Interview: Mark Rylance

An Englishman in New York.

In April, a queue stretched from the Music Box Theatre on West 45th Street in New York City down to Eighth Avenue. The occasion was the first week of previews for the US transfer of the West End play Jerusalem. I asked about a dozen people what they were so excited about. They all said the same thing: "Mark Rylance."

Four months later, Jerusalem is in its final week of Broadway performances and Rylance has a sore neck. "This neck is just not in place," he says quietly, from the fourth-floor dressing room, two hours before the curtain. "I don't know what it is. It happened this morning in training." The actor lifts weights three times a week, the better to transform his slight figure into the towering menace that is "Rooster" Byron, the gypsy wild man of Jerusalem. It appears to be taking a toll on the 51-year-old. He also consumes a raw egg, several cigarettes and a sausage roll eight times a week onstage. How is that affecting him? "I'm all right. I think the smoking is not a great idea. It's more the later consequences, but there you go." He laughs.

For New Yorkers, Rylance emerged fully formed three years ago when he made his Broadway debut in Boeing-Boeing, another transfer from the West End, featuring US television actors. He stole the show with an startling, acrobatic performance and won a Tony Award for Best Actor. Rylance is quick to credit the West End-based producer Sonia Friedman for that success. "She fought hard for me to come into the Boeing-Boeing cast and not to have an American take over the part. They had an American take over all the other parts," he says, without rancour. After the success of that production, Friedman didn't have to fight quite such a battle to secure Rylance's subsequent two transfers, La Bête and Jerusalem.

What has become a familiar sight in London - the hat, the earring, the shy speech - was a freshly jarring figure at the Tony Awards in 2008, when Rylance accepted his trophy and, instead of making the usual gushing acceptance speech, recited a prose poem by Louis Jenkins. The highlight of the night was watching the mystified reactions of the celebrity audience.

Rylance repeated the stunt this year when he was given the award again for his performance in Jerusalem. When he won the Best Actor prize at the Olivier Awards in 2010, however, he delivered a typical grateful actor speech. Did differences between the West End and Broadway inform his decision?

“It's a big horse fair here in New York, the way they make a competition out of it. At the Oliviers, because Ian [Rickson] and Jez [But­terworth] didn't win anything, I wanted to say something in their home community. The Tonys are much more ripe to put some air into. There's more investment in America in the value of winning prizes. People are more concerned here than they are in England. At least, I hope we're a little more sceptical."

Rylance is clearly in love with Jerusalem - he's been playing Byron on and off since 2009, first at the Royal Court and then in the West End.
He was intimately involved in its creation by the playwright Butterworth and the director Rickson. He talks about the freedom of Rickson's direction and refers to the kabuki style of acting when I mention the stillness of the play's third act. After a decade running Shakespeare's Globe in London, he says he no longer has stage fright and can sense that audiences respond to his enjoyment onstage.

Unlike his previous Broadway outings, this is a defiantly British production. Most cast members are from the original Royal Court production, and above the stage a banner reads: "The English stage company". At a recent performance, an American couple behind me kept asking what "whizz" could signify. "That's all good, though!" Rylance enthuses. "It doesn't matter. What they sense is that it's a real, indigenous culture that's of interest to them. It's not a part of England they've seen before. The audiences here go on a further journey than those back home: the first act is a romp with these eccentric British people. Then they're brought across the Atlantic and back again, because of the stillness of the third act, the passing of a way of life. It's the simple issue of people who want to go and have to stay and people who have to stay and want to go - which the American Indians exemplify here in America."

As he eats his vegetable wrap and checks his small antique timepiece, I ask him if he feels there is more of a response from Broadway
audiences which, at every performance, offer standing ovations and wolf whistles. "We've got better and tighter," he says. "The need to communicate to an audience that's less familiar with the story has made us better storytellers."

Rylance was born in Kent in 1960 but moved with his family at the age of two to the US. He returned to England in 1978 to study at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and was soon working for the Royal Shakespeare Company. "It's exciting what's happening in England," he says. "The issues are coming to a head, the relationship of people to government . . . I'm excited that the British people are not pushovers.

“London's always much closer to civil unrest and rebellion if the government doesn't deliver. In America, it feels like the population has been pacified more. In England, people have a keen sense of when things are going to kick off - you feel part of a society, an opposition."

Five days after we talk, the closing performance of Jerusalem is like an awards show. There is an odd assortment of celebrities - Liam Neeson, Steve Buscemi, Brooke Shields - in a sold-out house that laughs at every gesture. The play receives a ten-minute standing ovation.

Rylance whispers to the actor playing the professor, "I think I ought to say a few words." He gives a thoughtful speech about how welcoming the US has been. He singles out everybody but himself - the understudies, the producers, the backers - and throws flowers into the audience. Then, he and the cast all jump up and down one last time.

“Jerusalem" returns to the Apollo Theatre, London W1, from 8 October to 14 January 2012

This article first appeared in the 12 September 2011 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron vs the shires