He may have an Oscar under his belt – or on top of the TV – but for Mark Rylance, who recently starred as The BFG in Spielberg’s big-screen hit, the stage is the only place to be

Words: Stephen Milton

Mark Rylance scratches his forehead while pondering a new spot for the Oscar in his house. The current position just won’t do. ‘Well it’s currently sitting on the telly right now, it’s been there since I got it,’ he reveals. ‘Gathering dust. And I haven’t watched much recently, but when I do, it’s sort of intrusively in my eyeline, catching glance. So yes, I’ll have to move it… Maybe on top of the fridge, perhaps.’

It’s been an extraordinarily successful 18 months for the 56-year-old. Over three decades of hallowed performances on stage for the RSC and the National Theatre cultivated a revered reputation in theatre land – but his name drew little recognition outside of that circle. The two-headed triumph of Wolf Hall and Bridge of Spies changed everything.

His searing performance as Cromwell in the BBC’s hugely popular retelling of Hilary Mantel’s historical epic clinched his second BAFTA, while his turn as a Russian spy in Spielberg’s Cold War saga, Bridge of Spies, earned him the ultimate accolade earlier this year – the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.

Rylance’s turn as a Russian spy in Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies earned him the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor

It’s a serendipitous series of events for a player who once felt ‘demoralised’ by the pressure to work in television and film. ‘I was told for years, quite pointedly, you need to focus less on theatre and more on television and film. You need to work towards that,’ he says. ‘The problem was, I couldn’t get any work on television or film. I couldn’t get a job and it was demoralising. So I said to my agents, “You know, I appreciate the intentions and I understand where you’re coming from but no thanks, I want to remain a theatre actor”.’

Thankfully the power of Spielberg was enough to coax the London resident from his self-styled moratorium, largely to do with guilt for letting the iconic filmmaker down at the eleventh hour 30 years before. ‘He offered me a role in Empire of the Sun and, at the same time, the great Mike Alfreds offered me a year’s work at the National Theatre and I found myself in a horrible conundrum,’ Rylance explains.

Spielberg offered me a role in Empire of the Sun at the same time Mike Alfreds offered me a year’s work at the National Theatre. I found myself in a horrible conundrum

‘I was 27, Spielberg was a huge opportunity, but I went with theatre. And during that time, I discovered more about myself and my work thanks to Mike Alfreds than I have at any other part of my career. And it was during that year where I met my wife [theatre director Claire Van Kampen]. Thankfully [Spielberg] didn’t hold that against me.’

While his renewed relationship with Spielberg has proved phenomenally fruitful – with a collaboration for The BFG and forthcoming sci-fi adventure, Ready Player One – his working partnership with Van Kampen remains the priority as the pair prepare for a run of their successful play, Nice Fish, at the Harold Pinter Theatre.

Rylance is soon to star in Nice Fish alongside Jim Lichtscheidl at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Rylance is soon to star in Nice Fish alongside Jim Lichtscheidl at the Harold Pinter Theatre

Co-written with poet Louis Jenkins, the offbeat double-hander stars Jim Lichtscheidl opposite Rylance as two pals on an ice-fishing expedition on the frozen lakes of America’s Midwest, where the actor himself spent his formative years after moving from Kent to Wisconsin at the age of two.

‘I played ice-hockey and baseball and watched shows like Star Trek and the Wild Wild West,’ he says with a smile. ‘And the newspapers, the media rarely covered international stories – Thatcher and the miners’ strike – all of that I was completely unaware of. But I was always held as an Englishman in America, something I was very proud of.’

It’s the first time back on the West End stage since the Oscar win, and a welcome respite from the buzz of movie stardom. ‘I’ve spent the best part of a lifetime in this familiar environment, it pains me to be away for too long. It feeds my spirit to be [on stage], and I’ll never turn my back on that.’

Nice Fish runs from 15 November-11 February 2017 at Harold Pinter Theatre, Panton Street SW1Y 4DN; 0844 871 7622;