THE STAGE MAGICIAN
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.