The English actor on 'Bridge of Spies,' offbeat awards speeches, and 'The BFG'
Credit: Amy Sussman/Invision/AP
  • Movie

Mark Rylance appeared to be very calmly losing his mind.

It was 2011, and the future Bridge of Spies Oscar-nominee and star of BBC Two’s Wolf Hall was accepting a Tony Award for best actor in the play Jerusalem. He cleared his throat and launched into a matter-of-fact speech about the process of walking through walls. “Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more interesting than pot-making or driftwood lamps,” Rylance said, seemingly apropos of nothing at all.

As his audience tittered anxiously, he rattled through the advantages of walking through stone walls, brick, and wood — but cautioned against those stuffed with fiberglass insulation and warned off wire fences completely. Before he concluded with a simple “thanks very much,” there were many televised shots of bemused expressions from the audience — and afterward, quite a few curious write-ups by journalists.

The veteran stage actor was actually reciting a poem by the writer Louis Jenkins, whose work had become the actor’s go-to source for speeches whenever he needed to collect a trophy. (He’d baffled a previous Tony audience when he won in 2008 for Boeing-Boeing and recited a Jenkins poem about the best uniforms to wear in urban and rural locales.)

Now, that he’s up for a supporting actor Oscar for playing the stoic Soviet spy Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, it’s natural to wonder if we can expect another recital if he happens to win. Or is that a tradition he’s leaving in the past?

“I think it might be,” Rylance tells EW with a laugh. “My wife says I should move on now.”

The 56-year-old English actor is currently getting his fill of speaking Jenkins’ words from the stage with the play Nice Fish, about the unique observations of two Minnesota ice fishermen, which Rylance assembled from the poet’s work. The show, directed by his wife, Claire van Kampen, is just ending its Boston run and is about to open in New York on Feb. 14 at St. Ann’s Warehouse.

Bridge of Spies debuted on Blu-ray yesterday, and Rylance is teaming up with Steven Spielberg again to play the Big, Friendly Giant in the director’s adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG, out July 1.

Between the play, The BFG, Bridge of Spies, and Rylance’s Oscar nomination, it seemed like the perfect time to catch up with the actor.

ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: Your character in Bridge of Spies is such an enigma. We know he’s a Soviet spy, but he betrays almost nothing about himself — and the real-life Rudolf Abel did the same. What parts of him did you find most intriguing?

MARK RYLANCE: I was most curious about the reports that he had been trying to improve his painting. He was not an extraordinarily talented painter, but he was very serious about improving. I always wondered, was that him just being a very good spy, wanting to look like a struggling artist, or was he someone who was really interested in painting.

Maybe that was one thing about him that could be real?

Yeah, maybe so. What a lonely, solitary life he led. He didn’t have any romance. Someone who wanted to be that private and that isolated also was curious to me.

When we first see him in the movie, he’s painting a self portrait.

That’s right. He mostly painted pictures of down-and-outs, bums and stuff, as they might say in those days. There was speculation that it was about his feelings about the American system failing people.

Is a life of acting like being a spy? The double life?

Of course. Particularly in the theater. You’re stealing people’s secrets. You convince them to give up their life and imagine the life you’ve created is real or more interesting. If it’s a good play, they’ll cry or think private thoughts about their lives or laugh. There is something like that in the objective of our two businesses. There’s also the two-fold consciousness that actors work with and spies work with, pretending to be one thing, while fully aware you’re another.

Do you like that, or is it maddening? Or both?

It’s very enjoyable for me. It’s exciting and it’s a little bit powerful to have a secret. I think that’s the shadow side of it. If you held a secret from someone it’s a little bit withholding, like a poker player. It’s something I’ve enjoyed since being a kid, the fantasy of it, the imagining I’m someone other than who I am. I’ve always felt claustrophobic in one sense of identity. If anything I’ve had to work to develop a sense of my own identity. I used to really hate it when people defined me.

What’s your process like as an actor? Are you someone who gets in character and stays there, or can you turn it off and on along with the cameras?

I feel like that character in Being There. I like to play. I’m quite simple really. I like to play and inhabit my character. I really like to inhabit the situation. It’s the situation that intrigues me.

Sounds like you immerse yourself in the character while the real you disappears for a while.

I do. I like to connect with the other actors in a fantasy situation. I learned more about Tom Hanks in the scenes where we were acting together than the time when we were just together in the make-up van or having lunch. I mean, I learned things about him there, too. He’s not standoffish at all. But because the scenes and the situation are so intense in that story, and most of the stories I’m in, the other actors reveal their emotions and thoughts. I think I reveal more of myself when I pretend to be someone else.

I’m looking forward to seeing you in The BFG. I read the novel to my young daughter and we especially liked the giant’s fantasy pidgeon-English — Gobblefunk. Human beans, and snozzcumbers, and catatasterous situations…

Gobblefunk! It was a thrill. It’s a book everyone loves very much, so you feel quite responsible. It was an absolute thrill, and Steven loves the story so much, so he was laughing a lot — and crying, I think. And excited at the things we were finding. It was very, very playful.

We have a teaser trailer, but what can you tell us about the actual appearance of the Giant?

It’s motion capture, like the way Andy Serkis made Gollum. I found the technical situation, once I got used to it and Steven got used to it, it was very liberating. Because you didn’t have to hit marks. The whole setup was very much like a playroom.

Follow @Breznican on Twitter. Feel free to quote Gobblefunk, snippets of Louis Jenkins poems, or anything else in the comments.

Bridge of Spies
2015 movie
  • Movie
  • 141 minutes
  • Steven Spielberg