Exclusive: Mark Rylance Reflects on Acting, Choices, and The Phantom of the Open

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Mark Rylance talks at length about The Phantom of the Open, his love of acting, and career choices in a wide-ranging interview.

Mark Rylance appears on the Zoom chat with long hair, wearing a black tank top, earring, and a warm smile. I had no idea what to expect from the titan of television, theater, and film. I profess to being an unabashed fan of his work. Rylance has enough acting awards to install new shelves. He’s a multiple Tony, Olivier, BAFTA, and Oscar winner for Bridge for Spies. Rylance is widely considered to be one of the greatest theater actors of all time.

Our interview was primarily about his portrayal of Maurice Flitcroft in The Phantom of the Open. Flitcroft, a working-class crane operator who decided to take up golfing, shot the worst score in the history of the British Open in 1976. He was initially admitted by a clerical error, then continued to cleverly crash the tournament in subsequent years. Rylance and co-star Sally Hawkins are superb in the hilarious and heartwarming film.

I was keen to dig deep into Rylance’s personality. He’s been an accomplished actor for decades but keeps out of the spotlight. It was a pleasure to find him so honest and forthcoming. Rylance has a rich imagination that stemmed from his childhood. Who knew that Rylance was a Star Trek fan and likes science fiction? He talks at length about playing Flitcroft, working with Sally Hawkins, and his choices as an actor. Rylance takes criticism personally. He abhors violence. For him, acting is exploring your imagination with others. He enjoys the dynamic of collective creativity.

Rylance also commented on the gangster film, The Outfit. He was soundly praised by Johnny Flynn, who he’s worked with several times, on another interview I did recently. Rylance speaks fondly about The Outfit experience.

Talking to an artist outside of their commercial facade is always revealing. I’m pleased to report that Rylance surpasses high expectations. He’s a consummate professional with a sincere love of his craft and fellow actors. Please see below our interview in its entirety.

Embracing a Positive Attitude Against Negativity

Maurice Flitcroft was such an optimistic person. Did that trait draw you to this character?

Mark Rylance: You named it, that positive attitude. We all have to deal with a lot of people giving opinions about us. From our parents to siblings, to someone at school calling you a dummy, or even worse, someone saying you’re good at this and bad at that. I’m someone that’s affected by other people’s opinions of me, particularly critical opinions. Maurice has such an ability to listen to someone else’s opinion about him, weight it, and say this is who I am, and what I am doing. At times to a funny degree, he’s never going to be the golf player he thinks he’s going to be. He’s not sociopathic or psychopathic. He’s dignified. He honors his own potential and imagination of himself. He keeps faith. I admire that quality a lot and found that endearing. It’s a true story. There’s something mythological about him.

Divine Accidents are Better than the Plan

You’ve had such a great career playing ordinary men achieving extraordinary things. Does that appeal to you?

Mark Rylance: I think I’ve always been drawn to people on the edge of normality or society. People who are outside have an original attitude. I’ve always been drawn to the mysterious. They are usually on the outside. I’ve always been drawn to utopian ideals. I have a strong reaction to injustice. I recognize that in my choices. There’s a mystery to how things happen, where people get their motivations. This story had a divine accident of an administrative error that gets your man into the British Open. I like stories that have accidents and are better than the plan.

Mark Rylance: We tend to condemn accidents. Certainly, when I was a young actor I dreaded accidents. Now I look forward to them on film sets, not mortally perilous accidents (laughs). When things go wrong isn’t always bad. I think I learned that from listening to jazz musicians like Miles Davis. Seeing how they play live and look for the music to go to unconscious areas. They are talented. They have incredible knowledge of the chords and plan. But are interested when the divine and soulful lead you to places you’ve never been before.

Working with the Brilliant Sally Hawkins and the Love of Acting

Sally Hawkins does an amazing job in the film. She’s beautiful and poignant. The finale had me in tears. What was it like working with her?

Mark Rylance: It’s like being taken back to when I first started acting in basements and gardens with friends. No one watched. We would take a television situation, like Star Trek and Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea, or Lost in Space. We’d take these shows with clear characters and things happening, like the Klingons attacking, and we would improvise and play for hours and hours. Mum and dad would say lunchtime, then we’d come back and pick up where we were. It was the pure enjoyment of playing and going to places that were so much more exciting than our backyard or basement.

Mark Rylance: When I worked with Sally, I saw that she was just the same. We were both there because we enjoyed imagining this thing was really happening. We were able to submerge ourselves into the reality of these scenes. We looked into each other’s eyes and had no doubt that our reality was stronger than anything around us. With Sally, it’s like jumping into a pool with eight feet of water, not two. You’re not going to hit the bottom. There isn’t a bottom. I wish it was like the old days with [Spencer] Tracy and [Katherine] Hepburn. Not that I’m comparing us to them, where people made a number of films. People wanted more of their relationships on film. I’ve had that a bit with Kristin Scott Thomas. We’ve played a number of roles together. I love her very much. We are complementary to each other, Sally and I. It would be so nice to do more things together, bring out the brother and sister love we have for each other.

The Best and Worst Day on The Phantom of the Open

What was your best and worst experience shooting this film?

Mark Rylance: (laughs) The best day was the scene with the young Spanish actor that played Seve Ballasteros in the locker room. Where Maurice is speaking in Spanish. The world doesn’t know who Seve Ballasteros is. He’s just 19. He comes in second and is introduced to the world. They both learned to play golf on beaches with pieces of metal taped unto a stick. They had a great connection, Simon Farnaby [Flitcroft biographer] felt. If I’m remembered for nothing in my life. I’d like to be remembered for that scene.

Mark Rylance: The worst day…there was a series of scenes in the caravan where the kids reject and are angry at him. His eldest son, Mike, also feels that he failed the family. That was a hard scene for Maurice. It wasn’t raining. So I had to leave the caravan and have one of those dreadful rain machines spraying rain on you. I never particularly cared for that kind of stuff.

An Accomplished Actor Reflects on his Choices

You do such effortless comedy and drama. Which one is easier?

Mark Rylance: It all depends on the people you are working with. That’s the difficulty not the medium. I have turned some parts down. I just can’t go there that regularly or intimately in front of a camera. I mostly turn parts down if I feel they’re just violent and there’s no truth to the consequences of violence, or if there’s something torturous. I’ve been offered things where I torture some woman. I couldn’t watch that and wouldn’t want to be a part of that. There is violence in the world. And I have been a part of films with violence, but I want to know what’s led to it and what the consequences are. I’m not interested in being part of pornographic violence or violence for a thrill.

Mark Rylance: Grief and tragedy in loss is a difficult place to go. You have to deal with it imaginatively. Comedy is a delight, particularly in the theater, because you are aware people are laughing. Tragedy is a little harder to know because the audience is so still and quiet. In film, you don’t have an audience, so you don’t have an impression of that. It’s really the people you are working with, if they are enjoying it and if there’s enough love to go around. They can share love. Compared to people who are frightened and angry. They have to force the juice out of the lemon, so to speak. That can be a bit of a challenge.

What’s your dream project or role?

Mark Rylance: I don’t know if anyone has the capability to do what they really want. Unless your desire is part of something much larger in the universe. We are not independent actors. We are part of larger things going on. The most satisfying desires are ones that are connected to nature, community, or time. Projects that are profoundly fulfilling connect with that by chance or intention. I’ve never particularly wanted to play certain parts. I get drawn to stories.

Mark Rylance: There are several different stories I’m trying to get made, imagining, writing, or plotting out. Most of the acting work I do, I get asked by someone to take part. I’ll say no depending on how I feel and the people. I take parts because I want to be in their orbit for a while. Meet them, and know them, like Steven Spielberg and Tom Hanks. Sure Bridge of Spies was an interesting script and good part, but I primarily did it to spend some time with these guys. And hopefully keep the ball up and not let them down. It’s stories and depth and variety that I like to imagine.

Working with Johnny Flynn on The Outfit

I just did an interview with Johnny Flynn. He commented that one of his best experiences was working with you on The Outfit. Do you feel the same regarding that film?

Mark Rylance: (laughs) Yes it was, it’s funny he said that. I kept looking at him across the set, thinking Johnny is so still and period. The clothes look so good, like he’s been wearing them for months. Everything is behind his face. He’s completely believable. I hope I’m that believable (laughs). It’s funny we played Shakespeare’s Globe together. We’ve done Jerusalem together. I’m surprised he mentioned that. The Outfit was a great experience.

Mark Rylance: The wonderful young director, Graham Moore, will do great things. He’s also a wonderful writer. He really gave us space and time, in consecutive order, which was nice and never really happens. The whole film takes place in three rooms. Johnny and I were like two poker players across the table. Learning gradually what the other player has. Assuming the player has two pairs, then going f**k, he’s possibly got a straight. It was nice and cagey.

The Phantom of the Open will be released theatrically in the United States on June 3rd from Sony Pictures Classics.