VIDEO: Bridge of Spies star Mark Rylance says playing a spy is not too different from acting

Mark Rylance didn’t have far to look for inspiration for his part in a Cold War thriller, says Susan Griffin
VIDEO: Bridge of Spies star Mark Rylance says playing a spy is not too different from acting

IN HIS latest film, Bridge Of Spies, Mark Rylance plays Rudolf Abel, a Soviet agent arrested in America in the early stages of the Cold War. Rylance believes there are many similarities between the people who occupy the worlds of acting and espionage.

“Spies are nice for actors, because we’re spies in a way,” remarks the three-time Tony Award and two-time Olivier Award-winner, who recently appeared as Thomas Cromwell in the BBC’s Wolf Hall series.

“If I’m researching a character and I find someone in real life who’s like that character, I will often go and be with them. And I’ll be friendly with them and sincere and they will become a friend, but a part of me is also listening and observing the way they sit and the way they speak and use their hands, and spying to some degree,” adds the 55-year-old.

Directed by Steven Spielberg, and with a script co-written by the Coen brothers, Bridge Of Spies is a tense thriller inspired by the story of James Donovan (played by Tom Hanks), an insurance claims lawyer tasked with negotiating one of history’s most high-profile prisoner exchanges — between US pilot Francis Gary Powers, who was shot down over Soviet airspace and sentenced to 10 years in prison, and Abel, a man accused of espionage.

Despite his initial reservations, Donovan eventually agreed to form a defence strategy for Abel and a bond developed between the two men — as it did for the actors portraying them too. “Tom is a very humorous man, very witty and has a lovely, goofy self-deprecating sense of humour, which made me smile a lot in between takes,” reveals Rylance. “He’s not a gossip or shallow talker. And if he does speak, it’s usually about his great love of history. He’s always reading dense, historical books, so a very straight, delightful man to be around.”

Rylance doesn’t believe Donovan is taking the higher ground but rather “the centre ground”.

“The higher ground suggests he’s somehow better than other people, and I think what he does is actually think, ’I’m not better than other people, I’m the same as other people’,” notes the star, who’s a patron of Peace Direct, an organisation dedicated to the non-violent resolution of conflict.

“The difficulty is where you draw the line of where you’re the same as other people. Some people just draw it around their family and everyone else can go and sod off; some around their friends; some around their business and some around their nation.”

Abel, whose real name was Vilyam Fisher, passed away in 1971 and was rarely photographed or interviewed while alive.

Although he’s playing a ‘real’ man rather than a fictional character, the actor insists, “You’re true first of all to the storyteller”.

“It’s all fiction, and in this case, Steven Spielberg is using this bit of history to tell a more essential story,” he explains. “It’s not a documentary. But you try and be as true as you can to a real person like Abel. We still don’t really know what he was up to, so you’re a little bit guessing.”

What is known is that Abel was a skilled artist, something Spielberg chose to focus on in the film. “I can paint a little bit, but never really studied that much,” admits Rylance. “But I love painting and there was one day I was painting water, the East River in New York City, and I’m sitting on the bench and I had to sit there for quite a number of hours while they did different shots, and I really became fascinated with trying to paint the water. I think I improved the one they gave me,” he recalls, laughing.

“At certain points, I actually forgot we were making a film! So I think I’d really get into it if I had the time.”

While Bridge Of Spies marks his first collaboration with Spielberg, it’s swiftly followed by a second – a big screen adaptation of Roald Dahl’s The BFG, in which he plays the Big Friendly Giant.

“It’s a thrill to work with Steven,” says Rylance, who trained at RADA and was the artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in London for 10 years, from 1995.

“I’ve always enjoyed his films, so he was as wonderful as I thought he might be, even more so.”

Bridge Of Spies is released on Friday,

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