Mark Rylance On Fame, Tom Hanks And How To Act

The Bridge Of Spies star on his delayed entry to the big time

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Mark Rylance has a fondness for football metaphors, so here’s one that helps explain how he is, paradoxically, the most revered actor of his generation and still a relative unknown in the eyes of the public.

In 1986, having established himself as an accomplished stage actor, he was offered a part in Steven Spielberg’s Empire Of The Sun. Rylance turned it down. Instead, he opted to do a season at the National because, as he explained in an interview earlier this year, he preferred the ‘community’ of theatre.

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To you and I and the vast majority of aspiring actors, it was the equivalent of turning down a big-money move to Man United, a shot at the big league. But Rylance did it anyway, and his peers – including many of those in Hollywood – adored him for it.

In the intervening decades, Rylance became the most celebrated stage actor alive. He was Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo. In 2011 he was the star of Jerusalem, the theatre phenomenon of the decade, earning the second of his three Tony awards and an Olivier. Plaudits piled up like curtain call bouquets. If all the arts were created equal, Mark Rylance would probably be the most famous person in the world.

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Which brings us to 2015, and Bridge Of Spies, out this week. Almost 30 years later, Steven Spielberg has finally got his man, and Rylance – who has been in only two high profile films since he said no to Empire Of The Sun (2001’s Intimacy and 2008’s The Other Boleyn Girl) – may be about to finally find fame beyond the West End.

Bridge Of Spies tells the true story of American lawyer James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks) who during the Cold War negotiated a prisoner exchange with the Russians: a US soldier for Rudolf Abel (Rylance), a Soviet KGB spy raised in the UK and captured in New York.

It’s a gripping story that strays towards the kind of misty-eyed patriotism and whimsy Spielberg and Hanks can never seem to resist. Rylance’s performance is the anchor that stops it getting too carried away: in every scene, he is subtle and sympathetic and yet magnetic. At times, Hanks toils in his shadow.

In person, Rylance is relaxed and expansive. He has nothing of the seasoned movie star’s weariness or oblique contempt for ‘doing press’. Instead he has the demeanor of a man quietly enthralled with the world, and rarer still, he manages to talk about his job in a way that is interesting and not in the least bit self-serving. Perhaps, to continue a metaphor, turning down Man United can have its advantages after all.

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Steven [Spielberg]’s style is to be very encouraging and very calm. And like most good directors, he has an instinct for when to ask you to do a scene again, only a bit faster, sped up. That brings out something more unconscious and natural I think.

Once he finds good people, he keeps them. So Bridge Of Spies felt like my first season with a football team who all knew each other. Crews are often wary as actors have a very different ways of going about their business, but by the time it came to filming the BFG [his second film with Spielberg] I was included as one of them.

One of the police interviews said Abel sounded Scottish, so that’s what I went with. But I met Sting after we’d finished filming and he said they knew about that family in Newcastle and he was definitely a Geordie. I thought: of course, in 1957, pre-Sean Connery, Americans probably thought Geordies sounded Scottish.

Tom [Hanks] had been to see a number of my plays in the past, and he was always very serious and gracious afterwards. What I didn’t know about him is how goofy and funny he is – not grand at all. He’s a history buff, so he normally has some whacking big book with him. He’s a very self-contained man.

Some actors are frightened and concentrating so hard on their own performance, you don’t feel that anything you do makes any difference. They’re just kicking a ball against a wall, so to speak.

Other actors actually pass the ball to you. Tom is one of those.

I enjoy the playfulness of it. If there was no fame involved and very minimal money – which is the case for most actors – I’d still be doing it. If I wasn’t good enough to be a professional, I’d be an amateur actor.

I’m happy to talk to people a bit between takes, but I am like a taxi driver – I keep the engine on even when I’m not driving.

It’s like being an athlete who needs to do a long jump or something. You have to keep your thigh muscles warm or you’re going to tear them. Likewise when you're acting, you have to keep certain emotions or memories warm in between takes, so that you’re ready to go. 

I don’t like trailers. I’ve found I like to stay near the set and the crew. There is an energy there because they don’t stop resolving things. So I like to get a table or chair and sit near them.

More people recognise me since Wolf Hall [the BBC drama], for sure. But the people who stop me always have something nice to say – the ones who don’t like me keep quiet!

The photographs are the only things that get a little bit tiresome, because they take more time. There’s lots of photos of me all over the place, why do you need another one? It’s tedious that people feel they need a photograph to prove they’ve met someone. It’d be better just to talk for a bit.

I love poetry. If my mind gets a bit tight or bound up with information or depressed with bad news, I find a good book of poetry is like going to the gym for an hour. My mind just expands.

I’m still struggling with whether I might want to get off the internet. More and more people I know have. Daniel Day Lewis doesn’t do the internet at all and I noticed he had many more books open around his house.

The best piece of advice I’ve ever heard is simple: ‘Be here now’. It is the title of a wonderful book written by a crazy old hippy called Ram Dass. Acting inevitably comes down to your ability to ‘be here now’ when the camera is rolling or the audience is watching.

Your body and your mind and your imagination and your soul and your spirit – all the different dimensions of what it is to be alive. How much of that you can bring, and have unguarded in the present moment. That’s acting. 

Bridge of Spies is released 26 November