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Sir Mark Rylance – making his mark

Julia Llewellyn Smith / 21 March 2022 ( 23 May 2022 )

Actor Mark Rylance, 62, loves making movies not least because it makes him feel close to his late daughter Nataasha. Here he tells Julia Llewellyn Smith why the Oscars aren’t much fun and what made him finally accept his knighthood.

Black and white image of Mark Rylance smiling with a bowler hat on. Photographed by Pål Hansen.
Photography by Pål Hansen

'The Most Exciting Stage Actor of his Generation’, trumpet the posters outside the Bristol Old Vic, advertising Sir Mark Rylance starring in Dr Semmelweis, a play he co-created. But when I put this accolade to Mark himself, sitting in the auditorium café, he flinches. ‘Yes, I asked them to cover that up, but they haven’t.’

You can understand why the theatre’s keen to shout about his presence. Mark has two Olivier awards for West End performances – one for Much Ado About Nothing in 1994 and one for his unforgettable turn as hard-drinking Rooster Byron in Jerusalem in 2010, a part he is currently reprising at London’s Apollo theatre. His Broadway appearances have earned him three Tonys.M.

Stage aside, there’s the little matter of his Best Supporting Actor Oscar for Steven Spielberg’s 2015 film Bridge of Spies. The following year he won rave reviews for his motion capture performance as the giant in The BFG, also directed by Spielberg, and won a BAFTA for his Thomas Cromwell in the BBC’s adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall. But Mark, 62, has always been clear he far prefers theatre to film.

‘Lucky me to be in the position where I can say that kind of grandiose thing,’ he says in his soft burr. ‘I have good fun doing both. But I do love the theatre particularly deeply. I love being in the same room with people.’

Mark has a quiet demeanour, but he’s terrific company: engaged, amused and totally unassuming. His spotted scarf and trademark hat (he’s said he’s always loved hats and ‘as I lose my hair, they keep me warmer and comfort my wounded vanity’) sit on a bench behind him, while his pullover and short-sleeved shirt reveal impressive biceps.

‘I was surprised when I turned 60 to be fit and relatively strong and feeling better, healthier than I’ve ever felt,’ he says. ‘What is hard is getting your head around being an elder, and really having to make an effort to understand what young people are all about. Their world is so different to what we knew and because I’m not a social-media creature – I’d give up email if I could – I’m not really aware of a lot of the things they’re very aware of. But still, being in your sixties is nice.’

It’s heartening to see Mark so upbeat, as he’s endured unimaginable heartache. Ten years ago, his beloved stepdaughter, Nataasha van Kampen, died aged 28 of a suspected brain haemorrhage while on an aeroplane. This was shortly before the opening ceremony of the 2012 London Olympics, which Rylance was supposed to begin with Caliban’s speech from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, ‘The isle is full of noises …’ Kenneth Branagh took his place. ‘When something like that happens, you retract, like a snail, for a while,’ he says. ‘You think, “I can’t actually care for people any more because it’s too painful.” So for a while I withdrew into caring only for a small group around me. But now that’s expanded out again.’

In fact, a decade on, Mark, his wife of 33 years, director, composer and playwright Claire van Kampen, and her daughter, actor Juliet Rylance, 42, have found ways to live mainly happily with the memory of Nataasha, who was an aspiring filmmaker.

I get a feeling people who have passed away still live on inside you and experience things through you and that’s not an unhealthy thing,’ he says. ‘These people are always going to be part of you, but you have to be careful not to get stuck on where they last were when they died but to let them grow and move with you. Nataasha’s very much with me when I’m doing certain things like being on a film set because she loved being on sets, so really I’m crediting her with my film career. It’s what she would have wanted.’

Indeed, deprived of live audiences during the pandemic, Mark found himself making six films, pretty much back-to-back. Among them was The Phantom of the Open, released in April, the charming real-life story of Maurice Flitcroft, otherwise known as ‘the world’s worst golfer’, a shipyard worker from Barrow-in-Furness in Cumbria, who in 1976, aged 47 and with no previous experience, gatecrashed the British Open Championship. The outraged establishment banned him, but Maurice continued to enter championships, sometimes under his real name, sometimes using hilariously dodgy disguises. ‘I loved the story,’ Mark grins.

Behind the scenes – Mark Rylance in Saga Magazine

Mark was born in Kent, but was only two when his parents moved to the US to work as teachers in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. So he remembers nothing of Maurice’s heyday, when he made headlines as a plucky loser along the lines of Eddie the Eagle, even though he and his two siblings spent every summer with their British grandparents. ‘Grandad watched cricket not golf. We did make a little course on his well-mowed lawn, but I never took a lesson. I’m not as good as Maurice.

I’m not sure that’s true. After all, Maurice once had a score of 121 over 18 holes – the worst score in the Open’s history. So was he deluded or was he a prankster, teasing the stuffy officials? ‘I don’t know,’ beams Mark. ‘I’ve watched the clips of him on YouTube over and over again and he’s got such a straight face, you wonder is he really thinking, “I’m as good as Seve Ballesteros”. My impression is he thought he could do just as well as anyone else on a good day.’

Studying YouTube videos is par for the course when Mark, who returned to the UK in 1978 aged 18 to train at RADA, is researching a role. After Phantom he went directly into filming Netflix’s climate-change satire Don’t Look Up.

In it, he plays Sir Peter Isherwell, a tech billionaire hoping to make huge profits from a giant asteroid heading towards Earth, despite the risk of wiping out humanity. Mark plays him as a self-absorbed nerd, strongly reminiscent of the likes of Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos and Sir Richard Branson.

‘I watched a bit of stuff on those people, but really Isherwell’s a creature of my imagination,’ he says. Still, Mark strongly disapproves of such mega-rich figures. ‘I can’t really understand with all the suffering on the earth, what the hell they’re doing spending their money on spaceships. It seems wrong.’

The film, which had four Oscar nominations, including one for Best Picture, had a super-starry line-up, including Meryl Streep, Cate Blanchett and Leonardo DiCaprio. How did it feel to work with such a cast? ‘Nerve-wracking,’ Mark giggles. ‘I’ve seen Meryl Streep in films since I was a teenager. She and Leonardo and Cate – they’ve always just been part of a world that’s just not mine. They live and breathe this film stuff, they’re very practised. Maybe I can hold my own amongst them, but I haven’t had their range of experience.’

Work-wise he may be daunted; socially, however, he’s far more at ease. ‘I’ve met Meryl through a friend and she’s come to a play of mine, so I know her a little bit. With famous people, within five minutes the nerves go and you think, “Oh, you’re just a person, with all the same mysterious things any person has.”’

The only time he remained intimidated was in 1987 when he accepted a part on the film Hearts of Fire simply in order to work with his musical hero Bob Dylan. ‘I had so many projections about who I thought Dylan was, it was very difficult to be relaxed around him and he was very, very contained. He’d sit playing his guitar and just occasionally he might look at you, and it was like the penetrating, piercing look a baby gives you looking out of a pram. You’d think, “What’s he seen?”’

Mark, whose film The Outfit – in which he plays a Chicago-based tailor – also came out in April, didn’t attend this year’s controversial Oscar ceremony, as it clashed with Jerusalem and the play always comes first. In any case, he’s been there, done that. ‘I have nothing against the Academy Awards, but it wasn’t a lot of fun,’ he says, with a characteristic twinkle. ‘It was interesting to see the circus but I thought there’d be all kinds of wonderful parties and you’d meet film actors and hang out and chat with Jack Nicholson, people you admire. But everywhere I went it was just corporate executives.’

Despite working extensively in the US, Britain is very much his home and he spends as much time as possible at his house in South London, where he lives with his wife Claire. They were unable to have their own children, but as far as Mark’s concerned Nataasha and Juliet, who came into his life aged three and seven respectively, were always his ‘daughters’, rather than his ‘stepdaughters’. ‘I suppose behind my back people might have said, “He’s claiming something that isn’t true.” But there are reasons we come together other than blood. Both girls always felt very much my daughters, on a soulful level. They always insisted we were meant to meet and were absolutely furiously adamant that I call them my daughters and Chris, their natural father, is fine with it.’

In fact, Chris van Kampen, an architect, who’s since remarried, showed astonishingly little rancour about his wife leaving him for Mark. ‘Chris and I were very close friends pretty quickly, within just a year or two. He’s a very forgiving man and the girls were adamant the three of us get together. So now we always spend every Christmas together and he and I are walking The Ridgeway soon. We’re going to do a two-day walk and camp out overnight and catch up with each other.’

There’s an endearing eccentricity to Mark: he and Claire married at an ancient stone circle and he turned down another role from Spielberg (in Empire of the Sun) after consulting the Chinese dice I Ching. So it’s surprising to remember he’s very much part of the establishment, having been knighted by Prince William for services to theatre (he was artistic director of the Globe Theatre from 1995 to 2005).

‘I struggled about accepting the knighthood, but finally I took it because I’m interested in a lot of what you might call fringe things like crop circles and the authorship question [whether someone other than Shakespeare wrote his plays] and a lot of activist causes. So it feels sometimes useful if I am writing something about British Petroleum or to do with ecology to sign it Sir Mark Rylance. They can’t write me off then.’

Knighthood or not, I can’t see anyone writing off the most exciting stage actor of his generation any time soon.

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