USA TODAY US Edition
‘BFG’ AND EVEN BIGGER THINGS IN STORE FOR SPIELBERG, RYLANCE
And this new power duo’s shared sense of commitment is no small thing, either
Director Steven Spielberg found the actor he wanted to play
The BFG’s 24-foot giant in the most unlikely of places: his Cold War spy drama Bridge of Spies.
Mark Rylance played an introspective, horned-rimmed glasses-wearing Soviet agent in Spies, but director Spielberg was so blown away by the total character transformation on the first day of shooting in 2014, he immediately had additional giant expectations — such as the sweet-natured BFG (Big Friendly Giant).
“I know that sounds crazy,” Spielberg says with a grin, sitting next to Rylance at a suite in the London Hotel as The BFG nears its opening (in theaters Friday), two years after his casting inspiration.
“But when I saw what Mark had done with that (character), I thought, ‘ My, God, think of what he could do with the BFG,’ ” Spielberg says. “And I had gotten to know Mark. I had seen Mark in plays where his departures are so radical character to character.” Rylance smiles at the wording. “Departures,” he says. “I like that. It’s like we’re in the departure lounge.” This celebrated duo of preeminent English stage actor Rylance, 56, and Hollywood’s most revered storyteller, Spielberg, 69, is truly taking off. Their collaboration has led to 2015’s Bridge of Spies, for which Rylance received an Oscar for best supporting actor, and The BFG, the screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s beloved children’s book. Spielberg and Rylance have signed on for two more films together, the sci-fi thriller Ready Player One and the drama The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara. It’s a friendship and film partnership that is rocking the movie cultural landscape, says Dave Karger, film contributor for Access Hollywood. “Along with Martin Scorsese and Leonardo DiCaprio, Steven Spielberg and Mark Rylance are becoming one of the most interesting actor-director pairs working today,” Karger says. Spielberg says simply: “For me I just feel damn lucky that I met
Mark and to be graced by with his generosity and versatility as an actor. I just feel blessed.”
The director has long been an admirer. He approached the then 27-year-old Rylance in person in 1987 to offer a part in his epic drama Empire of the Sun. Rylance turned it down.
“I thought it was because it was the size of the role. So I gave him one of the larger parts,” says Spielberg, laughing.
“Steven very kindly said, ‘I need to know (an answer) in four hours,’ ” Rylance says. “So I had to make a decision in four hours.”
“He turned that one down, too,” Spielberg says.
Rylance stuck to his plan to take a year-long stint at London’s National Theatre. Ultimately, the rigorous stage training was the best road for him as an actor and, long term, for his film career.
“If I hadn’t done that (theater) job I wouldn’t be the actor I am now,” Rylance says. “I really needed to learn more things before I could achieve the level of filmmaking that Steven makes. I didn’t know that at the time. But I think that was fortuitous.”
Now it’s Spielberg ’s turn to smile about the word use.
“Is there such a word, ‘fortuity’? If there isn’t, I am going to claim it now,” Spielberg says. “But I think the fortuity of the things that happen, despite the choices we make, we should never question. Most of the best things that have happened to me in my life have been things that were not really in my control but happened at the perfect time.”
This perfect time came more than 25 years after Spielberg ’s initial approach, in 2013, when he saw Rylance in Shakespeare’s
“Mark has the deepest depth of generosity. And that radiates love and life and curiosity. ... It comes through every pore.” Steven Spielberg
Twelfth Night on Broadway. Spielberg headed backstage afterward to congratulate him and eventually discuss a part in Bridge of Spies alongside Tom Hanks.
While Rylance was “thrilled” to take the part, he had another commitment. For years he had planned a dream trip down the Colorado River, which conflicted with the shooting schedule. Spielberg was not going to be denied. He rearranged the schedule so that Rylance could take the trip in the middle of the shoot.
Rylance thanked him in a way that floored Spielberg.
“Mark sends me a picture of himself on a cliff in the Grand Canyon, gripping onto red rock with his climbing shoes and his fingernails,” Spielberg says. “And there’s a long distance between his feet and the bottom of the Grand Canyon. I just simply looked at the picture and turned white, lost all my color.”
The actor survived the adventure and put life into his Rudolf Abel spy character. The award accolades rolled in, including an Academy Award nomination (Rylance’s first).
But neither expected to actually win the Oscar in February; Sylvester Stallone’s Rocky Balboa revival in Creed was highly favored to take the prize.
“But when (Mark’s) name was announced, I instantly had this feeling fill me like a flood. This is the right decision that the academy has made,” Spielberg says. “This is perfect. This is so deserved and so earned.”
A surprised Rylance memorably strode over and embraced the applauding Spielberg before he accepted his Oscar.
The two have continued to push boundaries. Rylance says
The BFG was a major challenge, since he had never acted with the performance-capture suit needed to technologically transform him into the giant. He quickly pushed aside any misgivings about the unforgiving bodysuit.
“The moment I said, ‘Errr, what’s that?’ another part of me said: ‘You coward, go on. What have you got to lose?’ ” Rylance says. “It was scary the first day. No one likes every part of their body, and (the suit) is pretty revealing. You just hope Scarlett Johansson doesn’t visit the set.”
“It’s a wetsuit without water,” Spielberg says.
“But you soon forget it,” Rylance adds. “And it was actually really liberating.”
With Spielberg incorporating a hybrid style of filmmaking, a blend of live-action and performance-capture techniques, he ensured that Rylance and his 4-foot-11 co-star Ruby Barnhill, as BFG’s best friend Sophie, had continuous interaction on specially built sets. Rylance put the soul into the tech-enhanced giant.
“Mark has the deepest depth of generosity,” Spielberg says. “And that radiates love and life and curiosity and safety to audiences in this role. It comes through every pore. It really does.”
Rylance continues to relish the working relationship with Spielberg that allows total collaboration but also lets him experiment to find his nuanced characters. He knows his director is seeing the big picture.
“We’re very complementary. I am happy to play like a child, with preparation but not a distinct plan,” Rylance says. “And Steven is happy to have a plan and also be, like any great commander of an army, flexible.”
This teamwork will begin anew next week with production starting on Ready Player One, set in the virtual universe Oasis in 2044. Rylance will then travel back to the 1850s as Pope Pius IX in Spielberg ’s next project, The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara.
Those are four major and wildly diverse films. But Spielberg wants more, including envisioning a project that would bring together Rylance and Daniel Day-Lewis, who won an Oscar for Spielberg ’s 2012 film Lincoln.
“I’m not limiting anything ” in working with Rylance, Spielberg says. “I would love to do a movie, so much, with Daniel and Mark together in the same film. It would be a dream come true.”