Mark Rylance is having one hell of a year. He’s already a 3-time Tony Award-winning actor, but this year he has achieved more mainstream success than ever before in his career.
He recently picked up two Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations for his roles in TV’s Wolf Hall and Stephen Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies. As of press time, the Academy Award nominations have not been announced, though he is all but guaranteed to receive his first Oscar nomination this week.
Nice Fish is a play that Rylance has written with poet Louis Jenkins made up of some of Jenkins’ prose poems. The play premiered at Minneapolis’ Guthrie Theater in 2013, though Rylance told me that more than half of the play will be new for the A.R.T.
As he readies Nice Fish for its Jan 17th opening, Rylance chatted with me about his uncommonly good year, the beauty of Jenkins’ poems, and the unique gifts of American actors.
How did Nice Fish wind up at the A.R.T.?
Through Diane Borger, the executive producer. I had worked with her at the Royal Court Theatre in England when I was doing a play called Jerusalem. We got to know each other back then, and when I was looking for theaters in America that might be interested in a development of this play, she and I got in touch and Diane Paulus agreed to the idea. It’s a collaboration with a theater in Brooklyn called St. Ann’s Warehouse.
What was it about Louis Jenkins’ poems that made such an impact on you?
Oh, they made me laugh. For me, since I lived in the Midwest for 10 years, there were recognizable, mundane aspects of life there. They’re very beautifully structured. It just reminded me of the kind of imaginative energy required to live through the long, white, cold winters of Wisconsin and Minnesota.
If you were inviting a friend to go see Nice Fish with you, how would you describe the play?
[laughs] I would say, “Oh, hey, there’s this play at the A.R.T. about two old friends in their 50s who go out ice fishing and find that their friendship has kind of dissipated and they kind of find themselves lost; the connection has dissipated and then they refind it again.” That’s a little authorial. If I hadn’t seen this play, I would say, “Wow, this crazy play set on a frozen lake with these guys ice fishing and these wild things they say and things that happen. Strange. Funny and strange.” [laughs] I hate it when I go to a big play like King Lear or some kind of existential play and everything’s been solved. They have a dramaturge and they’ve taken everything out and everything’s solved and no one is ever confused. I like to move between confusion and clarity, a bit like walking in valleys and up into mountains and then you go down and back up again. Obviously there’s going to be a lot to think about in this play, but I hope it will be quite sensual as well.
Sensual in what way?
The sounds and the sights, the design and the experience, sensually, will be as important as the things that you think about and hopefully things that you feel. I’m really very affected by a story that moves me. I like to be moved.
What is your dream role?
Captain Hook. [laughs]
Well, I don’t know. I played Peter Pan when I was younger and they say Captain Hook is Peter Pan grown up. If Peter Pan does ever grow up, he becomes Captain Hook. That’s just my joke answer. I been so fortunate in my life, Chris, that I haven’t ever really hankered or sought after roles. Things have come to me. In a way, the role I’ve been trying to play all my life is myself. [laughs] It’s not so hard necessarily, but it’s kind of mysterious.
I thought you were going to say King Lear.
People keep offering me King Lear.
Really? You’re too young! You’ve got like 20-30 years.
[laughs] Yeah, I think I have a little while.
I was fortunate enough to see you in Boeing Boeing. It was one of the best times that I’ve ever had in the theater.
Yeah! I love that play. I remember the director Matthew Warchus always saying to us, “Your objective is not to make people laugh, but to terrify them. Terrify them about who’s going to come out of that door at any moment.” It was during that play that this whole Nice Fish idea came up.
Do you think it’s harder to create a new play if you’re also in the show, or does it give you more perspective into what’s working?
It is probably harder, in some ways, but the best thing that I can bring to the table is my acting, so I’m like a kind of a captain on a sports team. I’m not the coach; I’m not so good at coaching. I’m best on the field leading and then coming to the coach with suggestions and ideas from the field, so to speak. So I’m like one of the older quarterbacks in American football who’s given a little bit of leeway to call the plan. My wife is very good actually; she’s directing this play. In this play what I’ve also cleverly done is stolen from a brilliant man who’s written all his life, so I’ve got this lovely language that I’m weaving together. All I’ve brought to it is my love and understanding of what makes a 90-minute play, what curves and shapes will keep an audience intrigued for 90 minutes.
Film-wise, you’ve had quite a year.
Yeah! Mr. Spielberg has become a good friend of mine. We’ve completed two films now: Big Friendly Giant is going to come out in June or July, and then I’m going to make a film with Christopher Nolan. So yes, that whole side of my career is taking off in a way that it never has before.
You first turned Stephen Spielberg down almost 30 years ago when he offered you Empire of the Sun, and you ended up meeting your wife doing the play that you chose instead, is that right?
That’s right, exactly.
It’s so funny how things work out. Now you’re working on a play with her at the same time that you’re getting all of this award season attention for a Stephen Spielberg film.
I know, I couldn’t agree more. I don’t know if it’s because my profession is to create and live in stories that my life appears to be like a story. Not that I’m talking about God or anything, but sometimes it feels like there’s an order to things, a synchronicity of things. That’s very striking to me.
Your character in Bridge of Spies really gives the movie its heart, I think.
It’s a lucky part to play because he’s the central question, isn’t he? What did he do, what should be done with him. Though Tom Hanks is the everyman character who takes you through, the question of the film is Abel. To create a character like that and then give me very little to say [laughs] is a gift. Your image of it being the heart of the film makes me think of all the curiosity we have about our own heart. Our mind can die and we can keep on going; it’s when the heart stops pumping that it stops. So in that way, he is the heart of the story. To be honest, anyone playing that part would have the kind of attention I’m having. Also, I can’t really separate myself from Tom. For me a performance is in the space between people, and all my scenes are with him. There aren’t English actors who can do what certain American actors can do. Tom and George Clooney, people like Gregory Peck, Mitchum, Jimmy Stewart: There’s a thing that certain American actors can do, being the everyman actor, being the person who takes you as an audience member through the story. We English actors tend to play the characters, the people with some kind of an oddness in them. If you think of the roles that Eddie Redmayne is playing at the moment, that Daniel Day Lewis plays, they’re not the everyman characters. I think Tom can play parts that most people can think, “What would I do?” They can connect with it. That requires a certain humility and a simpleness. It’s often not recognized and it’s very difficult to do and sustain.
You’re right, the flashier performances usually get the attention.
The woman who has the disability, or like Eddie’s scientist [Stephen Hawking in The Theory of Everything] who had the disease: Those are great, great performances, but the acting is a little bit more obvious. A lot of people think of that as acting, but to me, Spencer Tracy, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, the people who use themselves. They weren’t that different all the time, but they gave of themselves and were very present. That’s great, great acting, I think. Maybe it’s a different type of acting but I think it’s remarkable.
Best of luck with awards season! I really hope you get that Oscar nomination!
Thanks, Chris! Lovely to talk with you!
NICE FISH. 1.17-2.7 AT THE AMERICAN REPERTORY THEATRE, 64 BRATTLE ST, CAMBRIDGE. AMERICANREPERTORYTHEATER.ORG