The weird world of Mark Rylance

The actor's acceptance speech for his Tony award left the audience baffled. Rob Sharp reports on why he finds it hard to say 'Thanks'

British actor Mark Rylance doesn't do conventional speeches. At Sunday evening's Tony Awards in New York, he chose to accept his best actor trophy for his part in Jez Butterworth's acclaimed play Jerusalem by reciting an obscure poem by Minnesotan poet Louis Jenkins.

"Unlike flying or astral projection, walking through walls is a totally earth-related craft, but a lot more interesting than pot-making or driftwood lamps," Rylance told a bamboozled audience at the Beacon Theatre.

Despite being one of the most critically acclaimed actors of his generation, Rylance, 51, is by no means a household name. Yet he is increasingly winning attention for his enigmatic public behaviour, whether it is reciting poetry at award ceremonies, being spotted out and about in character in cities where he is playing parts, or indeed disputing the authorship of plays previously attributed to Shakespeare. While artistic director of Shakespeare's Globe, a post he filled until 2005, he said he believed plays ascribed to the Bard were actually penned by a group of 16th- and 17th-century writers. Those that know him say he is an eccentric – but ascribe much of his odd behaviour to his shyness, strong work ethic and humble character.

"There has to be a shield to deal with the strange ego challenges of an awards ceremony," said Ian Rickson, who directed Rylance in the original production of Jerusalem at the Royal Court in 2009. "His shield at Sunday's Tony awards was gnomic poetry." Rickson said Rylance doesn't enjoy the attention and trappings of fame: "He mistrusts it," said the director. "What does it mean?"

Rylance was born in Ashford, Kent, in 1960. He acted in Shakespeare at school, before enjoying a prodigal rise: a scholarship to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, performances with the Royal Shakespeare Company, a burgeoning film career, appearing in Gillies Mackinnon's 1991 film The Grass Arena.

He joined the Globe as artistic director in 1995, with his subsequent unconventional views on Shakespeare raising eyebrows among fellow drama professionals. Rylance's theory that Francis Bacon had had input into plays attributed to Shakespeare was dismissed as "baloney" by Dominic Dromgoole, now artistic director of the Globe. Rylance's off-stage passion is mirrored in his stage work. While preparing for his original role in Jerusalem in Britain, Rylance had a tremendous work ethic, meeting people from his past who reminded him of Johnny "Rooster" Byron, his character in the play, and visiting Pewsey, in Wiltshire, where the play is set.

Rickson confirmed that Rylance tended to stay in character between performances. "The thing is, I know him as a friend," continued Rickson. "In real life I see him as authentic, not performing. He is someone who is very humble, who doesn't take anything for granted, he is very spiritual about what he does, in terms of what he opens himself up to for a role. Maybe this includes transcending who he actually is when he morphs into a character. He is mercurial."

Rickson added that Rylance is very "spiritual" and his free-spirited tendencies tend to go against the pomp and self-congratulation of award ceremonies. "Mark is someone who doesn't agree there is a best, that he is better than anyone else," added Sonia Friedman, who is producing Jerusalem's current run on Broadway. "He thinks by saying thank you for an award he is saying he is better than someone else. He's a very complicated artist."

METHOD AND MADNESS

THE SPEECHES

Rylance is the master of the unpredictable acceptable speech, with a particular penchant for the Minnesotan poet Louis Jenkins. He first quoted Jenkins at the 2008 Tonys, reading out an excerpt from Jenkins’s poem The Back Country. On Sunday, he quoted from Walking through a Wall.

SHAKESPEARE

Rylance has had something of an on-off relationship with the Bard. Earlier in his career, he organised meetings at the Royal Shakespeare Company questioning whether Shakespeare had written all of the plays attributed to him. He later said: "Undoubtedly the Stratford actor [Shakespeare] is involved in the creation of the plays but I have not seen a convincing argument that he was capable of writing [them]."

METHOD ACTING

Rylance is a firm believer in living and breathing the roles he is playing. Prior to his debut in Jerusalem on Broadway earlier this year, he was spotted "walking confidently down 45th Street in New York’s theatre district, wearing a bright red shirt, and sported a jaunty hat to offset his rakishly cut moustache and tiny drum earrings". He has also been spotted in costume around London.

GENDER POLITICS

He refuses to be bound by conventional boundaries of gender in the theatre. In 1999, while the first artistic director of the Globe, he staged and performed in Antony and Cleopatra - insisting on playing the role of Cleopatra.

LEY LINES

Rylance is a firm believed in the significance of ley lines, part of a series of mystical and spiritual theories about the natural landscape. In 1991, he toured The Tempest around British ley lines and ancient stone sites, apparently in an attempt to bring fertility to the land.

SCREEN SEX

In a rare 2001 appearance on film, he played opposite Kerry Fox in Patrice Chéreau’s direction of Intimacy, which raised eyebrows for its multiple scenes of hard-core sex. Fox’s boyfriend, Alexander Linklater, wrote about the experience of watching his paramour give Rylance oral sex on screen. "Never let anyone persuade you that a film is the same film whoever the audience is," he wrote.

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