Mark Rylance: 'I remember bringing food to trees. Like bowls of milk and other things'

When Mark Rylance shows up on screen he tends to steal more than the scene, whether in ‘Wolf Hall’ or his few feature films. The current king of theatre talks to Tara Brady

“Ah aw, ah ou, aw aw.” Mark Rylance is performing Richard III’s “Now is the winter of our discontent” speech, except in vowels.

“I was on a pier in Connecticut – I was staying with friends – and I thought, I better learn this speech,” recalls the actor. “And I was thinking about how primal he is and I took away all the consonants and made it into a kind of melody. And slowly I added enough consonants back in so that the audience could understand the words.”

Where were we? Ah, yes. “I was just reading about Eleonora Duse and the great Sarah Bernhardt,” explains Rylance. “And they developed a very melodious way of performing so that when they took plays on tour to countries where they don’t speak English, they could still be understood.”

No, back up. Where were we? “I like that idea. To take away the responsibility of understanding the words. I suppose as a child I had to learn to speak more slowly and put more consonants and form into language. That’s still an issue for me. I think so fast that when I see interviews with me I start to say something but then I get distracted. I still have trouble keeping my language and my thinking connected.”


It's impossible not to love Mark Rylance's zigzag conversational skills. There are tangents. There are diversions. There are nooks and crannies. He explains books that he loves. Books such as Malidoma Patrice Somé's Of Water and the Spirit.

He's a verbal person, one thinks. Just think of all those Shakespearean soliloquys he has delivered. Or the controlled determination he brings to language as Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall, forging words like his low-born blacksmith father forged metal.

Except that’s not quite the Mark Rylance story. David Mark Rylance Waters, winner of hatfuls of Olivier Awards and Tonys and the first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe, did not speak until he was six. Does he remember his pre-verbal life?

“Definitely. I remember being in forests and woods and having a feeling of trees. And enjoying them. I remember bringing food to trees. Like bowls of milk and other things. And putting them by particular trees that I liked. Some trees were more resonant with me than others, probably because my communication was non-verbal. People couldn’t understand me. I didn’t like it when they said ‘What?’ So I was more comfortable in nature on my own. It was an imaginative space, too, to some degree.”

Shakespeare truther

Mark Rylance is often written about as a great English eccentric. Today, he’s smartly dressed with touches of velvet. But he’s equally likely to wear a tracksuit and baseball cap. Many media outlets have reported his belief that crop circles are mysteries that cannot be explained. He is also a Shakespeare “truther” who, in 2007, alongside fellow thespian Derek Jacobi, unveiled a Declaration of Reasonable Doubt on the authorship of Shakespeare’s work.

Except that’s not quite the Mark Rylance story: he didn’t even grow up in England. His parents, both English teachers, moved to Connecticut in 1962 and later relocated to Wisconsin in 1969, where his father lectured at the University School of Milwaukee. Rylance stayed in Wisconsin until he won a scholarship by audition to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts (Rada) in 1978.

Kind of Celtic

And yet Rylance does not sound remotely Midwestern. In person, his voice is, well, kind of Celtic, but from some dragon-inhabited part of the isles that no longer exists, if, indeed, it ever did.

“Actually, my grandmother is Irish and I’ve enjoyed playing Irish,” he says. “I love those sounds. I’m usually taken for Irish or Welsh or Scottish. There are sounds from America that I just couldn’t change. I could never say ‘oh’. I have that ‘aw’ sound instead.”

Growing up, the family summered in London where the younger Mark developed a love of theatre. Did he vary his accent according to geography? Is that how it ended up with its pleasing placeless-ness?

“I think so. I was considered an Englishman in Milwaukee and I considered myself to be an Englishman when I was there. But when I came back, I didn’t like standing out so much. I didn’t like the way that people made assumptions about me because I had an American accent. It made me uncomfortable. I didn’t want to be so easily defined. I wanted to be a bit more anonymous. So that I could talk to people and be amongst them.”

The varying sensibilities between the flyover US and Thatcher’s Britain were equally tricky to negotiate.

“Humour was always the main thing that came between the two countries. The irony that dominated London in the 1970s and 1980s was very, very different to the Midwestern sense of humour at that time. I knew fuck all about the world. The newspapers I saw growing up were mostly about where the local fires had broken out. I never read anything about the Middle East.

“I never heard anything about Mrs Thatcher. I never heard anything about anything.”

Dirty hands, pure mind

Mark Rylance is often written about as a great theatrical purist: an actor from the Paul Scofield school who doesn’t like to get their hands dirty with anything as common as film.

Except that’s not quite the Mark Rylance story. “I think I have made about 15 films,” says Rylance. “But mostly for television.”

He played John Healy in Gillies Mackinnon's 1991 adaptation of The Grass Arena, essayed the male lead in Patrice Chéreau's controversial Intimacy (2001), has worked with Stephen and Timothy Quay on Institute Benjamenta and was Natalie Portman's dad in The Other Boleyn Girl (2008).

This year, building on his turn in Wolf Hall, he'll feature in Spielberg's historical thriller Bridge of Spies, and will take on the outsized titular hero in the same director's adaptation of The BFG. Is all this screen work a coincidence? "Maybe. What is coincidence, eh?"

This weekend, movie-goers can catch Rylance playing a former mercenary in The Gunman, a new action thriller from Taken director Pierre Morel and starring Sean Penn.

“Theatre is a much more direct kind of storytelling,” says Rylance. “You learn a lot from audiences. What’s funny or what isn’t. When to go faster or slower. In film you don’t get any of that information back.

“But anyway, what would you do with it? Because it’s not up to you. You’re basically a tool for the director or editor. You’re part of something much larger. It’s much more like crafting. Like making a painting.”

Is that frustrating when you’re accustomed to writing and directing for stage? “Well, as I’ve got older I’m less interested in controlling things. You’re more interested in going with the flow. That’s – I think – why I’ve become more comfortable with filming. I can’t contribute as much as someone like Sean can.

“But I do enjoy it much more than I used to. And I can turn up and act, I suppose.”