Sir Mark Rylance is currently having a bit of a moment on the international stage – and one which looks set to continue this week with the release of Christopher Nolan’s war epic Dunkirk. Until recently more likely to be found treading the boards than in front of the camera, the formidable 57-year-old thespian has recently added an Emmy, two BAFTAs and an Oscar to his haul of Oliviers and Tonys (and his other BAFTA).
Although widely regarded as the leading theatre actor of his generation, Rylance had been flying under the radar as far as a wider, international audience was concerned until Wolf Hall dominated the 2015 television season. His low-key but high-powered performance as Thomas Cromwell did likewise, earning the actor a BAFTA among numerous award nominations. During the same year, Rylance was also tidying up in the Best Supporting Actor category for his work as Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies – a role which took him all the way to an Academy Award, despite only having worked on a handful of films in the preceding two decades. Mark Rylance’s transition into cinema could, however, have happened in many different ways – or not at all.
After a childhood in America and almost a decade of theatre work post-RADA (with companies including the RSC and Glasgow Citizens’ Theatre), Rylance began to dabble in films from the late eighties onwards. His highest-profile role came in 1995’s Angels and Insects. Portraying the lead character William Adamson, a Victorian naturalist taken in by the privileged Alabaster family after losing all of his worldly possessions in a shipwreck, Rylance has much to play with in the subtext of the film, which was based on an A.S. Byatt novella. Questions of science, God and family ties are raised, and Rylance faces them as Adamson with his trademark quiet aplomb. Intimacy, in 2001, also drew interest due to the boundary-pushing sex scenes between Rylance and actress Kerry Fox, playing anonymous strangers who meet for casual, weekly sex.
A couple of sub-par, Tudor-based pictures beckoned in the later 2000s for Mark Rylance – solid enough choices for the actor, considering the source material and both his interest in (and expertise on) the theatre of the era. However, The Other Boleyn Girl and Anonymous did little to set the screen aflame, despite Rylance’s appearances as colourful characters Sir Thomas Boleyn and Henry Condell, and despite the apparently juicy source material: one a bestselling Philippa Gregory novel and the other based on Shakespeare authorship queries which Rylance himself supports.
Indeed, Rylance is a recognised king of British classical theatre, serving as the first Artistic Director of Sam Wanamaker’s conception of Shakespeare’s Globe – something which cemented his career-long association with the Bard. Over his decade in office – and beyond – Rylance appeared in productions of The Two Gentlemen of Verona, Henry V, Hamlet, Antony and Cleopatra and Twelfth Night among others, famously taking on the female roles of Cleopatra and Olivia along the way.
His role as wastrel Johnny “Rooster” Byron in Jez Butterworth’s State-of-England play Jerusalem, though, made him a darling of commercial theatre from 2009. The strutting Rooster was a role Rylance truly encompassed and which, for a few years, defined him in the public’s eye. An example of the regard in which he and his talents are held among peers would be his planned role in the London 2012 Olympics Opening Ceremony. Originally slated to give a stirring speech of Caliban’s from The Tempest, Rylance withdrew after the tragic death of his stepdaughter – and the little-known Sir Kenneth Branagh was drafted in by director Danny Boyle as his replacement. Yes, Kenneth Branagh was the second choice to someone else in the deft Shakespeare-spouting category.
By 2015, his extraordinary turns in both Wolf Hall and Bridge of Spies ensured Rylance’s talents were getting the international attention of which they have always been worthy. Despite playing opposite America’s favourite actor Tom Hanks as principled insurance lawyer James B. Donovan, Rylance allows his Soviet spy to neither be overshadowed nor unsympathetic. His instincts for subtle scene-stealing are killer.
2016 brought The BFG and another pairing with director Spielberg as Rylance took on two huge challenges: performing in motion-capture for the first time, and embodying one of Roald Dahl’s most beloved characters. Having some of the kindest eyes in acting certainly helped him here. Further work with Spielberg looms on the horizon post-Dunkirk, with both The Kidnapping of Edgardo Mortara, where Rylance will portray Pope Pius IX, and sci-fi actioner Ready Player One, making it a quad of films with the world’s most famous director – but amazingly, this could all have happened 30 years ago.
Mark Rylance’s career could have unfolded so differently; he could have been a Hollywood linchpin for the past few decades. Steven Spielberg first approached him for Empire of the Sun way back in 1987, offering Rylance a supporting role – which the actor turned down. His head was turned by a theatrical offer he couldn’t refuse, and he had also been burned by his first film experience, Hearts of Fire. Undeterred, Spielberg has remained a fan – his passion rekindled by catching Rylance’s Tony Award-winning Olivia in Twelfth Night on Broadway in 2013 – waiting to woo Mark Rylance when the time, and role, was right.
As Daniel Day-Lewis, long considered Britain’s greatest screen actor (and the only man to have won three Best Actor Oscars), retires from acting, it seems the stage is set for Mark Rylance to take on the mantle of the country’s crown thespian on the big screen. The similarities are hard to ignore: respected for their commitment to their craft, both knighted, with reserved personalities, and a similar offbeat fashion sense…
Dunkirk, which is currently being proclaimed the best film of director Christopher Nolan’s career, has Rylance on familiar ground as the solidly respectable civilian sailor Mr Dawson, who sails to Dunkirk to offer help with its evacuation. It’s a typically unshowy role, but he’s arguably the best thing about the film, bringing immense gravitas to a simple part and embodying the generous spirit that defined Dunkirk. His performance could well herald the dawn of the celluloid dominance of Mark Rylance. He doesn’t need loud and showy parts – or any showing-off at all – to show audiences what he’s got.