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Mark Strong Reveals His 'John Carter' Character Matai Shang Will Differ From The Books by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Playlist By Jen Vineyard | The Playlist December 8, 2011 at 11:04AM

Mark Strong -- who can be seen this weekend as betrayed spy Jim Prideaux in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" -- already has another book adaption and another Cold War piece in his orbit for next year, with "John Carter" (formerly "John Carter of Mars") and "Closer to the Moon."
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Mark Strong
Mark Strong -- who can be seen this weekend as betrayed spy Jim Prideaux in "Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy" -- already has another book adaption and another Cold War piece in his orbit for next year, with "John Carter" (formerly "John Carter of Mars") and "Closer to the Moon."

While in New York to promote 'Tinker, Tailor,' Strong updated The Playlist about both projects, starting with 'Moon,' which he just wrapped in Romania with Vera Farmiga. "'Tinker Tailor' is about the English experience of the Cold War in the '70s, so it's very drab and beige and grey," he explained, "where 'Closer to the Moon' is brash, comedic, and almost Italian."

"Closer To The Moon" is based on a true story, about a group of five intellectuals who, as a political statement against Communism, pull off a bank heist by telling the crowd that they are part of a film crew. Strong plays Max Rosenthal, a former police investigator who heads up the group. When they get caught, the five men are sentenced to death, but in addition to that, they're also ordered by the court to actually make the film that they were only pretending to, as part of their penance, so it can be used for propaganda purposes.

"The propaganda ministry got these guys who were in prison for committing a robbery to re-create the robbery," Strong said. "I couldn't stop telling people that story, and I thought, 'If I can't stop telling people this, I better do this.' And when I found out Vera [Farmiga] was involved [to play Max's lover and mother of his child], I was delighted, because she is fantastic."

Strong said he was a little unsure at first of what tone the film would take, because there was a bit of a culture clash with helmer Nae Caranfil, "a Romanian director who had never made an English language movie," he said. "I spent a lot of it being baffled at what was required."

For instance, in a scene where he was beating someone up, it was played for laughs, and Strong didn't understand why. "And then I realized that they had lived under an oppressor, which we've never really done," he said. "They had this heavy boot of Soviet communism, and the only way you can deal with brute force like that is through humor. So that's what the film is doing. Even though it's dealing with incredibly tragic stuff, it has a light comic element to it."

So when the robbers receive their death sentence in court, they cheer. "The courtroom is full of secret service people, and they know that," Strong said. "And they know they're going to die anyway, so instead of crying and collapsing, they slap each other on the back -- which is a strange thing to play."

Not nearly so strange for him to play was the main antagonist in "John Carter" -- despite the Mars backdrop. "We actually shot it in Utah, but there's a lot of CGI," he said.

Strong plays Matai Shang, the leader of the Therns, who control the balance of power on Mars -- but "he's not evil," the actor cautioned. "He's not like Lord Blackwood in 'Sherlock Holmes.' Matai Shang's race of people, they don't cause destruction -- they manage destruction. So he goes around cleaning up. If two tribes are at war, he will choose a tribe, give them the technology to beat the other one, and that solves the problem. And in doing so, there's really no war."

This is a departure from the way the Holy Therns, or the White Martians, act in Edgar Rice Burrough's "Barsoom" book series which forms the basis of "John Carter" and its planned sequels. "[Director] Andrew Stanton's taken some liberties with the narrative," Strong said. "The Therns are more like masters of the universe now. At last, I get to play a master of the universe!"

Next up for Strong is the psychological thriller "Blood," co-starring Paul Bettany and Brian Cox. "We start that in February," he said. "It's about two brothers who are both policemen, who become compromised by an incident, and it throws their lives completely upside down, and I'm kind of a catalyst for that."


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