"We just need to keep going and remind people that there are people who need our help."
Over the course of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, more than 3,000 educational facilities have suffered damages, with over 400 of them completely destroyed - representing 10% of the country's educational facilities.
President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has appointed several ambassadors over the past months through his charity UNITED24, in order to collect donations for his nation.
The most recent addition to the team is acclaimed British actor Mark Strong.
You’ve seen him in such films as Zero Dark Thirty, Sherlock Holmes, Kingsman, The Imitation Game, Tár, and most recently in The Critic. His filmography is as impressive as it is varied.
Strong joins the likes of Barbra Streisand, Liev Schreiber, Ivanna Sakhno, and Richard Branson as UNITED24 ambassadors, and will be responsible for supporting the platform’s education and science program – specifically raising funds to build bomb shelters in schools.
Euronews Culture sat down with Mark Strong to discuss his new role, how public figures can make a meaningful difference, the risk of compassion fatigue when faced with conflict, as well as some of his upcoming projects on both the big and small screens – including a certain pivotal role in the upcoming Dune series from HBO.
Euronews Culture: How did you get involved with UNITED24?
Mark Strong: I was asked to play in a charity football match at Stamford Bridge. I’m a big Arsenal fan, and I was told that a lot of ex-Arsenal players like Robert Pires and Clichy and guys like that would be playing, so I have to confess that my first enthusiasm for the match was the fact that I would get to meet all these legends, who I’d grown up supporting. But then when there, I bumped into (Andriy) Shevchenko, who had actually played in a charity match a couple of years before for Soccer Aid (the British annual charity event raising money for UNICEF). He’s a very lovely man and we became good friends. And then I met (Oleksandr) Zinchenko, who’s another Ukrainian footballer who plays for Arsenal, and I realised while I was there, over the course of the couple of days that we were training for the match, that the whole thing was being done for UNITED24, which is President Zelenskyy’s fundraising arm, and that it was raising money for Ukraine. I got talking to the guys organising it and they asked me for my help... And it’s very difficult when someone asks you for help to say no, frankly.
Do you think it’s important, perhaps now more than ever, that artists and public figures like yourself lend their public profile to these causes, to raise awareness for social and political issues?
That would be an interesting question for you, as a journalist, to answer, because have things changed over the years? In the past, we didn’t have social media, we didn’t have this access to information that everybody has, and it does seem to me that people are becoming obsessed with fame and imagery, and all of those things. People are curating their own photographs on their phones, they’re becoming very orientated towards their own visual effect... And perhaps in that environment, it is important that people who are visible and recognisable should help out with things that they feel strongly about – and that’s what I feel that I’m doing.
You spoke to President Zelenskyy, and over the past months, many celebrities have been active in showing their support – from Sean Penn to Jessica Chastain, via Ben Stiller and Mark Hamill. Is there any risk of a sense of oversaturation or numbness from the public’s perception? And how can celebrities show that what they’re doing actually matters?
That’s a very good point. I think everything suffers from oversaturation in the current world. It’s very difficult not to encounter compassion fatigue with very serious issues, like the invasion of Ukraine. I’m sure the same thing is going to happen with what’s happening with the Middle East at the moment. There are worthy causes all over the world, going on at all times. I think that what I can achieve is something direct. Rather than a general wash of compassion for everybody in the world, I can help rebuild schools in Ukraine, and that’s what I was asked to do. And if I can raise money to help rebuild a school and make it very specific, then I feel like I’m helping.
As for the saturation element, this war is not going to be over any time soon. As I was told, Ukraine is in it for the marathon. It’s a long sprint, and people will get tired and bored – "bored" in inverted commas, which is such a tragic notion when children are being bombed. But we just have to keep going, and you have to keep reminding people, with as many inventive ways as you possibly can, not to forget about the suffering that’s going on in Ukraine at the moment, and if I can shine the light on what’s happening to children over there, and I feel like I’m doing something worthwhile.
What specific fundraising initiatives will you be taking part in?
Well, the football match raised money for a specific school, and I was able to see photographs of the school and the children, and it made it very immediate for me. I was then asked to think about raising money, and I’ve decided I’m going to try to raise $60,000 (approx. €57,000) for a school in Uman, in the Cherkasy district. It’s called the Dymtrushkivskyi Lyceum, which has 327 pupils. And they need a bomb shelter. Which is insane when you even need to say that sentence. A school needs a bomb shelter.
It’s a genuinely harrowing thought...
It is. The school is about two hours and a half from Kyiv, and in order for them to study, this bomb shelter will be incredibly useful because they can go there should they be in danger. It would allow them to continue their education. That’s something specific that I’m raising money for right now.
There's is one thing I wanted to say – this might sound a little pompous, but here goes... I knew you were going to ask me about why I wanted to get involved with raising money for UNITED24, and the only thing I can think of is that Edmund Burke quote. He said: “The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” And I think that’s incredibly relevant.
It’s a quote that does remain vital, especially when it’s so easy to get lost in a sea of depressing information about how broken the world is...
Yes. The world becomes a more and more extraordinary place as you get older. I remember sitting as a schoolboy, reading stories about the World War II, about battles and about soldiers, about historical events, wars that have happened, and they were in the history books. I didn’t really believe in the reality of them – they were historical events. And now, as I’ve got older, and realise how many wars there are around the world and how much conflict is going on. It’s juts mind-blowing, you know? People still haven’t learned that to try to live in peace is way more preferrable than aggression and disgusting behaviour by people trying to feather their legacy, or whatever the hell they’re trying to do. Speaking of which, have you seen this Mariupol documentary?
20 Days is Mariupol? Yes – it's an incredibly bracing film... And it ultimately brings back, like a lot of films and documentaries, that we do seem to be a species who doesn’t learn from our mistakes...
“Bring back” is the interesting phrase, because it can easily drift out of our consciousness. It can drift away and we can forget about it. But I think films like that, and organisations like UNITED24, and even this interview – you interviewing me about this – can help. We just need to keep going and remind people that there are people who need our help.
To pivot somewhat, I’d be remiss if we didn’t talk about your career. Prior to this interview, I rewatched some of your films, with favourites including Sunshine, Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, and Kick Ass ... Throughout your career, you seem to have achieved this balance between big budget blockbuster films, like Kingsman or Shazam!, and smaller, more independent productions. Are there any projects you prefer doing, or any that you seek out more than others?
When I started out as an actor, the thing I loved most of all was variety. You know, being able to mix and match, and not just characters, but media. I started out in the theatre, and it was years before I got in front of a camera. I started making some television in the UK, and then came movies. And what’s happened over the years is that I’ve tried to mix it up as much as possible and not do the obvious thing next.
For example, I’m doing a TV series at the moment for HBO. I'm in Budapest filming that, pretty much until Christmas. And then I’m doing a movie in Germany, about a real-life character called Josef Hartinger, who tried to prosecute the SS for the first four murders that happened in Dachau concentration camp in 1933 (Thirty Three). So that’s something very different, and then later on in the year, I’ll be doing a play in the West End – a modern dress version of 'Oedipus' directed by a very clever and talented director called Robert Icke.
So, one TV, one film, one theatre – all completely different, working with great people on different subject matters... And that’s what keeps it interesting for me.
You come from a very multicultural background, with an Austrian mother, an Italian father, growing up in the UK... Would you be keen to push towards more European productions, and in languages other than English?
Well, I nearly did a German film with Maria Schrader (Stefan Zweig: Farewell To Europe, I’m Your Man, She Said), and I wasn’t able to do it because of Covid. And that would have been a film in German, because I speak German, and I was really excited about doing that. Unfortunately, I couldn’t travel... And recently, I was asked by a Japanese filmmaker to play the part of a German officer in a Japanese black and white movie that she’s making – probably not next year but the year after. And again, I would be totally German speaking... So it does seem to be moving that way! Although this film that I mentioned to you, Thirty Three (also starring Paula Beer and directed by Niels Arden Oplev) will be in the English language – even if it’s about a German subject matter. So I’m very happy to make anything in Europe. I grew up in the 70s and we joined the European union, and it was a big part of my life. I find the tragedy of Brexit extremely unfortunate, and I’m not a subscriber to the idea that we should exist as an island. No man is an island, as they say, and there is an awful lot to learn from Europe.
Moving from Europe to the US, the writer’s strike is over, but the actor’s strike is still ongoing and negotiations have halted. How has it impacted you, and do you feel a similar situation could happen in the UK or Europe?
It has impacted me, and has impacted everyone in my business, because the writer’s strike initially meant that projects all came to a standstill. And before SAG went on strike, we were showing solidarity and not crossing the picket lines. So worked stopped. Then the Screen Actors Guild went on strike as well, and everything came to a standstill. But this show that I’m doing in Budapest is a European show, an Equity production rather than a SAG production. We were given a waiver by SAG, although we do have a couple of Screen Actors Guild actors who cannot film their scenes until the strike is over, so those scenes have all been pushed to the end of the shoot. And we’re just waiting and hoping that something gets resolved, otherwise we will be filming this forever! (Laughs)
And it could absolutely happen in the UK and Europe, and it is happening at the moment. There are a lot of my friends who are out of work because productions have come to a standstill. But the people who are really affected are not so much the actors, but it’s everybody around – the crews, the people who work in makeup, the drivers... They aren’t on strike, and have no beef, but they are finding that they have no work, so things are getting tough.
One major talking point of these strikes is the use of artificial intelligence and the risk that poses for the acting profession. Is that something that you worry about?
It is a worry because we don’t know how it works yet. And if you’re asked by a production company to stand in front of a whole bunch of cameras and give your digital information to them, it literally means they can do with you whatever they want. And if you’re not careful and in a contract, and exclude things and say that they’re not allowed, then if you don’t read the small print of a contract properly, it’s possible that once they have that digital information, they can do whatever they like.
Case and point, for example – we have scenes here involving 200 extras. If those extras all agree to provide their digital imagery, they are then not needed after the first day. Because if they have the digital imagery of those 200 extras, they can put it in later in post, which means that 200 extras only get to work one day instead of the time actually required.
I’m guessing that the show you’re currently filming and are referring to is Dune: The Sisterhood...
Yes. Hidden Hand, is what it’s known as, but it is Dune: The Sisterhood.
That’s very exciting, especially since the release of the second part of Dennis Villeneuve’s film has been delayed until next year. How tight lipped do you have to be about the project, and what can you tell us?
Well, people have become very tight lipped about every single project over the years. You used to be able to chat about it... It’s very difficult for me to say very much, except that it is based on Frank Hebert's "The Sisterhood of Dune" book, which deals with the Bene Gisserit, the nuns within the story. This show deals with the creation of their order... It’s a big production, it’s got some fantastic actors, the storylines are wonderful. If you like that kinda thing, it’s going to be a very intriguing prospect, because it’s a big number!
Yes, there’s Emily Watson, Olivia Williams involved, and you play a character called Corrino, is that right?
Yes, Emperor Corrino. He’s the first Padishah Emperor, apparently. It’s worth knowing that what we’re making is before the films and that the world we’re in is thousands of years before the films... But it’s totally the same world. I think it’s going to be pretty good! So you know the books?
Oh yes – I read quite a few, but can’t deny I gave up on a few – when worms started mating with humans and there were hybrids, and it all went a bit nuts. My brain was a bit fried!
(Laughs) That, and there are a lot of them!
Looking forward, are there any roles or movie genres that remain uncharted territory so far and that you’re aching to tackle?
Interesting question... I always feel like I’ve been an interpreter rather than a creator. Over the years, and I’ve been doing it for a while now, I’ve never had the desire to direct or write. Because directors I’ve met really want to be in charge. Writers I've met really have a lot of stories to tell. Whereas I’ve always been about wanting to read a script, find a part and be intrigued by it and think ‘Oh, I can make something of that.’ That’s been the exciting bit for me – when I get a script and find a character and think ‘I’d love to play that part’. I’ve never been one for creating my own stuff, and that’s just the way it is. I don’t think it’s because I’m not creative – I just enjoy the acting more than anything else.
But, there are a lot of theatre parts that I would like to play. Some Arthur Miller parts... Having been in 'A View from the Bridge', and had some success with it on the stage, there are others I’d love to play. There’s 'Death of a Salesman' I’d want to do, but I’m not old enough for it yet... 'King Lear'! 'Richard III'! But I’m not old enough for those either, but hopefully that’s coming. There’s still time. (Laughs)
Mark Strong, thank you for your time.
Thank you. And I hope you enjoy Dune: The Sisterhood.
Oh I’m sure I will. I even enjoyed the David Lynch version, so it’s right up my alley. Speaking of which, have you seen anything recently which you’ve enjoyed?
Oooh, that’s a good question... I tell you what I did watch recently was the Beckham documentary. It was fascinating getting a look into the life of a footballer and what he went through. I know they made the programme, so they come out as the heroes – it's always a little bit like that, a bit like The Last Dance – did you ever watch that one?
Yes, the Michael Jordan docuseries – loved it!
Made by Michael Jordan, so obviously you come out of it thinking that he’s an absolute superhero! The same thing is true of Beckham, but I found it quite fascinating. As for drama, off the top of my head, I can’t think what I’ve seen recently. I try to choose things that I can watch with my sons, and it’s not always the stuff that would be my first choice. I did go see the Stop Making Sense Talking Heads music documentary, which was back in cinemas. I saw it at the Picturehouse, and there were only about 10 people in there, but it’s one of the greatest films ever made of a concert.
It’s strange that you mention that, because I recently wrote about the greatest concert films ever made, linked to the release of the Taylor Swift concert coming out on the big screen. It does seem to be the cinematic trend of the fall season...
Oh yes! There does seem to be a fashion for it right now. Maybe because of Taylor Swift, and how massive that film is going to be!
Well, for the second time, thank you again for your time.
Thanks David. Lovely to chat to you.
Check out the video above for extracts of our interview with Mark Strong. Click here for more information about UNITED24 and how to support them.