Interview: Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance Mark Rylance - © Rob Greig
Posted: Mon Oct 10 2011

He cut his own salary in half and gave his Tony award to a man in Wiltshire. Now Mark Rylance returns as Johnny 'Rooster' Byron in 'Jerusalem'.

There's a proven formula for a British hit drama on Broadway. A movie star lead like Jude Law helps. But it's the 'snob hit' value which culturally defines Brits in America. At the Tonys and the Oscars, one sepia-toned palette colours our most exportable stories of stuttering monarchs and tightly laced, passionate heroines: a profoundly nostalgic vision of Englishness.

So how on earth did Mark Rylance, a stage actor with virtually no film profile, make a shambolic Wiltshire drug dealer and 'gypo' into the toast of London and New York?

Today, 51-year-old Rylance seems mildly bemused by the brash question of his success. He puts his extraordinary impact as Johnny 'Rooster' Byron down to Jez Butterworth's 'Jerusalem', the baggy, brilliant play through which he limps shamanically like Robin Hood with a load of home-cooked amphetamines, dreaming of giants and doling out succour and illegal substances to the local youth.

But Rylance also bagged a Best Actor Tony for his New York debut in 2008's 'Boeing Boeing', meaning he has won the coveted award every time he's been eligible.

Bare-legged and deeply suntanned from a four-day hike through Yosemite Park, his formerly willowy frame bulked up for this role, Rylance brings a breath of the great outdoors to Shaftesbury Avenue.

It was, he suggests softly, dark eyes shaded by a red cap, 'a shared urban sense of alienation from the wild places' which helped 'Jerusalem', a West Country comedy which many thought was too local to travel well, sell a rude whiff of English village life to New Yorkers.

'Environments have become precious to people,' he says. 'They would come in from Times Square and see this Wiltshire wood.'

Rylance, who has campaigned for years for the rights of indigenous peoples, evidently hears the call of the wild himself: 'Some Saturday nights I would just run and run to the Hudson River, the Beautiful River as the Lenni Lenape called it - I take offence at it being called Hudson.'

Did he even like being a Broadway star? He glances shyly out of the window: 'Am I? I suppose I'm getting to that place where you can mount a play with me, with my name and no TV or film audience.' He smiles. 'It's lovely to be appreciated, eh?'

Rylance has not always been appreciated. His hypnotic Shakespeare performances have routinely subtitled him as 'the greatest actor of his generation', and his tenure as Shakespeare's Globe's first artistic director turned that particular replica of history into a reality. But he has a reputation for being somewhat away with the fairies.

He bamboozled guests at the Tonys by recommending that they walk through walls via astral projection (these were not off-the-cuff ravings, as some presumed, but poems by one of his favourite writers, Louis Jenkins).

Less trivially, he shocked colleagues by suddenly quitting his job as artistic director of the Globe in 2005, a resignation he has never fully explained. Why did he walk out? 'I just got tired,' he reflects. 'I got worn down. Lost perspective. There are details, but that's the truth. I got very, very depressed and isolated. And I started to make mistakes.'

Rylance's wife Claire van Kampen had always worried about her gentle, hippyish husband wearing ties and going to board meetings. 'At the beginning,' he explains, 'everyone was rocking and rolling and making things up. But flexibility and wildness were driven out so quickly. I got to feeling like I was difficult or mad.' Rylance's successor, Dominic Dromgoole, 'didn't want to know anything I knew at first - which was a kick in the nuts for me at the time'.

But Rylance was always welcome back as an actor and he is now looking forward to a return in 2012, in 'Twelfth Night' and 'Richard III' - although he has been suffering anxiety dreams in which he's playing Henry V but goes on to find another man playing his part. 'Dominic encountered the same problems as me, but he's more robust than I am. He's a troll king, really: for every one pint you have, he'll have three.'

It is hard to imagine Dromgoole or any other Globe boss publicly questioning the authorship of 'the man from Stratford', as Rylance did and does (he even has a small role in Roland Emmerich's upcoming film on the subject, 'Anonymous').

Rylance's wilder ideas have been mocked: his Bard-sceptical show 'I Am Shakespeare' - to be revived at the Menier Chocolate Factory - was called 'strenuously dotty' by the Guardian, while The Daily Telegraph said Rylance himself was as 'nutty as a fruitcake'.

But it's reductive and maybe right-wing to dismiss this curious egalitarian as a kook. His interest in ritual, mystery and renaissance neo-Platonism is a cut above the reading list of your average LA luvvie. And his views on Shakespeare make the headlines a lot more often than his insistence on equal pay for all the Globe's actors.

How many of London's sleek new generation of cultural managers would cut their own pay by 50 per cent? Or mortgage their Brixton flat to tour Britain in a van, performing Shakespeare on sacred stone circle sites?

It is Rylance's singularity that makes it hard to imagine anyone else playing Rooster Byron, a role which is to the noughties what Jimmy Porter in 'Look Back in Anger' was to the '50s. Born in Kent, then reared in what he calls the 'Coca Cola executive suburbs' of Connecticut and Wisconsin, Rylance has formative memories of summer holidays in Sissinghurst.

'What struck me strongly as a kid was something particular called the English eccentricity.' A local transvestite made a lasting impression: 'Mr Dicehurst lived in a council house with his wife. And he would go out and do the shopping in make-up and a little apron and wig, all very wonky.' Rylance is eccentric too, but it's is part of a radical English tradition: more William Blake than fruitcake. And it was Blake's left-wing, mystical vision of England - our 'green and pleasant land', which gave Butterworth's play its title.

'Most men I talk to have a memory of someone like Rooster,' says Rylance. 'An uncle, a crazy teacher. That's why I took the play.' Writer Jez Butterworth drafted and redrafted the part while rehearsing with Rylance and director Ian Rickson.

Rooster is an ex-daredevil who despite being a semi-crippled drunk also has the power to make you believe he can defy death and talk to giants. 'He is interested in that very bright fire that burns in a young person when they first discover their true self,' says Rylance. 'That's the fire he needs to cook his business. For some it only burns for a few years until they give in and become what society wants them to be.'

Drugs are a rite of passage. And 'Jerusalem' doesn't romanticise them but it does celebrate, accurately, the epic appeal of a two-day trip in the greenwood. 'I was lucky,' says Rylance, 'that the people who introduced me to the drugs I tried as a young person didn't abandon me, and were interested in the visionary nature of those experiences.' Should drugs be treated with more respect? 'Yeah, like you'd respect a bear or tiger. You can have an amazing experience with a bear or a tiger, but if you're stupid you'll be dead.'

During our conversation, Rylance's voice slides from Rooster's West Country snarl to RP with an inexplicably Welsh lilt, to a MidWest twang. 'I've lived in England since 1978, so my voice is very confused. Peter Brook thought it was important to ground yourself in something real. Alec Guinness used to copy walks. I like to find the right voice. I'm not a mimic but I like to find a real person and feel the energy or rhythm that they work at. It's a quick key for me: like an orchestra tuning before the performance.'

His tuning fork for 'Rooster' Byron was a man called Micky Lay from Pewsey, Wiltshire - Jez Butterworth's model for the character. 'First time I went to see him, he told me to fuck off,' says Rylance, 'So I went back with a bottle of whisky. He talked to me for three or four hours about his life. He was more generous than I would be if an actor came to my door.'

Later Rylance went back again with another thank-you gift: his Tony trophy. 'I just thought he would enjoy it,' Rylance explains. 'He has a wonderful little room with brass and objects. Hopefully he's sold it now and got some money!' It's a gesture typical of Rylance, and entirely in the spirit of this unruly British hit. Broadway's unlikeliest star has helped 'Jerusalem' take its alternative vision of Englishness far beyond the shadow of Swindon and Stonehenge.