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HIS poker-face expression makes it easy for Mark Strong to effortlessly slip into any role. And he does so admirably.
During his two-decade long career, he has bagged roles in the movies Fever Pitch, Anna Karenina, Stardust, Miss Pettigrew for a Day, Body of Lies, Endgame, Sherlock Holmes, Robin Hood, Green Lantern, John Carter and Zero Dark Thirty – with his small screen exploits largely attributed to Prime Suspect (seasons three and six).
Interestingly, he was asked to reprise his role as Frank Agnew in the TV crime drama series after his appearance in the made-for-TV movie several years back.
In the series, Agnew, who is a straight-laced cop, struggles with his morality after the brutal murder of his girlfriend. Conflicted, he finds himself drowning in fury and resentment towards his colleague, Joe Geddes (Lennie James), who, aside from being a dirty cop, Agnew believes had a hand in his girlfriend’s death.
Shedding light on his character’s moral compass, Strong says: “Funnily, when you do a TV show, you don’t know where you’re going. You start with episode one, maybe two, and a little understanding of three, and then you’re in. So you have to kind of absorb where the writers are taking you with every episode you get.
“And Frank certainly started off as this good guy who does this terrible thing. He’s the best cop in the department. He’s very good at his job. He’s admired, but through the love of a woman and the persuasion of a colleague he decides to kill someone.
“So morally speaking it’s automatically dubious. He’s a good guy, but he’s killed somebody.
“So as an audience that plays with your perceptions of what you’re seeing. And as the episodes have wound on, it literally swings from bad to good. One week he will do something and you feel sorry for him and realise how difficult it is being him, and the next week he’ll do something really terrible. And you’ll think, ‘well that’s not justifiable’. I suppose that’s the interesting thing about the script; it’s not black or white, it’s everything.”
As for the backdrop shifting from Edinburgh, Scotland, to tough and gritty Detroit, US, he praises: “It’s amazing in a way. Lots of people said: ‘Don’t go to Detroit, it’s awful’. It’s a symbiotic relationship. It’s a give and take. We kind of shine a spotlight on the city and make people realise that Detroit isn’t this apocalyptic wasteland and in return you get this incredible kind of backdrop and flavour of a city everybody has written off, but is actually way more interesting than you’d believe.”
To really get into the psyche of his conflicted character, Strong spent time with real-life Detective Ira Todd.
“Ira Todd has been very free with information about what it’s like to actually be an officer. Frighteningly so. Sometimes you’ll be having a conversation and what he will casually tell you will make the hairs go up on the back of your neck. Some of the things they deal with are unbelievable.
“In that context it’s very hard to know or be biased and take the moral high ground and know how to behave because you duck and dive and deal with what’s going on around you.
“I’ll give you one example. We were sitting at lunch one day talking about something. He suddenly started speaking: ‘Yeah, that reminds me of a time. There was this guy who went into the kindergarten and chose a four-year-old and kicked him to death. And that was his son – he was doing it to spite the mother’. And you think, ‘F***ing hell… that is off the chart!’ And that’s just one story.”
As for how his character is depicted in the series, he admits: “It was much more clear-cut in the original because you had a certain amount of time in which to play him. So I played him as a very tough guy, who against all his expectations had suddenly been blindsided by the love of a woman he wasn’t expecting. When she was killed, it completely rocked his world. But he was much tougher. The US Frank is much more ambiguous.”
It is these grey areas of all the characters that are explored so deftly by the writers in the series. Viewers are plunged into the criminal underbelly of Detroit where gang wars are rife, prostitution and drug rings are escalating and you see just how that fine line between law and anarchy can blur.
For an actor of substance like Strong, who has a reputation for snubbing TV offers in the US, all these facets proved inescapably alluring; especially in this golden age of television.
• Low Winter Sun airs on Fox Crime (DStv channel 126) on Sunday at 9.25pm.