I admit, I didn’t know before I spoke with him last week that Mark Rylance had been knighted in 2017, and that my addressing him as anything other than Sir Mark could have been cause for a major international incident. Thankfully, he’s one of the most affable, jovial and eloquent people I’ve ever interviewed, and never even brought up his title. An actor, stage director, Shakespeare scholar, and occasional playwright, Rylance earned his reputation as one of the world’s finest actors through his decades on the British stage (he’s won two Olivier Awards), which eventually brought him to the Broadway stage (he’s won three Tonys).
While his notable film roles go as far back Prospero’s Books (1991), Angels and Insects (1995), and the controversial and groundbreaking Intimacy (2001), it’s his more recent work that has earned him the most attention, such as The Other Boleyn Girl (2008), Dunkirk (2017), and a host of recent Steven Spielberg collaborations—The BFG (2016), Ready Player One (2018), and his Oscar-winning role in Bridge of Spies (2015). Over the summer, the U.S. got to see him opposite Johnny Depp and Robert Pattinson in the period drama Waiting for the Barbarians, but it’s his standout performance as famed radical attorney and civil rights activist William Kunstler in writer/director Aaron Sorkin’s The Trial of the Chicago 7 (now in playing at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema and debuting on Netflix on October 16) that brought us together for a conversation.
If you’re a resident of Chicago and don’t know the story of this group and their trial, shame on you. The film follows the group of anti-Vietnam War protesters charged with conspiracy and crossing state lines with the intention of inciting riots at the 1968 Democratic convention in Chicago. The impressive ensemble cast includes Yahya Abdul-Mateen II (as Black Panther Bobby Seale, who was not part of the seven but still was on trial with them for a time), Sacha Baron Cohen (as Abbie Hoffman), Jeremy Strong (Jerry Rubin), Joseph Gordon-Levitt (as prosecuting attorney Richard Schultz), Frank Langella (Judge Julius Hoffman), Eddie Redmayne (as Tom Hayden), and Kelvin Harrison Jr. (as Black Panther Fred Hampton). The film is a wonderful collection of eccentric characters, and Rylance has the task of being the calm center of the chaotic storm and the character in the film who guides us through the legalities of the case and the appalling decisions of Judge Hoffman.
It would have been easy to talk to Rylance for several hours on all manner of topics, but we cover a fair amount of ground in our brief time together. Please enjoy…
Hello, sir. How are you?
I’m good. Where are you? Are you on the third coast?
Ah, I’m in Chicago, believe it or not.
Oh, are you? Great.
I know this screenplay has been around for something like 15 years…
Has it? I didn’t know that.
It has. I know Steven Spielberg was supposed to direct it originally, and there were a couple other names that got attached to it. I’m wondering how long ago you got involved, and was there something in particular about William Kunstler that truly hooked and got you interested in playing him?
I think I was a late casting choice. I know Sacha Baron Cohen has been involved for quite a while, maybe even back to the time when Steven was going to do it. And I think Eddie Redmayne had been involved for quite a while and was close to Aaron in talking about the needs of certain scenes. Eddie would often go to talk with Aaron about stuff. But I think I was offered the job only a month or so before shooting by Kristie [Macosko Krieger], who was Steven’s personal assistant and became a producer, and I know her very well from all the films I’ve done with Steven. So whenever that gang comes to me [laughs], they’ve been a little bit beneficial to me, so I don’t like to say no. Of course, reading the script, it was very powerful on the page and clearly a cut above most scripts. Aaron is a fantastic writer for this popular medium and for television; he really knows his stuff.
I guess I’m also drawn to knowing that I’m going to get to learn about this period. I lived in America at that time—I was born in 1960—so in 1968, I was living in Connecticut and in 1969, I moved to Milwaukee, north of Chicago. So knowing about what was going on in this period and being involved in quite a bit of activism now myself as an older man, I thought this was all going to be very rich and rewarding for me.
Was there anything about Kunstler in particular that impressed you?
More frightened than anything. He’s so different than me. I was very impressed by him and his whole life really, and how these events changed him, and how he let go of the image of his life—of comfort and security—in a way that a lot of the other older people at the time couldn’t let go. He was so inspired by the eloquence and wisdom and passion of these young people that he went on to work for those poor prisoners in Attica and the American Indian movement when their issues came to the surface. He really spent his whole life after that defending those who might not be properly defended.
I wish we had him around at the moment to unravel the knot of something like Guantanamo Bay; it’s so distressing to hear the people who were there without any justice. It’s an unresolved issue, for sure. But there are people around like Kunstler who are doing that work. The thought of playing someone who is thrown in the deep end, amongst a group of people whom he wasn’t even sure wanted him. He knew Bobby Seale didn’t want him, and to have to prove himself while also realizing they were all probably a bit smarter than he was.
I don’t know how familiar you were with the case before you got involved in the film, but were there things you read in the script about the case that you felt for sure Sorkin has made up, only to find out they were completely factual?
Yeah, absolutely. You make me realize that that’s one of the pleasures of this film. Because it is a mixture of reducing something to its essential myth—like Shakespeare did with the history that he had to write about; all historians do. But with this one, you’re wanting to go back and see if that’s something Aaron Sorkin made up. And I bet most of those moments are going to prove to be things he didn’t make up. He made links and reductions and distillations of stuff in order to move those remarkable events. But I was as surprised as you were that those things happened, that people said those kind of things, but we live in a time where every day there’s something surprising said, isn’t there? It’s unbelievable.
We’re seeing things on the streets and on TV today in Chicago that are as emotionally unsettling to people as they were in 1968. The issues may be different, but the visuals are strikingly similar. Is it strange putting out a film like this right now? When you made this movie, you couldn’t have known the circumstances under which it would be released.
Yeah, it makes you think—is that a particular aspect of Aaron Sorkin’s gift? His sense of how to make popular drama—and I don’t say that in any negative way—shows he knows how to reach further than just the choir. He knows how to put something in a popular vehicle that has such a good story that it reaches lots of different people. Does that skill, which someone like Dylan also had at the beginning of his career certainly, include a certain sixth sense of what’s coming, of the right time? You’re rightly pointing out that this thing has been around for 15 years—that’s way beyond Sorkin’s control; that’s fate, isn’t it, to come out now rather than another time. There’s a bit of a decision, in that the film was finished a few months ago, so they could have released it in the summertime. I certainly had the feeling that they wanted to release it when your nation was considering its path forward in the profound way you do every four years.
But now it’s become, as this election has become, about the very deep issue of what a republic is and how much freedom and equality is to be granted to the citizens of this modern Roman republic, so to speak. It’s a curious thing when songs or films land at the exact right moment; it’s a touch of grace, really. I don’t know that you can manipulate it; I think you just pray for it. I think the really beautiful thing about the story is the relationship between the older people and the young. As your great Obama said—and I say “your” because he’s from Chicago—it’s not so much about the left and the right, but as Obama said “It’s about those who want to move forward quickly and those who want to move forward slowly.” That’s where the debate is, and this film is a really eloquent expression of the front line of that kind of situation, which is always present in society, but sometimes, it’s more expressive, like it is in this film and in our world too. I do hope a lot of young people come to this film.
Like yourself, Sorkin comes out of theater. In fact, one of his earlier successes was a courtroom drama for the stage [A Few Good Men]. And the film feels very theatrical—just a couple of primary locations, most of the actors are on the courtroom set at the same time—did he let it play out like this, with long, unbroken takes? Or was it more of a traditional shoot?
I’d come from working with Terrence Malick [on the upcoming The Last Planet], so that’s a a 90-minute take [laughs]. During the take, you’ll hear the cameraman say “Someone help me, please take the camera,” and someone else takes the camera, and Terrence says, “Carry on. Don’t worry about that.” So coming to Aaron, it didn’t feel like long takes. It felt like he knew exactly what he needed and wanted. You could ask for more of a lead in, but he didn’t need it. He trusted you; he had very clearly in his mind what he’s imagined, and it was impeccable, it was a very controlled fashion, kind of like Miles Davis, who’s interested in what is emerging and what is unconscious.
It’s full of light; there aren’t places in it like a Beethoven piece of music where the person is encouraged to improvise like dear old Glenn Gould used to do. You’re on the line there, and he’s calculated the time of the whole film very accurately. That might not be true; he might say to you “I didn’t realize that until I saw it,” but he seems to live so strongly in his own head and imagination, right down to commas. He’d say to me, “I think you’ll find there’s a comma between that word and that word, and that will help you, Mark. Okay, action!” And he was probably right. First and foremost, he’s a writer/director—someone who is very confident about what he’s written. But the idea of long takes, I don’t believe he believed that we would play better if we played for longer.
There are so many great combinations of actors in the film. Sasha and Jeremy are like a great comedy team. But the one that intrigued me the most were the exchanges between you and Frank Langella. Your exchanges in the courtroom are searing. There are seven Tonys between the two of you, so something interesting seems destined to happen. Tell me about those exchanges and working with him in particular.
We were across the floor, so I would go and chatter with him. Your question reminds me of working with John Gielgud on Prospero’s Books. Frank had that same kind of love that John had for gossip and chat. He was very much like the mother of the room. The situation didn’t provide for a lot of women, unfortunately, so Frank was very much the mother of us all and wanted to know how we were feeling and what we were doing and how we’d managed to do the wonderful films we’d done and who we’d worked with. And of course, we wanted to know what he’d done. And that sounds like a lot of lovies getting together, doesn’t it? But honestly, that probably the only time I’ll know Frank Langella or Sasha Baron Cohen. It wasn’t the only time I’ve worked with Eddie Redmayne, so sometimes you do meet with people again in very different circumstances. I gave Eddie his first acting job, and it was lovely to meet him again and be in the room with him, whereas before I was the artistic director. Eddie was really the Tom Hanks of the room, partly because of his character, but he was the one concerned about the drive of the drama. Frank was just enjoying himself, looking at us crazy fuckers [laughs]. “Who the hell are all those people? I want to know them.”
I recently saw you in Waiting for the Barbarians, which is another film about gross injustice. You play a guy who wants everyone to play fair, which doesn’t happen.
I’m a very boring fella, Steve [laughs]. You don’t want to have dinner with me.
There’s nothing fun about being the good guy. But do you see the connective tissue between the two roles?
There’s not a plan to it; things just happen to me. That film, I was in more of a leading and influential position, working with the producer, Michael Fitzgerald, for a few years before, during the 25 years it took him to get that film made. It’s a lesson for young filmmakers that it takes a long time to get some films made, and you have to be so patient and walk around with Werner Herzog in Russia for years as Michael did before he dropped out of the film. I guess the issue in that story is the fruitless attempt to dominate nature and the young in our own species of humanity, and the fruitless policy of any elder people to suppress and repress young people, or in the case of Barbarians, indigenous people, who are more connected to the environment than those imperialists. It does interest me as a dramatic situation, in the same way two chords might interest a composer, and the conflict between those chords interests me to be in the presence of those situations.
And the idea that it takes two to tango as well, and in the case of Barbarians, the benevolent face of imperialism that [my character] represented versus the very cruel face of imperialism that Johnny Depp represented aren’t that far apart. To some degree, the young people failed in the 1960s to change in the way they hoped. They inflame the situation but it leads to the very depressing era of the 1970s. And when I was a young person of activist age in the 1980s, my god, I’m looking at Mrs. Thatcher and Reagan and the Falklands War and the Iraq War, and I’m wondering what happened to those songs and the art and the culture that I loved so much from my childhood. How could it have been so easily wiped aside, and money and advancement had become the gods that my generation was deceived into following? There are hard lessons. I’m not sure how many of these people ended in happy lives—Abbie Hoffman and the other activists of the time. And of course, some of them were murdered. So both films have a lot of resonance and depth to them. If they were both paintings, I’d sit in front of them and look at them for a long time. But luckily I don’t have to do that; I’m not responsible for the final thing. I just get to play them and live them, and that’s more fun for me.
Mark, thank you so much. It’s been a real pleasure talking with you. I can’t wait to see that Malick film.
Me too! I hope some theater company in Chicago will enact the transcripts of this trial, find a little courtroom and enact them. The transcripts are really dramatic; it would be a great complement to the film. Thank you, Steve.