Mark Ry­lance and Steven Spielberg cre­ate movie magic with The BFG


Mark Ry­lance is what you’d call an old­school ac­tor. Clas­si­cally trained at the pres­ti­gious Royal Academy of Dra­matic Art in Lon­don, the Kent-born Brit has won many ac­co­lades for his stage roles over a 34-year ca­reer, in­clud­ing two Olivier and three Tony awards.

In fact, Ry­lance 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.” And Sean Penn, who has courted the ac­tor since 1995, 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”.

Oc­ca­sion­ally, though, the 56-year-old ac­tor gets drawn into the world of film and tele­vi­sion, with equally re­ward­ing re­sults. His con­tained yet vul­ner­a­ble por­trayal of the stone-hearted 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 that part of Ry­lance’s great­ness lay in the ac­tor’s “rest­less­ness’’. “Why is he dif­fer­ent

from other ac­tors? He’s quite uniquely vul­ner­a­ble,” Kos­min­sky said af­ter wrap­ping the Wolf Hall shoot.

“He’s very open to the vi­bra­tions and emo­tions around him. 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 bigscreen tri­umph, as early this year Ry­lance won his first Os­car – Best Sup­port­ing Ac­tor – for his por­trayal of real-life Soviet spy Ru­dolf Abel in Steven Spielberg thriller

Bridge of Spies. Af­ter decades tread­ing the boards, Ry­lance walked the red car­pet at this year’s Academy Awards. And now he’s out and about with a fol­low-up Spielberg project, The BFG, in which Ry­lance stars as the hero, the Big Friendly Gi­ant, of the Roald Dahl chil­dren’s clas­sic. “Peo­ple love Steven Spielberg so much,” Ry­lance told fans in May 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, in 1986 Ry­lance had turned down his first film role of­fer from Spielberg for Empire of the Sun. Bri­tain’s Na­tional Theatre had called the stage ac­tor and of­fered him the op­por­tu­nity to di­rect a sea­son at the com­pany. So he turned Spielberg down. The BFG also rep­re­sents an­other first for Ry­lance – as a spe­cial ef­fects-driven fan­tasy ad­ven­ture, 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 10-year-old Ruby Barn­hill 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 play be­fore you go onto the set”. “Some­times there aren’t props and a lot of peo­ple stand­ing around, and you just have to use your imag­i­na­tion. 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 (So­phie) and I, gen­er­ally play­ing in a space that is called a vol­ume, and just us­ing our imag­i­na­tion.”

Ry­lance says play­ing op­po­site a 10-yearold 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 we were many feet apart and I was up a crane and she was run­ning on a fake ta­ble you could see how full of life and courage she is. She was in­spi­ra­tional.”

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 of Ruby’s age. Also, a very 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 or not Ry­lance con­tin­ues to make movies (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 that you find out how they work and they are not quite as mag­i­cal.” The BFG opens in cine­mas on Thurs­day

Dis­ney’s The BFG stars Mark Ry­lance as the Big Friendly Gi­ant and Ruby Barn­hill as So­phie ( main pic­ture); and (left) Ry­lance as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall and (above) play­ing Ru­dolf Abel in Bridge of Spies.

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