‘I was just a very confused actor. But I was really keen to learn’

Mark Rylance on his unlikely road to Hollywood stardom, and why Brits love an underdog

Nice Sir Mark Rylance peers at me in his familiar unthreatening manner. He speaks softly and at great length – a Kentish burr still apparent 62 years after being born in that English county.

"I came to Dublin very early on with The Maids for Shared Experience – at the Project Arts Centre in 1981," he recalls.

The Jean Genet play?

“Genet, yeah. And then I came back with Hamlet in ’88 on an RSC tour and had a phenomenal experience. I did a very unusual Hamlet in pyjamas and slippers. There was a lot of dark humour – the humour that my Belfast friends use. That first night at the Olympia was the first time the audience actually laughed. That assured me I wasn’t on the wrong track.”

Rylance wasn't quite a legend at that stage. The son of two teachers from Ashford, he had trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and enjoyed a formative spell at the Glasgow Citizens Theatre. His ascent has been gradual but unceasing. He worked as actor-manager of the Globe Theatre on London's South Bank. He played all of the great theatre spaces in the United Kingdom. Screen roles were few and far between until, somewhere around his 50th birthday, this eccentric, perennial amiable performer became a unlikely favourite of Steven Spielberg. He appeared in that director's Ready Player One and The BFG. He won the best supporting actor Oscar for Spielberg's Bridge of Spies in 2016.

I was there for that triumph. I remember him stumbling out before the press in his hat and chatting distractedly as if he’d just been woken from a snooze in front of the telly. Did he talk to Sylvester Stallone? Sly had been the big favourite for his turn in Creed.

“I could see him from the stage,” he says. “Obviously, you have a very limited time. So I prepared my speech to thank Steven and so on, but I wanted to praise the other nominees who were all fabulous, including Sylvester. I’d met Sylvester at the Golden Globes where he came over to me very nicely. It was so amazing. These people actually know me. I was very surprised. He was looking a bit serious when I saw him on the aisle. When I praised him in the speech, he really sat up and smiled back at me. But it was an interesting thing for me because as a teenager I was taken to see Dog Day Afternoon.”

Where is this going?

‘Bawling’

"At the end I just was just bawling my eyes out. I couldn't stand up. Something went on between John Cazale and Al Pacino. It was one of the most staggering experiences I had in the cinema as a young man. My father sat quietly next to me very kindly and waited until the cinema emptied. We didn't talk about things that much. His emotions were deeply buried under a Jesuit upbringing. I remember watching the Academy Awards that year. It was like a Morris Flitcroft moment for me. When they gave best actor to Sylvester rather than Al, that was the end of the Academy Awards for me."

It seems unkind to point out that Stallone wasn't nominated against Al Pacino in 1976. (Jack Nicholson won that year for One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest.) The formative memory is worth cherishing even if doesn't tally with the facts, and it brings us neatly around to Rylance's latest performance. Morris Flitcroft was the crane operator from Cumbria who, barely able to knock a golf ball off the tee, inveigled his way into the qualifying rounds of the 1976 Open Championship and scored a record-breaking 121 (for those who don't follow the game, that is very bad indeed).

'There are lovely clips of him on YouTube being interviewed," he says. 'You think: oh, come on Morris. You must be taking the piss. But we can't see any twinkle'

The blazered establishment, who did not enjoy the snarky tabloid coverage, changed the rules to stop him re-entering, but he made several other attempts under jokey assumed names. In the charming, inelegantly titled Phantom of the Open, Rylance plays him more as a kindly naïf than a cynical prankster.

“There are lovely clips of him on YouTube being interviewed,” he says. “You think: oh, come on Morris. You must be taking the piss. But we can’t see any twinkle. Maybe you see a little bit of a smile – maybe more than I bring to him. But he’s mostly just so sincere. So in the end I thought, just play it sincere.”

Flitcroft surely sits in that tradition of brave losers the English so enjoy celebrating. One thinks also of the famously indifferent ski jumper Eddie “The Eagle” Edwards, subject of a rather good 2016 film starring Taron Egerton. Where does that come from?

'At Rada and on film sets, I've noticed that you get no praise from other actors if you work very hard, come in early and do your job really well. That's an American thing'

“Is it to do with the fact that we are post-Empire, and we are really lost?” he wonders. “Some f**kers at the top are still trying to carry on as if we are still an imperial force. But I hope they haven’t got much time left. I was educated in America and came to London at 18. But I’d spent a lot of summers in England with my grandparents in Kent. At Rada and on film sets, I’ve noticed that you get no praise from other actors if you work very hard, come in early and do your job really well. That’s an American thing. That work ethic. What you’ll get praised for in England is if you’ve been out drinking all night, you’re completely confused and you pull off an incredible performance. Everyone in England adores that. We adore the underdog, achieving against all odds.”

(Let’s not pretend the Irish and the English don’t have a great deal in common.)

Turned Spielberg down

For most of his career, Rylance was known largely for his work on stage. It is said he turned Spielberg down way back in 1987 when offered a role in Empire of the Sun. There was the odd remarkable screen appearance. He was, over 30 years ago, terrific as author John Healy in The Grass Arena. He gave an astonishingly brave performance for Patrice Chéreau in the sexually explicit Intimacy in 2001. Then he was off screen for another seven years. Meanwhile, his reputation as a classical stage actor for the ages firmed up.

Orson Welles often noted that he was destined to be a "king actor" – domineering, garrulous, rarely cowed. Rylance seems to be whatever we call the opposite of that. Oliver, another undoubted king actor, swung from the chandeliers as Hamlet; Rylance played the part in pyjamas. Did he understand what sort of actor he was becoming?

“No, I was just a very confused actor,” he says, chortling. “But I was really keen to learn. I always knew I had things to learn. It took me until my 30s to realise that I was in it for the community and for the play – that the rest didn’t really matter, as long as you had enough money to get by.”

It seems as if his on-off engagement with film hit a particularly rickety patch with the 2008 Jason Statham flick Blitz (not an obvious partnership). Then a benevolent mogul came calling. Rylance's subsequent re-embrace of the screen has been striking. Last awards season, you could see him as William Kunstler in The Trial of the Chicago 7. Over Christmas, Netflix viewers enjoyed him as a creepy tech guru Peter Isherwell in Don't Look Up. Overnight, he has become one of the industry's busiest character actors.

'I did this film I hated being part of called Blitz. I thought: no, this is terrible; I am done with this. But nature abhors a vacuum'

"I went up for lots of films and didn't get them – unlike people of my generation around me like Dan Day Lewis and, of course, Gary Oldman, " he says. "All kinds of people were really breaking into film and doing wonderful things. I had wonderful opportunities in the theatre, famously turning down Spielberg. I did things like Patrice's Intimacy. They were odd films. Eventually, I gave it up. I did this film I hated being part of called Blitz. I thought: no, this is terrible; I am done with this. But nature abhors a vacuum. Spielberg came along to Twelfth Night and it all kicked off again."

The story goes that it was Daniel Day Lewis who persuaded Spielberg to see Rylance's gender-crossing performance as Olivia in Twelfth Night on Broadway. The Oscar-winning role in Bridge of Spies followed. Rylance, who also starred as Thomas Cromwell in the hit TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall, is now master of all media. Married to composer Claire van Kampen since 1989, he can cruise into the next act of his career with most reasonable ambitions achieved. Or maybe he wants to manage a theatre again.

“No, I don’t want to run a building again,” he says. “I wouldn’t even want to direct again. I am too much of a player. I’m like one of those football players who becomes a manager and they can’t stay in that little box. I’d be running on to pitch to offer suggestions and stuff.”

The Phantom of the Open opens on March 18th.