WHY THE BFG STAR IS AT THE PEAK OF HIS CAREER
GEORGINA BURNS AND GILLIAN CUMMING M ark Rylance is what you’d call an old-school actor. Classically trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art in London, the English star has won many accolades for his stage roles over a 34-year career, including an Oscar, two Olivier and three Tony awards.
In fact, Rylance, 56, has often been described as the greatest Shakespearean actor of his generation. Al Pacino, when asked to name the finest actor working today, replied: “Mark Rylance speaks Shakespeare as if it was written for him the night before.”
Sean Penn said Rylance’s “craft has caught up to his personal poetry; he’s probably the closest thing to a magician we have in the field”.
His film and TV work is equally illustrious. His contained yet vulnerable portrayal of Thomas Cromwell in the court of Henry VIII in 2015 BBC series Wolf Hall won Rylance a Best Actor BAFTA.
Series director Peter Kosminsky has suggested part of Rylance’s greatness lay in his “restlessness’’.
“Why is he different from other actors? He’s uniquely vulnerable,” Kosminsky said.
“He’s very quick to laugh. He’s quick to take offence. There’s little in the way of mask or suit of armour around him. A lot of actors, you can’t get them to shut up. Instead of listening and watching, they’re always telling you something. Mark’s the opposite.”
From that small-screen win to a big-screen triumph, as this year Rylance won his first Oscar – Best Supporting Actor – for his portrayal of Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.
And now he’s in a follow-up Spielberg project, The BFG. Rylance supplies the voice of the Big Friendly Giant, of the Roald Dahl children’s classic.
“People love Steven Spielberg so much,” Rylance said at the film’s premiere at the Cannes Film Festival.
Yet it had taken decades for Spielberg to lure Rylance to one of the Hollywood director’s projects.
Long before Bridge of Spies, Rylance had turned down his first role offer from Spielberg for Empire of the Sun (1987).
Britain’s National Theatre had called the stage actor and offered him the chance to direct a season at the company. So he turned Spielberg down.
The BFG is a first for Rylance being a special effectsdriven fantasy adventure.
It is described by the director as the “most ambitious motion capture of a character that any film has ever done”.
Rylance describes the project, which co-stars Ruby Barnhill, 10, as the orphan Sophie who is whisked away by the BFG, as both magical and highly technical.
“The props and scenery were pretty whimsical and wonderful, but the technology was amazing,” he says.
Surprisingly, Rylance regards the motion capture shoot as “not unlike being in a rehearsal room of a theatre before you go on to the set”.
“Sometimes there aren’t props and a lot of people standing around, and you just have to use your imagination,” he says.
“Of course, there is no sense of where the audience is, there is no camera and no need to hit marks; there was just Ruby and I, generally playing in a space that is called a volume, and just using our imagination.”
Rylance says playing opposite a 10-year-old made it easier for him to draw out the emotions of the BFG.
“Particularly a young person like Ruby, because they are so naturally present and spontaneous. No matter what technical equipment was between the BFG and Sophie, her eyes always came through.
“Even when … I was up a crane and she was running on a fake table you could see how full of life and courage she is.”
Rylance says figures from his childhood inspired his take on the BFG.
“I always try to have a model in reality for any character. This one reminded me of people who worked in my grandfather’s garden in Kent when I was a child.
“Also, a great friend, Mr Jimmy Gardner – a tail gunner in World War II, who had an incredible long life and a great kindness and love for life.”
Whether Rylance continues to make movies long term (he’s working on a third film with Spielberg) remains to be seen.
“Film actors are mythical beings to me,” he says. “I love working in films. The only sadness is you find out how they work and they are not quite as magical.”
Sophie (Ruby Barnhill) gets a lift from the Big Friendly Giant (voiced by Mark Rylance) in Steven Spielberg’s The BFG.