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 that faltered at the box office and had critics gunning for Penn. Rylance’s supporting work in the film was not surprisingly one of the rare great moments of the film. For an actor who’s always shied away from the spotlight and opted instead for the rush of the stage, Rylance surely did not expect the storm that was about to happen with his role as Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies.” Then again he’s a legend in his own right. Earning a reputation as one of the great Shakespearian actors of our time, Rylance, according to Sean Penn, is “probably the closest thing to a magician we have in the field.” Al Pacino has chimed in with the utmost respect for the guy as well: “Rylance speaks Shakespeare as if it was written for him the night before.” And even Steven Spielberg sent out praise by saying Rylance was “one of the most extraordinary actors working anywhere.”
In 1987 Rylance famously turned down a role in Spielberg’s “Empire of the Sun” and opted to follow his muse for other more personal projects. “I met my wife by turning him down,” says Rylance, cheekily 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. He has peculiarly subtle eccentricities, very bushy eyebrows and calming eyes that don’t necessarily stare directly as much his gaze wanders around the room and then finally settles back on you. A very spiritual man, an animal rights activist who told the Guardian earlier this year, “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 ’80s Rylance met Claire van Kampen, a composer who had two young 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 hemorrhage onboard a flight in July 2012. “To some degree, a lot of my principles went out the window when my daughter passed away. I could just find no point to anything anymore. 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’ve also come to the concluding fact of the matter that a lot 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” but a role in the 2011 Jason Statham vehicle “Blitz” sealed the deal for his fate in Hollywood
“I’ve made some bad films, that were not enjoyable, At one point I just said, ‘That’s it. I’m not interested in this anymore’… I was done. I actually fired my agent and I decided to concentrate on theatre. I had forgotten how satisfying it was being a theatre actor and this venture with movies 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 Day-Lewis and he had incredible words to say about working with Steven. I think he probably got me the job on Bridge [of Spies]” Spielberg was urged by Daniel Day-Lewis to see Rylance in “Twelfth Night.”
“He sent Steven along to see me in ‘Twelfth Night;’ Steven came backstage and later offered me the part.” Spielberg has called Rylance “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 for his next movie, 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.” Make no mistake, Rylance knows just how important Spielberg is to this new chapter in his career. “He [Spielberg] loves a story and his ‘story’ is that he rescued me from theatre and brought me into film.”
Set at the height of American/Soviet paranoia in the early ’60s, Bridge of Spies has Rylance playing Rudolf Abel, a Russian spy apprehended in New York and put on trial. Tom Hanks plays his lawyer, James B Donovan, in the kind of perfectly delicate performance that only Hanks could pull off.
“Tom’s character takes the ethical, very American stance,” explains Rylance. “His character says: ‘The only thing that makes us Americans is the rule book.'” 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 beautifully layered performance that could well bag him his first Oscar nomination – if not a win. He’s the highlight of the film, even though he has relatively little screen time.
Perfectly dovetailing with 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. “Yeah he just shrugs his shoulders, basically saying why get worked up about this?” says Rylance, smiling. “It feels like that’s a part of the Russian character, and isn’t at the same time.” He explains the ways Hanks character thinks and why he finds Abel such an important person to defend:
“What are you fighting for,” ponders Rylance, “if you’re not fighting for the standards that define you as a nation?