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I arrive 15 minutes early for lunch with Mark Rylance, at the Lion & Unicorn pub in North London, so I can see how the famously chameleonic actor enters a room. Is the real Rylance brimming with bluster and swagger, like his hard-drinking Johnny “Rooster” Byron in Jerusalem, a stage performance that drew the kind of superlative critical praise tailor-made for slapping on a theater marquee? Would I see his feminine side, the one he explored to even more fawning, best-actor-of-his-generation reviews as Olivia in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night? Or is the Kentborn, Wisconsin-raised actor perhaps closer to Robert, the country bumpkin he played in his 2008 Broadway debut, Boeing-Boeing? (All three of those performances won Tonys, by the way.) Or to the phlegmatic Russian agent in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, a finely tuned pocket watch of a part that earned him an Academy Award? Or to his steely, watchful Thomas Cromwell from TV’s Wolf Hall? Or the stoical Sunday sailor doing his bit in the World War II rescue operation depicted in Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk?
Of course, when he appears, after a five-minute walk from the Kentish Town tube station, Rylance, who turns 58 in January, resembles none of these people. While many Hollywood stars surprise you by being so much the distillation of their screen selves in the flesh that it’s unnerving, the preferred stratagem of an actor’s actor like Rylance is absolutely not to project quintessence of Rylance, on stage or screen. The immediate impression in person is that of a mild-mannered but passionate high school art teacher.
This effect is slightly amplified by the fact that today he is wearing a black hat and black-leather waistcoat over an informal shirt plus a folksy red neckerchief, and so resembles a mid-’70s Bob Dylan. He is on the record as a Dylan fan and accepts the visual comparison with good grace, noting with amusement that he is, in fact, partway through a biography of the musician at the moment: “Well, I’m a bit of a sponge when I’m reading something or focusing on something. So it may have unintentionally affected my choice of coming out like this. Yes, that’s funny because it’s quite a Rolling Thunder–era look too, and that’s exactly where I’ve got to in the book!”
We’re meeting immediately before Rylance’s return to New York for the Broadway run of Farinelli and the King. The production is a lightly retuned version of a London success that Rylance says “would be more nerve-racking to me if we were reviving the play in the same place.” It’s a historical piece about Spanish King Philip V’s alleviating his depression by listening to the ethereal voice of the 18th-century castrato Farinelli, who, at the height of his global fame, retired to devote the rest of his career to performing for one man. The play was written by Rylance’s wife and collaborator, Claire van Kampen, who also arranged its many Handel arias.
Van Kampen, who was a musical director at both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre, admits that she wrote the role of the king with “absolutely zero hope” that Rylance would play it. “I didn’t write it for him, and I never thought in a hundred years he would play a part in a play of mine,” she says.
When the schedule for a film shoot shifted, Rylance insisted that van Kampen at least let him take a look at the script—he had a long rail journey ahead—and by the time the train pulled in, he called to say, “I think it’s absolutely wonderful, and I’ve never played a character like that. Please, can I play it?” One assumes an audition was not required.
Farinelli, which premiered at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse in 2015 before transferring to the West End later that year, is alive with such faintly ironic circumstances. Not least among them is casting Rylance, one of the most-revered modern performers, as an audience to another talent. The music the king would have actually heard is also tantalizingly out of reach to modern ears, since castrating adolescent boys to develop them into a particular kind of singer is now frowned upon. The fully intact British operatic countertenor Iestyn Davies, singing in falsetto, provides as sublime an approximation of the castrato voice as one can hear today. (Whenever Farinelli is not singing, the part is played by actor Sam Crane.)
The play’s theme of music as a medium for mental transformation appeals deeply to Rylance, who speaks of the theater as “primarily an aural experience—indeed, in Shakespeare’s day, they would say, ‘I went to hear this play,’ rather than to see it.” Not that all of his audi- ences have been content merely to listen. Rylance recalls, fondly, a devastating heckle that interrupted his performance in Henry V at Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre, where he served as artistic director from its founding in 1995 until 2006. “Someone in the audience once shouted, ‘Get a [expletive] move on.’” He affects a camp, mock-wounded theatricality, a kind of verbal flounce: “In the Crispin’s Day speech, at the height of me acting!”
I suggest that since the incident took place at the Globe—where, in keeping with the spirit of the theater of Shakespeare’s time, tickets are still available for five pounds if you’re prepared to stand—perhaps the heckle was at least authentic to the tradition of the so-called groundlings, who would have quite happily shouted the same thing at Richard Burbage 400 years ago. He smiles. “You’re right—it was great actually, because I had projected onto them that they were my army, and I was speaking with them and leaving lots of pauses for them to interject, like any good compassionate leader in a crisis would do. And one of them did.”
Van Kampen sees this attention to audience experience as a key to Rylance’s talent: “He eschews that whole celebrity-status thing, and I agree that if you are going to convince many different kinds of audience that you are many different kinds of character, it’s going to get in the way.”
Another reason Rylance avoids the spotlight might be that he’s more comfortable in gray zones. “It’s important to have confusion in the playing of human beings,” he says. “I’m often confused, and some confusion in the story is essential to draw the audience in.”
I ask him how that approach fares in Hollywood, where there’s little room for nuance. Is it more challenging for Rylance to give himself in full to a film, in which there are a greater number of factors outside of an actor’s control, than to theater? “In film,” he says, “it’s slightly different because nothing happens between you and the audience that hasn’t gone through the director and the editor’s creative input.” While assembling 2008’s The Other Boleyn Girl, Rylance recalls, the editor spliced in cuts of the back of Rylance’s head in a scene with Scarlett Johansson and had him dub in a line that he never said during the filming. While common, the practice is anathema to the kind of authenticity he seeks in theater. “You can’t be very attached in film to what you’re doing,” he says.
Rylance’s concern with the integrity of the performer-audience bond has led to choices that many, perhaps including his agent, might consider baffling: Famously, he rejected two different parts that Spielberg offered him in Empire of the Sun (1987) in favor of a theater job that came along at the same time. (The storybook coda: On that play, he met his wife.)
None of which is to suggest that cinema is somehow a lesser art in Rylance’s mind—in fact, he’s doing more film work than ever these days. Not one to give up easily, Spielberg ended up coming back to Rylance almost 30 years later, casting him in Bridge of Spies, then as the title role in The BFG, and now in the March release Ready Player One. But having spent most of his career onstage, Rylance still has an outsider’s perspective on the film world and its fragmentary nature. His view of movie directors is that they are “generally—the great ones that I’ve had the privilege to work with—rather shy people and solitary people, and people who are happy to be on their own. Or maybe not happy, but used to it.” Rylance, by contrast, seems genuinely happiest in the communal world of theater. He draws energy from the audience, thrives on its spontaneity and occasional outbursts of vulgarity.
As we part, a thought strikes me: How, when you meet a man noted for his ability to disappear into any character, can you trust your own impression? Have I met Mark Rylance, or the version of Mark Rylance most suitable for meeting a writer over lunch, an audience of one? I put this to van Kampen, who, in 28 years of marriage to the flesh-and-blood man, must surely have a take on the question. She bursts out laughing.
“He’s pretty much like that. He’s gentle and mild and kind of mystical,” she says. “He’s not just one riff. He’s pretty kaleidoscopic.”