Mark Rylance joins the double O club as Olivier award nomination follows Oscar win
The Academy Award will undoubtedly increase demand for the British actor even more, but it shouldn’t distract from his incredible versatility and range on stage and TV
The “double O” category in Britain has traditionally been associated with James Bond. But last Monday the actor Mark Rylance established an acting equivalent by adding an Olivier award nomination to the Oscar he had won less than 12 hours earlier in Los Angeles.
Rylance has achieved his double with the combination of a cinematic best supporting actor prize – for his appearance in Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies – and a theatrical best actor nod for his role as the mentally unstable King Philippe V of Spain in the play Farinelli and the King. Impressing in parts of contrasting size in two different media confirms the range of his talent.
And, having already attained OO status, Rylance now has a good chance of going further when the 2016 Bafta TV awards are announced. Wolf Hall, in which he played Thomas Cromwell, seems certain to add a Bafta nod to his Oscar and Olivier listings, granting him admission to the inaptly named BOO club of the year’s major awards. (Rylance also holds this year’s best supporting actor film Bafta for Bridge of Spies.)
In Farinelli and the King, written by Rylance’s wife, Claire van Kampen (who has gained an Olivier best play nomination), the Spanish monarch’s state of mind is at issue, as court enemies attempt to use his depressive condition as an excuse to remove him from power. Rylance left audiences, first at the Globe Theatre and then in the West End, guessing about the exact state of the royal faculties, with poignant flashes of clarity induced through hearing music.
As Henry VIII’s court enforcer in Wolf Hall, the six-part BBC adaptation of the first two novels in Hilary Mantel’s Tudor trilogy, Rylance was astonishingly economical in facial and bodily movement and vocal intonation. There were times when viewers feared that they had accidentally pressed the freeze-frame.
Rylance admitted to being influenced by Alec Guinness, who attributed his own indelible TV performance as John le Carré’s spy George Smiley to moving as little as possible. Taking this advice even more precisely, Rylance’s performance in Bridge of Spies can be seen as the second most silent and static presentation of espionage after Guinness’s.
As a result, a viewer who came to Rylance’s work only through his 2016 prize-courting trio might conclude that his trick is to stay as still and quiet as possible. But the actor has spectacularly shown that he can also do the opposite.
In 2009, Rylance opened at the Royal Court Theatre in a role that sealed his election to the front rank of British actors. In Jez Butterworth’s Jerusalem, he held the stage for three loud and energetic hours as Johnny “Rooster” Byron, a West Country maverick who is defying the local council’s attempts to evict him from the caravan that is his base for drug-dealing and dubious seductions.
The part was demanding physically – Johnny has a rigorous exercise regime – and vocally, with Rylance often almost unable to speak at the end of a week’s performances on Broadway and during three different London runs.
In person, he’s reserved; the Oscar acceptance speech on Sunday night was very Rylance. After a kiss for his wife and a hug with Spielberg, he attributed his success, with a humility that seems less mock than from some prize-winners, to the director and the film’s star, Tom Hanks.
Even the now apparently obligatory podium reference to politics (Rylance decried “some of the leaders we’re presented with these days”) was characteristically lower-key than other participants’ more direct diatribes about racism or environmentalism. Some fans may be relieved that he avoided using the Oscar acceptance speech to advance his eccentric claim that the plays of William Shakespeare were not written by William Shakespeare.
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During his triumph in Jerusalem, West End and Broadway producers noted that Rylance was a rare case of an actor who could draw a huge theatre audience without being known for a major movie role. Now that he is, his box office impact will be even greater, and he can do pretty much what he wants.
The only risk of repetition in the CV is that he has played a number of men who were some kind of spy: Cromwell, Rudolf Abel (in Bridge of Spies), the weapons expert Dr David Kelly in the TV film The Government Inspector, for which also won a Bafta.
But stereotyping seems unlikely, as Rylance has just completed a run at a small New York theatre in a co-written poetic drama about fishing.
So there’s little way of predicting what he might do next, although his 00-licence will certainly make him a target for cultural prize panels.