Mark Rylance on ‘Jerusalem’ and the Golf Comedy ‘Phantom of the Open’

The acclaimed British actor explains the links between his tour de force stage turn and a recent string of subdued screen roles.

Over the years of performing, Mark Rylance said, he’s learned “there’s no bottom to the depth of insanity that will come up through me.”Credit…Robbie Lawrence for The New York Times

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By Dave Itzkoff

One Tuesday afternoon last month, Mark Rylance was sitting in his London home, his face and body bearing the accouterments of Johnny (Rooster) Byron, the rowdy onetime daredevil he has been playing in a revival of Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem.”

His mustache was long and feral; his bare arms stuck out of a sleeveless T-shirt, flaunting temporary tattoos. Despite the intimidating display, Rylance offered his assurance in a video interview that he was still very much his usual subdued self.

“I’m not in character at the moment,” he said in his gentle speaking voice. “I’m still Mark at this time of day. He’s in there somewhere.”

In a little while, Rylance would travel to the Apollo Theater, do some vocal warm-ups, play some volleyball in the empty seats with his co-stars, and spend another night in the wild and energetic guise of Rooster. The actor won Olivier and Tony Awards for the original West End and Broadway runs of “Jerusalem” just over a decade ago. Now 62, he has hardly lost a step in the revival: Reviewing the 2022 production for The New York Times, Matt Wolf wrote, “There’s mighty, and then there’s Mark Rylance in ‘Jerusalem,’ a performance so powerfully connected to its part that it feels almost superhuman.”

This feat feels 180 degrees removed from the soft-spoken, introspective film characters that Rylance has played in recent years: his Oscar-winning turn as the Soviet intelligence officer Rudolf Abel in Steven Spielberg’s “Bridge of Spies,” or Peter Isherwell, the bumbling tech billionaire from Adam McKay’s farce “Don’t Look Up.”

Rylance is once again in understated mode for the biographical comedy “The Phantom of the Open,” which Sony Pictures Classics will release June 3. He plays the golfer Maurice Flitcroft, a crane operator who slipped into a qualifying round of the 1976 British Open and proceeded to shoot an atrocious 121, making him an instant celebrity of sorts.

Like the mercurial Flitcroft, Rylance enjoys defying audience expectations and slipping back and forth between roles at either end of the energy spectrum. As he explained, any character — whether easygoing or off-the-wall — could be an opportunity for new personal discoveries.

“When I was younger, I was much more egotistically attached to concepts that would come up in my mind about how a character should be,” he said. “But now I know that there’s no bottom to the depth of insanity that will come up through me.”

Rylance spoke further about his return to “Jerusalem,” the stark contrast between his stage and film roles and his performance in “The Phantom of the Open.” These are edited excerpts from that conversation.

What has it been like to come back to “Jerusalem” after all these years?

It’s a powerful event to be at the center of. The central dynamics of it have got stronger in society, the struggle between whatever you want to call it — order and chaos, machine and nature. Sometimes during rehearsals, I experienced feelings of resistance and doubt in myself.

What got you past those feelings?

Coming to my senses. I mean that literally: Stop thinking and smell the air. Taste whatever you’re tasting. Listen and look at the other actors. It immediately moves you into something much larger than your own fears or expectations. Doing long runs of plays, you can get into a rut of self-consciousness, and it feels like you’re in some kind of prison yard. But actually, when you come to your senses, the prison yard is open to the sky.

The dynamism Rooster embodies — particularly compared to the inwardness of the film characters you’ve been playing lately — was that hard to conjure up again?

It’s not a territory that I give myself license to explore very much, that kind of boldness of expression. He’s an exhausting but enjoyable character for me. I have to be quite careful with him. His appetite is strong. There’s a certain wrangling of him to the floor at the end of the show. “OK, calm down — it’s my turn again for a few hours.”

Should more actors revive the roles they played earlier in their careers?

I’ve been lucky in my life to revive a number of parts. I played Hamlet at 16 in high school and then at 28 to 31 for the R.S.C. [Royal Shakespeare Company] and the A.R.T. [at Harvard], and then again at 40 at the Globe [Shakespeare’s Globe, where Rylance was artistic director]. Reviving parts was the normal practice for hundreds of years before filmed work came in. If we didn’t have film and television, Robert De Niro would probably be doing “Raging Bull” or “Taxi Driver” every five or 10 years, because people would want to see it again. Jimmy Stewart would be doing “It’s a Wonderful Life” every Christmas.

Do you think of your film acting as a different undertaking than your stage acting, or are they one continuous thing to you?

It all comes from the same place, of enjoying pretending to be someone you think is other than who you are. Eventually it’s all still you. It pulls different things out of me, things that are buried in the back of the drawer. Certainly, in the theater, I have a lot more access to a collective consciousness when I’m playing with an audience and it’s going well. You’re lifted into something larger than yourself. You don’t get it in film because the audience isn’t there.

Have you been seeking out a specific type of character to play in the movies?

I’m in the fortunate position to turn down roles, so I’m not completely a victim of fate. After a very explosive character like Rooster, I will be more interested in an implosive character like Cromwell in “Wolf Hall” or Abel in “Bridge of Spies.”

Where would you place a character like Peter Isherwell from “Don’t Look Up”?

I suppose the role in “Don’t Look Up” could have been either of those things. He might have been a much more expressive character like Elon Musk. But in the conversations with Adam, we were interested in his inability to communicate. There’s some kind of barrier between that kind of person and a true, intimate, satisfying connection with other human beings — or plants, animals, anything on the planet. He just didn’t know how to do that.

Does making a movie like that feel like playing a professional sport?

It’s a bit like what you see in English football matches, the coach and the player who’s about to be substituted, having a quick word. “Watch out for him” or “Keep on the lefthand side.” That’s what it’s like on film. You’re suddenly joining a team who have already been playing for a while — Leonardo [DiCaprio] and Meryl [Streep], they were all quite tired. They’d been playing for months when I arrived for my 10 days.

Was there a time in your career when you’d turned your back on film and TV acting entirely?

There definitely was. When I came to New York for “Boeing-Boeing” on Broadway, I became friends with Fran McDormand and Joel Coen, and they auditioned me for “A Serious Man.” I was very enamored of the script and their films and really wanted to do it. When I didn’t get the part, I was surprised by how sad I was. It was an unusual feeling for me. I can picture myself now sitting in the cafe, thinking, oh, I really want this. So I pursued getting a New York agent and manager and started to go for auditions. And they were breathtakingly dull and bad things. Eventually, out of guilt, I took a film where I ended up lying on the floor, being beaten with a hammer, fish and chips being sicked up on my face, covered in blood. The director was on his Game Boy, 100 yards away, not even watching. And I quit.

You were ready to walk away from screen acting entirely?

All my career, I’ve been told by agents that unless I make time for film and TV, I’m not a serious actor. I thought, my favorite Kabuki actors and Kathakali actors, they don’t worry about film and television. I’ve got this fabulous theater career, I make a fine living at it, I have great parts. And I got rid of all these agents and decided I would never work in film again, unless someone really asked me and I had the time. I guess nature abhors a vacuum, because a few years after that, Spielberg asked me to be in “Bridge of Spies.”

But no hard feelings about how “A Serious Man” turned out?

Michael Stuhlbarg was wonderful in that role and the better actor for it, no doubt about it.

What appealed to you about “The Phantom of the Open”?

I’ve done a lot of comedies in the theater and enjoyed it. That was always a surprise to me, because I was very shy as a teenager and completely surprised when I got up and made people laugh. Even “Jerusalem,” tonight, there’ll be moments that I’ll think, why are they laughing? And it’ll take me a while to figure out what it is. This is one of the few comedies I’ve been asked to be a part of in film, with a lot of aspects of Don Quixote, jousting at windmills, believing his own identity, not being persuaded by other people’s perception of who he is. Not sociopathic or psychopathic, where he doesn’t even hear what other people are saying — there’s a dignity to Maurice, that he honors his own truth, and I loved that about it.

Did playing a real-life figure interest you?

I’m wary of playing very famous people. Even William Kunstler [whom he played in “The Trial of the Chicago 7”] is a bit on the edge of people really knowing him. The comments from some of the real-life Chicago Seven people, when they saw the film, and the nasty things they said about us trying to portray these characters, stung. I’ve been asked to play Truman and different people like that. The shoe is a bit too tight.

Did you know anything about Maurice Flitcroft before making the movie?

No. Fortunately, there’s a lot of wonderful YouTube stuff. His interviews are amazing, because you think, “You can’t be serious. You can’t really mean that. You must be brilliant at winding up reporters for a laugh.” But I’ve watched them hundreds of times and I can’t see a crack in the sincerity. I just have to play this guy sincere.

Are you a golfer yourself?

As kids, we would borrow our granddad’s golf clubs and make a golf course in his lawns in Kent. As we got to 15, 16, we would sometimes go to the local golf course on a Monday morning, when no one else was there, and play — very, very poorly and with no training. I was very much like Maurice. I learned by watching television.

As we see in the film, Flitcroft gained a new level of recognition when he came to America. Did that feel familiar to you?

Sometimes, the Americans have more appreciations for the English soul than the English. But there’s also a reverse thing — maybe we English have a deeper appreciation for American culture. I certainly learned more about American culture when I came to study at RADA [the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art] in ’78 than I’d learned in America [where his family lived in the 1960s]. The young acting students were the ones who turned me on to Spencer Tracy, Bob Mitchum, Montgomery Clift, Jimmy Dean, Brando. Even Bob Dylan and Elvis, Frank Sinatra. All those people that my parents had loved to some degree — I hadn’t realized how deeply cultural and soulful they were until I was amongst young English actors saying, “Watch this, listen to this.”

This makes me want to take a trip to England and learn what I’m missing about American culture.

You could just take a day trip to New Jersey and get the same thing.

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