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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.

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