'It takes me about 5 years before I can see a performance' - Mark Rylance talks Spielberg's Bridge of Spies
Unknown in America, Mark Rylance has been called the greatest actor of his generation. But his role in a new Spielberg film may change everything.
When you interview big stars like Russell Crowe or Leonardo DiCaprio, you must fight your way through a small army of handlers who spout dire warnings about taboo questions and sometimes even stay in the room during interviews to make sure you behave yourself. Mark Rylance sits in splendid isolation in a Claridges hotel suite, a million miles from all that Hollywood preciousness.
Charismatic, soft-spoken, and with a sensitive, watchful face that seems simultaneously dreamy and intense, he answers questions with astonishing frankness, and seems prepared to chat about absolutely anything. During our talk he mentions his wife, his daughter, Chinese fortune-telling, his horror of awards ceremonies, and even finds time to have a good natured row with me about Shakespeare.
He's like no one else I've ever interviewed, and his refreshing candour is no doubt partly because he's spent most of his working life outside the Hollywood system, free from the pressures of celebrity and able to move easily between the stage, television and -occasionally - film. All of that, however, may be about to about to change, because his performance in Steven Spielberg's new film is already being talked about in terms of Oscars.
In Bridge of Spies, Rylance plays Rudolf Abel, a Soviet spy based in Brooklyn in 1957 who faces the death penalty when he's captured by FBI agents. No lawyer wants to risk ruining his reputation by defending him, but into the breach steps James B. Donovan (Tom Hanks), a high-minded insurance lawyer. The pair gradually warm to each other, and Rylance and Hanks share a couple of wonderfully evocative scenes.
"It was daunting, no question," he tells me. "It was a huge production, and it was Steven, you know, he's worked with so many great actors, and has got such fantastic performances out of people. So it felt a bit like joining a Premier League football team or something. But fortunately, daunting things focus and excite me. I get nervous but I'm ambitious, and I'm not good with criticism or failure, so I try my best to avoid that."
Spielberg, he says, was "very encouraging. He doesn't rehearse, we just turned up and he let us play the scene, which was really nice of him, he didn't cut and chop and let us move through things in a natural way. I have some lovely scenes with Tom, but Steven is such a sublime storyteller and he's always thinking about that.
"There's a key scene where Abel is surprised by how personally Donovan is taking the case, and begins to look at him differently. But there was another scene, in which Abel compared the communist and capitalist systems: Steven decided to take it out, because he felt the other scene would be more powerful if it was the only moment where Abel really opened up."
There's a certain serendipity to Rylance's turn in Bridge of Spies, because it fulfils a long-standing appointment with Steven Spielberg. In 1987, Spielberg approached him about appearing in Empire of the Sun. "I was 27 at the time, and I was very excited about it. But the day after I accepted the film this great theatre director, Mike Alfreds offered me a year's work at the National Theatre, and I just adored his theatre work, so then I didn't know what to do."
For guidance, he turned as you do to I Ching, the ancient Chinese divination technique that use rolling dice to reveal the true path. "I chose the community of the theatre," he says. "The season I did was an absolute disaster, and we got closed after the second play, but I learned more from Mike Alfreds in that year than at any time in my career. And that's what sent me down this path: I met my wife [musical director Claire Van Kampen] through that, and that led to the most intimate community of the family, and my stepdaughters." In 2012, his step-daughter Nataasha, died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage, after which, he has said, he "couldn't quite see the point of anything".
At the National Theatre Rylance quickly made his name as a sublime Shakespearean actor, and in the mid-1990s become the Globe Theatre's first artistic director. Though his work in Wolf Hall last year earned rave reviews, his forays into film and television have been rare. As a result, he's not well known in America, but his cache among his colleagues in Hollywood is stellar. Both Al Pacino and Sean Penn have called him the greatest actor of his time, and his performance in Bridge of Spies seems certain to lead to lots of film offers.
But predictably, Mark Rylance isn't getting ahead of himself, and still isn't sure whether he was any good or not in Spielberg's drama. "I can't see it, it takes me about five years before I can see a performance. And then sometimes I'm surprised, and pleased, but initially it's so different from what was in my head that I'm always a bit depressed."
He's still not sure about his performance in Wolf Hall either. I ask him if he had a sense of how good the historical TV series was going to be while he was shooting it.
"I was more aware than anything I've done I think of there being a huge fan base for the books, and that we were going boldly into an area where we could really f*** up, because people had imagined the story so clearly from the brilliant way Hilary Mantel had written it.
"So our director, Peter Kosminsky and I agreed that we had to have that sense of it being like a political documentary, which he went for and he did a fantastic job."
Rylance's performance in that drama was mesmerising, and he's also on top form in Bridge of Spies. Has he thought about the possibility of an Oscar? "No, not at all," he says, shaking his head and visibly shuddering. "And I'm genuinely relieved when I don't get nominated. I always get anxious about those ceremonies, and I struggle with the idea of this thing I love being reduced so quickly to a competition.
"People sometimes say to me as if I'd be pleased with this, 'you stole that film'. And I think, why would I want to steal a film? I love all those guys I was working with, I want to be part of a team, I don't want to be the lone player on a football team. There's no fun in that, there's just loneliness and boredom."