At the end of our interview with Mark Rylance in LA, Moviehole.net tells him it’s good to see him on screens again, and the 57-year-old Oscar winner seems genuinely pleased to hear it.
It’s hard to remember he’s the same man who was lying on the floor of a filthy flat in Britain getting the unsexiest oral pleasuring on film from Australian actress Kerry Fox in 2001’s Intimacy, but soon after, Rylance hightailed it back to the world of theatre, staying there and aging graceully into a performer of depth and stillness before finally being tempted back to screens alongside Sean Penn in the underwhelming The Gunman.
But Rylance was just getting warmed up. Following that was two collaborations with Steven Spielberg, Bridge of Spies (which won him 2015’s Best Actor Oscar) and The BFG, and next up is another popcorn-fuelled entry for the director playing the mysterious overseer of the VR world OASIS in Reader Player One.
But first, he’s an acting powerhouse in a story with an artful dearth of acting and dialogue as Mr Dawson, a civilian pleasure boat owner sent to France to rescue the stranded soldiers of Dunkirk.
You’ve worked for two of the biggest directors we have now, Steven Spielberg and Chris Nolan. Compare them for us.
Mostly just age, you know. They are at a different place in their career, Steven is a little more fascinated and tempted by modern technology, by motion capture and all the incredible advances of that but both of them are interested in what is film compared to television.
Film needs to offer a sensation that brings you out of your house into a but they both have fought very hard to protect Kodak and protect film as something different than digital capture and I think they’re right.
They’re both very interested in stories. Steven said to me when he falls in love with a story he wants everyone to fall in love with it, so he’s very keen that the story is very clear and there’s nothing to stop anyone getting into the story. It’s very simple and clear and straightforward.
Chris has more of an interest in a story having moments of confusion that then come to clarity so there are moments when you don’t quite know what’s happening. I like both of those methods of storytelling but that’s the main difference between the two of them.
All Chris’ movies are concerned in some way with time. How attractive was that to you when you read it in the script?
That is really interesting and a really crucial thing when making a film. Unlike the theater, you don’t have any time to build up a relationship with the people, you’ve got to work with a whole bunch of people who you’ve never met before and coordinate and in this film there’s an enormous amount of different skills so it is very important to focus only on what you are responsible for, only your job.
It’s crucial that you focus on what you’re doing and not worry about trying to do other peoples’ jobs for them and likewise, we get no influence on the whole story. We’re a very small part. It seems like we’re a bigger part because we’re used to publicise films but actually actors have a minimal part in film.
Did you do any research or find any resources to help you with the character of pleasure craft Captain Dawson?
I was able to find that at the Imperial War Museum. English people are so warlike we have a museum about our warlike nature. I don’t know if there’s a football hooliganism museum but there will be one day. They had wonderful tape recordings of a lot of the men like Mr Dawson who went to France and that was fascinating, I didn’t realise how little they knew and how their expectations were way off mark compared to what happened.
Tell us about the character of Mr Dawson and the choices he faces.
My cousin was part of the fire brigade who went into the tower that burnt down in London [Greenfell Tower] and he sent me a couple of reports that the firemen hd written about being in that smoke-filled staircase with the building on fire early in the morning.
They were told to go to the 14th floor, getting up to the 11th floor, being full of smoke and meeting an old couple who were choking to death and telling them there is another couple who need to be rescued and their own oxygen running out and having to think ‘what do I do?’ and deciding to take the old couple down rather than go forward.
The rescue services in all our countries face these kinds of decisions everyday. Ambulance drivers, firemen, policemen, so I think the fact that Chris has made the film very much about time, that each party has a different period in time and then has given each group crucial decisions, the boys on the beach and the commanders on the platform, the guys up in the air, it’s really a story about how people make decisions under that kind of incredible pressure, and decisions that mean someone is going to die so someone else lives. Those must be the hardest decisions you would ever have to make in your life.
Ever been in a situation like that?
I feel like I would have wiped that from my mind if I was in that situation, but I cannot think of one, not that intense. I have been very lucky in my life.
Did you watch any war movies in preparation?
I watched an old Robert mitchum movie, I tend to always watch Robert Mitchum movies before I make any movie just to remind myself how it can be done. Nominally he’s a commander on a destroyer – The Enemy Below or something, it’s called – I like watching the way he makes internal decisions, just how relaxed he is.
The dialogue was so sparse and the characetrisations so low key, as actors are you always tempted to go bigger and give more?
Thee is always the temptation to do more.
Especially for an Oscar winner.
That’s an interesting question. You do get lots of foolish thoughts in your mind at times. If you’ve been successful there’s the foolish thought that you somehow have more expectation, that people expect you to do something whereas if you’ve had a failure it’s easy to push off from that if you’ve been heavily criticised so you can never have thoughts around ‘crap I’m not good enough’.
Mostly the thought ‘I’m crap, I’m not good enough’ overwhelms any other thoughts anyway. You can get into an illusion that you have further to fall, but truly an illusion.
Did the experience of working on the film teach you anything you didn’t known about the story?
I didn’t know the whole thing about who to rescue, the issue of the French or the English, that sense of conflict. Visiting Dunkirk it was a little apparent there was a memory that the French had been left behind. We hadn’t rescued a lot of them. We focused on trying to get as many Englishmen back to defend England as quick as possible.
How has being an actor changed since you were young?
I don’t remember being so discerning. If I was discerning I though Scorsese was great, I thought I will never have a chance to work with those people. It’s lovely to hear young actors say they want to work with quality, you don’t just want to be in film to be a film star, you want to work with quality people, that’s great.