The British actor has become the villain of choice for many filmmakers, Strong's flair for wickedness landing him choice roles as the bad guy in Robert Downey Jr.'s "Sherlock Holmes," the comic-book adaptation "Kick-Ass" and now Russell Crowe's "Robin Hood."
It's a new persona for Strong, who typically played nice guys before his sudden run as the heavy.
"The irony is, I've been doing this, I suppose, for 25 years, and I was never the bad guy for 20 years. And a part came along a little while back, and it was to play quite a troubled, psychotic gangster, and they wouldn't give me the part. It was a part I wanted to play but they wouldn't give it to me, because they didn't think that I could plumb the depths of darkness. They thought I wasn't evil enough," said Strong, 46, at the Cannes Film Festival, where "Robin Hood" premiered amid its rollout to theaters worldwide this week.
"The irony is that the minute I played it, everybody saw it and that's yielded the stuff that I've been doing recently. Over the course of the career so far, this is like one small moment of it, because I've played heroes, I've played lovers, I've played romantic comedies. But I'm enjoying this, I have to say."
Strong started off aiming for a law degree but decided he would not have fun as a lawyer. He switched to studying English and drama, then worked for years on the London stage while easing his way into television and movies.
He costarred in several seasons of Helen Mirren's "Prime Suspect" and has built relationships with filmmakers who sign him up again and again. "Sherlock Holmes" director Guy Ritchie previously cast Strong in his crime tales "Revolver" and "RocknRolla," Scott used him in "Body of Lies," and "Kick-Ass" filmmaker Matthew Vaughn also gave him a role as a villain in "Stardust."
Strong played bad guys in Roman Polanski's "Oliver Twist" and Emily Blunt's "The Young Victoria."
What makes him so good at being bad?
"He has sort of a frightening intensity about him," said "Robin Hood" producer Brian Grazer. "There's an unpredictability that would make him more frightening as a bad guy."
Strong views it as an honor that filmmakers keep offering him the chance to be a scoundrel.
"I take it as a compliment. Maybe there is an intelligence required to play the villain," Strong said. "Otherwise, you end up with something just very obvious and two-dimensional."
In "Robin Hood," Strong plays Sir Godfrey, a British traitor who carries out a scheme to divide English forces and soften up the island's defenses for a French invasion.
The movie aims to show a wildly different glimpse of Robin Hood, whose previous Hollywood adventures include versions starring Errol Flynn, Kevin Costner and a cartoon fox.
"If you're British, he's part of your DNA, and what's interesting is, I can make that comparison to Sherlock Holmes, because a lot of the same questions came up with regard to that film. Sherlock Holmes, the stuffy guy with the magnifying glass and the deerstalker cap. Everybody thinks they know Sherlock Holmes, but what they know is a particular incarnation invented by somebody," Strong said.
"The same of Robin Hood. We all have our perception of what we think it is. It's based literally on the Disney cartoon, Kevin Costner, Errol Flynn. ... People in England probably think they know Robin Hood, much in the way they think they know Sherlock Holmes, but I hope what this film does is what 'Sherlock' did, which is just allow people to see a different element."
As the bad guy, Strong tends to get snuffed out at the end of big movies with sequel potential. That was the fate of Lord Blackwood at the end of "Sherlock Holmes," the villain's death costing Strong a shot at reprising the role.
He does have potentially recurring roles in two upcoming movies that might lead to film franchises, playing the mystic Matai Shang in "John Carter of Mars" and villain-in-the-making Sinestro in "Green Lantern."
A good death scene often is compensation for playing a character that croaks at the end of a movie, Strong said.
"The idea of necessarily coming back isn't always what I would want to do, because I feel like I've done what I wanted to do," Strong said. "You know, getting bumped away is quite good fun, too, because the various ways in which I can die are always quite a giggle."