Mark Rylance

Benji Wilson / 17 July 2017

Mark Rylance, star of the new blockbuster film Dunkirk, takes his hat off to the men in little ships who saved the Allied forces 77 years ago.

It’s an interesting word, ‘eccentric’ says Mark Rylance... as he gnaws on a hunk of halloumi cheese. ‘It’s to do with a circle, isn’t it? I think it means “outside the circle”.’*

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Looking at the acclaimed actor wearing a red shirt and knitted tank top, promoting a blockbuster war film but more than happy to talk about his lifelong anti-war stance, crop circles and headwear, you’d have to say that he, too, is somewhat ‘outside the circle’.

‘I love eccentrics,’ he adds. ‘I’m drawn to eccentric people and you copy people you’re drawn to… I guess I like the unusual.’

Mark Rylance factfile

He spent most of his childhood in Milwaukee, where his father taught English at the local university, and he played ice hockey at school until he was about 16. ‘I wasn’t very good,’ he says. ‘But I can still skate.’

Theatre wasn’t necessarily his first love. He played bass guitar in a school band called Northern Cross. They specialised in ‘Led Zeppelin-type songs’.

He eats meat, but describes himself as ‘moving towards’ being a vegetarian. ‘The cruelty is a bit too much for me.’

One of his more memorable holidays was riding across America from Florida to California on a motorbike.

He’s something of a gym bunny. ‘I know that my profession relies on my body being able to function,’ he says. ‘There’s a question whether my memory will go before my body does, but I’m hoping that keeping one in shape will help the other.’

It depends on how you define ‘usual’ but, whatever you plump for, Mark probably isn’t it. His voice is a quiet, cosseting brew, part Jackanory, part secret agent. His eyes twinkle and his face rests in a half-smile, yet he always seems to be concealing something.

‘I like hats; I would think very few people wear hats but I always have. I’m also fascinated by crop circles. I research them and have visited 12 or 13. I’m fascinated by the question of the authorship of the Shakespeare plays. Many other people are interested in that, too, but wouldn’t talk about it because they’d be worried that someone would think they were nuts. I don’t mind people thinking I’m nuts because I don’t… I don’t hear them giving me an answer to my questions.’

Despite his offbeat character, Mark has become very much part of the mainstream in the past few years. From being a cult figure in the theatrical world, regularly touted as our greatest stage actor for his roles in plays such as the 2009 London hit Jerusalem,and numerous performances at Shakespeare’s Globe, he’s been transformed into a bona fide screen star – via his breakthrough role as Thomas Cromwell in BBC Two’s Wolf Hall.The 57-year-old now has an Oscar to his name for Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies and has become the legendary director’s go-to leading man, playing an enigmatic computer genius in his forthcoming sci-fi adventure, Ready Player One, due out next year. Mark, who’s been married to wife Claire for nearly 30 years, was also knighted this year.

Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk

He is here to talk about potentially the biggest film of the year, Dunkirk – director Christopher Nolan’s epic in which he plays one of the men whose ‘little ships’ helped Allied soldiers retreat from northern France in 1940 – more than 300,00 in eight days. Mark may have been elevated to the showbiz big leagues, but there’s not a trace of haughtiness or affectation. In person, he couldn’t be less starry. ‘I still feel like that outsider looking in,’ he says. Then adds, ‘Not in an unhappy way – I like looking in.’

Mark’s outsider status is reflected in his views. He has always been outspoken, or at least he’s always spoken out. Large crowds have heard him give impassioned speeches on behalf of the Stop the War Coalition. He is also a patron of the London-based charity Peace Direct, which supports grassroots peacebuilders in areas of conflict, and a member of the Peace Pledge Union, a network of pacifists in the UK.

It meant that when he was asked by Nolan to star in Dunkirk, he had his concerns.

‘I had a conversation with Chris, right at the beginning. It didn’t feel like the script was glamorising war, but I just needed to check that that was his opinion, too – and it was. I speak out about conscientious objection and all that, because war exists.

‘It was important to me to be part of a film that portrays the situation faithfully and truthfully, where people are really dying and there are real consequences. It’s not a game.’

Dunkirk tells the story of the great evacuation through the perspective of several individuals: a fighter pilot (Tom Hardy), a naval officer (Kenneth Branagh), a soldier (Cillian Murphy) and one of their civilian saviours (Rylance). They embody the famed ‘Dunkirk spirit’ that has come to stand for the triumph of the collective will over seemingly insurmountable odds.

Mark Rylance on experiencing real Spitfires and boats from WW2

Mark says the danger that the men faced became quickly apparent during filming: Nolan used real Spitfires and as many boats from the period as he could. ‘The craft that we were in was from the 1930s; the soldiers were on very old warships that they resurrected for the film. And they were like tin cans. You think, “My God, the bravery of it!” The machinery of warfare at that time had great guns and engines, but the shielding and protection was pretty lousy.’

No one asked, “Am I going to be insured? What happens if I die? Will there be anything for my family?”

For character research, Rylance listened to audio tapes kept at the Imperial War Museum of interviews that the survivors recorded in the 1970s and 1980s. ‘What I got was a sense of people doing their part. People were surprised to be called on and more often than not they didn’t exactly know what they were doing or where they were going. They just knew that they’d been asked to help and they should do it. They seem so innocent and uncynical and hopeful and positive. No one asked, “Am I going to be insured? What happens if I die? Will there be anything for my family?” It was just, “We’re needed, we go”. Imagine if that was the case now!’

But then war, as he is all too aware, is much more complicated these days. ‘I think, at that time, it was probably much easier to believe that if we were involved in a war, it was for our defence. But what’s more widely felt is that some conflicts we’ve been involved in have been for the profits of corporations, rather than our defence.’

All of this puts Rylance in an intriguing position when it comes to Dunkirk, detesting war but admiring the actions of Britons in wartime. He feels that today we might well react with similar pluck and selflessness – but to different threats.

‘There are many, many young people I meet who are incredible activists and work very selflessly. But it’s around issues that are felt to be the new real perils to humanity, such as global warming. I hope you won’t ever get that kind of blind following in terms of war any more from this country, because it’s been abused.’

Is he a proud Brit himself?

‘Yeah, yeah I am,’ he says, straightaway. ‘There are some things about British history that I’m ashamed of. The genocide and slavery of indigenous peoples: things to do with our time when we had an empire. We still need to make reparation for those, but I’m proud of the imagination of the British people and the inventiveness, the wit.

‘Really the heart of this film is the moment-by-moment choices that these young and elderly British people are making in this very, very fraught situation. It feels like there is some kind of way that as a people, in situations of great stress we are able to collect and govern ourselves. We don’t panic. We stick together and we persevere.’

Whatever his opinions, Mark’s new-found status as an international film star means that his views are increasingly heard. Last year, Time magazine voted him one of its 100 most influential people. So, what’s it like to be influential?

‘That’s a good question. I certainly am aware of being more well-known. If I go on the Tube now, I’ll be stopped by seven or eight people. Another seven or eight will just look at me as if they know me and then I think, “Do I know you?” Then I realise, “No, you just know the character I’ve played”.’

He pauses – often with Mark there are lengthy pauses, but you sense he also weighs his words more carefully than he once might have, in part because he knows he has a wider audience.

‘What’s a little strange for me is that, where I’ve always spoken out, now I’m asked constantly to speak out about different things. In the past, my name would be down among 100 other people who’d signed something, but now if I join something, suddenly my name is the headline: “Sir Rylance says this!”. Verbs like “condemns” or “insists” are attached to what I’m doing – terms that are unfamiliar to me. But sometimes I look back and think, “Oh yeah! I was actually being that self-righteous. I was condemning and I need to be careful about that”.’

So, without condemning, or speaking out too much, what one thing might he like to influence at the moment… as an outsider looking in?

‘Ha ha! I would really love for us to be spending more money caring for our ill and our poor, and doing things like moving away from fossil fuels and preparing for what’s coming, you know? And really being a bit more realistic and not wasting so much money on weaponry that really isn’t going to help us in any way or form.’

* Mark’s almost right. ‘Eccentric’ comes from the Greek word ekkentros, which means ‘out of centre’. From the 15th century, it was used in astronomy to describe an object whose orbit did not have the Earth precisely at its centre.

Dunkirk is released nationwide on 21 July

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