Wolf Hall: Mark Rylance on stepping from stage to screen

The acclaimed thespian plays Thomas Cromwell in the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Tudor bestseller

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Mark Rylance is an affable and friendly a bloke as you could hope to meet, just so long as you don’t call him “the greatest stage actor of our generation”-as stated by everyone from the usually sardonic AA Gill to the usually downright uninterested Economist.

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High praise indeed-but it seems to irritate him.

“I hear it occasionally said, but mostly if I’m coming to an interview like this,” he says with a quiet laugh. “I always think it sounds very odd. I might well be one of the luckiest stage actors of our time with the parts I’ve been given, but I can’t really lend any credence to the idea that I am the greatest. I think that’s just a nice thing people say, but it makes me a little bit nervous… I think – does this mean someone’s going to be gunning for me? There’s bound to be some actors really furious with me if they read that…”

It’s the kind of fear Thomas Cromwell might have – Rylance’s latest part, the lead in the BBC adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Booker Prize-winning Wolf Hall. Cromwell rose from humble origins to advise Henry VIII’s confidante, Cardinal Wolsey, then succeed him to steer through the Reformation. He’s often reviled by history, but Mantel’s Cromwell is sympathetic and talented–prompting Rylance’s wife, composer and writer Claire van Kampen, to urge him to accept the part. “He’s a pragmatist and a survivor,” says Rylance. “In the end he’s linked to Henry VIII-who’s like a 14-year-old sociopath wielding an axe. A lot of the stuff Cromwell has to do he’d really prefer not to, but he knows that if he doesn’t do it, he’s going to be killed himself.”

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For all his talent, it’s rare that Rylance graces the screen. Films include Patrice Chereau’s 2001 film Intimacy, with its controversial “real” sex scenes, as well as Prospero’s Books and various TV Shakespeare adaptations. In 1995 he became the first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, a job he held for ten years – “playing Cromwell reminded me of one of these board meetings I’d hold as a director of the Globe and the complexity of dealing with all these corporate men with their odd manners,” he says with a sly grin.

That partly accounts for his dedication to stage, but also… “I’m not sure I was particularly good at acting for film when I was younger,” he admits. “I went up for films but didn’t often get them. And I suppose I was a little bit annoyed that film seemed to be giving TV more prominence in an actor’s career than the theatre. So there was a little bit of me saying, ‘No, I’m really not interested, I’m happy being a theatre actor.’ But now it seems to be happening, and I’ve developed a little bit more curiosity and taste for it as well. And maybe I’ve got a bit better at it.”

It’s curious how (for a man who confesses screen naivety) he holds the camera’s gaze in scenes against such consummate show-stealers as Jonathan Pryce as Wolsey, Claire Foy as Anne Boleyn and Damian Lewis as Henry. Rylance’s intimacy is helped by the camera essentially following him into and out of scenes to re-create Mantel’s complex internal monologue. It’s striking how still he is – his quiet presence draws the eye even when others’ emotions are high.

“I’ve watched lots of films preparing for this, and I was particularly struck by one of my favourite actors, Robert Mitchum, how his performances haven’t dated in the way that even perhaps more versatile actors, Brando and Dean and people of that era, have. I noticed how well he listens, how still he is, how present he seems. You’re drawn towards the screen – wondering what’s he thinking, what’s he going to do next. That’s always the best way to tell a story.”

Director Peter Kosminsky has worked with Rylance before on The Government Inspector – an account of the David Kelly affair. Indeed, when Rylance was offered Cromwell, he insisted on Kosminsky for the job. “His political knowl- edge, his understanding and life’s work, really, is how powerful people work,” Rylance explains. “And though the money was tight and things had to be cut and it was hard for Peter, it never felt frenetic like the movies. I couldn’t feel that you would have a better experience making even a top film with millions and millions of dollars.”

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Although Rylance is at home in Tudor clothes, Kosminsky is better known for searing social comment. Rylance argues the joy of Wolf Hall’s story is that its echoes can still be heard today: “The Reformation was really about the Catholic Church dominating a nation’s identity and how England demanded the right to choose its own course. I feel we face the same kind of thing now, from corporate power – the inability of a village to say we don’t want a Tesco ruining the character or this new Transatlantic Trade Agreement being pushed through. I thought a number of times during Wolf Hall, my country could really use a Cromwell now – someone that tough and clever to help us retain our democratic rights to determine our own culture here.”

He sounds just a little like Johnny Rooster, his defining role in Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem – a man who defies councils and developers to live wild and free. The play ran, on and off, for two years. Mackenzie Crook (who played Rooster’s right-hand man, Ginger) recalls how Rylance created a strange pagan ceremony before each new run: “Mark laid this big sheet on the floor and we all made offerings while he chanted something. At first I thought, ‘What the hell? Have I joined a cult?’ But it’s actually a brilliant, magical thing. This bundle is tied up, then hung at the back of the stage and becomes the heart of the show. Bad energy was directed towards it.”

“Rooster was an intense role, yeah, absolutely,” Rylance agrees. “I’d hope to return to it later on. I’ve always looked at famous actors and hope that once they get a part that they have success in, they would reprise it every few years in the way a pop singer will reprise their hits. Like Bob Dylan singing Blowin’ in the Wind until he’s fed up with it, finding different ways of doing it.”

His attitude to deep research provided vital help in 2012 when his stepdaughter Nataasha died from a brain haemorrhage (aged 28). He dropped out of the Olympics Opening Ceremony as a result, but thinks the intensity of playing Richard III shortly after saved him from despair. “You feel a lot of rage when someone dies. I have a lot of faith in nature but it can be cruel,” he explains, carefully – uncomfortable discussing the subject. “The vicious nature of fate is part of Richard. I learnt a lot – to accept that everything rather sadly comes to an end.”

He’s optimistic, though. “When I see sudden positive change I’m surprised. You realise that all the good stuff is like grass coming through concrete… there’s a lot happening underneath. I wish we were changing quicker, learning to live in a harmonious fashion with our own nature, but I guess I have hope that eventually we will.

“I don’t think humanity is the highest form of life that will ever exist in the universe. Maybe that’s a bit cynical. But most of the people I know are loving, kind, doing their best. The bad, angry, upset, wounded people are more interesting, so they’re in the news more, but I don’t think they’re in the majority. I have faith that things will change – I mean, just like everybody else, I don’t fix my roof until it’s actually leaking, but eventually we all get round to doing it.”

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Wolf Hall continues on Sundays on  PBS Masterpiece