Villainous Actor Mark Strong Reveals the Bad Guys of Disney’s “John Carter”

Mark Strong has made a name for himself playing bad guys, including Lord Blackwood in 2009’s “Sherlock Holmes” and Sinestro in 2011’s “Green Lantern.”  In Disney’s “John Carter”, Strong plays a manipulative villain named Matai Shang – leader of a mysterious race known as the Therns.  In the interview below (provided by Walt Disney Studios), Mark Strong reveals his approach to playing villains, writer/director Andrew Stanton’s interpretation of Edgar Rice Burrough’s classic text, and the story of “John Carter.”  Click here for even more press releases, images, trailers, and news for Disney’s “John Carter”, coming to theaters March 9, 2012.

Image: Matai Shang (Mark Strong) with Warhoons ©2011 Disney. John Carter™ ERB, Inc.

“We do not cause the destruction of a world, Captain Carter. We simply manage it. Feed off it, if you like.”

Question and answer transcript provided by Walt Disney Studios:

Describe your character in the film.

Mark Strong:         I play a character called Matai Shang, who is the leader of a race called the Therns.  Essentially, the Therns are a parasitic race that travels the universe creating the order that they need from it.  So, in this particular story, they arrive on Mars, where they see two tribes at war and they decide to equip one tribe with the technology to vanquish the other tribe.  It just so happens that John Carter comes along and falls in love with a woman from the soon-to-be vanquished tribe, so he exists over and above the action in the sense that he’s not a Zodangan and he’s not a Heliumite—he’s from Earth.  The Therns are mythical on Mars; nobody’s quite sure whether they truly exist because nobody’s ever seen one.  And as Therns, we’re able to transform ourselves into whoever or whatever we want in order to remain hidden and achieve our goals.

Your character is very allied with the character of Sab Than, played by Dominic West.  What is their relationship and why is your character so closely tied to him?

MS:         Matai is closely allied to Sab Than as he is the leader of the Zodangans, whom the Therns have given special powers.  The Therns made a decision very early on to give Sab Than and his tribe the technology to vanquish Helium, the tribe they’re fighting.  So, Matai and Sab are linked because Sab is taking his instruction from Matai.

The city of Helium, also referred to as “The Jewel of Barsoom (Mars),” is the home of Princess Dejah Thoris. ©Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

How does it feel to play a bad guy in “John Carter”? 

MS:         It is a great challenge, in fact, to play the bad guy in any film.  But I don’t think of Matai as a bad guy.  I don’t see him as somebody who’s doing anything other than the best that he can.  The way that you bring the bad guys to life and not make them two-dimensional is by giving them a purpose.  Matai’s purpose is to create order in the universe.  What he sees himself as doing is just and right and true.  And he sees John Carter as somebody who’s getting in the way of that.

So, in his mind, he doesn’t think of himself as bad, or evil, or sinister.  In fact, he has a wonderful speech to John Carter where he says, “We don’t cause the destruction of worlds; we simply manage them.”  And that’s what he sees himself doing.

L to R: Woola, John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) ©2011 Disney. John Carter™ ERB, Inc.

Does your character Matai interact with any of the creatures in the film?

MS:         Yes, in fact, I’m bitten by one of them because there’s this scene in which Woola attacks Matai.  It’s going to be amazing to see how that comes out because basically in the filming of it, it’s a guy in a green suit with a rubber dog’s head biting my arm.  So, a lot of it had to be created from one’s imagination.  But obviously I’ve seen the art, so I understand what it is that I was acting against.  I can’t wait to see the manifestation of all of these ideas.

There’s a mystical element to the way the Therns operate and it’s key to how the story gets set in motion.  Can you explain how John Carter winds up on Mars and gets involved with that mystical part of the story?

MS:         At the beginning of the story, John Carter finds himself in a cave on Earth and discovers what I’ve always thought of as a piece of Native American jewelry, or something like that, that actually turns out to be a very efficient piece of interstellar equipment and is the reason that he ultimately finds himself on Mars.  It’s a piece of equipment that allows the Therns to transport themselves throughout the universe.  So, I suppose we Therns are ultimately responsible for John Carter finding his way up to Mars.

John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) Photo by: Frank Connor, ©2011 Disney. John Carter™ ERB, Inc.

Can you describe the film’s idea of the future?  

MS:         What’s wonderful about the film and the view of the future that Edgar Rice Burroughs had is that it’s a Victorian’s view of space, science fiction and other planets.  It’s not the one that we have these days that you get from adapting a comic book.  Today, we create a space full of laser guns and stuff like that, whereas in this film the guys still have swords, albeit amazingly outlandish looking ones.  It’s almost art deco-looking.  I think that’s why I’m fascinated by this particular film.

What elements of the “John Carter” story do you think will appeal to audiences?

MS:         The story encompasses the things that make all great stories epic.  There are communities at war; there is a love story; there is a sinister influence trying to prevent our hero from carrying out what he needs to.  It’s about identity; it’s about your place in the world, your place in the universe.  On the simple story level there’s a man basically trying to discover who he is.  And once he’s found something he wants, fighting to keep it.  I think all of those story elements are relatable and will appeal to audiences.

L to R: John Carter (Taylor Kitsch), Sola (Samantha Morton), Dejah Thoris (Lynn Collins) ©2011 Disney. John Carter™ ERB, Inc.

The hero, John Carter, rediscovers his humanity in the film.  How does his journey push him towards that rediscovery?

MS:         One of the principal themes of the film, and one of the best, is that this human being, John Carter, needs to travel to Mars in order to find out about himself and his humanity, about kindness, goodness and what is right and true.  I think it’s no accident that by moving himself away from the human race, he’s able to get a bead on what’s important in our spiritual world and in the world of the universe, not just Earth.

Can you discuss the visual spectacle of the film?

MS:         The visual spectacle is going to be extraordinary.  We’re dealing with a planet that has two warring tribes, one of which lives in a moving city.  There are nomads on the planet that are nine foot, green, strange-looking individuals.  Then there’s the whole Victorian take on the costumes and the way they would have imagined people from Mars to be when Burroughs wrote his novel.  That lends itself to the kind of extraordinary visual feast this film is, too.

Behind the scenes, L to R: Director Andrew Stanton and John Carter (Taylor Kitsch) Photo by: Frank Connor, ©2011 Disney. John Carter™ ERB, Inc.

Can you describe working with director Andrew Stanton?

MS:         I remember in a meeting that we had at the very beginning, the thing that stuck most with me was not just the production art, but it was Andrew’s enthusiasm as well.  And that hasn’t waned in the whole time we’ve been shooting, which is phenomenal.  It is an exacting experience to direct a movie of this size, especially if you’ve never done it before in live action.  But he has been utterly consistent, and the enthusiasm he has communicated to us as actors has made it a joy.

He really enjoys being in there with the actors.  I think he likes having a perception of a scene as it’s unfolding, as it is taking place in front of him, rather than just through a monitor 50 yards away from where the action is happening.  And it’s really great to have the presence of your director so close, because it focuses you and it makes you realize that, should you wish to know anything, it’s not a huge relay of information in order to get an answer to your questions because he’s right there.  I have found that really useful.

How was it working with Taylor Kitsch?

MS:         I find Taylor extraordinary in that he’s managed to physically keep things together under extremely grueling circumstances.  He’s filming nonstop and he’s doing very physical stuff and not only has he been able to do that, but he’s been able to remain really upbeat and always fun to be around.  The part I play means I’m often disappeared for a period of time and then come back, and often on movies, you come back to find people just exhausted and jaded.  It’s the very nature of filming, but with him I’ve been absolutely astonished to find every time I’ve come back, he’s still energized.  He’s still up for it.  He’s been really great company too.

Actor Taylor Kitsch (John Carter), © Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

You started filming “John Carter” on soundstages in London and wound up in Utah on location.  What are the challenges to your performance while working under the harsh conditions of the Utah desert?

MS:         On this film it was the heat and the sun that presented the most problems for me.  But I love the fact that Andrew decided to come to Utah to film rather than do it in a box in L.A. or London because it’s wonderful for us to feel the elements the way we are.  I also think it’s good for Andrew to take the feeling of this into the edit, to get a sense of being in a hostile, strange, foreign landscape.  All of that informs the final edit and it’s great to have done it.  The filmmakers are going to extreme lengths to allow us to have this opportunity.

What made you want to be a part of “John Carter”?  

MS:         I wanted to be a part of it because of the vision, because it was such an extraordinary vision of this world that I’d never really seen told in this way before.  I think audiences will love the action-adventure element of it.  But it’s a subtler movie than a lot of the films that come out where they have just big, noisy, battle-type sequences.  This has a lot of intelligence to it.  It’s character-driven; you care about the people.

© Disney Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.

How did the look of the film inform your character, Matai Shang?

MS:         It’s not difficult to imagine your character when you’re wearing the right costume and you have an environment around you that has been so meticulously created.  The look and feel of the film make it very easy to deliver your part and persuade people that you are the person who inhabits this amazing place.

Mayes’ [Rubeo] costumes have been extraordinary.  I have an amazing gown that is something like 300 meters of material with small strips of metal in it.  It feels so right for my character when I put it on.

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About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.