Interview: Mark Rylance

Interviewing Mary Rylance earlier this year I would have never suspected that I'd be talking to a major 2015 awards contender. He was promoting The Gunman, a no frills action movie starring Sean Penn. Rylance's supporting work in the film was unsurprisingly one of the -rare- great moments of the film. For an actor that's always shied away from the Hollywood spotlight and opted for the rush of theatre plays , Rylance surely did not expect the storm that was about to happen for his role as Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg's Bridge of Spies. Then he's a legend in his own right. Gaining the reputation as one of the great Shakespearian actors of our time, Sean Penn has said that Rylance is "probably the closest thing to a magician we have in the field”, Al Pacino has chmed in with the upmost respect for the guy "“Rylance speaks Shakespeare as if it was written for him the night before.” said Pacino a few years back and even Steven Spielberg chimed in by saying Rylance was “one of the most extraordinary actors working anywhere”.

 In 1987 Rylance famously turned down a role in Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" and instead opted to follow his muse for other more personal projects. "I met my wife by turning him down," says Rylance, smiling Meeting the actor you'd never think for one second that you're talking to a three time Tony winner and future Oscar nominee, Rylance is the gentlest most sincerely humble interviewee I've had the chance of meeting this year. His bushy eyebrows and calming eyes don't necessarily stare at you as much as wander around the room and then look back. A very spiritual man, an animal rights activist that told the Guardian earlier this year “And on the news the other day there was this amazing thing about dogs smelling prostate cancer in urine! And cats being trained to detect breast cancer in women! Maybe in 50 years they’ll just see not only how cruel we were to torture and kill and eat animals, but how foolish not to develop a healing relationship with them.”

 In the late 80's Rylance met composer Claire van Kampen, then married with two small daughters, Nataasha and Juliet. Rylance became the father figure for those two girls, but tragedy struck when Nataasha died suddenly, aged 28, of a brain haemorrhage on a flight in July 2012. “To some degree, all my principles went out the window when my daughter died. I couldn’t quite see the point of anything. It seemed like nothing really mattered. Why the fuck does it, you know? So I’m only kind of recovering my sense that what I do makes a difference.” I stutter condolences. “Well, lots of people have very difficult things happen.” He's good friends with the Coen Brothers and almost got the lead role in their 2009 classic "A Serious Man", the experience of not getting it was "upsetting" and a role in the 2011 Jason Statham vehicle Blitz sealed the deal "I've made some bad films, too, that have not been enjoyable, At a certain point after one of them I did a few years back, I said, 'That's it. I'm not interested in this anymore ... I was done, I fired my agent and I decided to concentrate on theater ... I had forgotten how satisfying it was being a theatre actor and this venture I had was just greediness"

For Rylance it was a challenging time "I thought: I need to be happy with who I am, where I am. That can be the kind of miners' dust of being an actor," he says. "For an actor, being dissatisfied with who you are can be the reason for becoming an actor, but it can become an illness." Then came Spielberg, reigniting a cinematic interest in Rylance. "I wanted to work with Spielberg. I'd seen his Lincoln and I bumped into Daniel Daniel Day-Lewis for the first time in 20 years and he spoke so warmly about working with Steven. I think he got me the job." Spielberg was urged to see Rylance in "Twelfth Night by Daniel Day-Lewis. "He sent Steven along to see me in Twelfth Night; Steven came backstage and, later, offered me the part." He calls him "a shape-shifter, a man of a thousand faces and voices who can play any part." Two weeks into shooting Bridge of Spies, Spielberg asked Rylance if he would be interested in taking the leading role as the titular giant in next year’s The BFG. 'Seldom has an actor been around for so many distinguished years on the stage and yet had not been fully discovered for the screen,' said Spielberg by email “Mark understands that the camera records stillness better than in any other media. His transition from the stage to ‘Bridge of Spies’ was graceful and invisible.”

Set at the height of American/Soviet paranoia in the early 60's, Bridge of Spies has Rylance playing Rudolf Abel a Russian spy caught in New York and put on trial. Tom Hanks plays his lawyer James B Donovan in a perfectly delicate performance that only Hanks could pull off. The powers that be – prosecutors, judge and the CIA – want the death penalty, and a short-sharp trial with a sure guilty verdict. After everything that's been mentioned it is no surprise that the screenplay is by the Coens and Rylance gives a beautiful performance that could well bag him his first Oscar nomination.

Perfectly explaining Rylance's real-life persona when Hanks’s character asks Abel why he’s not worried, he replies: “Would it help?” The same exchange gets repeated three times throughout the movie “That sense of shrugging the shoulders, that sense of nihilism ... why get worked up about this?” comments Rylance. “It feels like that’s a part of the Russian character.” "Tom's character takes an ethical stance," explains Rylance. "His character says: The only thing that makes us Americans is the rule book." "What are you fighting for," wonders Rylance, "if you're not fighting for the standards that define you as a nation? "I surprise myself – on a few occasions; I frighten myself, maybe. I'm more ashamed of myself; I suffer shame – I’ve been ashamed at how angry I can get with people.” he loves a story and his 'story' is that he rescued me from theatre and brought me into film.