Af­ter decades of tread­ing the boards, Bri­tish ac­tor Mark Ry­lance is rev­el­ling in a pur­ple patch of screen per­for­mances, writes Michael Bodey

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Film -

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


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

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