Mark Rylance, arguably the greatest stage actor of his generation, already has three Tonys, two Olivier awards and a TV Bafta to his name.
But he remains modest about the Oscar buzz around his latest film role as a Soviet agent in Steven Spielberg’s Cold War thriller Bridge of Spies.
“I try to ignore it, personally, but I’m aware that it’s going down well,” says the quietly spoken English actor, director and playwright.
“I’ve been working for a long time, but a lot of people don’t know me. I’m like a vintage car they haven’t seen before.”
In Bridge of Spies, Rylance plays real-life Soviet intelligence officer Rudolf Abel, who is arrested in 1950s New York and prosecuted as a spy.
Abel’s case is taken up by a principled insurance lawyer James Donovan, played by Tom Hanks, who wants to ensure Abel receives a fair trial.
Donovan is plunged into the middle of a Cold War crisis when the CIA asks him to secretly negotiate a prisoner swap involving Abel and the pilot of a captured US spy plane.
One surprising fact about the Abel is that he was born in Newcastle-upon-Tyne and was originally known as William August Fisher.
“The only person I met who knew about him was Sting,” Rylance says, explaining how he met the Tyneside-born former Police front man after filming was over.
“Sting knew that he was a famous Geordie Russian spy. He said, ‘I hope you’re playing him as a Geordie.’ I said the research I had was that he sounded Scottish. I dodged a bullet, because Geordie is a very difficult accent to do.
“I read that Abel and his father handed out flyers during the First World War trying to convince young English men not to sign up for it. So he’d obviously been involved very politically from a very early age before they then returned to Russia.
“I also read that he could never speak Russian without an English accent.”
Rylance was cast in Bridge of Spies after Spielberg saw him on stage in the hit all-male production of Twelfth Night, in which a cross-dressing Rylance played Olivia. His other best-known stage work includes Jerusalem and Boeing-Boeing. For 10 years, he was the artistic director of Shakepeare’s Globe.
This is Rylance’s biggest film role to date – other movies on his CV include Anonymous and The Other Boleyn Girl – and Rylance says he felt well prepared after playing Thomas Cromwell in the recent BBC adaptation of Wolf Hall.
“The 17-week shoot, playing a character who was so secret and quiet, was a very intense period of work,” he says.
“I gained a lot of confidence on that shoot about my ability to register in a camera. That made a big difference.”
The actor says that he doesn’t mind the lack of rehearsal time that comes with film.
“Often your first instincts and the mistakes you make are better than what your mind is planning,” he says. “You just have to throw yourself with faith into the director’s hands.”
In the theatre, he says, rehearsals should be about creating performances that can “grow and change” throughout the run.
“I don’t work with theatre directors who try and lock down a production for the press night and then you have to be the same every night. I just won’t do that,” he says.
“Rehearsal in theatre is more like preparing a football team to play a whole season.”
Bridge of Spies might be Rylance’s first collaboration with Spielberg, but it’s not the last.
The director was so impressed with Rylance that a week into filming he gave the actor a copy of the screenplay for his next project, a big-screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG.
“I thought he just wanted my opinion of it,” says Rylance. “I didn’t realise he was actually offering me the part of the BFG.
“I hadn’t read the book, but the script was wonderful. I had to change my plans a little bit to make myself available.”
The film was shot in Vancouver earlier this year and is now in post-production.
“It was motion-capture so my performance lives only in a computer,” Rylance says of his role, the titular Big Friendly Giant.
“I’ll be 24ft high and have big ears.”
Roles don’t come much bigger than that, but for now all eyes are on Rylance to see if his quietly powerful turn as a Soviet spy will add another statuette to his trophy cabinet.
Bridge of Spies is released in the UK on 26 November. The BFG is out in summer 2016.
“The Caliph’s loneliness persisted despite the procession of virgins who filled his bed and were sacrificed each day. And because he never had anyone with whom to share his unhappiness, he kept his disillusionments secret.”
(Voices of the desert, p. 34)
Trapped by the eye of the camera, the eyes of her viewers, and her own sensuous beauty, Marilyn. Only the eyes visible, the livelihood of her tales the most valued of her talents, Scheherazade. Two different destinies, two different paths, exquisitely recreated in Simon Curtis’ movie, My Week with Marylin (2011), and in the literary rendition of Scheherezade, Voices of the Desert (2004), by Nelida Pinon.
Reality and myth confront one another and often clash with repercussion in both directions – that of the authentic ego (that can be touched) and the one created and maintained as an alter ego by the simple act of gazing or ear lending, most often in completely different ways, the image, legend or myth assuming a more pervasive aura than the human being behind it. Human physical frailty is key, as neither image – the one enticing viewers on the screen and the one enticing the Caliph from under the veil – can give measure to the two women’s complex nature.
“People always see Marilyn Monroe. As soon as they realize I’m not her, they run.” (quoted from the movie)
“Her heart is not always bound to the tales she relates. Her desire is to one day resume life outside the palace walls, to be free of the burden of storytelling.” (Voices of the Desert, p. 24)
It is through such rifts that personal discontent and suffering well up – even though each of thewomen do their best to keep them hidden from the world. And yet – fortunately, or, at times, less so -, their instinctive talents prevail in spite of physical adversity. In order to keep their image alive, each woman sacrifices something. With Marilyn, it is her need to be loved and find fulfillment as a mother and wife. Scheherezade, on the other hand, for whom the “Caliph’s cruelty shines before [her] eyes” (p. 30), wants nothing more than to stop the chain of cruelties he inflicts on women at the cost of her own life and, in storytelling, at the cost of her own individuality.
“[T]o lend credibility to her task, she tries to free herself of the signs of her individuality. Her deeper being is not at issue.” (p. 30)
Throughout the shooting of “The Prince and the Showgirl”, Marilyn struggles with the character she has to play, unable to perform any lines until she herself can find them credible. She, too, has to lose herself in the character she plays, abandon human subjectivity to an icon figure. Added to the daily delays and the constant need for repetition, her desire for perfection in performing prompts Sir Lawrence Olivier to confide in Colin Clark that “directing a movie is the best job ever created, but [that] Marilyn has cured [him] of ever wanting to do it again.” As Colin Clark tells Marilyn in a previous scene, “It’s agony because he’s a great actor who wants to be a film star, and you’re a film star who wants to be a great actress. This film won’t help either of you.”
On the human side, working with Marilyn did not help turn back time, either, in spite of Sir Lawrence Olivier’s hopes – and his own wife’s worst fears. However, when each return to acting – in plays and movies -, they prove to be more stunning than ever before.
In her turn, Scheherezade “felt distressed by the pressure of her talent. She didn’t care about praise[.] This did not stop her on certain occasions from swelling with pride, only to regret at once the arrogance that could poison her.” One way to alleviate this oppression and calm herself came from “the ancient practice of hiding lightly scented messages beneath the colorful pillows scattered about the house” (p. 25), notes that her sister, Dinazarda, tried to find and decipher, to no avail.
“As a whole, the notes, because of their cryptic nature, meant nothing. They were but papyrus, useful only for Scheherezade to elaborate some story ready to blossom under her wit.” (p. 26)
Telling stories hidden behind a veil and personifying female sensuality with innate talent. Could they be two sides of the same coin? And what should we call it?
My thoughts right now point to entrapment, or the burden of talent in a ungrateful world that enjoys talent in its multifarious forms, but fails to acknowledge it for its worth to society.
I’ll let you know if I find more coins in the drained fountain of our ages.
* * *
“After his decision to sacrifice the young women of the kingdom in order to satisfy his hatred of the Sultana, the Caliph had felt safe. He had found a means of assuring the court that he was immune to woman, to that being with a body as sinuous as the lines of the Tigris and Euphrates, in whose veins he had found milk, honey, poison. But despite protecting himself, he had weakened before females and continued taking them into his bed as a necessary evil. That entity, full of meanings and ambivalence, at once beautiful and wicked, remained to him an indecipherable mystery, to which he had access only in the shadow of night, when, bewildered, he touched the smooth skin that evoked exhudations in his body.” (Voices of the Desert, p. 34)
The brilliant son of Colombian writer Gabriel García Márquez and Mercedes Barcha Pardo, Rodrigo Garcia, wrote and directed Ten Tiny Love Stories (2001), a movie that takes the art of monologue beyond the screen.
The words move away from the page, as you can, yourselves, witness in the fragments below.
…I immediately thought it was kind of silly for him to be crying in a movie. It was a red flag for me. Immediately I said to myself, be careful with Ben, he’s sentimental. Sentimental people are ruled by their feelings and incapable of anything. So I thought that the whole thing would go nowhere. But then, when he proposed to me, I had already forgotten the whole thing, and I said yes and we got married. It’s funny… Whenever I start out with someone, I fill my head up with expectations. Later, when it’s all over, I can’t, for the life of me, remember what it was that I was hoping for. I mean, I remember stuff… but I can’t remember who I was… The whole relationship is like this weird terrain, barren mostly, with two or three things sticking out of it that I recognise. Two or three things sticking out like… warts that have shrivelled and died.”
Epilogue of the Tenth Monologue
“People, things, places, they can just wash away, and what’s left is a sense of peacefulness and the feeling that we’re all alone, and that’s OK, and that that’s a relief, too. It’s a relief to know that the wind will blow us away, leaving nothing, not even a trace, and it’s good to be nothing and it’s good to have nothing. If only we wanted nothing while we were here…”
Earlier, the Same Tenth Monologue
“By the time I met Roy I’ve already been through a good number of boyfriends and I was only 27. Some people would say too many, but how many is too many, and what’s a boyfriend anyway? Boys I kissed but didn’t sleep with?”
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