“I really miss living in a world without the internet or mobile phones” – Mark Strong on the nostalgia-infused Shazam!

The English actor plays the lead antagonist in this DC superhero flick – which celebrates the freedom of youth

This isn’t the first time we’ve seen English actor Mark Strong take on the role of chief antagonist in a DC superhero flick, following his turn in Green Lantern. He’s now back as Sivana, the ultimate foe to our hero Shazam, in this playful new flick from the studio. We sat down with him to discuss the film, and he comments on the film’s adventurous tone, and why audiences no longer seek the darker, more dour productions that used to grace this particular universe. He talks about staying in character on set, and the nuances to the role at hand, and why he’s effectively quite a sad character. He also discusses the film’s theme of nostalgia and what he missed most about being 14 years old, while comments briefly on whether we may see the role return to screen one day, which leads to a potential Kingsman confession as well…

Mark, you’re way too old to be taking kids’ lunch money

So, the film is good fun.

Yeah and I love that we can have fun with it, and I think it says something about the state of the world that we’ve had these kind of dark movies in the past that we were able to handle because, I dunno, maybe we felt like we were in control of things? Now everything has become so chaotic we just need our entertainment to give us a little bit of hope, and I’m sure that’s why people will enjoy the movie.

So you think that is why we’ve seen a change in the superhero genre? Because you’re right, Chris Nolan introduced a more naturalistic, gritty take and Marvel have gone with big colourful, comedically inclined features. Is that a reflection of society?

I don’t think that was a conscious choice. In retrospect you could look at the ways the films have evolved and realised that even Marvel are having more fun with their films. Guardians of the Galaxy, the recent Thor: Ragnarok, they have a sense of humour. They’re just realising that people just need to have a little bit of joy in their lives, and this one delivers it in spades I think.

Like a Deadpool for kids?

Sure, yeah, without the profanity or the extreme violence. It’s self-referential, it’s making fun of the genre, the idea that he’s not just a superhero, he’s a kid who doesn’t know what powers he has or who to use them, it’s pretty funny.

It’s every kid’s dream to be a superhero.

As a kid, and I’m not sure if we all did this, but you imagine the floor is lava, and you climb all over the furniture and the window sills. That’s being a superhero, isn’t it?

The hero versus the villain: Shazam meets Sivana

That said the film can be dark for children as well. Like the sequence in the conference room.

Yeah, and we wondered about that. I spoke to Dave Sandberg about it, who has a background in horror movies, and so the bad guy is very well-served by a director like that because he doesn’t shy away from making it scary, but we did talk about how if the film is going to go that far down the path of humour and comedy and poking fun at the whole superhero genre, what do we do with the villain then? Do we make him lighter to fit that feeling, or do we take him the other way? And we quickly realised you have to go the other way. I need to be the straight man to his comedy guy, and we realised that if we made it darker and a little more scary, not only would it balance well, but actually kids like to be a little bit scared. I mean it’s unlikely that kids are not going to be with their parents, so they’re in a safe place, and I actually think they do like a little bit of scariness, it goes a long way I think.

It sounds like the kids on set were a bit scared of you at times? Did you play up to that?

A little bit. I did a little bit. Zach had his speaker out and he was dancing around with them and they were going out in the evenings and getting to know one another, but I did slightly, and consciously keep myself away from them, because I thought that if we were all having a great time together, when the scenes come for me to terrorise them, I’d just be Mark mucking about, instead of Sivana scaring the living daylights out of them.

Is it fun to create a character like this, and in this world?

Yeah, the superhero world is all make believe, and I suppose all of our creative work is telling stories and these are some of the best stories. The storylines, the characters, they’re colourful, they’re really inventive, I think it’s no accident that, partly because technology has caught up with the vision which is why they’re now in the cinema these movies, but it’s no accident that these fantastical spectacles are being delivered on the big screen, and the drama that used to be there has now gone to the smaller screen if you like, into television. I do remember as a kid, although I didn’t grow up with the superhero movies because I’m a Brit from the UK, we didn’t really have it in Europe in the same way they did in America. My comics were things like Beano and Whizzer and Chips, so I didn’t grow up with superheroes. But I do remember as a young teenage that story of Superman, the idea of a baby sent away from his home planet, and it exploded just as the ship left, and then it comes to Earth and is discovered by an old couple, and the kid lifting up a car to save somebody… What a brilliant story. If you pitched that now and there were no superhero movies, people would say ‘wow – what an imagination’.

You’ve played a supervillain before… How does Sivana compare? What makes him special?

I think even if you’re going to play a villain you want him to be as nasty and evil as he can possibly be. This one is special I think because he gets to manifest the sins. So you have these seven powerful beings, gluttony, pride, sloth, evil, I can’t remember all seven off the top of my head, and he through his will he can manifest these things and he’s basically got an army of evil guys that he can use to destroy anybody he wants. And then he gets to fly, he gets to fire powerful bolts of electricity out of his hands. He’s pretty much got everything you want from a villain. He’s got a fantastic little mean pair of sunglasses and a gorgeous flowing leather coat. He’s got it all.

This is who Sivana has to try and overcome. A family. Not on.

Do you think he considers himself to be a villain, or as the good guy?

That’s an interesting question. What makes characters ever more interesting is if you can understand why they behave the way they do. So it’s fun for us to watch Zach being Shazam because you know he comes from that boy who doesn’t really understand the world of superheroes, unlike his friend Freddy. With Sivana he also comes from a boy, and it’s very rare you get to see the backstory of a villain, and yet the film opens with young Sivana and his story, so I think Sivana feels justified in taking out his anger on the world because of the way he was bullied as a child. An interesting element of the film is that it asks questions, we have a 14 year old boy who is bullied by his family who chooses the dark side, by his supposedly perfect family, and then you have this boy who has been deserted by his mother and whose family is this group of disparate foster kids, and he goes to the good side. On some level there is a sub-text of where do we belong?

Sivana is quite a sad character.

I think so, you get the sense that he hasn’t had a very nice life. I mean it doesn’t justify what he’s done, but there’s an element of sympathy that I was able to find in him that made him easier to play.

With any villain you always want to get to the nuances of the character and try and understand their motives. But can that be hard to connect with when in a big blockbuster? It can veer into pantomime villain, like you’ve said about the coat and the glasses – so can it be a struggle to then connect with the inner emotions?

It’s not a struggle, but you do have to mindful about all of those disparate elements. You know, I’m not in an Arthur Miller play. I’m playing Dr. Sivana. You do have to strut around and throw some shapes and remember that you’re in a fantastical superhero movie. But I think what I was hopefully able to do with Sivana, and Dave Sandberg served me really well, is he brought me all of those disparate elements to bear. So you have this guy who is really mean and nasty, but you also get the same guy having the rug pulled from under him, in that scene for example where he’s making the classic villain speech, and you cut to Shazam who is miles away in the distance, and he’s ranting away and nobody really cares. Shazam is like ‘I can’t hear you’, so I love that there’s there as well, there’s lots of elements to him that make him interesting. Knowing him as a boy, seeing him be really, incredibly horrible, but then also being in on the joke as well.

You were talking about the deadly sins – which is your favourite?

I love them all, they’re all my babies. Well Greed seems to be the most violent and the one that I use to dispatch my father, but the one I probably relate to most is probably gluttony I think. If there’s any dark chocolate anywhere within reach, I need to have it.

Shazam! taps into the theme of nostalgia through the eyes of a boy in a man’s body

Do you think the magical aspect will attract even more people than just the superhero moviegoers? Because the setting reminded me a little of Harry Potter…

Yeah, true. It does nod to Amblin and that world created by Spielberg, that sort of child’s world, the colours, the feel of that foster family, it definitely has a nod to that. And yeah, magic is always useful isn’t it? If it’s just two guys, good and evil, smashing each other over the head endlessly there’s no magic. I think of Transformers and no disrespect to it, but essentially it’s just huge things smashing each other over the head for long periods of time, which is only interesting up until a certain point. If you can add the element of magic, and you can add a little bit of a storyline about where these kids have come from and why they’ve made the choices they’ve had, and you can have fun with it and see a boy struggling with powers he didn’t even know he had, and his sidekick is so into this, if anybody needed to be Shazam it was Freddy, there’s so many elements that make it more interesting than just good versus evil.

There’s obviously influences too from Big, and of course Zach had to get into the head of his old teenage self to play this role. What about yourself personally – what do you miss most from being that age? Do you ever get nostalgic about being carefree and 14?

Oh god yeah. What I really miss is living in a world without internet or mobiles phones, or email or being contactable every second of the day with any thought that anybody has that they think they need to ask you in that moment. I was trying to explain to my son this morning about answer machines and how we used to leave the house, put the answer machine on and then spend the day without any access to phones or computers. We’d come back and the world had turned, we were all okay. So I really do now, for that reason, miss being 14. I see my son at that age kind of being dominated by screens and information. It’s not all bad, but he doesn’t do what we used to do, which was just to go out on our bikes at the beginning of the day and go and explore in the forest, and come home at the end of the day for tea. It doesn’t really work like that anymore, so yeah, I’m hugely nostalgic for that world, and more and more as technology becomes more efficient and we become more dominated by it, I really do miss that.

*Please note the following question does contain spoilers*…. We all know that death in this genre is not final – will your character be back?

You mean in this one? Because there’s a death in Kingsman too and people often ask me about that – and all I can say is watch this space, you’ll have to wait and see. But what’s great in Shazam is that sequence during the credits, that Easter Egg, and David Sandberg loves dropping an Easter Egg, a little thing, all through the movie. But yeah we have that moment with Sivana and Mr. Mind, the Venusian Mindworm, a mindworm from Venus – what a great character. And there is a tradition of Sivana and Mind being partners in crime in the comics, so it’s certainly a maybe. I think with all these things you have to see how it goes down and what the appetite is, but I can’t imagine anything better than hooking up with a worm as a buddy. An evil buddy.

Even better than Colin Firth.

Yeah, much more manageable than Colin Firth.

Could the villains you’ve played in the DCU ever meet?

That would be great wouldn’t it? A match-up between Sinestro and Sivana – who would win? I think that movie unfortunately didn’t get its sequel, and there’s an Easter Egg at the end of Green Lantern where he tries on the other ring and there’s a fantastic moment where he turns yellow and you get a sense of where he could go, and unfortunately we never went there. I feel a little bit like the baton has been passed to Sivana, so what I might’ve done with Sinestro I have now done with Sivana, albeit in a different way. I’m sure there will be a reboot of Green Lantern some time, but probably with a different Sinestro, so no danger of them competing.

Strong as Sinestro in Green Lantern, the last time he played a DC villain

Shazam! is out in cinemas on April 5th

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