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Fresh from his turn as the eccentric and shiny white-toothed Musk-Zuckerberg-Jobs-Bezos-esque billionaire tech savior in Adam McKay’s Netflix hit Don’t Look Up, British stage and screen icon Mark Rylance comes to the Berlin Film Festival with a wholly different role.
A unique twist on the standard mobster movie, Focus Features’ The Outfit, the directorial debut of The Imitation Game scribe Graham Moore, sees the Oscar winner play a softly-spoken master Savile Row-trained suit maker plying his trade in 1950s Chicago, where the only customer for his exquisitely crafted creations is the local Mafia. A taut, tension-filled crime drama played out over just one night and in one location, the feature becomes the latest fascinating rung on a Hollywood career that for Rylance, despite decades as one of the U.K.’s most celebrated stage actors, only took off less than a decade ago.
Speaking ahead of The Outfit’s Berlinale world premiere, Rylance discussed the benefits of being a Hollywood late bloomer, the origins and future of his political activism, the dangers of Elon Musk-like figures and what advice his Wolf Hall character Thomas Cromwell might give to the U.K.’s beleaguered prime minister, Boris Johnson.
The Outfit is a really interesting take on the usual mob drama. What was it that drew you to the project?
Graham came to me in the first months of lockdown. I had nine months of unemployment, so partly I was just really grateful to have some work offered. And I just liked him. And I thought the script was really tight and thrilling, and I liked the whole challenge of making something just in three rooms. And I love The Asphalt Jungle and all those old gangster films and the stillness of the actors of that time. But mostly I just had a feeling about a person and whether they’ll be interesting to work with, and my instincts proved right.
Did it feel like this was Moore’s directorial debut?
No, he seemed like a very experienced director in many ways. The only thing I would say is that he was quite open to ideas and wasn’t set in his ways as someone might be. But his dramaturgy is very good – his understanding of how to make a plot, he just has a natural, instinctive sense of that. And that’s really key in terms of my needs as an actor who is just working from the subjective of my character’s point of view.
Your character, Leonard, is a master suit maker. Did you have to get special training?
Yeah, I had to be trained – but don’t ask me to make you a suit! [Savile Row tailors] Huntsman sent one of their top cutters. It’s a very, very particular skill, and it was a real challenge for me. I got blisters on my hands!
Over the last few years, you have worked with well-established filmmakers, such as Steven Spielberg, Christopher Nolan and Aaron Sorkin, but more recently with up-and-coming directors like Moore and Craig Roberts (The Phantom of the Open). Is this something you do on purpose?
I guess if I think of myself in a high-minded kind of way, I should as an elder work with younger people. I do think there’s a responsibility that if you’ve had the kind of incredible good fortune I’ve had in my career to take a risk with young people and not to be careful about getting into fearful ideas of security and maintaining some kind of reputation. For me, that would be a very deadening thing. And I must say that they were a little bit more enjoyable than some of the more established directors. They’re making their way and still kind of finding their voice, where some of the older directors, they’ve had their big success, their Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
Despite being a major name on stage and screen for some time, your Hollywood break came later in your career with Bridge of Spies. Do you think having this Hollywood recognition later in the day has impacted your approach to work and the industry as opposed to how it might have done had it come earlier?
I think it’s hard to have a lot of success early on. But I certainly wanted it, particularly in the late ’70s and ’80s, the films being made were so exciting. And I watched with keen envy and jealousy Daniel Day Lewis, Kenneth Branagh, Gary Oldman, Tim Roth, and all the women in Howards End going into film. I was being sent up for those parts, but just wasn’t making any headway at all. And I kept getting offered very interesting Shakespeare work and became very fascinated in the development in theater. And as I got more successful on that, I just got busy. But I think those people have had a hard time. I think it’s really hard to be very successful early on and have to rediscover yourself as you get older. I have a lot of friends who I know are my friends, whether I’m famous or not. And just on that level, once you get famous, you don’t know if people are your friends because of who you are.
Away from film, you are very well known for your activism. You’ve been involved with the Stop the War Coalition and Artists for Palestine and have supported the cultural boycott movement. Where did these political convictions come from?
My mother was always very active. There was a new kind of activism in the ’60s and ’70s that she got very involved in. She was a school teacher and was outspoken at school and always interested. She was always getting heated up about different things that were wrong with society. Eventually, she’d come to some resolution, and then we’d wait a couple of weeks and a new thing would come up, and I guess I got it that way. But I am just appalled by war on all fronts as a way of solving problems. So I’ve been involved in a lot of peace stuff in my time. And when you go on these marches and get involved, you just meet people who are so interesting and awake to things.
In the last year, it seems the number of Hollywood figures speaking up about Palestinian rights has grown. Why do you think it’s important for people in the public eye to discuss issues like this?
It’s really tricky. I’m partly stepping back because I feel like my job is as a storyteller, and I get a bit uncomfortable telling other people what they should do or how they should do it. Everyone’s got to make up their own minds. But I feel something like Don’t Look Up … that’s a more interesting way of talking with people about issues, to draw them into the story where there’s an emotional context. And you get a lot more understanding of why something is happening and why people are behaving the way they are, or aren’t behaving the way you might want them to. As I’ve got that gift, and I’ve got that platform, I wouldn’t want to limit it by people thinking, you know, I am pro Palestine and anti Israel. Coming to the Palestinian issue, it’s such a difficult historic thing to talk about. It’s so inflamed and tragic for both sides. I don’t really know how to be active in that.
There’s been a lot of talk about who your character in Don’t Look Up is based on – a bit of Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Elon Musk and/or Jeff Bezos. Was there anyone in particular you were thinking of for Peter Isherwell?
I looked at all those fellas. Maybe I should have gone down that more Californian, high-tech thing. But I went for something slightly different. I did read Elon Musk’s book — about half of it. But I certainly thought a lot about that mindset of men and technology being the greatest thing in the universe, that nothing else is a higher force and anything that nature throws at us, we’ll deal with it. They’re thinking they’re doing good — so there’s that scene where he gets upset when Leonardo’s character thinks he’s just a businessman. These people have very high-minded ideas about of what they’re doing. They don’t think they’re bad people, quite the contrary. You get that impression from Elon Musk. They think they’re going to save humanity. I think they’re dangerous.
As someone who is so famously low-key and reserved on screen, what does it take for you to lose your temper?
I have issues with authority figures. But I lose my temper if I feel there’s an injustice going on. I get upset when I feel there’s an injustice being done to me or to other people. And that’s partly why the Stop the War thing is an important personal thing for me, as well as a world thing. It’s like, calm down, let’s find a peaceful way to resolve this conflict.
What advice do you think Thomas Cromwell — your character in Wolf Hall — might give the British prime minister, Boris Johnson, right now?
I think he’d say he’s probably rather lucky he’s not going to get beheaded, so maybe just count your blessings and walk away. But I’m sure he’s just going to walk into some job in a corporation. If war criminals like Tony Blair can be given knighthoods, then Boris Johnson will probably become president of the world or something.
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