On the day that Mark Rylance video-calls from Pittsburgh, where his wife, Claire van Kampen, is directing an opera, the news is dominated by the death of Hilary Mantel. Rylance, now 62, played a furtive, whispering Thomas Cromwell in the BBC adaptation of Mantel’s Wolf Hall in 2015. Prior to that, he was revered for stage roles such as Johnny “Rooster” Byron, the uncouth mystic layabout in Jerusalem, which brought him his third Tony award.
It was Wolf Hall, though, that made him a household name in households that never went to the theatre. He had dabbled in movies before, but now he embraced them: three for Steven Spielberg (the first, Bridge of Spies, won him an Oscar), Dunkirk, Don’t Look Up, the next Terrence Malick (in which he plays Satan) as well as Luca Guadagnino’s forthcoming cannibal road movie, Bones and All, starring Timothée Chalamet. “Everyone’s got a hard-on for Timothée,” he grins.
Back to Wolf Hall. “Hilary was much more involved with the RSC version,” he says, referring to the stage adaptation that starred Ben Miles as Cromwell. “The one time she was on set, she didn’t look at me, but she said: ‘If you want to know anything about Thomas Cromwell, ask Ben Miles at the RSC. He knows everything there is to know.’” Now that’s how you throw shade. “I didn’t take offence,” he laughs. “But I thought: ‘Ah. I see where I am in your mind.’”
It is Fridtjof Ryder, the 22-year-old director of Rylance’s new film, Inland, who raises the subject of Mantel during our three-way video conversation. Until Ryder joins the call from his home in Gloucester, Rylance keeps his camera off, which means that for the first few minutes I am talking to a crop circle. (It’s his Zoom profile picture, reflecting one of his enthusiasms.) Once the film-maker arrives, I can now see the raggedy bushels of salt-and-pepper hair sprouting from each side of the actor’s head. He has a silver ring in one ear. His eyebrows are bushy divots.
“Hilary Mantel showed how short the distance is between the past and now,” says Ryder. “All these layers crammed on top of each other. The strata of Englishness.” This pertains also to Inland, a lyrical and troubling psychological drama about a young, nameless Romani man (Rory Alexander) haunted by the disappearance of his mother. Fresh out of a psychiatric institution, he crashes at the home of Dunleavy (Rylance), a folksy, oddball mechanic who is also his mentor and stepfather. His stewardship may not be enough to rescue the young man from the malignant influence of other figures, or the intoxicating pull of the forest. “Too much nature, too much trees, too much old oldness,” says Dunleavy.
Rylance smacks his lips hungrily in the role, relishing each archaic phrase: “silly billy”, “the old one-two”, “the heebie-jeebies”. The screenplay popped through his letterbox, he tells me. Was it really that casual? “It didn’t feel casual,” splutters Ryder, who was just 19 when he found himself, script in hand, “walking up Mark’s fucking street terrified”. There were several factors in his favour: it was mid-2020, the first pandemic year, not much afoot. The writing impressed Rylance while also echoing some of his preoccupations. It carries a strong whiff of Jerusalem: the film takes place near the Forest of Dean, while Jez Butterworth’s play was set on a rural-suburban border in Wiltshire. Dunleavy resembles a saner Rooster. Both men speak of giants: Rooster pounded a drum to summon them, whereas Dunleavy describes himself as “ancient now. Vintage. A giant’s bones.” The mythical melts into the parochial, sacred meets profane: Jerusalem mixes ley lines and Stonehenge with talk of Brookside and the Spice Girls; Inland addresses the primal power of nature but also the role of crisps in a lunchtime meal deal.
For Rylance, there was a biographical attraction. “Something that interests me is the mentoring of young men, particularly by older men who are not their fathers. I’m a stepfather myself of two daughters who came to me at three and seven.” This is Nataasha, who died in 2012 of a suspected brain haemorrhage at the age of 28, and Juliet, now a 43-year-old actor. “So there’s a connection there to a love that can grow for a young person. It isn’t blood love but soul love, so to speak. Robert Bly talked about there being a diamond in each of us, and sometimes it takes an adult who’s a bit removed to see it and to say: ‘Keep going with that, that’s your unique thing.’ It’s become more difficult for young people to find that kind of mentor. Our parents might be concerned about us hanging out with a Dunleavy or a Rooster Byron, people on the edge or in the forest, but for some of us that’s often who we need.” His conversation flows softly but insistently, burbling and bubbling away. “Dunleavy doesn’t particularly succeed, but that’s good. It means you see how challenging it is to help a sensitive young person.”
When I speak later to Alexander, he says the fictional mentor/mentee relationship extended to the off-screen one between him, a relative newcomer, and the man generally considered the world’s greatest living actor. “Mark’s wealth of experience comes through in everything. I was sitting there going to myself: ‘This is my hero!’ But you can’t show it. Truly none of us really believed he was going to rock up until he did. Then it didn’t sink in for a while.” Performing opposite Rylance, he says, forces you to be present. “If you scratch your elbow in a scene, he’ll kind of look at your elbow. He won’t go off-script but suddenly it becomes about your elbow. He noticed what you did, and it’s real, and he responded to it. You’re feeding off things happening in that moment.”
Rylance claims ignorance about whether his reputation precedes him. “It’s hard to have a sense of what precedes me because I’m not preceding myself. And people are pretty good at hiding nerves.” Then he thinks back to the first day of shooting Don’t Look Up with Meryl Streep and Leonardo DiCaprio, and reconsiders. “I’m aware I was in a similar position. Here they are getting off a helicopter and coming over to me – I’d met Meryl before but not Leonardo – and they obviously both know a lot more about film acting than I do.”
Can he remember being Alexander’s age in the early 80s and feeling daunted by more experienced actors at the RSC? “Yeah, absolutely. I didn’t particularly want to work there, but I had the gift of speaking Shakespeare in a way that people liked. I learned from Derek Jacobi, Michael Gambon, Helen Mirren, Tony Sher. I was also thrown up against a couple of lockers by older actors: ‘We’re not all fucking improvisers!’” Who was that? “Ah, I’ll never tell,” he smiles.
This talk of fame and reputation seems trivial next to the subject of environmental discord that thrums away in Inland, and which keeps worming its way back into our conversation. Ryder has described the film as “an ecological parable” – a portrait of a man, and a world, thrown out of balance by a schism in nature. “I live at the bottom of a hill which goes off into the forest,” says the director, whose childhood was divided between Gloucester and Berlin. “I remember being in the forest and feeling free and losing my parents for a while, and the various imaginings that came out of that.”
Rylance is nodding. “I’ve always been drawn to forests near towns,” says the actor, born in Kent but raised largely in Wisconsin. “The wild bit of land near the organised bit. I grew up in an American suburb in the 1970s surrounded by Coca-Cola executives who’d come back every weekend with a dead deer on their car. There were forests with abandoned fox farms in them and that’s where I spent every afternoon, every weekend. I found inspiration and succour in nature. It was a healing place for me.”
It still is. “I’ve just been walking in the mountains, in the Sierra Nevada, for five days with backpacks and stuff. I’ve done it for 20 years with my brother, and he died in May so seven of us went up to walk the forests recently. That sense of getting lost, and being in a place where there are bears and snakes – it’s the opposite of the new estate life you see in Jerusalem, that ordered, efficient agenda which is so soul-destroying.”
Inland is nothing if not timely. “What we’ve done to the Earth over the last 200 years is coming back at us now,” says Rylance. “Some people say the anxiety many of us feel is literally rising out of the Earth. It’s as though the Earth itself is anxious.” Ryder has been reading a lot on the subject – writings from Dougald Hine and Paul Kingsnorth’s Dark Mountain manifesto, or Andreas Malm’s How to Blow Up a Pipeline. “I feel myself running into these base questions of: ‘What can I do?’ There’s this crippling confusion about how to think your way into something that feels like action.”
Rylance recalls the Extinction Rebellion protests. “I was there in Trafalgar Square looking at people older than me, old women gluing themselves to the ground and being arrested. I was on the edge of it, thinking: ‘What the hell am I doing giving them the thumbs up?’ But if you get arrested then you can’t go to America any more and visit your father who needs you, and do good plays, good things. It’s that kind of Nelson Mandela moment: when is it OK to start blowing things up? We’re at that crux, particularly with our governance being so pathetically influenced by corporate needs. What does it take?” He gazes beyond the edge of the frame. “I don’t have an answer.”
One of the moments in Inland that resonates most strongly with him is the shot of a naked man disappearing into the woods. “It’s the time now for us to come down the dark side of the mountain and not keep going towards the light that represents power over everything,” he says. “I know that feeling very well from these hikes in the mountains. Late in the day, you’re trying to get down to the river to make a camp, and it’s hairy – you’re likely to twist your ankle with a heavy pack on your back as the light fades. But that image is very true for me, and for where we are right now. We’ve got to come down into the darkness and into all the things that are chaotic. It’s time to admit we’re powerless.”