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Mark Rylance: ‘There’s a loss of identity in England – who are we other than post-imperial bastards?’

The actor of his generation on returning to his finest stage role in Jerusalem and playing the worst golfer ever in The Phantom of the Open.

Is Mark Rylance the best actor in the business? He’s certainly in the Top One. From the bombast and bacchanalia of his Olivier and Tony Award-winning tour de force in Jerusalem to the quiet malevolence of his Thomas Cromwell in the BBC’s Wolf Hall, Rylance commands an audience’s attention. Like a quiet voice in a noisy argument, he draws us towards him.

Nobody does it better. On stage, on screen, or on a Zoom call with The Big Issue, he is, it seems, permanently in the moment. Instinctive. Reacting. Responding.

It makes him a joy to talk to. He moves breezily between subjects, always fully engaged. “Oh, you’ve got a nice record collection there. Me too,” he says, at the start of our conversation. “It’s so nice to see records and a turntable. I have a whole collection going back to when I was a teenager in the 1970s.” He is, he says, listening to a lot of old jazz at the moment. 

But Rylance is away from his records, working in Bristol when we speak. “I love a city with hills and rivers and a connection to the sea,” he says. “I mean, it’s got a lot of very painful history to work out. But they’ve made more of a beginning, maybe, than we have in London. And the theatre is to die for. It’s 250 years old. So it’s like playing an old violin or something. I don’t know how they can have built so many bad theatres when this one was standing, just a train ride away.”

Yes, Mark Rylance is back in the theatre. And he could not be happier. We speak during his run in Dr Semmelweis at the Bristol Old Vic – delayed for two years by Covid – in which he, pertinently, played the doctor who pioneered hand-washing hygiene in hospitals. 

Rylance, now 62, had not gone three years without appearing on stage in his entire career. What did he miss?

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“Just the society. The whole game. The first day of rehearsal, getting together with people you don’t know and creating a band. That’s really what it is. Starting to take things that are just on the page – and in this case, there were things I’d written as well as Stephen [Brown] – and then all the actors contributing and growing it. It’s just very childish and extremely enjoyable.”

As theatres went dark during the pandemic, Rylance pivoted back to film and television, making SIX films. Today, we are nominally discussing The Phantom of the Open, in which the best actor around is playing the worst golfer in history.

It’s the surreal yet true story of Maurice Flitcroft, a crane operator from Barrow-in-Furness who entered the British Open golf tournament in 1976 on an optimistic whim, having never played the game seriously. He went on to win laughs and admiration from fans, alongside the pompous opprobrium of the stuffy golfing establishment. It’s quite a story. 

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“I like any Don Quixote-type character. You know, jousting at windmills,” says Rylance.

He brings out Flitcroft’s combination of naivety and clarity of vision with subtlety and style. There is a full-hearted sincerity to Rylance that filters through every performance, an innocence and openness that allows him to access a character’s vulnerability while harnessing the playful twinkle that is never far from his eye. “There’s some lovely YouTube stuff, hilarious interviews he did. You can’t tell whether he is taking the piss or being sincere. Yet he absolutely seems to think he’s as good as Seve Ballesteros on a good day, although he’s never played a round of golf.”

It was important, says Rylance, to get the tone right. For the film to have warmth and humour but not laugh at its protagonist. “I know Sacha Baron Cohen, who I’ve worked with once, makes lots of different takes, trying different timings as I would onstage,” he says. “It takes a number of performances before you find the right timing, the right mix of words, for a line to get a response.”

Rylance gives an example, delivering a line from his latest play in different ways – the first of which got zero reaction, while the second gets the laugh every night. A mini-masterclass in stage acting.

The Phantom of the Open is in cinemas from March 18

Flitcroft is a dreamer. A working-class dreamer. We consider how rare it is to see such a story on the big screen.

“That’s an interesting point. Craig [Roberts, the film’s director] is a great admirer of Ken Loach and Mike Leigh and we see a lot of working-class dreamers in their films but they’re often, necessarily, showing the grittier side of being working class, or indeed falling through the net and being unemployed class, and being poor and unwell in this country,” says Rylance.

“Craig wants to tell stories about working-class people but add colour and imagination to the British palette of filmmaking. Not more imaginative, because you can’t get more imaginative than Ken and Mike. But a bit more surrealistic, more influenced by Mexican cinema.”

For Rylance, key to the character is his refusal to be limited by others. “You may not be able to do everything you want in the world, but you don’t have to buy other people’s definition of you,” he says. “You have the right to define yourself.”

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Before he worked with Roberts and Sally Hawkins on Phantom of the Open, Rylance went back to school, working on a student film – showing, again, the importance of dreaming big. Imagine the audacity, the optimism of asking Mark Rylance to be in your no-budget film. 

“I went to Gloucester and made a student film for free with some young people who had written a good screenplay,” says Rylance, grinning at the memory. “They just put it through the letterbox and I was doing nothing. I thought, fuck it, you know? I’d had Covid already so I wasn’t too worried. We had a fantastic time with all these 20-year-olds who knew everything about film. It’s called Black Twist and is about a man whose mother has gone missing. It’s got lovely allegories about our connection to Mother Nature. After filming we’d sit around the fire on the campsite having a lovely time.”

The films Rylance made during lockdown certainly showcase his range. From an underdog golfing hero to Satan himself in Terrence Malick’s The Way Of The Wind, via a thinly veiled Elon Musk /Mark Zuckerberg cyber-capitalist oddball in Don’t Look Up and plucky mob tailor in The Outfit, which won rave reviews at this year’s Berlinale.

It is all a far cry from the moment Rylance quit film acting entirely. 

Don't Look Up
As tech oddball Peter Isherwell in Don’t Look Up
Photo: © Netflix/Entertainment Pictures

“I don’t think you need to do every medium. And I don’t think there’s anything superior to being a film actor or a stage actor,” he says now. “I gave up film acting in around 2010 when I was in a horrible film called Blitz. I so hated it that I got rid of all my agents.

“I had spent my whole career as an actor being told that unless you are a TV and film actor as well as a theatre actor, you’re not a real actor. When the Kabuki actors or the Zulu actors from South Africa that came with uMabatha to The Globe [in 1997], I didn’t think any of them needed to be film or TV actors to be real actors. They were brilliant. As good as Marlon Brando. Up close as well as reaching the back row.

“So I thought, fuck this and stopped promoting myself in film. Of course, nature hates a vacuum and suddenly Spielberg was brought along to a play I was doing and that whole thing happened.”

That whole thing was Bridge of Spies with Tom Hanks and an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Since then, Rylance has worked with huge names – Meryl Streep, Idris Elba, Jennifer Lawrence, Sean Penn, Johnny Depp. Are there any of them he’d especially like to see on stage? Rylance chooses diplomacy. 

“They all do such a fabulous job with the choices they’re making. Leonardo is a very, very conscious young man. I was very, very impressed by him and his performance in Don’t Look Up – that naive Midwestern professor. I grew up in the Midwest, so I knew that kind of character,” says Rylance, who was born in Kent, but lived in the US from the age of two until he attended Rada.

“Leonardo lit that fire and spoke directly from his heart about what he feels very, very passionately about, in terms of what we’re handing on to our children. Meryl started on stage, Tom Hanks did a season in a repertory company but these people are such natural film actors and it’s a very particular skill. So I never think I’d like to get them on stage, unless they really wanted to.

“Actually, Scarlett [Johansson] is very, very, very talented – and slightly limited by being so fabulously beautiful. She’s so smart and savvy that I’m looking forward to her playing all kinds of things as she gets older. So, I’d like to see Scarlett on the stage more.”

Scarlett Johansson and Mark Rylance in The Other Boleyn Girl
With Scarlett Johansson in The Other Boleyn Girl
Photo: ©Focus Features/courtesy Everett Collection

Rylance is especially keen to see his take on Satan. If he makes the final cut. “Terrence is very private in terms of his process. No one knows. And remember The Thin Red Line? I think the actor who was cast as the lead went to the premiere and was totally cut from the film,” says Rylance. “There are four or five Satans, so I may not even be in it! And that’s fine. Don’t Look Up had whole scenes cut. It’s like cooking a meal. The bits of vegetables you don’t need end up in the compost.”

Next month, Rylance returns to Jerusalem. The decision to revisit arguably his greatest stage role grew out of his desire to help bring light back into theatres. “Since I left the Globe [in 2005], Sonia Friedman has been my closest friend in the theatre. She is a phenomenal woman who lost a complete business during the pandemic,” he says. “I said as soon as we’re ready to go, I’ll do whatever you want. She said, I want you to come back and do Jerusalem again.”

Co-star Mackenzie Crook is also back, but a lot has changed in the world since Jez Butterworth’s play opened at the Royal Court in 2009. And different times call for different takes. Rylance reveals they have taken out reference to Johnny ‘Rooster’ Byron’s Romany gypsy heritage – and will be putting on events to “awaken people to issues that community is facing”. 

Both the rewrite and the support feel important in this political moment. 

“Rooster’s like a Falstaff character,” says Rylance. “He’s what you call an archetypal, mythical character. Most important, he is an English character. Not Irish or Scottish or Welsh. It is to do, partly, with that loss of identity we have in England. Who are we, other than post-imperial bastards? And some of us are not post-imperial – our prime minister, for example. Men, particularly, have a great loss of identity. Women have many serious issues but at least they have a feminist movement. The men are quite lost.”

Mark Rylance in The Phantom of the Open
As Maurice Flitcroft in The Phantom of the Open
Photo: Entertainment one

Returning to Maurice Flitcroft, and the idea we should cherish and chase our unlikely dreams, I wonder whether Rylance has any secret talent he would like to develop? His answer is unexpected. It comes back to the central themes of not just his latest film or the young filmmakers who pushed a script through Rylance’s letterbox. It also hints at the way the actor approaches his craft and, quite possibly, life itself. 

“I meditate or pray or whatever you want to call it every day,” he says. “And my most important ones are focusing on some of my friends who are ill. Really focusing on their bodies and minds, sending imaginative thoughts that light and health will come to them.

“When you look at a building, someone imagined it. They didn’t just throw it up. Imagination precedes matter and has a relationship with matter. It really does. Like those snowflake pictures where you see the crystallised bits of water, and when one has had the word love said to it, how water is very affected by imaginative energy. 

“So the important thing really is sending good wishes and holding in the light, so to speak, people who are struggling, for one reason or another.”

Rylance reflects on our need to make connections, now more than ever. “This isolation stuff is really, really hard,” he says. “We are social animals. We are made to hug and be around other people. It’s very isolating. I know a large part of the struggle for people on the street is not being looked at, not being spoken to, being ignored, people being frightened of them. I always try and make a connection if I can.”

He will be making more connections this year – with movie audiences and the theatre crowds he so adores when Jerusalem returns. 

“Yeah, lucky me,” he says, as our call comes to an end.

Lucky all of us.

The Phantom of the Open is in cinemas from March 18 

@adey70

This article is taken from The Big Issue magazine. If you cannot reach local your vendor, you can still click HERE to subscribe to The Big Issue today or give a gift subscription to a friend or family member. You can also purchase one-off issues from The Big Issue Shop or The Big Issue app, available now from the App Store or Google Play.

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