Q&A: Mark Rylance on his ever-changing life in movies

This image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Mark Rylance as Maurice Flitcroft, right, and Mark Lewis Jones as Cliff in a scene from "The Phantom of the Open." (Nick Wall/Sony Pictures Classics via AP)

NEW YORK — With London stages closed for much of the pandemic, Mark Rylance – one of the theatre’s most moving actors and one of Shakespeare’s leading interpreters – has made six films.

They cover a wide range. A tech billionaire in Adam McKay’s apocalypse satire “Don’t Look Up.” Satan in Terrence Malick’s upcoming “The Way of the Wind”. Bones by Luca Guadagnino & All.” A tailor in the bedroom thriller “The Outfit.” Rylance even starred in a student film for free.

Rylance also starred in a quirky and charming sports flick: Craig Roberts’ “Phantom of the Open,” which Sony Pictures Classics is releasing in theaters Friday. The 62-year-old actor stars as real amateur golfer Maurice Flitcroft, a former shipyard crane operator with modest golfing skills whose persistence in competing at the British Open has earned him a reputation as the worst golfer in the world. For Rylance, Flitcroft – a sort of imperfect folk hero – represented irrational dreams and amateur courage.

Rylance has long seen acting in sporting terms. He compares his own instinct to the way a professional soccer player is drawn to kicking a ball. But golf is not really his sport. According to him, courses located in densely populated urban areas should be transformed into parks. Rylance prefers volleyball, which he plays as a pre-show warm-up with his classmates to prepare for improvisations in a play.

“All acting is basically about passing a ball of energy of some kind between people,” Rylance said in a recent Zoom interview.

And for Rylance, the hustle and bustle of the theater — “a dance with the audience,” he says — has always propelled him the most as an actor. Rylance is currently in the midst of a 16-week revival of “Jerusalem,” reprising his defining role as Johnny “Rooster” Byron in Jez Butterworth’s Tony-winning play about a clash between strangers and the authorities and a bulldozer soon encampment.

On his day off the stage, Rylance reflected on “The Phantom of the Open,” “Jerusalem,” and his ever-evolving relationship with filmmaking.


AP: You had acted in films before Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies”, but this 2015 film opened a new chapter in cinema for you and raised your profile in Hollywood. How has your relationship with cinema evolved since then?

RYLANCE: For someone who likes to play in a play where I play for three hours and with the actors for five and a half, six hours — because there’s a two-hour vocal warm-up, there are some nice volleyball games, there’s all the fun of a social locker room, because I don’t cut myself. It’s such a fun company. Whereas cinema, now even more so with COVID, you’re just locked in a trailer. The more famous you become, at least in America, the less confident the crew members are to talk to you, or even look you in the eye. It’s strange. And you might get a catch, two if you’re lucky. I love watching movies. I just love watching movies. Most nights I go watch something. I am still discovering things. Joel Coen has just introduced me to the films of De Sica and this led me to rediscover Sophia Loren, whom I had only seen in English-language films. It was of course not her native language, so you have a muffled version of her. But when you see her in De Sica films like “Two Women” or “Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow”, she is nothing but diamond.

AP: You made six films during the pandemic. Was it so you could keep playing while the theaters were closed?

Rylance: Yes, in part. I guess I was available. Besides, it was just a series of scripts that I really liked, including students who wanted to make a 15,000 pound film in Gloucester. I thought, “What is this, this looks fun. I’m not doing anything.” I think I’m getting better. I still want to do less. I’m still watching (Robert) Mitchum and Steve McQueen and many, many others, many women too, and I ‘admire how little they do, how much they trust the story. Maybe in Mitchum’s case, he can’t really give a (expletive) and that can be very helpful, actually. It makes you pretty magnetic. I can’t do that. I care about the movies I’m in. When I watch “The Outfit” or the little bits I saw of “Bones,” I always want him do less. I always want me to hold more cards to my chest, that I don’t play as expressively as I do.

AP: What attracted you to “The Phantom of the Open”?

RYLANCE: Oh, the script. The story. The fact that it’s a true story. He reminded me a bit of the character of Jimmy Stewart in “It’s a Wonderful Life”, in that he had done so much to encourage and help others. And there was also a bit of Don Quixote in him. The way he never accepted other people’s opinions of himself. He would hear their opinion and then think, “Well, they must be crazy. I know who I am and I know what I did today. I found it very charming and thought if I could have a little. I mean, I have quite a few. I’m not overwhelmed with trying to please others, but I do take reviews to heart, especially if they’re correct.

AP: Some may have interpreted Flitcroft as a trickster or a scammer, but you portray him candidly.

RYLANCE: Well, go to YouTube and watch it. There’s a wonderful morning interview he did and I must have watched it 150 times looking for this: “You can’t really be serious. You have to piss on it. But I can’t find a flaw in his sincerity and self-confidence. I can’t see a wink or flicker that suggests he’s pissing. All actors have their own native fool or clown. My clown is a particularly sincere fool. It’s something I have access to and have used. That’s part of what I bring to the team.

AP: Why is this your personal clown?

RYLANCE: I’m sincere and I’m a fool. (Laughs) It’s as simple as that. My family regularly makes fun of my stupidity, my sincere stupidity. And my stupid sincerity but that’s the most tragic side of my character.

AP: You said you might like to come back to Rooster in “Jerusalem” every decade. Why ?

RYLANCE: I’ve been lucky enough to go back to Hamlet many times in my life. At 16, at 28, 29, 30, 31 – those were quick comebacks – then again at 40. Gradually, my understanding of Act I diminished and Act V increased. I read about older actors and actresses before there was any filmed acting work. If they happened to attend a performance, a play that came naturally to them or that struck the pulse of the nation, they revived it. I always imagined that a movie star, like Jimmy Stewart in “A Wonderful Life,” would bring this to life every few years the way we bring it to life watching it at Christmas. I was interested in doing it with “Jerusalem”. There was a bit of a risk that he was bound by his own time. But state and corporate control of humanity has only worsened over the past 10 years, and the public’s thirst for its indigenous soul in its wilderness and its connection to animals and plants and all the things we are undeniably connected to except the corporate world and the state world would like us to rely on patented solutions to our needs – this situation is even stronger now. I’m probably afraid that in 10 years it will be the same, it will be even worse.

AP: Was playing rooster again like putting on an old sweater or do you go through your whole process again?

Rylance: We had five weeks of rehearsal. We had eight or nine new cast members, and the people who come back are all different. We’re all different. It’s not like a reprint of the movie. It is a live event. It’s like preparing an English football team for a season. You’re not just aiming for a socket that can then be used. You have to create it live every night, like Miles Davis and the great jazz artists never played what they played last night. I mean, I’m aware of everything I’ve learned over the past 10 years. In fact, I feel stronger vocally, physically and psychologically than 10 years ago.

PA: Why is that?

RYLANCE: Sorrow. Loss. Lots of work, lots of life. I’m 62 now. You get older and you see more of the essential patterns unfolding and you differentiate between what is essential and what is not.


Follow AP Film Writer Jake Coyle on Twitter at: