If “Shazam!” star Mark Strong has a superpower, it might just be his ability to bust out a Shakespearean soliloquy.
“He’s such a pro,” says director David F. Sandberg of the British actor, who plays Dr. Thaddeus Sivana opposite Zachary Levi’s Shazam. “He’s just such a classically trained actor. So one day when we were setting up, Zach just calls out, ‘Hey, Mark, do a Shakespeare soliloquy.’ And he just goes into this long monologue that he just has stored away. And everyone is just standing there listening, or they’re just watching this performance that we’re getting for free.”
Strong is none-too-modest about his Shakespeare-on-demand skills.
“It’s pretty good,” he says. “I have a few speeches up my sleeve. And every now and again, I just have to remind them that I was a classical actor.”
That background with the Bard came in handy playing Sivana, a maleficent character, who was slighted as a child by a powerful wizard (Djimon Hounsou), and spends his life trying to find him again and gain ultimate power. He says that there’s a connection between the superhero tale of good versus evil, especially when it comes to his character.
“Certainly in the villain because there is a dignity and a presence to a comic book villain like Sivana that is a direct descendant I suppose of some of the villains that I was used to playing on stage as a young man,” Strong explains. “You have to have the same power and presence as those villains way back then."
Strong, who has played both heroes (Merlin in the “Kingsman” movies) and villains (Sinestro in “Green Lantern”), says he has a particular affinity for playing the bad guy.
“I enjoy playing the villain,” he explains. “I thought this particular villain had a lot going on. I love the fact that he had a back story more than anything. It’s so rare that these kind of parts you get to sort of discover them when they’re younger. So to have the idea that Sivana’s evil comes from somewhere was quite unusual. That was a big factor for me.”
“Shazam!,” the latest DC Comics property to come to the big screen, features a brightly clad hero who is actually orphaned teen Billy Batson (Asher Angel). Batson, who is brought to a new foster home with other kids, meets the same wizard, who imbues him with his power, turning him into a Superman-man type strongman with a variety of powers. He is a big, muscly hero with the mind of a kid and his closest confidant is fellow foster kid, Freddy Freeman (Jack Dylan Grazer).
Levi had a double whammy in that he both had to play the part of an iconic superhero while also acting in the mindset of a teenager. Sandberg says that it didn’t take a lot of direction to help the star capture the younger persona.
"Zach just is a big kid," Sandberg says. "I think what really works with him is this enthusiasm and energy that he has."
“We had auditions for over 100 people and what I noticed is when adults try to play kids they often play them dumber or, like, they just lower their IQ,” Sandberg continues. “Which really isn’t what sets kids apart from adults. It’s that energy and excitements. That Zach really has.”
That lighter tone draws to mind some of the classic 1980s adventure movies, and that is not an accident, though Sandberg, who made his name directing horror films like “Lights Out” and “Annabelle: Creation,” says he was a bit shocked that the studio targeted him for the film.
“I was happy and surprised that the studio thought of me for this,” he says. "They reached out to me and asked if I was interested. … While I am a big horror guy, I do love all kinds of movies. I grew up with Amblin movies and then movies form the ’80s like ‘Ghostbusters’ and ‘Goonies,’ ‘Back to the Future’ and to me, this was like, ‘Uh, I can do something that has that sort of fun sense of adventure that those movies have.’”
Strong says that Sandberg’s horror background helped him when it came to playing Sivana.
“I know that he comes from a horror background, and obviously if you’re the villain in a production what you want is the support of that kind of a guy,” Strong says. “You can play a villain in a traditional movie and you may not have that experience that David has in a director to really make it scary. And what I loved when I saw the movie was how he had not shied away from making him really quite creepy and really very dangerous."
Despite originating back to 1939 in the second issue of “Whiz Comics,” created by artist C.C. Beck and writer Bill Parker — just a year after Superman debuted — neither Strong or Sandberg had much of a background with the characters.
Sandberg says he had heard of Shazam and knew what he looked like, but not much beyond that. But the pitched they used was something that drew him in immediately.
“When they called me, they were pitching it to me as ‘Big’ but with superpowers, which sounds like the best idea ever, so I was all on board right away," Sandberg says. "Then I had to do my homework and actually read a ton of ‘Shazam!’ comics and there are so many of then. … You have the old ones. You have Geoff Johns ones. You have the Jerry Ordway ones. Alex Ross did his thing. So, it felt like, ‘OK, well, we don’t have to do exactly just one thing.’ We can do our own thing and then be inspired in many different ways.”
A ‘Strong’ affinity for New York City
British actor Mark Strong, who plays the evil Dr. Sivana in “Shazam!,” has but a single Broadway credit, but it landed him a lot of attention.
Strong starred in director Ivo Van Hove’s Tony-winning revival of Arthur Miller’s “A View From the Bridge,” which took home the prize for Best Revival of a Play and Best Director. Strong landed both a Tony and Drama Desk Awards nomination for best actor.
“I had an amazing time on Broadway,” Strong says. “I played Eddie Carbone in the ‘A View From the Bridge’ at the Lyceum for a while and had the best time. I brought my family over. We lived here. The kids went to school over here and New York is probably my favorite city in the world.”
The actor says he would love to get back on the New York stage, calling the theater work here “incredibly vital and important.”
While he’s not treading the boards, his time in New York is spent catching up with friends, and treading the sidewalk.
“Most of all I like to just walk,” Strong says. “I think New York is very like London in that way. Certainly Manhattan. You can walk around a corner and feel that you know an area and suddenly discover a new shop, something different that you’ve never seen before.
“It’s big enough that there’s always something there to surprise you,” he continues. “And I love sometimes just walking and because of the grid system you never really get lost. But you can really explore.”