In the Broadway revival of Arthur Miller tragedy “A View from the Bridge” that opens tonight, actor Mark Strong (“Kingsman: The Secret Service,” “The Imitation Game,” “Sherlock”) reprises the role that won him an Olivier in London. We sat down with Strong to talk about working on the production with edgy Flemish director Ivo van Hove, and what’s it’s like coming back to the stage after a dozen years on screen.
You’ve been associated with a lot of villain roles — so much so you were in that Jaguar commercial about movie villains. How does your experience with bad guys carry over to your performance as Eddie, the protagonist of “A View from the Bridge”?
Well, that’s interesting: Would you classify Eddie as a villain or a hero? Yes, he’s extremely flawed, but the only criticism I have of Eddie is that he doesn’t have the emotional or the intellectual capacity to understand what is happening around him. Therefore I don’t blame him for what happens. In fact, I applaud him. He’s just trying to do the best that he can. I find Eddie just so heartbreaking. He really wants to do the right thing.
A lot of productions play with the idea that Eddie is sexually interested in his orphaned niece, Catherine.
I can’t see any evidence of that in the play. What I see is an Italian Catholic who has promised a dying woman he’s going to take care of her daughter. Into Catherine’s life comes this guy that Eddie cannot quantify. Eddie hasn’t met anybody like him. Men don’t sing or make dresses or are able to cook or have blonde hair, not where he comes from. The alarm bells go off for him.
The director, Ivo van Hove, tends to take a radical approach to classics of modern drama. What was it like working with him?
In my mind he was this avant-garde Belgian director doing really weird stuff. Working with him was different, but in a rather wonderful way. The best thing Ivo did for all of us was to tell us to learn our lines before the first day of rehearsal, so that when I turned up on day one, I knew my Eddie. When we did the first read-through, we were actually all talking to each other rather than just reading off a page. By the second day, we were standing up and performing on a replica of the set. Then he went through the play page by page, and essentially what he did was clarify everything. Like a good teacher with a classroom full of pupils, he didn’t move on until every single last one of us understood the concept.
Van Hove productions tend to eschew the conventions of realism. Was that hard for you to get used to?
We’re not trying to pretend the play is real. Theater wastes so much time trying to persuade you otherwise, but we know it’s not real. You know it’s artificial. So the priority is to make the text clear. That’s the basic tenet of his system.
At one point my character gets asked what time it is, and I said to Ivo, “What kind of watch do you think Eddie would wear?” He said, “Why do you need a watch?” I said, “How will the audience know how I know what the time is?” He said, “We don’t care how you know what the time is. All we’re worried about is what time it is, so just tell us.” And of course nobody in the audience has ever put their hand up and gone, “Hold on a second, how does he know what the time is?!”
The actors who play the Italian boys in the play, they don’t speak with Italian accents. That was a big sticking point. We couldn’t believe it. The boys who are playing Italians were almost ready to walk! Ivo let them try the accent, and then gradually he just encouraged them to lose it. We never looked back. What you need from the play is information. You don’t need actors pretending that it’s all real.
“A View from the Bridge” will run on Broadway until Feb. 21. What’s up for you after that?
On April 1 we start filming “Kingsman 2.” And coming out in March is “The Brothers Grimsby,” where Sacha Baron Cohen and I play brothers. The irony is, I was doing “A View from the Bridge” in London and feeling very proud of myself for doing some very erudite work. But then I finished that run on a Saturday and on Sunday Sacha was wearing a jester’s hat and weeing on my leg. The fall was great.