It’s a method-style performance of such intensity and subtlety that it seemed to herald the beginning of a major new screen career. In 1991, in The Grass Arena, Mark Rylance played John Healy, the working-class London boxer turned alcoholic. Healy becomes a petty criminal but learns how to play chess in prison – and excels at it. It was a role which Rylance immersed himself in – but in terms of a movie career, it wasn’t the launch of anything.
A quarter of a century later, Rylance has won an Oscar. Hollywood is reacting to him almost as if he is a newcomer. This, though, is more a case of him ignoring the movies rather than the other way round. He might easily have had a big screen career to match that of Daniel Day-Lewis, but he dedicated himself to stage work instead.
At least Steven Spielberg, who directed him both as the stoical, meticulous Russian agent in Bridge Of Spies and as the Big Friendly Giant in the forthcoming Roald Dahl adaptation BFG, has long appreciated Rylance’s qualities. He has called him “one of the most extraordinary actors working anywhere”.
Spielberg first offered Rylance a part in Empire Of The Sun back in 1987. He turned it down for a theatre job and has barely appeared on the big screen since. However, in the intervening years, he has won Baftas and Olivier and Tony awards for his work on stage and on television, most recently for playing Thomas Cromwell in Wolf Hall.
Oscars 2016 winners
Oscars 2016 winners
1/24 Leonardo DiCaprio
Oscar for Best Actor: "The Revenant"
2/24 Brie Larson
Oscar for Best Actress: "Room"
2016 Getty Images
3/24 Mark Rylance
Oscar for Best Supporting Actor: "Bridge of Spies"
4/24 Alicia Vikander
Oscar for Best Supporting Actress: "The Danish Girl"
5/24 Alejandro González Iñárritu
Oscar for Best Director: "The Revenant"
6/24 Emmanuel Lubezki
Oscar for Best Cinematography: "The Renevant"
7/24 Mark Mangini (L) and David White
Oscar for Best Sound Editing: "Mad Max: Fury Road"
8/24 Margaret Sixel
Oscar for Best Editing: "Mad Max: Fury Road"
9/24 Lesley Vanderwalt (R), Elka Wardega (C) and Damian Martin
Oscar for Best Makeup and Hairstyling: "Mad Max: Fury Road"
10/24 Colin Gibson and Lisa Thompson
Oscar for Best Production Design: "Mad Max: Fury Road"
11/24 Jenny Beavan
Oscar for Best Costume Design: "Mad Max: Fury Road"
12/24 Tom McCarthy (L) and Josh Singer
Oscar for Best Original Screenplay: "Spotlight"
13/24 Adam McKay (L) and Charles Randolph
Oscar for Best Adapted Screenplay: "The Big Short"
14/24 (L-R) Steve Golin, Blye Pagon Faust, Nicole Rocklin, and Michael Sugar
Oscar for Best Picture: "Spotlight"
15/24 Jimmy Napes (L) and Sam Smith
Oscar for Best Original Song: 'Writing's On The Wall' - "Spectre"
16/24 Ennio Morricone
Oscar for Best Original Score: "The Hateful Eight"
17/24 Laszlo Nemes
Oscar for Best Foreign Language Film: "Son of Saul"
18/24 Shawn Christopher Ogilvy (L) and Benjamin Cleary
Oscar for Best Live Action Short Film: "Stutterer"
19/24 James Gay-Rees (L) and Asif Kapadia
Oscar for Best Documentary Feature: "Amy"
20/24 Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy
Oscar for Best Documentary Short Subject: "A Girl in the River: The Price of Forgiveness"
21/24 Pete Docter (R) and Jonas Rivera
Oscar for Best Animated Feature Film: "Inside Out"
22/24 Director Gabriel Osorio Vargas (L) and producer Pato Escala Pierart
Oscar for Best Animated Short Film: "Bear Story"
23/24 Andrew Whitehurst (R), Paul Norris (2nd L), Mark Ardington (L) and Sara Bennett
Oscar for Best Visual Effects: "Ex Machina"
24/24 Chris Jenkins (R), Gregg Rudolf (C) and Ben Oslo
Oscar for Sound Mixing: "Mad Max: Fury Road"
Rylance has also long since earned his place in British theatre history as the first artistic director of the reconstructed Globe Theatre. There have been a few films along the way too. He gave an excoriating performance in Patrice Chéreau’s very graphic Intimacy (2001) as the barman who meets a married woman (Kerry Fox) once a week on Wednesday afternoons for sex. He knows nothing about her but begins to yearn for more than just the physical release of their lovemaking.
It is instructive to watch one of Rylance’s least satisfactory films. Cast opposite Sean Penn last year in Pierre Morel’s half-cocked The Gunman, he plays a sleek but treacherous ex-mercenary who betrays those closest to him. He brings a self-mocking quality to a strangely earnest thriller. It suggests he could make a memorable Bond villain. What distinguishes Rylance, though, is that he is as particular in his choices as he is in his style of acting.
In his pronouncements about acting, he is determinedly collegiate – far keener to be part of the ensemble than to steal the limelight at awards shows like the Oscars. “The cars, the money and the high life, that’s all fine,” he said in a recent BBC interview when asked about the film star lifestyle and awards. “The reduction of anything to a competition is not so much fun.”Reuse content