'Bridge of Spies': How theater actor Mark Rylance came to star in the Steven Spielberg film

Rylance is arguably the most acclaimed stage actor in the world, but he may not be familiar to some moviegoers who go see 'Bridge.' 'Seldom has an actor been around for so many distinguished years on the stage and yet had not been fully discovered for the screen,' Spielberg said of Rylance.

Jaap Buitendijk/Disney/AP
'Bridge of Spies' stars Mark Rylance.

Mark Rylance is strolling around a conference table, doing his best impression of a Robert Mitchum walk.

He's explaining how Mitchum, whom he adores, inspired his steady, rigid gait in the international hit series "Wolf Hall," in which Rylance plays the keenly observant Thomas Cromwell. But there's a larger point, too: that movies have always been a part of Rylance, arguably the most acclaimed stage actor in the world, a legendary interpreter of Shakespeare.

Now, at 55, Rylance is taking his most significant step into cinema, starring in not one but two films by Steven Spielberg: "Bridge of Spies," in which he plays the Soviet spy Rudolph Abel, and next year's "The BFG," in which he plays the titular giant.

It's a fortuitous turn of events, Shakespearean in its delayed destiny. Nearly 30 years ago, Spielberg offered the then little-known Rylance a part in his 1987 World War drama "Empire of the Sun." Simultaneously, Rylance's friend Mike Alfreds was taking over the National Theatre and wanted him for the upcoming season.

Torn between the options, Rylance left the decision up to fate. He rolled an I Ching divining dice, read its meaning, and elected for the stage over Spielberg. His fame grew at the National, where he also met Claire van Kampen, whom he wed two years later.

"I met my wife by turning him down," says Rylance, smiling. "Now it's come around full circle."

Rylance, a three-time Tony winner, is a chameleon, capable of a double bill of the grieving Olivia in "Twelfth Night" and the crook-backed king of "Richard III." He's known for both his profound stillness and his soulful spontaneity. Al Pacino has said he "speaks Shakespeare as if it was written for him the night before."

Those qualities are on full display in "Bridge of Spies," a Cold War thriller in which Rylance plays opposite Tom Hanks, an actor as at home on camera as Rylance is on the stage. Hanks stars as James Donovan, an insurance attorney enlisted to give the accused spy a legal defense. Rylance's quiet, wry Abel gives the film its glow.

Spielberg was urged to see Rylance in "Twelfth Night" by Daniel Day-Lewis. He calls him "a shape-shifter, a man of a thousand faces and voices who can play any part."

"Seldom has an actor been around for so many distinguished years on the stage and yet had not been fully discovered for the screen," said Spielberg by email. "Mark understands that the camera records stillness better than in any other media. His transition from the stage to 'Bridge of Spies' was graceful and invisible."

For Rylance, embracing movie acting has been a circuitous journey. As a young actor, he watched as his theater contemporaries – Daniel Day-Lewis, Gary Oldman, Kenneth Branagh – became famous on the big screen. Agents urged Rylance into TV and film so that he would be "a complete actor."

"I just, time and again, was attracted by the theater where I was offered better opportunities," says Rylance. "I auditioned for films and didn't get them. I think I had some stuff to learn about film acting. I don't think I was personally really ready for it. But I did come to resent it. I did eventually think: Why, why? You wouldn't tell the great Tamasaburo or Ganjiro-san it's not enough to be a Kabuki actor, you need to be a film actor."

He rattles off some film experiences he's enjoyed: the Quay brothers' "Institute Benjamenta," A.S. Bryatt adaptation "Angels, and Insects," and a handful of British TV films, like "The Government Inspector."

"But I've made some bad films, too, that have not been enjoyable," Rylance said on a recent New York afternoon on a day off from starring in van Kampen's "Farinelli and the King" in London. "At a certain point after one of them I did a few years back, I said, 'That's it. I'm not interested in this anymore.'

"I thought: I need to be happy with who I am, where I am. That can be the kind of miners' dust of being an actor," he says. "For an actor, being dissatisfied with who you are can be the reason for becoming an actor, but it can become an illness."

But once Rylance let go of being a movie star, film directors started calling.

"As I did that, wonderful film things started being offered to me," he says. "Maybe that was partly the problem – that I was giving it too much forced value. Because I grew up in America, so I grew up with some theater. But mostly I saw three films a weekend in Milwaukee, Wisconsin."

The son of British teachers, Rylance was born in England but raised in Connecticut and Wisconsin. He didn't speak until age 6 – a listener and watcher from the start – and literally found his voice as a boy playing characters.

With Spielberg, he's enjoying the company of film actors. Of Hanks he says: "God, it's just magical, his ability to play a good man."

"Being in Steven's work is really a community," says Rylance. "You feel like you've been elevated to Manchester United from the third tier team. You feel on your toes."

As Rylance finds himself increasingly in front of cameras, the small surprise is that he's no less alive, no less present on screen than he is on stage.

"That's been my pastime since I was a kid of enjoying more living in a story than living in the chaos or grayness of life as I perceived it," says Rylance. "The task for me is to not be distracted by the technology of the theater or the film, or the illusionary objectives that people attach to any industry but particularly to acting. Being present. It's a nice discipline."

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