Mark Strong is no stranger to the spy game. The London-born tough guy has played a secret agent in dramas like Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, Body of Lies, Zero Dark Thirty and The Imitation Game, and even in the espionage comedy Kingsman: The Secret Service. But in The Brothers Grimsby, his spy schtick is employed in a totally wacky mission with the help of writer/co-star Sacha Baron Cohen.
The Brothers Grimsby has Strong playing a sleek MI6 agent whose career and life are threatened when his soccer hooligan brother (Baron Cohen) bungles a critical mission. This throws the pair into a globetrotting adventure from working class London to wilderness of South Africa, the slums of Cape Town, and the fandemonium of Santiago, Chile during a World Championship soccer match.
Over the phone, Strong spoke with Screen Rant about the film’s uniquely outlandish humor and its most outrageous gross-out gags, including one where he and Cohen are trapped inside an elephant’s uterus while she mates with a zealous pachyderm partner. We even got into his thoughts on re-teaming with Green Lantern star Ryan Reynolds for his newly victorious superhero franchise, Deadpool.
You’ve played a spy a bunch of times before. How was the experience difference making The Brothers Grimsby?
Mark Strong: It’s completely different because although Merlin in Kingsman is a lighthearted character in a spoof, Grimsby is basically action-comedy. I had to do a lot more action than I had to do in other films. In Tinker Tailor I was on the receiving end of some terrible behavior, basically (my character) Jim Prideaux is treated very badly. I was the head of the Jordanian secret service in Body of Lies. I was in charge of everything, and I was the head of MI6 in The Imitation Game. I played a lot of spy bosses. This one was different because there’s a ton of action and involved and also a kind of anarchic comedy that Sacha Baron Cohen loves to create. There was never a dull moment on set.
And you’ve done comedy before, but as is the case here as the straight man. Yet in The Brothers Grimsby you still get in on some pretty goofy gags on this one.
Yeah, I think the improvised nature of the way Sacha works, on any given day you could come up with anything. I mean the scenes that we shot were the starting point. And then what we’d do is just embellish around the scene that was written on the page, just see what we could come up with. So occasionally I was actually able to land a couple of laughs.
Have you done a lot of improv before?
No. None really. It not something I thought I’d be particularly good at. And actually Sacha held my hand through the process of it because I was all at sea in the beginning. He said, “Don’t worry. You just got to go with it. Just got to have confidence, and have faith in me that I won’t use anything that’s not worth putting in the film.” So I had to trust him.
With the knowledge you’d be doing improv, how much of the script did you have when you signed on?
Oh, well there was a script, a full-length normal script. But I quickly realized that that was only the blueprint for what we would do every day. There was a sense that the script was just the starting point. If we could find other things that would be funnier–that was what we were trying to find.
Was there anything in the original script that made you hesitate to sign on?
No. Even though some of the scenes are out there, I wanted to work with Sacha. And I know exactly the kind of anarchic comedy he’s famous for. And I thought, if you’re going to improvised comedy with anybody, you want to do it with him!
Speaking of one of the more outlandish scenes, please tell me about the elephant sex scene.
(Laughs.) Have you seen the movie?
Okay. Well, uh, the reality of that scene is that Sacha and I were squashed together in a tiny, sleeping bag-sized silicon sheath basically. And we had to cuddle like lovers for about three days because there was absolutely no room in there (the set of the elephant’s uterus) to stretch out or even lie side-by-side. So he would lie next to me with his head on my chest when we rested in between takes. It’s a very intimate environment to shoot a scene with another guy. And we became close friends as result.
It took three days to shoot that scene!
How much of those days were you covered in fake elephant semen?
Pretty much all three.
That’s the weirdest question I’ve ever asked anyone.
Yeah well, I imagine that’s the weirdest scene I’ve ever shot! Um, yeah. Comedy is hard. You’ve got to suffer for your art. We were in a very hot, very wet, very sticky, uncomfortable environment for three days in order to mine for the laughs. But I have to say, that scene has people absolutely roaring.
Did they explain how they made fake elephant semen?
Oh my god, I didn’t even ask to be honest with you. I was told that it was a kind of benign skin-friendly mixture. And it did certainly seem like. My skin after lying around for three days for that stuff was fantastic! So I think it was some sort of moisturizer or something. I have no idea. I didn’t want to ask too closely. I didn’t want too many questions.
How much do you really want to know about it, yeah?
How long did it take for you to feel clean again after those days wrapped?
Quite a long time. In fact, we had some showers on set, so we would slop down some stairs in our soaked costumes and just leave them in the floor and jump into a makeshift shower. I was certainly a very clean actor for those three days.
Ryan Reynolds kind of redeemed himself from Green Lantern‘s troubles with Deadpool. Would you consider reteaming with him in Deadpool 2?
Yeah, there are already plans for Deadpool 2 and they’re bringing in a tough guy villain called Cable.
Ooooh. Okay. To be honest with you, I love variety. That’s why I did Grimsby. As an actor, I’ve always enjoyed the difference of all the different kinds of projects I can do, whether it’s movies or stage work or even radio. I love the variety. I love playing characters that are as far removed from me as possible. I love accents. I love costumes. I love doing genres I’m not used to, which is exactly why I took on action-comedy with Sacha. The truth is I played Sinestro in Green Lantern because I was really intrigued to see if we could recreate that character’s look from the comic. I thought we did a pretty good job. It’s a shame the movie wasn’t more successful because I loved playing that part. But I’m for playing anything interesting that I can do something with. More than anything, I like to keep the mix going. So if I do something particularly silly, I like to follow it up with something very serious. So, it’s the variety.
The Brothers Grimsby hits theaters March 11, 2016.
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