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Serial Villain Mark Strong on Robin Hood and Sword Fights With Russell Crowe

Mark Strong is making quite the career out of playing the bad guy. You can see him taunting heroes in Sherlock Holmes, Kick-Ass, Sunshine, soon in Green Lantern, and today in Ridley Scott's Robin Hood. Strong plays Godfrey, a pseudo Guy of Gisborne who plots against, well, pretty much everyone else in the film. Vulture spoke with Strong right after he finished his required-for-insurance-purposes physical for Green Lantern. Strong discussed the weapons used on the set of Robin Hood and why he's not playing the Sheriff of Nottingham, clears up those rumors about a feud between Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott, and tells us about his inspirations for playing Sinestro in Green Lantern.

So what's the prognosis?
I'm healthy and I'm going to live forever, apparently.

That will be the breaking-news story tomorrow: "Mark Strong, healthy." You're in New Orleans for Green Lantern — how long will that shoot last?
I don't actually start shooting until, roughly, the beginning of July. I'm only here at the moment for some camera tests.

You play a lot of evil guys; you're starting to give us nightmares.
Thank you very much. I take that as a compliment.

A lot of times it's hard to recognize you in a film. In Robin Hood, except for a scar, you look like yourself, as opposed to something like your character in Sunshine.
I trained for the theater. My fascination with acting, initially, was always the possibility of transformation. I met Danny Boyle for Sunshine — we'd worked together before in theater — and he said, "I really want you in the movie, what are you interested in?" And I said, "Pinbacker." And he said, "Really?" For me, that was the most interesting part — the transformation that would be required. The idea that this alpha male, who was captain of the first ship sent to save the Earth, should end up becoming this spiritual believer — that he was somehow protecting the sun on behalf of God — I just found that whole journey mind-boggling. That, plus the idea of his look, I found really intriguing. Getting involved with playing Sinestro in Green Lantern, the same thing again. I really want to be able to re-create the look of that guy from the comic books. I want to do justice to the comics; I'm quite buzzed about the way these makeup tests have been going.

People who ask us about your character in Robin Hood assume you're playing the Sheriff of Nottingham. It's surprising how small a role the sheriff is in this version.
The thinking for this Robin Hood was that everybody thinks they know Robin Hood. You know, at some point Robin is going to dress up and go to an archery competition; Maid Marion is in distress; the sheriff is the bad guy. I think they didn't just want to retell that story. A lot of people have said to me, "Why the hell are they retelling the story of Robin Hood?" They realize that if you set the character within the context of the time that this film is based in, it's totally conceivable that a young guy would go away to the crusades and come back as a man and not be recognized. They loved the idea of combining the journey of discovery of this guy coming back from the Crusades with the creation of the Magna Carta. Also, it's interesting to note, all the incarnations through Basil Rathbone, Errol Flynn, even the Disney cartoon — they sort of ended with Mel Brooks's Men in Tights. When you get to a point where a story is so well known that you can literally bring it to a dead end with a film like that — you've got to find something else. And there is a Sheriff of Nottingham, but because it's not the traditional story, he doesn't figure in the way people are expecting him to figure.

Didn't the original script portray the Sheriff of Nottingham as the good guy?
You're absolutely right. In the original treatment and ideas for the film, there was the possibility that the character of Robin, in returning from the Crusades, would be mistaken for, and encourage the mistake, of being mistaken for the Sheriff of Nottingham. In that particular incarnation of the story, as the sheriff, he would get to see the injustices of the king in his need to raise taxes, and then he becomes an outlaw in order to correct those injustices. That was the original idea of Nottingham, as it was then called.

And your character, Godfrey, can easily manipulate King John.
That's what I loved about Godfrey. Guy of Gisborne, in the past, has always just been the muscle for the sheriff and the king. He was just inherently evil. I never enjoyed roles of guys who are just inherently evil. Godfrey, obviously, has this whole subtext of the fact he's a traitor. That's what I really enjoyed. Even when John becomes king, even though they're friends from a long time ago, Godfrey's already undermining his old friend. Because, really, he's after a bigger prize.

Were any of the swords or arrows real?
It depends on what kind of sword you want to fight with. You can have rubber swords or bamboo swords or metal swords. It's really dangerous using a metal sword; you have to be very careful. I have to say, the final fight that Russell and I did was with the metal swords because we just loved the noise of those two metal swords clanging off each other. It gave everybody else absolute nightmares at the thought that one of us would get injured. As far as the arrows are concerned, one of my very first days shooting ... I had no idea there were really going to be arrows! When they rolled the cameras, suddenly there were all these arrows coming in and whacking. I mean, they didn't have points on them ...

We're guessing that could still sting ...
Yeah, absolutely.

Are the stories about Russell Crowe and Ridley Scott fighting on set blown out of proportion? They seem to keep making movies together.
Yeah, they have a fascinating relationship. If the stories are that they don't get on, that's blatantly not true. Because together on set, they are formidable. I think they sometimes have a rouse about how to achieve something the best way. But the fact is, they know each other so well, they know the end result of that rouse will be for the benefits of the movie. It's not like one or the other of them storms off saying, "I'm never speaking to him again." They're just guys who are very intelligent and know what they want. And, often, because they know each other so well, like siblings in a way, you can have a go at each other, but it doesn't mean anything.

You've now appeared in Robin Hood, Sherlock Holmes, and Oliver Twist. You're now going to be in Green Lantern. I don't know if you've heard, but literary scholars are a tad more forgiving than comic-book fans.
[Laughs.] I'm just beginning to realize and I'm choosing my words very carefully every time I talk about Green Lantern. I was misquoted recently: I had done some research to discover that Sinestro is based on David Niven and Hal Jordan is based on Paul Newman. I was misquoted having said he was based on Errol Flynn. And that caused all kinds of trouble. People started writing, "He doesn't know what he's talking about, he's an idiot." I scratched the surface of this stuff. I'm reading the comics. I'm delving into that world as much as I would if I did play a literary character. What's fascinating, this way, is how passionate people are about these comics and characters. And I have to say, I'm really enjoying it. And that's why I feel a real challenge to deliver a Sinestro that won't disappoint.

Photo: Andreas Rentz / Getty