TAKING THE LEAD
After decades of treading the boards, British actor Mark Rylance is revelling in a purple patch of screen performances, writes Michael Bodey
Mark Rylance has been an enigmatic screen actor, popping up rarely despite an esteemed career on stage. The multiple Tony and Olivier Award-winning actor has conquered London’s West End and New York’s Broadway, and was the first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London. Yet he admits having a complex and occasional relationship with the screen, having dipped in and out of BBC and Channel Four television movies and occasionally esoteric arthouse films only when he wasn’t occupied striding the stage.
Yet now, with lead roles in Steven Spielberg’s current release, Bridge of Spies, and his upcoming family film, The BFG, and in the BBC period drama Wolf Hall, Rylance says he is on screen “in the mainstream”.
“And I agree, I am a bit in your face,” the 55year-old British actor says, laughing. “I’m sorry. I feel a little bit uncomfortable about it myself.”
This week, Rylance can be seen on cinema screens in Spielberg’s Cold War spy-swap drama, Bridge of Spies, delivering a knockout performance likely to earn him his first Academy Award nomination. The opening scene in which Rylance’s alleged Soviet spy, Rudolf Abel, starts his day being tracked by the FBI, is an exercise in the director’s mastery of visual storytelling and of Rylance’s ability as a performer. Abel barely says a word — indeed, he remains a man of few words throughout the screenplay by Matt Charman and Ethan and Joel Coen — yet the performance is captivating.
“He’s a spy, so he’s got quite a lot to think about. That’s probably why he’s not talking,” Rylance says.
The film dramatises the crusading by a Brooklyn lawyer, Tom Hanks’s James Donovan, who, having been given the unenviable job of defending Abel, is charged with bargaining his swap with a captured American U-2 spy plane pilot, Francis Gary Powers.
Rylance says there was little research on which to base his performance, obviously enough: he was a spy, after all.
“We still don’t know exactly what he was doing or what he achieved,” he says. The Russians claimed when Abel returned that he was a mere radio operator passing on messages; the Americans claimed he was a colonel and the highest ranking spy they’d captured.
When Abel returned to the Soviet Union, he apparently took a role training spies, which suggests to Rylance “he was a little more than a radio operator”. Most reports about the man came from the American beatnik artists who lived and worked in the warehouse where Abel had his painting studio. They were ultimately shocked when he was taken in.
“It’s really not conclusive one way or the other about whether he was just a rather humble radio operator or a brave, trained and effective operative,” Rylance says.
You want to believe he was a super spy though, Rylance adds, noting “he seems to have had a belief in the communist system at that time and a suspicion that the capitalist system left a lot of people behind in poverty and dis- tress”. The down-and-out subjects of his paintings tend to back that philosophy.
The Coen brothers, who came on board to touch up Charman’s screenplay, had their own spin on the scenario, Rylance says. The working title on the drafts they sent back and forth to Spielberg was “Hanks versus the Commies”.
The directors of Raising Arizona, Fargo and No Country for Old Men approached Spielberg when they heard he was making the film. They’d always wanted to make a Cold War thriller and asked if he wanted their advice or counsel. This was a rich story, encapsulating not only the Soviet-American distrust but the growing pains of the East German and Soviet alliance.
Rylance says it was “very interesting” watching the screenplay being shaped by the Coen brothers. “It was — not that they’re Shakespeare — but like seeing Shakespeare take a play from someone else and watching what he would do to it,” he recalls.
“Massaging is the best verb I have for it because the themes and the situations were all there in a fantastic way but they removed anything that really wasn’t resonant with the theme and just sharpened it up a bit. Like massaging the heart blood of the story into the extremities, the fingers and the toes, so everything was more united. And of course they can’t help but add a certain wit to it.”
Rylance has his own wit, which may surprise those who know him only through his Shakespeare performances and his often austere screen roles. Then again, Spielberg cast him as the Big Friendly Giant in his coming adaptation of the Roald Dahl family classic.
That casting was as serendipitous as his casting in Bridge of Spies, he recalls. Originally, Spielberg’s son pointed his father to a YouTube clip of Rylance talking about acting. The director saw Rylance play Olivia in a 2012 West End
THERE’S SOMETHING VERY ENJOYABLE ABOUT BEING IN A GREAT STORY MARK RYLANCE
production of Twelfth Night and subsequently sent him a script with Abel’s part. Then he offered Rylance the role as the BFG after the first week of filming on the Cold War drama.
“I’m a bit of a child myself,” Rylance says, after recounting Spielberg’s almost childlike enthusiasm and encouragement to his performers on set. “He asked me to read the [ BFG] script and I didn’t really realise he was asking me to read it because he wanted me to do it!”
He adds: “It’s a privilege. It’s a great, great delight to work with Steven. Not only is he a genius in his particular craft and trade but he’s surrounded by people in all the particular de- partments who are superb at what they do and are witty, charming people.
“He loves characters, as you’d expect from his films, and he surrounds himself with them.”
Rylance is enjoying this relatively intense period on screen, notwithstanding his aforementioned apology for being in our faces. Not that he was looking for it.
“I look for stories, that’s the particular thing I enjoy, to be in the story,” he says. “My own life has a story but there’s something very enjoyable about being in a great story like a Shakespeare play or [Jez Butterworth’s Olivier Award-winning play] Jerusalem or a good film.
“The experience is more intense in the theatre because, so to speak, you’re on the field for more sustained periods of time,” he notes, recalling he was only off stage — “on the bench” — for five minutes of Jerusalem’s three “50 minute halves”.
“Otherwise I was out there playing. So that’s enjoyable. In film, you’re lucky if a take lasts a few minutes, so it’s a different kind of experience and it’s not one I’ve sought after so much in my career due to the good fortune I’ve had in theatre. I’ve generally been offered more interesting stuff in the theatre and much of it has done well and I’ve not been available for film.”
Bridge of Spies may recalibrate his availability, if he allows it. It is a performance on which the drama swivels and he is likely to be a major feature of the coming cinema awards season. “Oh god, I hope not,” he says with a sigh. He values his friendship with Spielberg more than any plaudits and admits he doesn’t invest much in the platitudes surrounding film because “that’s just the whole jollying along of the charabanc”.
Mark Rylance plays Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in Bridge of Spies, far left, which also stars Tom Hanks, left; Rylance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall