Ever the craftsman, Mark Rylance discusses his role in ‘The Outfit’

Black-and-white photo of a bearded man in a hat.
Mark Rylance, star of “The Outfit,” at the Zurich Film Festival on Sept. 29, 2019, in Zurich, Switzerland.
(Andreas Rentz/Getty Images)

There was a moment, following the production of the British thriller “Blitz” in 2010, when Mark Rylance completely let go of the idea of being a screen actor.

Rylance, 62, had trained in theater at Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and spent decades on stage, even becoming the first artistic director of Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre in 1995, and had simultaneously tested the waters of Hollywood with roles in movies like “Angels & Insects” and “The Other Boleyn Girl.” But after “Blitz,” Rylance figured his shot at film had passed.

“It was the most awful experience I’d ever had in my life as an actor,” Rylance recalls, sitting in the lobby of the Bristol Old Vic in January, where he starred in a new production, “Dr. Semmelweis.” “I’ve had that all my career: Unless you do TV and film you’re not a serious actor. And I suddenly thought, ‘F— this. F— this!’ Here I am on set being beat with a hammer for nothing. So I quit. I let go of all my agents, everyone, and said, ‘I’m getting enough work in the theater. I’m happy being a theater actor. I’m not bothered anymore. If someone comes and asks me I’ll consider it, but I’m not promoting myself that way anymore.’ And then a few years later I won an Academy Award.”


These days Rylance has a more optimistic view of Hollywood — and not just because of the awards attention.

During the pandemic, with theaters shuttered, the London-based British actor made six feature films, including Adam McKay’s “Don’t Look Up” for Netflix and “The Outfit,” which arrives Friday in theaters. He gives some credit to Steven Spielberg, who cast Rylance as Rudolf Abel in 2015’s “Bridge of Spies,” earning him that supporting actor Oscar, but Rylance’s recent Hollywood rise isn’t out of nowhere. The actor laughs when it’s pointed out that the press notes for “The Outfit” suggest this is his first onscreen leading role. He’s quick to rattle off a long list of films he did prior to “Bridge of Spies,” although he quips, “None of them were particularly successful.”

“Whenever I say to Steven [Spielberg] something about a film I did in the ‘80s — I led a lot of films — his eyes go a little bit hazy,” Rylance says. “Because he loves to think he dragged me out of the gutter and made me a film actor with ‘Bridge of Spies.’ And, to some degree, he did. It’s true. But I wasn’t completely naïve or innocent when he found me.”

In director Graham Moore’s thriller “The Outfit,” Mark Rylance stars as a tailor/cutter facing off against a criminal gang.

In the years since, Rylance has embodied a variety of onscreen characters, from the title role in Spielberg’s “The BFG” to heroic boat captain Mr. Dawson in “Dunkirk.” But the real boost has come in the last two years, as Rylance took advantage of opportunities in Hollywood while the West End and Broadway remained closed. His first pandemic project, in the fall of 2020, was a student film, “Black Twist,” which Rylance did for free. He went on to make Craig Roberts’ quirky comedic drama “The Phantom of the Open,” in which he plays real-life amateur golfer Maurice Flitcroft. He followed with “Don’t Look Up,” “The Outfit,” Terrence Malick’s “The Way of the Wind” (in which he plays Satan), limited series “Darkness Rising” and Luca Guadagnino’s “Bones & All.”

“The Outfit,” written by Graham Moore and Johnathan McClain and directed by Moore, is perhaps the most intimate and subtle of the projects, which vary dramatically in scope. Rylance plays Leonard, a Savile Row tailor who has relocated his business to Chicago, where his shop has become a center for mob activity. It’s theater-like in nature, with all of the scenes taking place within the walls of the shop. In fact, the team built the tailor shop rooms on a soundstage in Wembley and filmed chronologically, allowing Rylance to slowly unveil layers of his character as the tension-filled story unfolds. Leonard is not the simple man he appears to be at first, and Rylance masterfully plays that out with nuanced gestures and lines.

“We talked so much about the layers of the clothing as the layers of the character,” explains Moore, who wrote the script with Rylance in mind. “Over the course of the film, his layers come off, so to speak, in the same way layers of clothing might come off. A question Mark would often ask me as we would shoot a scene was ‘How much do you want to know about what I’m really thinking or feeling right now?’ That became a really great dial we could tune. Mark is such a great craftsman at finely calibrating that.”

Rylance, who only saw the film for the first time the night before this interview, is still working through that calibration. “I’m still not really sure if I made the right choices there,” he admits, adding, “I still feel, as one probably always feels as an actor, that Steve McQueen could have played it better.”

A man rests his arms on a long wooden table with rolls of fabric behind him in the movie “The Outfit.”
Mark Rylance in the movie “The Outfit.”
(Nick Wall / Focus Features)

The actor prepared for the role by spending time in an actual Savile Row tailor shop, Huntsman & Sons, where he learned the art of cutting and sewing — two very different trades, as the film underscores. There’s a specific process to the work, which Rylance appreciated, and he feels there’s a common thread that connects Leonard with his other film characters.

“I do get a lot of particular roles,” Rylance reflects. “I’m seeing that I do something quite particular, quite detailed. It’s interesting. That spy character. The ‘Don’t Look Up’ character — very meticulous. This character is very meticulous. And even ‘Bones & All,’ which I just did some ADR on, is another quite particular person with rituals and routines. It’s not what I’ve always played in the theater. But that’s the fun thing about being someone who’s done a lot of theater right before they come into film. I have a lot of back catalog, so to speak, that I haven’t released in a wider place.”

Rylance claims that Steve Coogan or “that wonderful [Steve] Carell” could have been cast in “Don’t Look Up” instead of him, but McKay knew Rylance would be the ideal choice for the role of tech billionaire Peter Isherwell. The director had seen Rylance in a production of “Boeing-Boeing” on Broadway years ago and remembered the actor’s comedic timing, which he calls “breathtaking.”

“It’s one of the hardest roles in the movie,” McKay notes in an email. “The actual tech billionaires are already beyond parody. I needed an actor who could bring original choices and nuance. And, oh yeah, an actor who is also hilarious. The big pleasant surprise was how incredibly and completely collaborative Mark is. We had hours of fascinating conversations about the character and he was open and excited about the the idea of improvisation on set. In short; he was a total joy. Sometimes actors of that stature can be very particular, but Mark was funny, curious and playful the whole time.”

Rylance, whose role in “The Phantom of the Open,” out in June, also veers into comedic territory, albeit the more heartwarming kind, was a fan of McKay, as well. But the actor, who has stayed out of the online discourse around the film, also welcomed the chance to shed light on a subject without jumping on a soap box.

“I’m a very keen environmental activist — I mean, we all are very concerned about these things — so the analogy was really interesting,” he says of the film. “My role is to be a storyteller and if I am going to move people let them move of their own volition after hearing a story that opens a way for them [to think about it]. And look how many people this film has reached.”

Like his characters, Rylance embraces a process when preparing for a role or when getting ready to go on stage for a performance, noting he is always extremely conscious about time. He introduced some of his techniques to the rehearsals for “The Outfit,” including playing the children’s game of four square (the actor brought his own ball) with his co-stars and Moore. While Rylance says he’s more “wander-y” in his daily life, his precision as an actor goes deep.

“I remember the first time Mark came to the set, which was way before we started filming, and he looked at the [cutting] table and said, ‘This is an inch too high,’” Moore recalls. “He knew exactly how high the real thing was supposed to be. We said, ‘Oh yeah, we know it’s a little bit off, but it’s better for the lighting this way.’ And he said, ‘No, it has to be the real height.’ And he was exactly right. That was the level of craft he had put into the character and his work.”

Rylance interrogates the process of acting constantly, often referencing things he’s heard others say about the craft. He’s fascinated by how actors do what they do. For Rylance, who will reprise his iconic role in Jez Butterworth’s “Jerusalem” in London beginning in April, the through line of his own work is simply a sense of mindfulness. He wants to respond to the given moment — trickier when making a film than when appearing in a play — and he doesn’t want “concepts of himself” to get in the way of that. It’s that level of awareness that allows him to pick the most interesting roles and then uncover something new.

“Robert Duvall said, in an interview I heard the other day, that you’ve got to learn to play within your range as a person,” Rylance reflects. “We’re not everyone. We are particular. I greatly admire that. I don’t think it’s a greater form of acting to play lots of different roles and to play the same thing. The most important thing is your ability to be present in time in a given situation. But, at the moment, it’s fun for me to have the added challenge of being present and then channeling my presence through particular disciplines.”