to about? Right. Disc seven is just one that gets me leaping around the house. And there's something about that little bell in there that just. Yeah, does it for me.
This is Run DMC, Peter Piper people and found me and one. I'm looking at I found the turntable, my wobble, but they don't ball that. Peter Piper, Run DMC. So Mark Strong, you and your wife, Lisa, have two teenage sons. I wonder how you approached being a dad, given that you had no role model of your own on that front?
It was and has been a revelation. I had no blueprint of how to behave. I had no inkling of how I would behave. I suppose what it's taught me more than anything is patience, because I have especially when I play football, I have a tendency to kind of the red mist can descend very quickly.
You know, I can go down that path very quickly. And I think I've learned over the years that that doesn't have any value. And you basically with boys, you just got to give them love because they're almost fully formed when they come out of the womb.
I think you think you're changing the way you think you're doing things to them by teaching them whatever it is you're teaching them. But actually, I think that they have their spirit in them already. So all you really need to do is just carry them through from being very, very young to adulthood. Mark, over lockdown.
People have perhaps had more time than they would usually to spend with their families. And of course, it's been a very tricky time to people are at a loose end, particularly in your industry. And I wondered if he'd learned anything about yourself during this covered period when you couldn't work before your TV show was back up and running.
I've learned that family is incredibly important and actually the best thing you can do is be around, because a lot of my working life has been going abroad to make films. And luckily the kids were toddlers for a lot of that time. And all you're really doing then is stopping them, bumping into the furniture. They don't really miss you as long as you're, you know, having a good time. Whereas when they become teenagers, I think they need to start asking you questions about life and they want to work stuff out, even though they may be too embarrassed to do it.
I'm aware that those issues will be coming up for them, you know, love, trust, hate or whatever, you know, they're experiencing. And the lockdown is kind of taught me that being around. Is very useful for that, and it's kind of brought us all together in a way that probably wouldn't have happened had there not been any pandemic, I would have probably been abroad filming and everything would have been fine. But there's just been an extra level of sort of family togetherness that I've absolutely loved.
It's almost time to cast you away. Mark, how do you think you'll manage on the island?
Are you practical? Not in a DIY sense. No, but I am good at problem solving and problems, so I think I would be quite practical. Yeah, I've had to build a shelter or something like that. I probably get on with it and be alright. I wouldn't mind being on the island on my own. I'm quite good with my own company Born Again of my childhood and I'd be happy with that, although I would want to get off at some point.
Well, before we cast you away, we've got one more disc to go. Of course, number eight, what are we going to hear and why have you chosen it today?
This tune is just amazing. Funk is one of the few types of music you can listen to and dance to, you know, punk for all that. I love it. It's sometimes difficult to listen to classical music and really dance to not all of it anyway. But this is a tune that I have to listen to and dance to. I think it's extraordinary. Again, it's another cover. It's a whole lot of love. Led Zeppelin track done by Ike and Tina Turner.
I spent. A whole lot of life as performed by Ike and Tina Turner, it's time to cast you away. Mark, I'm going to give you the Bible and the complete works of Shakespeare. I'm assuming the Shakespeare will be especially welcome. Yes, but you can have a book of your own choice, too.
What would you like? I thought long and hard about this is difficult to find a book that you've read that you want to keep reading, although people obviously will have chosen books like that. But I wanted a book of street photography or a book of cities. Oh, photographs taken of cities, I think make them do a street photography book just to basically remind me of home. I just want images from back home that weren't sun, sea, sand and coconut palms.
It's yours. You can also have a luxury item.
Would you like are being a bit clever with this? My luxury item is a wind up radio. Oh, I'm a big radio fan.
I mean, I listen to radio sex all the time. Five Life Radio, four for news. I mean, big radio fan and I have it on all the time in the house, so I wouldn't really be able to survive without a radio. But this particular radio has got to be chrome plated or stainless steel so that I can use it to attract a ship's attention by flashing the sun at them when it's time to leave the island.
Wow. Oh, now let me think.
Now there is precedent. Believe it or not, for the taking of a radio or a wind up radio, we can't have anything that has to plug in or anything that can transmit and receive only. And as you say, it would have to be wind up. So on the basis that it's been taken before, I'm going to allow it. Oh, thank you very much. Thank you.
Thank you. It's yours. And if you had to save just one of the eight tracks that you shared with us today, which would you rush to grab from the waves?
I think it would have to be held in the boughey track just because it's epic. It reminds me so much of a particular time of my life. It has that German element. And and he was such an incredible influence on my life in terms of how to be your own individual.
Mark Strong, thank you very much for letting us hear your Desert Island Discs. Thank you. Hey there. I really hope you enjoyed that interview with the actor Mark Strong, we've cast away many actors to our island, including Brian Cox, Dame Helen Mirren and George Clooney. You can find their episodes in our Desert Island Discs program archive and through BBC sounds. Next time, my guest will be Dame Louise Casey, Baroness of Blackstock. I do hope you'll join us.
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