Mark Rylance, Actor’s Actor, Comes to Brooklyn for ‘Nice Fish’

An interview with a master craftsman

Mark Rylance

Mark Rylance (Photo: Emily Assiran for Observer)

The Guardian newspaper declared Mark Rylance the world’s greatest actor, but anyone who saw even a moment of the BBC’s six-part Wolf Hall, in which Mr. Rylance embodied Thomas Cromwell to agonizing perfection, already knew that. With an Oscar nomination and a just-won BAFTA for his portrayal of Russian spy Rudolf Abel in last year’s moody Spielberg thriller Bridge of Spies, a wider audience has gotten a look. And now, Mr. Rylance comes to Brooklyn.

Last week, his show Nice Fish—a play Mr. Rylance wrote with prose poet Louis Jenkins, and directed by his wife Claire van Kampen, opened at St. Ann’s Warehouse. The run has been extended to March 27. The Oscars are awarded on February 28, so there’s an excellent chance that this beautiful theater, on a stunning Dumbo sliver under the Manhattan and Brooklyn Bridges, will soon host a winner.

At the beginning of the play, Mr. Rylance’s character, Ron, drops his smart phone through his ice-fishing hole as a metaphor for modern disconnectedness.

Mr. Rylance has been working on Nice Fish since 2008, when he began writing it with Mr. Jenkins. The play debuted at the Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis, and since then Mr. Rylance has refined the work into its current brilliant incarnation. Mr. Rylance even skipped the BAFTA Awards (he won) because the play was opening on the same night. “I couldn’t fly over to the BAFTAs,” Mr. Rylance told the Observer, “Films last forever but a play is only possibly six weeks.”

The writing is stunning. In a marvelous example of the power of live theater, a piece that is essentially philosophy—and challenging philosophy at that—can be so funny and winning and charming and just plain entertaining, all while forcing the enraptured audience to confront its themes of friendship, purpose and solitude. The language is just gorgeous and the set is a marvel of perspective and white light.

At the beginning of the play, Mr. Rylance’s character, Ron, drops his smart phone through his ice-fishing hole as a metaphor for modern disconnectedness. A little while later he says, “Being mostly water as we are, it’s not so bad living in a cold climate like this one. It gives you a certain solidity. Cold feet, the icy handshake, the cold shoulder, the frozen countenance, shouldn’t be thought of as ill will but as a kind of preservation. But everyone gets a little crazy when it’s very cold for several weeks.” His voice is perfectly Minnesota—with his character’s strange vocabulary and Norwegian-inflected patter, Mr. Rylance’s Ron sounds eerily like David Carr.

Rylance gets a smooch from his dog Apache, who has joined him in Brooklyn.

Rylance gets a smooch from his dog Apache, who has joined him in Brooklyn. (Photo: Emily Assrian for Observer)

But in real life, Mark Rylance uses the oldest flip phone ever. Mr. Rylance came to the theater early to discuss his play, Bridge of Spies, Wolf Hall and Brooklyn, and he’s wearing the best sweater any of us had ever seen. It’s thick, red and silver, with strange birds in the pattern. It looks handmade, but Mr. Rylance said he found it in a thrift store. It fits him like a dream. He drinks coffee and his dog Apache roams the theater, all within eyeshot of the neighborhood where Abel lived, painted, and spied.

This play started out in Minnesota at the Guthrie. That reminds me, the Coen Brothers wrote the screenplay for Bridge of Spies, and you wrote a play about their world. Do you ever talk to them? Yeah, I know Joel and Fran very well, and I know Ethan a little bit. I accepted Bridge of Spies based on the wonderful script by Matt Charman wrote before that they joined. But then apparently, Steven Spielberg told me, they contacted him to say ‘we always wanted to make a cold war thriller. We understand you’re making one. If you want anyone to have a second look at the script, we’d be honored to do so.’ So he sent them the script and then they worked on the script. And it was fascinating to see what their imagination, the Coen brothers, did to a script that was already really good. It didn’t need repair, the script. But it was like going to a great masseur or a chiropractor and they just kind of aligned a few things. Did a few clicks, and then just massaged the blood into all the parts of it and then just kind of exfoliated a few bits that you realized weren’t actually necessary. That was scaffolding that you could take away from the story. That was really fascinating. Everyone loves that line, ‘would it help?’ and I can’t remember whether that was in the original or if it came through them.   

It’s a marvelous moment but it’s not my favorite. I love when you take apart the nickel. Yeah! I know, and the gum. I had so much fun that day. That was further down the East River here, painting a bridge. In fact, where Abel lived was just under the bridge here. They turned all these streets into the fifties. And when people came back from their day’s work, they were so thrilled that there was a hat shop and a vegetable shop. They said, “This is great! The neighborhood has never looked this good.” They were so depressed it was just a film set. 

They said, “This is great! The neighborhood has never looked this good.” They were so depressed it was just a film set. 

It kind of fits in with Brooklyn now, with hats and beards. It’s like the revenants and ghosts have come back. I was further down the river and under another bridge painting and they gave me a beautiful painting, been done very well. I got so fascinated trying to make the painting of water even better. Because I’ve read that water is the thing that is so difficult to paint. It’s always moving and the light on it.

There was this one poem I so loved by Louis Jenkins called “Football” where the football becomes a shoe, and the player doesn’t want to throw it. And at the end of the poem, he says, “This isn’t right, and I’m not going to throw it.” And I wondered if you ever had a feeling like that? Maybe someone’s asked you to do something for a role and you didn’t want to? Yeah, I get those feelings a lot. That poem is really wonderful because he’s in the middle of a game in front of a huge stadium of people. We tried to put it in the play, but we just couldn’t find the right situation for it, it’s such a shame. It’s one of my favorites too. I think hopefully I’ve gotten better at seeing those situations up ahead. I think form now on, that football player will check the ball before the game and make sure it’s a ball. Sometimes you find yourself in those situations and what do you do? You’re in the Breaking Bad situation, although hopefully not as bad as that. That’s a marvelous poem about how your preconception about something can suddenly change. What do you do? And you have a moment to make the decision.

Is your wife a big Jenkins fan? Did that help her? She’s become one due to me. When I used to do them at awards ceremonies (Rylance performs Jenkins poems in lieu of speeches when he wins awards), she was always dead against it and a little horrified and worried when I would do it. She’s always watching my back. She’s become a great Louis Jenkins fan over the course of this. When I first did a workshop in 2008, that was just me, and my daughter and friends. We co-directed it at the Guthrie. This time she’s really directing it herself. 

Didn’t she also do the music? Yes, she’s always been a composer. She was trained as a classical pianist, a concert pianist, and then when we met 26 years ago she moved into the theater and then started to compose. And then for 20 years at the Globe she’s been the director of early music.

Mark Rylance

A sweater for the ages, recalling a childhood spent in Wisconsin or a role in Minnesota. (Photo: Emily Assiran for Observer)

She’s won awards and been celebrated for that. I didn’t know that she did so much research for Wolf Hall. She did the period music. Another composer did the themes and the modern music. There’s a nice CD out of her period music.

How come the guy from the DNR is at first so rigid and then he gets a monologue? I’m glad you caught that. There were a few poems that were a possibility for him. Jenkins went and interviewed an actual DNR man, a man called Thor, who had six knives, guns, all kinds if shit on him. Thor said, ‘I would have fined those guys, you’re really letting them off too easy.’ 

He was kind to them, officious but kind. So I thought, why is he letting them off? Because he has this terrible problem that he’s thinking about all the time. He’s distracted all the time. Have they noticed that I’m floating? Am I going to bump in to one of them? So he has this thing underneath the officiousness, this terrible secret. Something like, he likes to dress up like as a mouse, as Monty Python once described that kind of secret. The nice thing about Louis, and why it reminds me at times of Shakespeare, although they’re totally different, is that they both have a great have a great love of antithesis. Like putting the word heart next to word ice, or putting the word cold next to the word fire. Louis, like with the football thing, he’ll establish such a recognizable, mundane situation, easy to understand, and then flip it with a word or a sentence. Even a sound he’ll flip into something antithetical or transformative. So I guess in making a play using his material I’ve tried in the back of my mind, I want the play to be like one of his poems. I wanted it to have transformational, transcendent flips and changes in it. But also it just amuses me that the secrets we have underneath the officialdom and the responsibility.

It’s like the secrets under a frozen lake. Yes, that’s right. Well it’s a lovely poem, that Sainthood. I’ve been tempted sometimes about doing that one at an awards show.

It’s the antithesis you were just talking about. He says “saint saint saint,” and then at the end, he says “Hindenburg,”and it destroys the whole thing. I know! I talked about with Claire, and she said you can’t say that, it’s too near, it makes it too dark. But you know, when I was here a year or so ago, and I bought some of those little molded ice cube trays. And you know what they were? Little Titanics and icebergs. You can have little Titanic ice cubes in your drink. And it’s a hundred years after that disaster. A hundred years from now, I swear to you, there will be ice trays of the Twin Towers and an airplane. But that word really does change the poem. These days I take my meals standing up, tethered like the Hindenburg.

St. Ann’s has been a friend to me since I was with the Globe. And also Theatre for a New Audience, they were the first theater to hire me back in the ’90s.

So what is your life like here in Brooklyn? I know you know where Abel lived, but what do you do? I’m here working on the play. I’ve walked around a little. I’m being put up in Brooklyn Heights and it’s beautiful; I saw that Auden lived up there, and of course Whitman’s been one of my favorite poets since I was kid. So to be in the neighborhood where he lived…so I’ve been mostly just going back and forth between there and the theater. This theater, St. Ann’s, has been a friend to me since I was with the Globe. And also Theatre for a New Audience, they were the first theater to hire me back in the ’90s. So I have lots of friends here I have lots of friends, apart from Broadway, which I feel very connected to The [Music] Box and the Longacre, and the crews there. Susan Feldman’s one of the great producers of theater. Diane Paulus up at the ART also running a great organization with a more maternal, rather than paternal, leadership style. Very encouraging and good and I think that it’s very creative and has been for the last 30 years, when they were in a church on Montague Street.

You were just talking about how fertile and interesting it is to work with women in theater. Is it similar to working with your wife as the director? Yes. Yes. When I have a problem I tend to get very tense about it and go in to cut it or change or it shape it, to dominate it, artistically I’ll try to resolve it. She’ll say a gentle word of encouragement here or there and something will have changed. If the problem is like a plant, I’ll go and prune it, and she’ll give it a bit of water and the dead things fall away and the new things come forward. She’s so encouraging and handles things really, really cleverly. The thing with Claire, and I imagine with a lot of women who are really talented, is they get to a glass ceiling of being the support of the male director of the organization or the theater or the film that’s leading it. It’s an imbalance. But what they get is a view of many different directors. So Claire has been able to watch for 20 years different directors doing well, or not so well. She has a whole bag of experience being a musical director or musical composer for over 20 years. So now that’s directing herself, she can pull on so much experience. Most directors, once they become directors, they don’t see other directors work. They’re just directing themselves. So I’m thinking just as we speak that that’s the potential for a lot of women to be given more authority in the arts and in business that they have been watching for a long time. They can see and they have a lot of knowledge.

Have you been to the Frick? Many times.

What does it make you feel like when you see the portraits of Cromwell and More looking at each other? Curious. Curious. And very curious about Mr. Frick, who’s a character I’m obsessed with. But its interesting of course because at that point, business. In Cromwell’s place, business was just starting to have an influence on not democracy at that point but monarchy at that point.

Mark Rylance at St. Ann's Warehouse

Are we having a laugh? At St. Ann’s Warehouse in Dumbo, and yeah, the theater is as cool and beautiful as it looks here. (Photo: Emily Assiran for Observer)

That’s true; they did become the Church. But now we’re at a point of course that business dominates our government in the way that the Catholic Church used to dominate our government at that point. Mr. Frick and his friends in the Gilded Age post the Civil War did have that influence.

It’s very interesting to see him [Cromwell] at that main fireplace in that beautiful room with St Francis of Assisi behind, the complete other side of Mr. Frick, his love of painting and of the American artists and his great taste in art. Which Cromwell shared too. But of course Henry Clay Frick hadn’t had the benefit of Hilary Mantel. It would be interesting to find out who he admired more, Cromwell or Thomas More, the utopian or the pragmatist.

Then there’s the portrait of Anne of Cleves. Yeah!

Which is not quite like JDate, but like a dating service. Why do you think Cromwell made such a mistake? [Cromwell encourages the newly widowed Henry to marry Anne of Cleves. He does, but finds her so ugly that the marriage is never consummated. This Anne wisely agreed to an annulment, and was named Queen Consort. Henry never forgave Cromwell, and he was soon locked up in the Tower of London and beheaded.]

I don’t know. I think that he, to the point where we’ve got to in the Wolf Hall history, I think he’s lucky to have survived so far. Like the football poem, he signed up to work with somebody he thought was a king and turned out to be something of a sociopath. I don’t think a psychopath, just a sociopath. But the way Damian, and the way she wrote it, someone who was meant to be in the Church. He was a childlike aesthete. He was not prepared in any way of this role of being a king. He has all the sexual needs and childlike sexual problems.

His obsession with his brother’s wife began all of this. Hilary hasn’t written that Anne of Cleves part of it yet. I’ll be interested in her take on the history of it. In my limited experience of having power, when I was artistic director of the Globe, by the 10th year, you’re so tired. I didn’t prepare for things properly. I started putting things off. By the time I did deal with it, it had become a sore. It has become inflamed, that I didn’t have the room for myself to maneuver. That’s why it’s a not a bad idea to change leaders every 10 years because you get tired and overwhelmed. A little bit self-destructive even perhaps. You’ve made mistakes and you feel bad about it. I think he felt very confused, Cromwell, in the way Hilary has written it, about More’s death, that he wasn’t able to save More. And about Anne’s death, that he wasn’t able to convince her to back away.

Mark Rylance

Welcome back. (Photo: Emily Assiran for Observer)

You know when I made the film The Other Boleyn Girl with Scarlett Johansson, the producers were looking and they did audience surveys about it. The main thing the audiences said they hated was when Anne Boleyn was executed. Someone apparently at the table said, “Why don’t we just have Henry get her a retirement home on the Dover Cliffs? She can just retire there?” And the director had to say, “You’ve forgotten this is history, this is not a story we can change.” 

I wonder what it felt like when you put on the ring. The ring that Wolsey gave you, and you put it on after he dies. I think I remember feeling remorse, like I had let him down. Did I touch it before?

You touch the present when he gives it to you and put in on after he dies. It’s a feeling of commitment that I’ll sort it out. Then I really do, because I get all four men who played the legs.

Mark Rylance, Actor’s Actor, Comes to Brooklyn for ‘Nice Fish’