Knee-length shorts, a rakish scarf, and a T-shirt: the “off-duty” actor look. But it’s Mark Rylance’s eyes that first fix you: bright and warm, belying a fierce intelligence.
TV audiences will know him as the brooding, plotting Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall; theatregoers from a CV of roles too long to chronicle and from a decade as actor/ director at the Globe theatre in London, the monument to his hero William Shakespeare. Soon, millions more around the world will know him as the Russian spy Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies.
“I wanted to work with Spielberg. I’d seen his Lincoln and I bumped into Dan [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. He sent Steven along to see me in Twelfth Night; Steven came backstage and, later, offered me the part.”
But in 1986 Rylance had rejected Spielberg. “I turned down Empire of the Sun, despite both my grandfathers having been in Japanese PoW camps. Well, I accepted, then turned it down. The Shared Experience company offered me a run at the National Theatre. Steven gave me four hours to choose. I chose the theatre, and I met my wife!”
His wife (composer Claire van Kampen) apart, is theatre his first love?
“Yes'”, he laughs. “I love film; I love going to see films, I always have. I’ve done quite a few. In fact, Spielberg’s eyes go a little bit hazy when I mention it: he loves a story and his ‘story’ is that he rescued me from theatre and brought me into film.”
Rylance has also recently starred in the movie BFG (in cinemas next summer) for this Hollywood giant. “If he called and asked me again, I’d do anything; even a small part. I’d say yes – I’ve been welcomed into a family, the whole company; they feel like family – the closest thing I’ve come to a theatre company – it was like joining a travelling circus; happy, happy!”
“Happy” he might well be; Spielberg has described him as “the greatest actor, anywhere”. I wondered how that feels.
“I obviously warm in the glow of it and a large part of me wants to believe it… but I do think it is important to find out who you are and not what other people want you to be, and not to take anything people say about me – positive or negative – personally, otherwise one is in danger of getting hurt, undone. It’s like sitting in the glow of a warm fire but the fuel won’t last forever – and someone might take your coat.”
Bridge of Spies is about the Cold War and the conflicting ideologies of the old East and West. Co-star Tom Hanks plays the lawyer, James Donovan, who defends Rylance’s Russian-spy character when he’s arrested for espionage. The powers that be – prosecutors, judge and the CIA – want the death penalty, and a short-sharp trial with a sure guilty verdict.
“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?
Rylance with his wife Claire van Kampen
“Abel, my character, was a professional; he believed his system was right. It’s a very dangerous and lonely thing, I imagine, to be a spy: to have friendships that are deceptions, that are not honest.
“Both sides, all sides, believe they’re right but heroism can and does appear on the side that we would consider evil.”
I ask him if he’s a “campaigning” actor.
“I hope not! I have, at times, become angry – wanting to make a statement. But I don’t want to use force, in any way. People will change in their own time – they don’t want to be told what to do.”
Bridge of Spies (out today, Friday 27 November) is a compelling film: beautifully shot, strongly acted, redolent of a not-too-distant, dark past – the big issues of which rumble, beneath the surface, today.
What had attracted him to the BBC’s Wolf Hall, based on two award-winning novels but not, immediately, of Downton Abbey attraction?
“It was a lucky call and a good decision. Hilary Mantel’s imagination, research and detail – her ability as a story-teller to give you the impression that you were there, with ‘people’, not just historical characters. To compress two novels into six hours of TV, to keep an audience engaged, and excite them enough to come back a week later: remarkable!”
But there was a profound coincidence, too. Rylance’s step-daughter, Nataasha, died in 2012, aged 28; Cromwell’s wife and two daughters die from the plague. Initially, it made him reluctant to take it on.
“I read Episode One and thought I wouldn’t do it. This is something that is just trying to capitalise on what happened to us and get me to act it out; no way; I’m not doing this.
“But my wife Claire said: ‘Do it; read the book and do it. It’s not the main part of the story. It’s not a badge of honour, defining your life – other people have had their tragedies, just as vital and strong; but all artists use themselves… What else can you do?’
“Its uncharted ground if something tragic like that happens to you. You become aware it has happened to a lot of people. You make your own decisions about how you get through it.”
Did he use that grief?
“You try, as an actor, to wear a mask; you’re serving a story. I wanted to be playing Thomas Cromwell, not me. I used me to play another person, telling a story that is universal. But I understood Cromwell saying he had a `stone heart’ after those events. I’m just an audience member who is active, but I learn by playing it out.”
Was he left with a “stone heart” after Nataasha’s death?
“Part of me is. I played out his ‘stone heart’… But part of me now has a ‘stone heart, like him.”
Is he a spiritual soul?
“Yes. Nature is very cruel. It is much riskier to love any living being than not. I’m painfully aware that even my little dog is a walking bundle of mortality. I’m painfully aware he’s going to pass.”
Does death frighten him?
“Not my own. I don’t think it’s the end but the start of something else; but I am frightened of other people’s deaths.”
I wonder if there were similarities between Cromwell and Rudolf Abel?
“I never thought of that before. There is a parallel there: the nature of what is a ‘good servant. I think of it in my own life. I get asked to be involved on news programmes because I’m involved in ‘Stop the War’. They think, because I played Cromwell, I know about politics and that I know about Jeremy Corbyn. Why would they want to talk to me, an actor?”
Perhaps because he is evidently so much more than that. Behind those piercing eyes there is a troubled mind. It informed his portrayal of a calculating spy, risking his life; it coloured his stark, manipulative Cromwell. There is a fierce, even frightening, power. Does he ever frighten himself?
“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 evidently finds some relief, currently playing in a piece written by his wife, Farinelli and the King, at London’s Duke of York’s theatre (until 5 December).
“It feels lovely to be in this company – there’s Claire; producer Sonia Friedman is like a sister – a real force for good; John Dove, the director, I worked with at RADA – the Globe people… I like being an ‘elder’ of the Globe,” he beams.
So, back to his happiest, I suggest.
Rylance with Stephen Fry in Twelfth Night
“It comes and goes. I’m not all that happy at the moment – everything is changing for me – I’m more anxious than normal. Everything is changing around us. Take the refugee crisis: the suffering is no longer far away – it’s all coming closer. These people are our people. We speak of these ‘others’ who do evil – we also need to look at ourselves.”
Rylance is one of those actors destined to play parts that question big issues and challenge us, his audiences: a spy, risking capital punishment for what he thought was a better system; a courtier, serving his master and his faith to the point of death.
“I’m drawn towards engagement – I’m an actor but I’m not a bystander; I’m drawn to people’s stories. My role is to tell those stories, it isn’t to tell people what to do.”
But I leave this brooding giant of stage and screen more aware than ever that he is a force to be reckoned with, in his life and in his work.